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.