How Much Is Enough

January 28, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Sportswriters, broadcasters and paying customers have complained for the past few years that Mike Ilitch is tightfisted when it comes to his baseball franchise, but generous when it comes to his hockey club.

But none of those critics have ever suggested how much the owner of the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings should cough up for the baseball team he has owned since 1992. Nor have they ever included the $150 million Ilitch spent on Comerica Park in their gripes.

So, how much spending is enough?

Well, for Tigers President and CEO Dave Dombrowski the “how much” depends on the situation, and the “enough” could even be less.

“Oakland and Minnesota both had very good teams, and their payrolls were less than ours. So payroll does not always correlate to wins. What you need to do is to spend your money wisely,” he said.

“Our payroll is plenty high enough at this point. It’s just a lot of times you have to get more performance and you have to be fortunate with injuries.”

Dombrowski said that Ilitch has treated the Tigers fairly, even when the Red Wings are brought into the discussion. In fact, he told the Business Journal that he has advised Ilitch not to chase after players who carry high price tags.

“It been as much my decision to say, ‘I don’t think that we should be spending money on free-agent players at this time.’ It’s not a wise time to be doing that. You pick and choose when you make those expenditures and right now we need to let some of these young guys grow, sit back, analyze what we need in the future, and then make those decisions,” he said.

Dombrowski also thinks that once the Tigers put themselves into a position to win, like the Red Wings have, Ilitch will spend more on the Tigers — just like he has with the Wings.

“There is no question that if we have a chance to win I believe he will step up. But I also don’t think that you spend money unwisely. We’re building an organization right now the way you need to build it,” he said.

Dombrowski also felt that critics should include the money that Ilitch has invested in the ballpark in their appraisals.

“Since I’ve been here, a little over a year, very rarely have people pointed that out. It seems to be taken for granted. There are very few owners who have done what he has done for a city and a franchise with what he has done with that facility,” he said.

The payroll pacesetter in the American League is no surprise. New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner has outspent Ilitch every year since 1992, but has doubled the Tigers payroll the past two years. Last season, the Yankees’ payroll topped $125 million, while the Tigers’ was a bit more than $55 million.

One result of that spending difference was the Yankees drew 3.4 million last year, while the Tigers attracted 1.5 million. Another was the Yankees made the playoffs and the Tigers didn’t.

“We’re not the Yankees; we don’t have their market,” said Dombrowski.

Still, the Tigers turned a profit of $5.7 million from last season, according to the Associated Press. Forbes, however, put the club’s margin at $12.3 million.

And it might be surprising for those critics to learn that the projected payroll leader for the upcoming season in the league’s Central Division isn’t Cleveland or Chicago.

“The answer is the Detroit Tigers,” said Dombrowski.

Major League Baseball spent $2.5 billion on payrolls last year, about $172 million more than the 2001 season. Revenue for the 30 franchises was estimated at $3.7 billion in 2002.

For the record, Ilitch has increased the Tigers payroll by 91 percent from the 1992 to 2002 season — going from $28.7 million to $55 million.

Dombrowski was in town last week as part of the Tigers Caravan that appeared at the West Michigan Whitecaps Ninth Annual Winter Baseball Banquet held at the Pinnacle Center in Hudsonville. About 550 attended the event that had Ernie Harwell as the keynote speaker.

Dombrowski is a Chicago native who earned his business degree from Western Michigan University. He became the Tigers’ 15th president in franchise history in early November 2001 after stints with the Montreal Expos and Florida Marlins. He built the Marlins team that won the World Series in 1997.

Dombrowski said rising disability insurance premiums are a contributing factor to why teams aren’t signing as many players to long-term contracts as in the past. Insurers have told owners that they won’t provide more than three years worth of coverage for each contract.

“And the cost of that insurance has increased dramatically over the last couple of years. I think that is one of many factors that are involved,” he said. “But I think you also have to look at the overall economy, the way it is. Last year attendance was down 6 percent. Revenue was down for most franchises.”

The Tigers won’t raise ticket prices for the coming season, and haven’t considered switching to variable-ticket pricing — which means charging more for a bigger rivalry.

“We haven’t had those discussions. We decided we are not at the point to do that right now,” said Dombrowski. “Some franchises have taken that approach. But we did not have that discussion going into this year.”  

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