Played for suckers by the Pittsburgh Pirates

Played for suckers by the Pittsburgh Pirates

Missing from a necessarily long — and equally necessarily arid – investigative dissertation on the finances of the Pittsburgh Pirates was this necessary conclusion:

The Pirates should have paid for their own baseball stadium and be paying property taxes on the same.

A recent and nearly 3,000-word Post-Gazette report concluded that “records show the … payroll” of the venerable National League franchise, since 2007, “is often covered by ticket and food sales.”

And that fact goes to the point of critics who argue a team with one of lowest payrolls in Major League Baseball (MLB) should be able to afford to spend more money to field a “competitive” team, given it also rakes in multiple millions of dollars annually from MLB and rights to their television broadcasts.

And that’s notwithstanding the Pirates’ formal signing this week of third-baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes to an eight-year, $70 million contract extension, supposedly the long-awaited key to the long-awaited “rebuilding” of the franchise.

The Pirates have spent the last couple of years in court trying to fend off the release of its financial information, as requested by the P-G. And it’s easy to see why:

The numbers suggest the team certainly could afford to spend the kind of money that would make it “competitive,” per part of its implied agreement with the then-powers that be who, in the 1990s, executed a by-hook or by-crook end-around of taxpayers who expressly rejected using taxpayer dollars to build the barons of sport – the Pirates and the Steelers – new playgrounds for the rich.

The Pirates, of course, dispute the prevalent notion among everyone from baseball journalists to industry “experts” — and from true-blue take-me-out-to-the-ballgame fanatics to fair-weather fans — that owner Bob Nutting is attempting to “do baseball on the cheap.”

The franchise raises the point that it has many expenses to tend to that aren’t so apparent to critics and fans alike.

But the simple fact remains that the Pirates, even fielding ho-hum teams that just enough fans still buy tickets to see, have found a sweet formula for making, and holding onto, millions of dollars.

What’s the incentive to change?

We are forced to argue that what now is an ingrained lack of incentive likely goes back to the decision forcing taxpayers to subsidize the bulk of the construction costs of PNC Park.

Indeed, the Pirates pay a lease amount to use the baseball stadium. But it’s the taxpayers who continue to have construction bond skin in the game.  

And had the Pirates, a private entity, been on the hook as it should have been not only for the full capital cost of building PNC Park but also all maintenance, improvements and real estate taxes for the valuable property on which it sits, the Pirates would have had every incentive to spend the kind of money required to make the franchise a contender and, by natural extension, still profit handsomely from everything from richer TV contracts to more frequently rotating turnstiles at the gate.

All this said, the Post-Gazette closes its story by quoting Bob Cranmer, the former Republican Allegheny County commissioner, who was convinced by Democrats to help them raid the Allegheny County Regional Asset District coffers to finance the construction of PNC Park and Heinz Field.

Noting that Cranmer, among many others, would like to see more investment in Pirates players at the Major League level, it quotes him as saying:

“It’s just a bad deal all around. We gave them this beautiful ballpark, and [Mr. Nutting’s] done nothing with it. Nothing.”

Except profit handsomely at taxpayer expense with, generally, meager investments in the product placed on the playing field — and all thanks to gullible politicians.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).