Can Twins Learn From Gophers’ Challenges?

I read with some interest this Star Tribune article concerning the University of Minnesota’s plight with regard to their athletic department funding and couldn’t help but wonder if it holds some lessons that the Twins might want to heed.

As I’m sure all of you who actually live in Minnesota are well aware, the Gophers opened their brand new TCF football stadium about a year before the Twins cut the ribbon on Target Field. You’re probably also well aware that big-time college athletic programs essentially live and die based on the revenues generated by their football programs. You can talk all you want about how great your basketball, hockey (either ice or field varieties), and wrestling programs are, but at most universities you’re lucky if any of those sports manages to just generate enough revenue to pay their own share of the bills. It’s football that pays the freight.

And as great as it is to get TV revenue and other income generated more because you happen to be affiliated with football factories like Michigan, Ohio State and, now, Nebraska, if you’re going to field competitive teams consistently, you need to have reliably high attendance at football games. That’s where the Gophers are staring at some pretty bleak realities for next season, when they’ll have exactly zero regional rivalry games on their home schedule.

The University is discovering that there’s a limited honeymoon period that comes with a new stadium. I made my first trip up to a game at TCF this fall when my Hawkeyes played there. It’s a beautiful facility. But if the Gophers don’t start doing some winning on a regular basis, and soon, it’s going to be a beautiful half-empty stadium on game days and that’s going to eventually have a negative effect on the rest of the Gopher athletic programs.

But the Twins are a different story, right? After all, the Gophers haven’t had a consistently competitive football team since Murray Warmath paced the sidelines while the Twins have been regular participants in MLB’s playoffs (the first round, anyway) for the better part of the past decade.

Many of you young whippersnappers aren’t old enough to remember the dark days of Twins baseball. Actually, there were several stretches of dark days. The last few years at Metropolitan Stadium were awfully bleak, as were most of the 1990s in the Dome. As hard as it is for us to imagine, given the crowds we’ve become accustomed to joining at Target Field the past two years, the fact is that Minnesota fans will not show up to watch bad sports teams. That doesn’t make them terribly unique, of course. Not many communities routinely sell out venues even when the local team stinks.

(I’m proud to say that Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium is one exception. We’ll just about fill that place every game day, even when the Hawkeyes are painfully difficult to watch. Then again, there really isn’t much else to do in these parts on the weekend and we’re all more than happy to have an excuse to party for a few hours with 70,000 of our closest friends.)

What’s my point? That’s a fair question.

An empty Target Field (photo: Minnesota Twins)

I guess my point is simply that the Twins shouldn’t assume that their beautiful ballpark guarantees butts filling the seats. They sold out nearly every game during a very bad 99-loss season largely because nobody expected a 99-loss season. Most of those tickets were sold when fans still believed they’d be watching a winner. Not many fans still believe that’s going to be the case in 2012.

The Twins seem to grasp this. They’re smart people and they know a bad team brings less attendance and less revenue. It’s their reaction, thus far, to this realization that troubles me.

They seem to be simply acknowledging the likelihood that fewer fans will be showing up and plan to downsize their payroll accordingly. They’ve given Terry Ryan the job of rebuilding the team and most fans, myself included, applaud that move. But if the plan is to start over… to rebuild through the draft and through acquiring other minor league talent through trades, while letting your best free agents walk away… then my applause is muted.

The Gophers have no choice but to sell “hope” as they rebuild their program from scratch. They can’t take steps to immediately field a competitive team by spending more money to get better football players. (Well, they COULD… but the NCAA tends to frown on that approach.)

But the Twins are not bound by NCAA rules, so here’s an idea… instead of running up the white flag and admitting defeat while you cut payroll, why not spend the money to become competitive again in 2012 and, in the process, keep fans filling those Target Field seats?

I know Jason Kubel isn’t the perfect fit for Target Field (though that’s the fault of design flaws, not Kubel, and those design flaws could be fixed easily if the Twins would just do it). I know Michael Cuddyer can’t hit righthanded pitching well. I know neither of them are gold glove outfielders. I know Jim Thome’s obvious limitations made it difficult to carry him on the roster. But those three players have accounted for a LOT of the Twins offense lately and the Twins seem more than happy to let them all go without showing any indication, so far, that they’ll replace them with anyone similar.

