A decade later, Citi Field remains a big problem

The 2018 season will be the 10th year in which the Mets have called Citi Field home. No one doubts that the ballpark is a whole lot nicer than Shea Stadium and with the 2015 and 2016 seasons, the park has seen both meaningful games in September and playoff baseball, incredibly important factors for the fan base to build lifetime memories. But, if we had a chance to do everything over again, would we want the Mets to build Citi Field? Or, like former owner Nelson Doubleday wanted, would it have been better to simply refurbish Shea?

When the park opened, it seemed to have more connection to the Brooklyn Dodgers than to the New York Mets. John Coppinger put it succinctly when he said on the podcast that the Mets had to be shamed into honoring their own legacy. It may not sound like a big deal here in 2017 but it was incredibly important the first few years that Citi Field was in existence. Right off the bat, the new park opened with a giant misstep.

And add to the fact that 2009 was the year when everyone got injured. In 2006, the Mets made it to the NLCS and they had winning teams the following two years. In early May of Citi Field’s debut season the Mets were in first place. Then Carlos Delgado went down and nearly every other person of importance followed suit and the club finished the year with 92 losses. Then from 2011-13, the team played better on the road than it did at home.

So, the owners of Citi Field didn’t seem to want the Mets and in return the Mets didn’t seem to want Citi Field, either.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the owners took out massive loans to finance their part of the costs for Citi Field. Bloomberg News reported, “The Mets sold $613 million municipal bonds in 2006 backed by payments in lieu of property taxes, lease revenue and installment payments to finance the construction of Citi Field. The team also issued $82.3 million of insured debt in 2009, the year the 42,000-seat ballpark opened in Queens.”

With the new ballpark on the horizon, the owners decided to launch their own television network, SNY. In 2013, Forbes reported that the debt load for the ballpark combined with what was owed for the launch of the TV network was over $1 billion. Forbes also stated:

With the combined enterprise values of the Mets and SNY around $2 billion, leverage is above 50%. Moreover, the team pays $50 million a year in annual ballpark PILOT bond and rent payments that come from Citi Field’s revenue. Attendance at Citi Field is down significantly the past three years.

The immense debt the club took on, along with the downturn in the real estate market and the elimination of funds from Bernie Madoff helped turn the Mets from having the game’s second-highest payroll in 2008 – the last year in Shea – to being a middle of the road club in 2017. And expectation is that payroll will be going down in 2018.

If the $50 million in bond and rent payments that the Mets make each year for Citi Field were instead applied to player salaries, the Mets would once again have the second-highest payroll in MLB.

On one hand there’s a fabulous new ballpark, complete with the Jackie Robinson rotunda, Shake Shack and the Shea Bridge. It’s a great place to socialize and heck, you can even see a game there, too! On the other hand its debt load is a major contributing factor to why most fans consider the Wilpons to be bad owners.

There was probably never a chance that crumbling Shea would ever have become a destination stadium like Wrigley Field or Fenway Park. Yet we see that the decision to pump money into refurbishing those parks has made them more fan-friendly and both those franchises have won the World Series since Citi Field opened.

You can dismiss the success of the Cubs and Red Sox and claim that it has no relevance to what would or would not have happened if the Mets had refurbished Shea instead of building Citi Field. But it’s hard to argue that money wouldn’t be less of an issue for the 2018 Mets (and the previous half dozen or more years, too) without those stadium debt payments.

When Sandy Alderson joined the Mets, it was supposed to be Moneyball with money. Personally, it’s always been my belief that Alderson knew exactly what he was signing up for and the financial restraints he would have. If asked, my expectation is that Alderson would respond that the Mets have enough payroll available to win the World Series. But it’s hard to imagine he would decline an extra $50 million or so to spend on assembling the 25-man roster.

So for me, yeah, let’s have a do-over on building Citi Field.

