Records: Mets' income drops at Citi Field

Citi Field, home of the New York Mets

Citi Field, home of the New York Mets in the Queens borough of New York City. (May 31, 2011) (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

The Mets' ballpark-related revenue, including parking, concessions, stadium advertising and more, has all together dropped more than 30 percent since Citi Field opened in 2009, and premium-ticket sales have fallen almost 50 percent, according to financial records.

Hundreds of pages of documents, which Newsday obtained under the Freedom of Information Law from New York City, provide a partial window into the cash flow of the franchise, whose owners are dealing with financial challenges because of fallout from the $50-billion fraud committed by Bernard Madoff.

The records do not include some line items that would be found in other parts of the Mets' operations and are designed to show only that the Mets can repay their debts to the city. Not included is revenue from the team's television contract with SportsNet New York and minor league operations expenses and the player payroll. Other records show that the player payroll was $142 million last year and is estimated to be $90 million for the new season.

 

Trial date approaching

Bankruptcy trustee Irving Picard's $386-million lawsuit against the team's owners, the Wilpon family and Saul Katz, and their umbrella company, Sterling Equities, is set to go to trial in federal court in Manhattan on March 19.

Picard is seeking the return of money the Wilpons and Katz invested with Madoff.

A federal judge is to rule Monday on whether the trial should proceed.

The records outline the financial performance of Queens Ballpark Company LLC, the subsidiary of Sterling Mets that is responsible for Citi Field operations. Queens Ballpark is required to report its financials to New York City's Industrial Development Agency because the agency issued municipal bonds used to pay for the stadium.

 

Bond payments due

Queens Ballpark reports the stadium revenue that the company plans to use to make its $43 million in annual bond payments. The financial statements also reflect ballpark-related expenses, such as maintenance costs, and additional revenue from concessions and parking, the $20 million annual naming rights payment from Citigroup, and $26 million from stadium signage and advertising.

Dave Howard, the team's executive vice president for business operations, said the financials of Queens Ballpark Company do not reflect the team's overall economic picture.

The revenue in the financial statements, with premium seats representing the biggest chunk, is supposed to show the city that Queens Ballpark can make the bond payment.

"This is the defined revenue stream pledged to back up the bonds," Howard said.

The financial records filed with the also city show:

Concession revenue alone dropped 28 percent since 2009 to $10.9 million in 2011, and parking alone fell 37 percent to $7 million in 2011.

Ticket sales for 10,635 premium stadium seats, about 25 percent of the 42,000-seat stadium, declined from $99.3 million in 2009 to $50.6 million through the end of the 2011 season.

The Mets pay $1 million annually to lease the stadium.

Expenses for Citi Field have stayed between $85 million and $88 million since the ballpark was built.

The Mets are projecting an increase in premium-ticket sales revenue, from $50.6 million last year to $56.5 million in 2012. Concession sales are expected to increase, from $10.9 million at the end of September last year to $14.3 million this year, according to the Mets' projected 2012 budget. Meanwhile, as luxury suites come up for renewal, revenue there is budgeted to drop to $6.7 million from $7.7 million in 2011.

Howard attributed the drop in premium ticket revenue to cutting prices by as much as 40 percent since 2009, which he said was in response to the economic downturn and on-field performance.

Mets principal owner Fred Wilpon said during his annual state-of-the-team address in Port St. Lucie, Fla., last week, that robust ticket revenue is essential.

"We have a diminished population coming to Citi Field," Wilpon said. "We need that revenue. We just can't do it on air. We need that revenue to support, and the only way we're going to get that revenue is if we have a competitive, interesting team on the field."

Experts in the sports business field said the team's financial fortunes will change once the team begins winning consistently.

"It should be very clear to everyone: When the Mets do return to form on the field, the ballpark-related revenues will follow unquestionably," said Scott Rosner, associate director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative and a sports business professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Michael Cramer, director of the Texas Program in Sports and Media at the University of Texas, said the team has positive long-term financial viability, despite its current struggles.