Then again, when you overpay for an aging middle infielder and a back-up catcher who has trouble catching, it doesn’t leave a lot of room to pay for guys who can actually contribute offense daily.

During the first few years after Baltimore’s Camden Yards ballpark was built, tickets were a tough thing to come by. I had friends there who were season ticket holders and I remember using that connection to get some pretty nice seats for my family on one trip there and again for the benefit of some friends who made the trip to Baltimore the following year. The stadium was sold out almost every game.

For the past several years, I’ve been able to walk up to the ticket window 10 minutes before game time and get very good seats whenever I’m in Baltimore during an Orioles home stand.

It can happen in Minnesota, too. In fact, it will happen in Minnesota… if ownership doesn’t make good on their promise of using the increased revenues to assure a competitive team occupies the new stadium and that, at the very least, they make good on their commitment to keep the best of their own free agents.

The offseason isn’t nearly over yet, so there’s still time for Terry Ryan to work his magic. But I encourage Twins fans not to let Ryan and his bosses off the hook. Don’t let them convince us to lower our expectations to fit their payroll. Don’t let them keep slashing until medocrity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

– JC

9 Replies to “Can Twins Learn From Gophers’ Challenges?”

  1. Well said Jim!! I completely agree with you it makes no sense at all. They value the mighty dollar over a championship team. The Pohlad family has chosen profit as the most important thing in the world. I would even go as far as say that Smith was fired because he was going to spend more money than ownership wanted. That must have been the philsophical differences.

  2. Can anyone confirm when the Twins contract with FSN expires? From what I can find they have an 8 year deal for $12 million that expires after the 2012 season. But maybe they already negotiated a new agreement or an extension when they gave FSN exclusive rights?

    My thought was always that the new TV contract would be the Twins next revenue boost (especially important as the newness of Target Field started to wane). And I had to think that before 2011, the viewing numbers would have been such that it would have provided some nice negotiating power for the team. But from one of your earlier columns, I take it that the 2011 numbers were somewhat dismal so if the rights were up for renewal after 2012, I would think they might want to spend to field a better team and boost the numbers (especially if they are looking at a long-term deal).

    I’m much more in favor of a total rebuild than you are — and therefore have less problems with them dropping the 2012 payroll as long as they have a plan for taking this team to one that can compete in the LEAGUE not just in the division. A one year spending drop doesn’t bother me but the key is “one year” drop and not setting a new pattern. (And quite frankly, I DO NOT want them to overspend to re-sign Michael Cuddyer. While I admire him as a person, I think the team needs new leadership and energy.)

    I really want someone to explore the TV revenues question. Under the old deal, the Twins basically received $1.5 million/year from local TV revenues? That was low even when the deal was signed and maybe the revenues have increased somewhat with the increased # of games broadcast and the exclusive rights. But the Rangers got $17-$20 million on their OLD deal and about $80 million/year on their new deal starting after the 2014 season (but with some upfront money I think). Detroit gets $40 million/year under their 2008 deal. The Mariners $41 million and the Angels $50 million.

    If they haven’t already renegotiated the deal, it seems like the Twins should be in line for a significant increase with a new deal even if it isn’t in the record-breaking range. And that makes their planned “regression” in spending even more of a concern.

    P.S. I seem to remember a Kinnick Stadium that wasn’t always full in the pre-Hayden Fry days.

  3. The Twins are getting a reported $1 million a year for radio broadcast rights from KSTP and the most recent information I’ve seen has 2012 as the final year of their deal with FSN, which was an 8 year, $12 million contract. Seems vastly undervalued to me, but I’m no expert in this field.

    JB, just to be clear, I wasn’t saying that the Twins NEED to retain Michael Cuddyer’s services at any cost. But there is NO reason why fans should accept the same line of reasoning the team used so consistently during the Dome days as to why they couldn’t afford to field a competitive team every year. THEY HAVE THE MONEY to compete. If they decide not to invest in Major League talent capable of replacing Cuddyer, Kubel, et al, then they are going back on the words they used to argue the need for a new stadium. I think fans heard that line of crap for so long that many tend to just accept it as gospel, even though the fiscal restraints no longer exist.