27 comments for “A decade later, Citi Field remains a big problem

  1. MattyMets
    November 26, 2017 at 9:41 am

    I have many fond memories of Shea Stadium. However, it is so much nicer to take my family to a game at Citi Field. It’s a true ball park where you never feel far from the field. Great food options and fun activities fo kids. And clean bathrooms! At Shea we used to joke, if you have to go to the bathroom, hold it.

    If I could have a do over it would have been to play to the home field strengths and build the team around speed, defense and pitching like the 80s Cardinals. Instead of moving the walls in and signing American League style homer/strikeout kings we could have left the walls where they were to our pitcher’s advantage and keep Reyes and Pagan atop the lineup to hit triples and steal bases.

  2. Jimmy P
    November 26, 2017 at 11:17 am

    According to Forbes, the Mets were valued at $482 million in 2002. Fifteen years later that number is estimated at more than $2 billion. The Marlins were just sold for $1.6 billion, so my guess is the Mets number is conservative. It’s been a long time since a sports property this valuable has been on the market in NYC.

    So I don’t get hung up on the debt at all. I don’t think it’s a big issue, not when the value of what you own is worth at least a billion more.

    I believe the Wilpons first got into the ownership game with an investment of $10 million.

    According to Forbes, again, the vast majority of MLB teams are operating on a profit on a year-to-year basis. The Mets are included in that analysis. They are not losing money. The Wilpons are running in the black annually and the property is accruing value at a skyrocketing rate. The problem, part of the problem at least, is that the Wilpons are cash poor relative to most other owners — and they are really more interested in the real estate business than they are in the NY Mets.

    These guys are horrible, horrible owners who are making huge gobs of money off a franchise they don’t deserve. They’ve done a terrible job running a baseball team in NYC. They are crooks and cheaters and grotesque in just about every way I can measure. I don’t see building a new stadium as the problem here.

    • November 26, 2017 at 11:47 am

      Yes, liquidity is a huge problem here.

  3. Chris F
    November 26, 2017 at 11:56 am

    Nice job with the podcast. Metstradamus was excellent!

    Having become a baseball fan, and a Mets fan in specific, by going to Shea as a kid, this article brings a lot of thoughts and memories to my mind. Shea was such an amazing place to end up for a kid living upstate taking a 4 hour bus ride. I was so excited pulling into the Stadium!! I loved helmet day and bat day in particular and always hoped our excursions would link to them.

    I think the Wilpons made huge mistakes in building CitiField. Whether it be remaking Ebbets Field, forsaking any remnant of Shea, failing to make the Gil Hodges Rotunda, failing to recognize Mets history at any level always made me think how petty the Wilpons are in wanting a new place where there would only be their presence. It flopped badly, and our generation will never forgive them for the doomed first 5 years of the park. The backlash was deserved. We saw Montgomery C Burns in real life taking away all we cared for. At least a number of things were corrected, but its a total shame we dont have the Gil Hodges Rotunda and necessary statuary around the park. That the stadium is a memory to Fred’s memory of a place and team wholly unrelated to the Mets is a sin that can never be forgiven.

    But the flip side is also not so easy imagine. Shea was a dump. Unlike Dodger Stadium, which has remained architecturally stable and inspiring over the decades, Shea was criminalized after the panels came down and the blue paint and all the neon went up. Instead of being a connection with heritage, it had been sufficiently violated that saving it was hardly worth the history of it. This differs from Wrigley and Fenway, which are gateways to baseball’s deep past. The more direct comps would be old Riverfront, Three Rivers, and old Busch, all of which are gone.

    I also have just lived through the decision of renovating an old building or building a new building at my work. That decision is not as easy as you think in terms of cost. To bring Shea to modern standards, which it would have had to have done would have taken years and cot a fortune. I think the Wrigley reno was near 600M$. Was Shea worth spending that much or more on? If you circle back to cost, its not at all clear to me that renovating would have saved any money such were the desperate needs. Shea was in no way ready for 21st century baseball. For me, I think the stadium was worth the reno cost to bring back the heritage of the 64 Worlds Fair and the opening of Shea. But that would not have saved money in any way. Back to our work project, we did the same, which was demo an old building, keeping a small part of it for posterity and building a new structure. It was cheaper in the end than doing a full renovation.

