All throughout their financial siege, the Wilpon family vowed to never sell the Mets, even as it seemed bankruptcy hovered over them like an anvil. The team's debts were staggering, attendance was falling and if that wasn't enough, the clawback lawsuit initiated by Irving Picard, the trustee recovering funds from the Madoff Ponzi scheme, was the final step into the inferno.
Only, it wasn't. Incredibly, the Wilpons have survived these incredible odds, settling with Picard on the very morning the trial was supposed to begin in Manhattan. Instead of the $386 million they could've been forced to pay if found guilty of willful negligence to the scheme, the brokered deal could let the Wilpons off the hook for as little as $71 million -- and that's not even due until 2015.
What does it all mean to the future of the team itself? For Mets' fans hoping/praying for regime change, forget it -- the Wilpons aren't going anywhere. The terms of the settlement are lenient enough to give ownership full control for years to come.
But that's not to say the Mets are ready to begin their rebirth. To the contrary: The only way the Wilpons can survive in the post-Madoff era is to restructure their existing debt, lower payroll even further while riding out Johan Santana and Jason Bay's albatross contracts and otherwise run the franchise on the cheap.
So while the Wilpons may consider themselves the day's winners, it's the fans that emerge as the losers. Ticket buyers can look forward to AAAA-type baseball (not quite major-league quality) as the rest of the NL East continues to evolve.
FOXSports' Ken Rosenthal has called for Bud Selig's intervention if the Mets' austerity-phase becomes permanent. That's the sentiment of frustrated fans throughout New York's National League market. But Selig has gone out of his way to protect his friend, Fred Wilpon, including his willingness to extend the deadline on the $25 million loan the Mets needed two winters ago.
The team still hasn't repaid its debt to Major League Baseball, but Selig has yet to pressure Wilpon. Given that wide berth, it's hard to believe the commissioner will take any action whatsoever -- not unless other owners and the players association band together and force Selig's hand. But that'll never happen. Instead, Bud will likely remain on the sidelines while the Wilpons churn out the rhetoric about a new era.
"My first priority is getting down to Florida tomorrow and try to bring the Sterling (Equities) Mets back to prominence," Wilpon told reporters outside the courthouse on Monday morning.
What the owner couldn't outline is his road map to respectability. Already, the Mets are suffering from the effects of a $50 payroll cut from 2011, the largest single-season scale down in MLB history. That was the only way to recoup losses estimated at $70 million last year, as attendance fell to 2.3 million -- or just about half of what the team drew in 2008, the final year at Shea Stadium.
Newsday recently reported that ballpark revenue has declined by 30 percent since the opening of Citi Field in 2009, while the sale of premium seats had fallen by some 50 percent.
What the Wilpons desperately need is an infusion of cash -- more fans buying tickets, and outside investors willing to write large checks. The Wilpons claim they've sold seven shares, worth $20 million each, in their drive to raise $200 million. But six of those purchases were kept inhouse: $20 million apiece from Jeff Wilpon, Fred's son, and Saul Katz, Fred's brother-in-law, with the other four shares mined from SNY, the team-owned network.
Steve Cohen represents the sole outside investor, and he may be forced to withdraw, given his status as the leading investor in line to purchase the Dodgers.
So it's fair for Mets fans to ask the Wilpons what's in store, other than years and years of debt pay-down. The family, after all, owes $430 million in principal of a loan against the team, due in 2014. They owe $450 million in principal of a loan against SNY, due in 2015. They owe an estimated $600 million, due in $25 million increments every six months, on the ballpark.
And that's not even taking into account the still-unpaid $40 million bridge loan from Bank of America, which the Wilpons were forced to apply for over the winter. One more thing: Starting next month, ownership will have to make payroll every two weeks.
These are the fiscal realities that figure to keep the Mets in a vicious cycle of catch-22. They don't have enough extra cash to upgrade the roster, but without enough on-field talent to compete with, say, the Phillies and Marlins, let alone the Braves and Nationals, how are the Wilpons going to generate ticket sales that would fund a renaissance?
Yes, history says it's possible to win with a slimmed-down payroll. The Rays have proved that. But it takes a disciplined five-year business plan, smart drafting and a thriving farm system. It also helps to work in a smaller market, far removed from the Yankees monolith.
The Mets have none of these bullets in their chamber. Many of their fans, in fact, had already given up, promising to boycott the team until the Wilpons were forced to divest. One way or another, they figured, someone would save them -- if not Selig, then at least Picard.
Today, there's no one on the horizon other than a smiling Fred Wilpon, vowing decades of uninterrupted family control. The entire hierarchy emerged triumphant from the courthouse, convinced the worst was over, although you couldn't blame the fans for feeling this was one celebration they weren't invited to.