  4. JC, I don’t think that we really disagree. I don’t want to see the overall upward spending curve go away but I also believe they need to spend money wisely. I’m willing to give them a one-year break to see if an overall plan develops for improving this club (as I’ve mentioned before, I ‘ve been waiting since the fall of 2010 to try to discern the club’s vision for improving itself).

    I hope that you are wrong in your assessment that they are reverting to their cheapskate ways.

    I am fascinated by the question of local TV revenues. The last Twins contract just seems absurdly bad. I found several articles about the size of the Twins market — the market size varied but the Twins were #21 out of the 30 clubs in both. About 1/2 million in market size behind the Mariners.

    It is hard to find TV revenue figures for clubs but it seems like the Twins are due for about a $20 million or more jump per year after 2012. I would think that it would be easier going into negotiations if viewership is strong. I think most of us would be doing everything possible — including spending a little more than they might want to — to create a good ballclub in 2012 that keeps viewers interested all season. It would seem like a pretty smart investment given the stakes in the new contract.

    Just another reason why it seems somewhat puzzling that they would be talking about cutting payroll.

  5. I don’t know what the TV ratings are either. It’s interesting that there is so little information out there about that kind of thing. I think I did see something in one of the articles about the radio broadcast negotiations a year ago that indicated the Twins had the 4th highest radio ratings in MLB. Even going back to the old debates about the Twins payroll during the Dome days, I recall reading that the Twin Cities are not really a “small market” in terms of the size of the media market. They were somewhere in the upper middle among MLB markets, but they simply didn’t have corresponding upper-middle revenues because of the lousy Dome revenue situation.

    And yes, we’re saying essentially the same thing. They seem to be assuming attendance/revenues will drop rather than investing to assure that such is not the case. That’s not altogether puzzling (since it’s what this organization has done historically), but it is disappointing.

  6. I think that comparing an MLB team with a state school college team is comparing apples and oranges.

    In February 2009 I wrote a 3 piece series analysis looking at market size, income and spending (the link is: is anyone is interested – read from bottom to the top.) My conclusions were that a. the Twins were not cheap, compared to the other teams, and that b. they can sustain $100-$125M payroll (and that was using 2008 data). Interestingly enough the Twins revenues really raised in the Metrodome the last few seasons there.

    Also, fielding a competitive team and overspending on players like Blackburn, Nishioka and potentially Cuddyer are not synonymous. This organization really needs to invest more in scouting and player development, because that is where its Achilleus heal is. No superstars drafted or developed after Mauer. And the opportunities were plenty. Just the organizational philosophy has to change and having the same people around is not the way to make it happen.

  7. I really need to do a better job of making my points. This is what I get for drafting posts at work and then just throwing them up so I can get to a bar.

    I do understand that the Twins and Gophers aren’t exact comparables. But a state school like Minnesota should actually have enough of an alumni base to maintain support even when they suck. Pro sports fans aren’t always as loyal.

    And, again, I’m not suggesting the Twins must keep their FAs past their expiry dates if other teams are willing to overpay for their services. I AM suggesting that the money is there to replace those players with others with similar proven talents, yet perhaps with a bit more tread on their tires.

    Pleading poverty is something the Twins could get away with at the Dome. Fans should no longer simply take the organization’s word that they can’t “afford” to field a competitive team.

  8. “why not spend the money to become competitive again in 2012”

    The obvious answer to this is because spending money doesn’t make you competitive unless you are the Yankees or Red Sox. You don’t get quality free agents without spending not only this year’s budget, but future budgets as well. That isn’t sustainable.

    All you have to do is look at the 1990’s to see what happens when you tie up a lot money in contracts that goes bad. You start resorting to expensive gimmicks (Winfield, Molitor and Steinbach) to put people in the seats instead of building a winning team.

    The reason “young whippersnappers” have never experienced a long period of losing baseball is because the Twins haven’t spent their future on the present by signing aging players to multi-year contracts. Despite almost annual insistence by fans that they should.