    • John Fox
      November 26, 2017 at 12:40 pm

      Chris,

      agree with most of what you said. It should be noted I have never set foot in Citi Field (would be a two day drive) but it is on my bucket list. You are absolutely right in that the comparison to Fenway Park and Wrigley Field is not so applicable, both were designed as baseball parks with baseball sight lines as opposed to the stadiums you correctly compared Shea to, Riverfront Stadium, 3 Rivers, Busch Stadium, and also Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. These latter ones were all multi-purpose stadiums as Shea was.
      I would disagree some with the distain for any connection with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the early fan base was almost entirely ex-Dodger and Giant fans, I would say honor that historic connection but also honor the New York Mets past, no reason both can’t be done

      • Chris F
        November 26, 2017 at 4:18 pm

        Fair enough, that was too harsh a statement, only because I was so devastated when Citi opened only to find not a single aspect of Shea or Mets history involved. It was a misread of the fan base. And I do agree, there was room for *both* Giants and Dodgers things that could have come through, afterall we did actually play at the Polo Grounds. Making it a shrine to the Dodgers still angers me, but yeah that could have and should have been part of the design principle. The Mets are a hodge-podge of colors and we could have embraced it all, and nearly 50 years of our home park.

        Apologies if that initially came out as dismissive.

        By the way, CitiField is a wonderful place to see a game. It feels more and more like home. I usually fly up to NY once or twice a season to catch a 3 game set. Its worth it. And the Musuem and HoF is not bad!

    • November 26, 2017 at 2:14 pm

      Thanks Chris.

      I think it’s up for debate if a refurbished Shea Stadium was a worthwhile idea. But I can’t imagine how a refurbishment would have cost anywhere near the $600 million plus the Wilpons spent for their share of the Citi Field costs.

      • Chris F
        November 26, 2017 at 3:54 pm

        renovating is very complicated at the level Shea needed.

  4. Pete from NJ
    November 26, 2017 at 12:48 pm

    My first reaction was if Dodger Stadium could survive why not Shea? Chris F put that thought to rest.

    Yes the Wilpon’s business model of debt payments and the loss of Madoff income puts the organiztion behind the elite teams.

    FO needs to not only be super percepyive in their philosophy but be magically lucky in assembling the 2018 team.

    My optimism just turned the other way. Now I sound like the extict bird saying I wish Brian didn’t write the article.

  5. LongTimeFan1
    November 26, 2017 at 1:39 pm

    I think the animus toward the Wilpons is byproduct of Mets fans’ emotions on auto pilot feeling the pressure of sharing NYC with the Word Series Wining Yankees. Some Mets fans on auto pilot distort history, over exaggerate issues and hold onto past transgressions as if the world is coming to end.

    Too many of my fellow Mets fans are a self-pitying lot, making themselves out to be baseball fan victims they aren’t. We have 2 championships, 5 NL titles and 9 postseason appearances since inception in 1962. There are franchises with no no championships, No league titles, others with long history of droughts far more gut wrenching than ours.

    As baseball owners, the Wilpons are at times incompetent, but to say they don’t care about winning is, I think, ridiculous.

    To say they’re cheap is ridiculous. What’s ridiculous is reckless spending. That some others are reckless doesn’t mean we ought to follow suit like the recent 1 billion spent by the Dodgers in payroll for one World Series appearance in the last few years – same as us but in the red. The Wilpons built a new ballpark, just bought a NY AAA franchise, own other affiliates, created their own regional sports network. They had to contend with Bernie Madoff, screwed by who they thought was really good long time friend who turned out to be the biggest crook ever doing damage to so many.

    • Hobie
      November 26, 2017 at 7:53 pm

      I find much to agree with in LTF’s reaction. It’s naive, I know, to want your guys to become the stars that many fans just simply want to buy. Buy them and then root for them I guess–is it because the perceived enhanced success probability would make it easier to root? That hasn’t been my baseball life.

