Well…..this has been a disaster.
In my years of being a fan not only of the Blue Jays, but of sports in general, I can only remember one other time when a team has destroyed so much fan goodwill in one offseason: the 1998 Florida “Fire Sale” Marlins. That team won the 1997 World Series, then promptly slashed payroll by getting rid of virtually all of their best players, en route to becoming the first defending champions to finish last in their division the following year.
Is that an apt or fair comparison for the Toronto Blue Jays and what they have done thus far? Absolutely not. After all, they are the defending AL East champions, a team that came within two wins of the World Series, and they are bringing back virtually all of their team. The fearsome offense is back, anchored by Bautista, EE, Donaldson, Tulo, and Martin. The lights out back-end of the bullpen (Cecil, Sanchez, Osuna), is returning, as is most of the starting rotation, led by a fully healthy and much stronger Marcus Stroman. The team also has confidence and a newly energized rabid fan base.
Or so they should, though one would never think so after reading fan reaction on social media. After finally breaking baseball’s longest playoff drought, then taking us on an epic October ride, the Toronto front office has since unleashed a series of extremely unpopular and polarizing moves. Ownership brought in the buttoned-up Mark Shapiro as president, allowed wildly popular GM Alex Anthopoulos to walk away, lost ace pitcher David Price without even trying to re-sign him (to the Red Sox no less), hired Ross Atkins (instead of long-time AA assistant Tony LaCava) as the next GM, hiked up ticket prices, eliminated fan perks such as the Ballpark Pass, made flex-packs less attractive by removing Opening Day as an option, then sat back and watched as the rest of baseball snapped up marquee free agents that could have helped the Jays retain their perch on top. Fans everywhere became irate.
Of course, it’s still far too early to debate the merits of any of these moves (or non-moves). Maybe Shapiro and Atkins will make a formidable team. Maybe the outrageous sums paid to Price, Greinke, Cueto, and Zimmermann will come back to haunt their new teams. Maybe, just maybe, spending a fraction of the cost on guys like Chavez, Estrada, and Happ will prove to be the better move. Who knows. All I can say for certain is that what the Jays have done reeks of failure, and sends a message that ownership would prefer to ride out the wave rather than stay on top of it.
And why is that? Why are the Toronto Blue Jays suddenly acting like a small market team with cash-strapped ownership? Because they certainly are neither of the above.
In case you have forgotten, Toronto-proper has a population of about 2.5 million people, making it the fourth largest market in MLB, just behind New York (8.3 million), Los Angeles (3.8 million), and Chicago (2.7 million). However, if we expand Toronto to include the GTA (which includes Durham, Halton, Peel, and York Regions, and Dufferin and Simcoe Counties), the population swells to over 6 million. Throw in Hamilton and we are suddenly approaching 7 million, making Toronto the second largest market in baseball, almost double the size of LA.
In terms of ownership, a CNBC post from 2012 identified the 10 richest owners in MLB, a list topped by Charles Johnson, the owner of the San Francisco Giants. Johnson has an estimated net worth of $4.9 billion USD, followed by Ted Lerner (Washington Nationals, $2,9 billion) and Mike Ilitch (Detroit Tigers, $2.4 billion). In case you have somehow forgotten, the Blue Jays are owned by Rogers Communications, a corporation with a market cap of over $18 billion USD, annual revenues of over $10 billion USD, and annual profits of about $1 billion USD. In short, the owners of the Blue Jays are worth four times as much as the next wealthiest owners.
But the ownership structure is the biggest – or only – reason why fans of the Blue Jays have started revolting. There are two reasons why.
The first, and biggest, is that the Jays are owned by Rogers Communications, the corporation. Not Ted Rogers, not Edward Rogers, but Rogers. That is a mammoth distinction. Mike Ilitch owns Little Caesars Pizza (where the bulk of his wealth was originally generated), but Little Caesars does not own the Detroit Tigers – Mike Ilitch does. Separately. If the Tigers want to sign a player, Mike Ilitch says yes or no. If the Blue Jays want to sign a player, Rogers Communications has to ultimately say yes or no, meaning approvals are likely needed from Finance, Accounting, Risk Management, the Executive Steering Committee, and the Board of Directors. And while Mike Ilitch’s ultimate goal is to win the World Series, Rogers Communications’ ultimate goal is to increase revenue and appease shareholders. If that means slashing payroll and trading away Jose Bautista, so be it. The Blue Jays aren’t a passion for Rogers – they are a small division of a global corporate conglomerate.
The second problem with ownership is the kind of company that Rogers is. You see, the new trend in MLB is for teams to sign massive TV deals with cable providers, guaranteeing millions upon millions of dollars that the team can invest in itself. The Arizona Diamondbacks signed a 20-year deal with Fox Sports Arizona in February for over $1.5-billion, a deal which guarantees that the DBacks will receive over $80-million per year for the rights to their games. Not surprisingly, Arizona suddenly found itself flush with cash and were able to sign Zack Greinke to a huge contract. Texas and the Angels both recently inked $3-billion TV deals, not to mention the Cardinals, Dodgers, and others. Unfortunately for Toronto fans, the Blue Jays are owned by their cable provider! So the odds of the Jays selling TV rights for over a billion? You got it – zero.
It’s no surprise that teams owned by individuals willing to spend (especially teams rolling in TV money) were the ones to sign Greinke, Cueto, Heyward, Zimmermann, Price, and others.
So combine 1) no potential for a future influx in cash, with 2) the richest owners in baseball operating in the second largest market in baseball suddenly deciding that they need to replicate the way that the Cleveland Indians operate, and you get 3) anger and public backlash.
Look, there is no telling how this season will turn out. The Jays are still the best team in the division, and I still believe they will repeat. But my biggest fear is a slow start, and the inevitable tear down of a veteran roster to restock the farm – exactly what Cleveland would do.
And if you think fans are angry now, just wait to see what happens if Tulo, Edwin, and Bautista are the next to leave.