Originally posted on Fox Sports Ohio  |  Last updated 1/27/12
Mike Ilitch decided on a whim to add 214 million to the Detroit Tigers payroll this week. He just went out and signed Prince Fielder, saying he goes by instincts. Once they heard the news, the natural instinct of baseballs have-nots might have been to barf. While Ilitch is doling out hundreds of millions to one guy, other teams have to scrape and scratch to increase their revenue pie. Ilitch can afford to spend more than he takes in with the Tigers because he and his wife have lucrative other revenue streams from pizza and casinos. Both own Little Caesars Pizza. Marian Ilitch owns controlling interest in MotorCity Casino in Detroit. How well does MotorCity do? The Ilitch Companies web site states in a bio of the pair entitled Our Story that in 2008, MotorCity completed a 300 million expansion project adding a new luxury hotel, spa, conference center, several restaurants, a 1,800-seat theatre and permanent casino. Safe to say that venture was not done on instinct. Contrast that to the Cleveland Indians. When Fielder signed, the outcry from fans was that the Dolans ownership group should have spent that money to bring him to the Indians. This is about as realistic as asking a flight attendant to purchase the plane on which he or she works. It just doesnt happen. Because it cant. Ilitch can spend more than he takes in. The Dolans have covered past Indians losses one year it was hefty double-figure millions but theyre not going to spend past the budget on a whim, or on instinct. Neither way is wrong; it just is. The Indians are one of many teams the Royals, the Reds among them who have to generate revenue in other ways. Baseball has revenue sharing, but it lacks the balancing factor of a salary cap. Instead of creating a system where each team spends the same, each team is in a free-for-all. That leaves Indians President Mark Shapiro looking for new ways to bring new people to Progressive Field. To do that he had to think outside the proverbial box or park, as it were. Shapiro moved from being the Indians General Manager to team president after the 2010 season. His new job required less emphasis on players and more on business in trying to develop (as they say these days) the teams brand. It started with a study the Indians can conduct some studies, now -- when the team tried to determine what fans associated with the team and baseball. That study showed that fans remember shared time with those close to them almost as much as they do the actual game. Baseball is one of those rare games when you can connect with people you are there with, Shapiro said. Theres not in your face music. Theres a pace to it that allows you to go through the game and gain personal connections. Usually there are some lasting memories from baseball that have to do with either a grandparent, a parent, sibling or friend that kind of conjure some closeness and connection to the game. This certainly is valid. Anyone who attends a game with his father, children, fiance or whoever recalls the fond memory. Its a reason baseballs pace is so much more healthy than other sports. The Indians then discussed how they could provide events in and around the stadium that might open the stadium up to new people willing to share new experiences. The first was Snow Days, which transformed the park into a winter wonderland in December and January, with tube sledding down a hill built in the outfield, an ice skating rink in the field and (among other things) a fire pit on the left field Home Run porch. The event was popular but it did not make money. The goal was to expose new fans to the stadium in the hopes they come back. Did it work? Shapiro said 60 percent of the people who attended had not been to a game, and 40 percent said they were likely to return for a game. This winter, the Indians added the Frozen Diamond Faceoff, an outdoor hockey game between Ohio State and Michigan. The event was successful, with 25,864 in attendance. That event did make a profit, and the money for the Indians was meaningful. But not enough to pay for a right-handed hitting first baseman, Shapiro said. During the season Shapiro had a postgame concert featuring country star Brad Paisley. He had other postgame shows, and turned a street outside the stadium into a baseball carnival after some afternoon games. This market is not growing, and its getting older, Shapiro said. The area is challenged financially, and we need to get new people in the market to come to games. We had to really more objectively understand that the terrain and operating conditions had dramatically changed from that incredible time of the 90s. In that time, the Indians payrolls were among baseballs highest, driven by revenues generated from the teams success and 455 consecutive sellouts. Those days are over. In 2007, the Indians went to the AL Championship Series but got no attendance bump in 2008. In 2010 the Indians were last in the league -- though last year attendance increased by almost 500,000 thanks to the teams fast start. Two years later, Shapiro is reminded about the challenges of his job by Ilitchs financial bomb. His approach: Dont try to control what you cant. Which is wise. Theres no casino money stashed in these closets.
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