      And that baseball life includes at least a hundred games at Ebbetts. I knew Ebbetts, and Citi ain’t no Ebbetts. Fenway is more Ebbetts (mirror image anyway); Citi, where the game is played, not even remotely. Now it does have an overhanging upper deck as did the Polo Grounds…any others?

      OK there’s a rotunda. Why not a Seaver, Hodges or Wm Shea Rotunda? IMO, it’s because the New YS opened the same year. Going toe-to-toe with franchise memorabilia would have been pathetic; a reminder of where MLB became integrated and where the laggards in that area lie (hint: in the Bronx) are real bragging rights that go without saying.

  6. MattyMets
    November 26, 2017 at 10:09 pm

    Something That I think would go over huge with fans is to commission a bronze statue of Tom Seaver.

  7. TJ
    November 26, 2017 at 11:16 pm

    Great article and many great points in the responses.

    I have been Met fan since 1972, and my father grew up a Dodger fan who attended some games in Ebbetts field. I was more in the camp of refurbishing Shea in order to keep some ties to the past, but these projects are very complicated, so my opinion from the outside was rather worthless.

    Nonetheless, I’ll opine on the financial impact of Citifield from the outside. Despite the large obligation for the payment in lieu of taxes, circa $40 million, this should in no way, shape, or form impact the ability to set and fund a payroll. Paying for a ballpark and its upkeep is required, be it through renting, mortgaging, revenue-sharing, etc. To stay at Shea would likely have the same if not higher cost.

    I respectfully disagree with LTF and Hobie regarding the ownership. They make several good points, that Met fans have a second-fiddle complex due to the Yankees, and that “buying a team rarely works.Both points are true, but it doesn’t get the Wilpons off the hook. At times, they have spent, but most of the time they come up short while at the same time charging their fans (aka customers) top dollar relative to other teams. If we assume they were victims of Madoff, publicly available info shows that with time and clawbacks, their losses were in the tens of millions, not hundreds. A lot of money, yes, but relative to the appreciation of their baseball assets, nothing. Even the worst owners want to win.

    So, I am open to a rational explanation for the current scenario – a team with a middle of the league payroll in 2017, with its own TV netwrk, in the largest market in the country, coming off a down year after two very good years that included a World Series appearance (and all those home game revenues, is raising ticket prices while stating publicly it will reduce its opening day payroll. Oh, and this is in a league where everyone is making money and one of the worst franchises was sold for $1.5 billion give or take. How can I conclude that these billionaire owners have any legitimacy? Most fans I know that obsess over spending are not calling for signing the top FAs and committing hundreds of millions. In fact, most are against it and only desire spending to bring in quality player to fill holes that cannot be filled internally or via trade. In the majority of seasons, the Wilpons fail to meet this simple standard.

    • Chris F
      November 27, 2017 at 10:44 am

      ^ +1

  8. Jimmy P
    November 27, 2017 at 7:59 am

    Ask yourselves a simple question:

    If you owned the Mets, owned this business opportunity in NYC, would you run it this way?

    I would go big. I would bring in stars. I would try to win championships, not try to sort of maybe compete for the WC2.

    I mean, if the Wilpons have no money, okay, they can’t spend it.

    Bud Selig forced the McCourts to sell in LA when they were clearly under-funded. But due to his friendship with the Wilpons, he allowed them to stay on, forcing them to bring in Alderson to teach them how to operate on a shoestring. They shouldn’t own a team, especially not in NYC. Of course, they own the Mets because they cheated Doubleday. They are horrible owners and I think the apologists are wearing blinders.

    People talk about the Yankees-Mets dynamic as one that is fixed in time immemorial. In the 80s, the Mets were more popular than the Yankees. Why was that, I wonder? And it was squandered because the Yankees out-hustled and out-smarted the Mets organization.

