Major League Baseball is bracing for a multi-billion dollar hit to its industry this year.
Yet if there's one group that can withstand a financial wallop wrought by the novel coronavirus, it is the game's 30 ownership groups.
Forbes released its annual list of franchise values Thursday and projected that 28 of 30 clubs saw appreciation in 2019, with the New York Yankees once again leading the pack in total value ($5 billion) and appreciation (9%).
Only the Pittsburgh Pirates and Miami Marlins experienced drops, of 1% and 2% respectively, with the Marlins, at $980 million, the only franchise outside the billionaire club. The Kansas City Royals, the only club to change hands last year, with John Sherman buying them for $1 billion, are valued at $1.025 billion.
The overall values aren't surprising in an industry distributing an estimated $10.5 billion in revenues, and its proprietary television and online inventory maintaining high value despite the existential threat to the TV industry. Still, there's a few takeaways we can glean from the values, which are unconfirmed and often rebutted by MLB:
•Why has tanking been such a trend? Consider the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles, who share a geographical region and a sports network. The Nationals spent big again and won the World Series. The Orioles saw attendance bottom out at Camden Yards as they intentionally fielded one of the worst teams in their history. Yet both teams' value increased by 9%.
•The Tampa Bay Rays won 96 games, made the American League Championship Series yet experienced virtually flat attendance (an increase of 23,000) as they floated the concept of partial relocation to Montreal. Still, they saw a 4% increase in franchise value, to $1.05 billion, as a new cable deal that doubles in value to $60 million annually kicks in.
•Is on-field success tied to franchise riches? Largely — six of the top 12 most valuable teams (Yankees, Dodgers, Cardinals, Nationals, Astros, Braves) comprised more than half the 10-team playoff field. Yet, the No. 18 Twins, No. 26 Athletics and No. 28 Rays also made the postseason, a possible testament to their front-office smarts, the value of revenue-sharing or, more likely, the cyclical nature of contention that mid-market teams experience.
MLB's class structure may also determine who emerges from a 2020 campaign wreaked — or wrecked — by the COVID-19 pandemic. Smaller-market teams are generally more reliant on ticket sales and gameday revenue, which will be slowest to return once the game does as concerns about large gatherings — or even the ability to gather in public — loom into 2021.