"They could get lucky and catch lightning in a bottle [this season] with 10 good players that are young, but that will be lucky," said Cramer, a former minority owner and president of the Texas Rangers. "But [long term], they're going to be fine. That's the crazy thing. The Mets are going to be fine."

Attendance down

The Mets' total annual attendance declined 26 percent from 2009 to 2011 -- from 3.2 million to 2.3 million. Nationally, baseball attendance was relatively steady during that period.

As a result of shrinking attendance, revenue at Citi Field from concessions, parking and advertising slipped each year, with the only uptick from luxury-suite revenue, which is mostly based on multiyear contracts. The Mets went from $3.8 million in 2009 to $7.7 million in 2011.

The average ticket price for the premium seats for the 2012 season is $81.07, reflecting the 40 percent average price cut since 2009, Howard said.

"So even if you sold the same number of seats, you're going to have a reduction in revenue," he said. "You're starting off with an all-time high, a zenith so to speak in '09, and the numbers have come down, but they're still healthy numbers."

Howard declined to provide details on the drop in ticket revenue from the rest of the stadium. The stadium's overall average ticket price last season was $32, according to Forbes magazine. The Mets have added a "dynamic pricing" concept this year, where ticket prices could change as the season progresses to reflect market demand.

Madoff fallout

As the Mets owners dealt with the ramifications of the Madoff scandal, they borrowed $65 million from Major League Baseball and other sources to pay bills, and shed high-priced stars such as Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran. General manager Sandy Alderson said the team lost $70 million last year.

The franchise, which this year is celebrating its 50th anniversary, has been seeking investors to purchase a noncontrolling interest after failing to close a $200 million deal with hedge fund manager David Einhorn.

Wilpon said last week the Mets will soon close on the sale of seven shares -- including four to SNY and two to family members -- and are in negotiations regarding five additional shares. He added that funds from the sale of these shares, among other things, will be used to repay the $65 million.

Poor seasons on field

The Mets’ on-field performance, coupled with the timing of opening a new stadium after the nation’s financial crisis, were primary reasons for the drop in ballpark revenue, Cramer said.

Other experts cited competition from the Yankees, and the new Yankee Stadium. The Yankees opened their stadium the same year as the Mets — and won the World Series. The Mets struggled to a 70-92 season that year — and have not had a winning season since.

While teams typically experience revenue declines after consecutive losing seasons, the Mets’ situation is unusual because they had just opened a new stadium.

“It’s mostly a product of the product on the field,” Smith College sports economist Andrew Zimbalist said. “To some degree it’s an outcome of the economic situation in the country and, I think, to a smaller degree, it’s affected by the bad publicity the Wilpons have had in connection with the Madoff issue.”

A key point of contention in the trial will be whether the Wilpons knowingly were banking on their sizable and expected Madoff returns to operate the team, which Picard has alleged.

Picard said in court documents that the Mets’ ownership sometimes could not make payroll without the Madoff investments. Madoff pleaded guilty to running a Ponzi scheme.

The Wilpons have said they knew nothing about Madoff’s crimes and should not be penalized for investing with him. A spokeswoman for Picard declined to comment further.

‘We’ve got to win fans back’

In a report issued in December, Standard & Poor’s revised its outlook on Queens Ballpark to “negative,” citing declining cash flow “due to the recession, below-average on-field team performance, competition in the New York market for an increased amount of premium seating and, to a lesser extent, team financial difficulties.”

Standard & Poor’s, along with Moody’s Investors Service, rates the almost $548 million in tax-exempt bonds used to help build Citi Field.

A spokesman for the New York City Economic Development Corp., which oversees the city’s IDA, declined to comment.

In January, the team hired CRG Partners, which specializes in turnaround management, restructuring and reorganization, to help with “financial reporting and budgeting processes.”

The Mets’ cost-cutting last year also included eliminating a minor league affiliate and reducing non-player staff by almost 10 percent.

But Wilpon said the key to a financial turnaround lies in fielding a competitive team that will encourage people to return to Citi Field.

“We’ve got to win the fans back,” Wilpon said last week. “Strike that. We’ve got to win the fans and customers back.” 

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