    • Chris F
      November 27, 2017 at 10:45 am

      ^ +1

    • November 27, 2017 at 1:07 pm

      The Dodgers previous owner filed for bankruptcy, the Mets owners never did.

      The Dodgers previous owner was involved in divorce proceedings that threatened to reveal private MLB documents, the Mets owners never had this hanging over their head.

      I don’t think there’s any doubt that MLB showed favoritism to the Mets owners that they didn’t to the Dodgers owners. But there were important differences in the two situations and we can’t just pretend otherwise. I mean, it’s one thing to look the other way when a team takes an extended period to pay off a loan given by the league, which MLB did with the Mets. But if the Mets were about to make private league matters public, I think MLB would have acted the exact same way as it did with the Dodgers.

      But it never came to that.

      • Chris F
        November 27, 2017 at 2:42 pm

        Hang on, the Mets ownership was completely bankrupted by Madoff. Selig did his level best to keep close friends in the game because they always voted in support of him — for decades. Selig and so the MLB bailed out the ownership, and installed a GM that was tasked to stabilize things and help the owners retain the team. Thats a different story than what came out of LA, but the lack of finances is similar. Sure, there was not a messy divorce, but the Mets did have a very messy lawsuit about sexual discrimination that was clearly headed to court with undoubtedly a ton of Mets and MLB info that would have been exposed in discovery. Instead of being forced to sell, it was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount…but I presume pretty large. I think the big difference is that the McCourts were not well heeled owners, and therefore disliked by the League, particularly Selig.

        • November 27, 2017 at 4:23 pm

          The sexual discrimination lawsuit would not have necessitated the disclosure of financial statements like the McCourt’s divorce would have.

  9. Eraff
    November 27, 2017 at 8:43 am

    This is a Business that perpetually asks it’s Customers, “What have You done for Me Lately?” The Mets Ownership has a Small Market, Bottom Line Financial focus…fair enough, but it’s Mean Spirited, Tone Deaf, and Love-less toward the Team, it’s Players and it’s Fans.

    Mr. Fred Built a Palace to “Celebrate his Love for Another”:…. His Son seems to be the day to day “Heartbeat” of an Organization that is Spartan with it’s Resources, but has an endless supply of Poisonous Whispers and Ass-Boots Out The Door for It’s Players and Fans.

    Citi Field is a Brick and Mortor Tribute to the Man who Built it…and He does not love you or your team. Someday, his palace will be over-run…someday.

    • Chris F
      November 27, 2017 at 10:45 am

      ^ +1

  10. November 27, 2017 at 10:37 am

    I have said this and written this since I started writing for this site 7 years ago: the Wilpons own a team they don’t love and love a team they don’t own.

    • Chris F
      November 27, 2017 at 10:47 am

      ^ +1

    • Hobie
      November 27, 2017 at 5:42 pm

      It’s a generational thing, I think, Charlie. I understand full well Fred’s Brooklyn nostalgia. For me too there is a seamless baseball thread from Billy Cox to David Wright and it has nothing—absolutely nothing–to do with that LA club that deserted me (us). Jeffy does seem clueless.

      There’s a statue of Johnny Unitas outside the Ravens’ stadium in Baltimore. I hear no Baltimorean complaints, quite the opposite–pride (and nobody thinks of him as an Indianapolis Colt).

      • November 28, 2017 at 9:32 am

        And how many statues are there outside Citi Field?

  11. Earl Brunner
    November 27, 2017 at 12:21 pm

    Citi Field was worth every penny. Shea Stadium has the memories but the building was in no way a proper tribute to the history of National League ball in New York. When Wright ‘s contract is off the books, and if we draft intelligently like another team nearby, we can crown a beautiful champion in a beautiful building.

  12. Jerry Schneider
    November 27, 2017 at 12:55 pm

    I loved Shea Stadium! It was in need of repair but, it had personality. It was the home of the Mets. Citi Field is beautiful but, it still lacks that home feeling. I want to see a statue of the great Tom Seaver greeting me when I get to Citi Field. It’s not too late, let’s make it happen!!!

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