I just wrapped up the part of The Yankee Years that Tom Verducci and Joe Torre call the last moment of Yankee magic at the old Stadium. With one swing, the much-maligned Aaron Boone delivered a stunning end to one of the most dramatic playoff series of all time.
Since then though, the Yanks have suffered through five seasons of bad luck, on and off of the field: Jason Giambi’s tumor, the 2004 playoff collapse, the Mitchell Report, the dismissal of Joe Torre, A-Rod’s PED scandal, the bad PR over the season-ticket problems with the new stadium and the political scandals that have lurked around the edges of the new stadium as well. Some of these stories are driven by a media that is highly skeptical of the Yanks and their ways. Others constitute legitimately bad news.
To the end, in a must-read piece, Pete Toms, one of the authors at The Biz of Baseball, ponders the state of the Yankee brand. Is the Yanks’ brand a tarnished one? The Yanks, Toms believe, are overreaching at a time when the American people are economically weak, and the team may be out of step with its fans:
Of more importance to the Yankees than the admonishments of local politicians is the widespread anti Yankee sentiment amongst rank and file fans. Instead of excitement about the new stadium and free agent signings, Yankee blogs, message boards and newspaper reports are rife with the comments of angry fans expressing their outrage over how and where their seats have been “relocated” in the new stadium…The negative impact of the recession on the Yankees is not limited to diminished demand for expensive seats. The credit crisis increased the stadium construction borrowing costs. Bloomberg reported on how changes in the municipal bond market affected the Yankees second round of financing. “The New York Yankees sold $259 million of bonds at yields two to three percentage points higher than the baseball team’s first round of city-approved tax-exempt financing to finish its new stadium in the Bronx…”
On the field, the Yankee brand has been tarnished (rightly or wrongly) by A Rod. A Rod’s $300 million dollar contract was justifiable for the Yankees because of two reasons. 1. He would sell out tickets and luxury boxes at the new stadium during his pursuit of the HR record. AND he would do it as a “clean” player. In short, he would be the next Yankee icon. 2. The same pursuit would be of great value to YES. Again, somehow that seems a long time ago. Now the Yankees have hundreds of millions of dollars committed to an unpopular superstar who they can never portray as “good” to Bonds “evil”. Serious questions surround his long term health, particularly minus PEDs which have been credited with contributing to the extraordinary success of some superstar players at relatively advanced ages (Bonds, Clemens). Subsequent to the announcement of A Rod’s injury, some pundits are suggesting that the loss of the Yankees premier player and arguably MLB’s best player is actually a positive..
In the short term, winning is marketing. Much of the complaining about seat relocations, public handouts to billionaires paying millionaires and a cheating superstar, can be overlooked if the Yankees win. But as defined by Yankee fans, winning means winning it all. Long term, is what the Yankees are selling out of step with the zeitgeist? Tom Van Riper wonders, “Sure, the economic slump will only last so long, but some experts think the shock and suddenness of the global financial crisis may have shifted consumer attitudes permanently. For all but the wealthiest, the luxury sports experience could be out for a long time. That means a lot of $1,000 tickets and personal seat licenses could go unsold and unpopulated for a very long time.” That, not A-Rod, is the Yankees’ biggest problem.
The problem Toms identifies is part of the Yankee Catch-22. The team has become a brand because they won so often in the late 1990s. In order to continue winning, they started spending. In order to keep up the spending, they need more money. To get more money, they started a cable network and built a state-of-the-art stadium. To fill that stadium, they need to get prices at the right level, and they need to win.
Along the way, the team has hit a few speed bumps and larger roadblocks, but I think Toms nails it when he boils it down to winning. Non-Yankee fans may scorn and despise the Yanks, but they still turn out on the road to watch the Yankee brand play. If the team wins, if they get over this PR hump of the ticket problems — a PR problem about which most fans are antipathetic or ignorant — the brand is as strong as ever.
Those of us that put the Yanks under a microscope on a daily basis may see the last few years as part of a bad cycle for the team. However, as the stadium opens, as YES draws record ratings for Spring Training games, the Yankees and their brand are not suffering.