Saturday, June 09, 2012

Lingering Items--VIP Edition

There was a story a few weeks ago about a high school that had decided to set up a VIP room at its prom.  Students who wanted to pay a little extra in order to be treated like a little big shot could.  It was as much inevitable as it was another sign of a coming apocalypse.  It won’t be long before preschools offer a premium recess area with newer, better toys for children of parents willing to pay an additional tuition surcharge.

Yet, in the larger sense it’s hard to blame these enterprising high schoolers or their idiotic administrators for turning the prom into an even more realistic version of life itself.  Our sporting events have so embraced the concept of premium seats for big spenders that it’s probably never occurred to them that in doing so they are actually working at cross purposes.

As detailed in the latest Crain’s Cleveland Business, the Indians recently sent out a survey to premium ticket buyers asking their opinions on still another potential premium lounge at Progressive Field.  If it came to pass, and at this point the Indians claim they are just exploring options, the team would convert about 8 suites on the first or third base side into a premium lounge that would allow dining and a view of the ball park.

This new premium lounge would be on top of the lounge that’s available only to fans in the club suite, the social media suite that the Indians condescendingly make available to the nerds infatuated with that whole internet fad, the fan cave which is another group of converted suites and includes such baseball viewing staples as billiard tables, and the Champions Suite, which is a super suite carved out of a series of other suites.

I can understand Mark Shapiro’s quixotic journey toward realizing greater margins that won’t be used to increase payroll, but at some point this push to make watching a baseball game some sort of country club experience seems awfully counterproductive.

The Indians are bitching and moaning about the lack of attendance but act as if their attempts to make attending even more of an exclusionary process aren’t somehow related.  They are.

It’s hardly a secret at this point that a strong corporate commitment is needed in almost every city for professional sports to work.  The cost of running a professional sports franchise gets more expensive each year.  Player payroll is the most visible operating expense but hardly the only one.  There’s the usual stuff like maintenance, utilities and insurance.  There’s also debt service, front office expenses, and in sports like baseball, the whole range of minor league expenses.

One of the reasons a team like Cleveland constantly squeezes payroll is because it represents such a huge part of the overall budget.  The revenue streams from such things as television and radio tend to be fixed for years at a time.  There may be escalators in those contracts that keep pace in some measure with the economy generally but on a year to year basis there is nothing much a team can do to increase those particular revenue streams.

The more variable revenue streams are things like souvenirs, concessions and the biggest one of all, ticket sales.  Projections are easily made for budgeting purposes but if those revenue streams end up lagging it does directly and perhaps significantly impact a team’s yearly bottom line.

It’s in this context that the push for even more secure lines of revenue is being pursued.  The Indians aren’t necessarily lacking for corporate support but the economy since 2008 has taken a huge hit on local companies and hence their budgets for entertainment.  It’s the reason that there are so many loges available for conversion into something else.  When a company doesn’t renew a loge lease and there’s no one waiting in line for it, it’s a dead asset.  And right now and for the foreseeable future, the Indians have a lot of dead assets.  So do the Browns.

But is the answer to all of this more premium seats?  Is that really the right market to pursue?  Maybe not.

Premium seats are purchased by premium buyers, meaning corporations predominately.  Even as those seats might be available for individual purchase, I can all but guarantee that unless the vast majority of them are purchased by corporate buyers then they’ll mostly go empty night after night, like now.

And while these premium seats may be too expensive for the individual taste, they are still cheaper, often much less so, then suite tickets.  A suite comes with a preset number of tickets that must be bought, usually at least 10 per game.  Then there is a minimum food spend per game.  All in it’s an expensive way to see a game, any game.

But buying, say, a couple of club seats for the season and a few more in one of the other premium lounges ends up being a significantly cheaper proposition for a corporation.  So much so, in fact, that it provides an increasingly more attractive option then purchasing a suite for a season.

In other words, the more of these lounges that are created, the less the demand is for suites.  There isn’t a broader untapped market out there just clamoring for the right kind of suite.  It’s the same market looking for a different and sometimes cheaper option.  As the Indians create more specialty suites and lounges it’s done at the expense of those who would otherwise spend their dollars on the traditional suites.  In short, the Indians will end up just cannibalizing the same market but otherwise not making progress.  Arguably they could end up further behind.


Do you think the Browns are sensitive about the criticism they’ve been receiving for the lack of attention to the receiving corps?  Have you noticed how many stories you’ve read recently about Mohamed Massaquoi or Greg Little and how both are supposedly poised for a breakout season?  If you answered yes to the second question, then you have the answer to the first.

The Browns’ public relations department has attacked the criticism by doing what a public relations department is paid to do, manipulate the story.  Using the local beat reporters who tend to like their stories spoon fed, fans are getting a steady diet of stories that would tend to make you think that the team’s biggest weakness is actually a strength.

First there were the stories about Greg Little and his suddenly leaner frame that will put him in position to have a breakout year.  For the last few days the focus has been the undersized Massaquoi and how he’s over all of the various injuries that have plagued him in his first three years making him ready for a breakout year.  I hope there are enough footballs to go around.

Give credit to the Browns’ p.r. department for the onslaught while reading the stories in the local papers with a grain of salt.  No matter how it’s spun, the Browns receiving corps as presently constituted is one of the worst in the league.  With no meaningful off season acquisition, it’s the same group that was one of the worst in the league last season, just older.

There is some benefit to experience making it reasonable to expect Little to be better.  But his better isn’t ever going to turn him into a legitimate number one receiver.  He simply doesn’t have that kind of speed.  He’s a power forward that’s being forced to play center because management thinks it doesn’t need a legitimate center.

Massaquoi is a different story.  He’s injury prone which is related to his lack of size.  But more than that are the injuries he’s suffered—concussions.  With each day that passes, players are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of concussions and their long term impacts.  Massaquoi has suffered two concussions already.  Even club president Mike Holmgren acknowledges that the concussions have taken a toll on Massaquoi and have changed his game.  Translated, Massaquoi is playing more cautiously, which is understandable.

So even if Massaquoi is technically healthy right now, there’s nothing about his performance that suggests he’ll have any sort of breakout season, particularly as he approaches his job with even more caution.  And even if he did have a breakout season what exactly does that mean for a passion receiver?  Like Little, Massaquoi isn’t blessed with great speed and isn’t the kind of game changing receiver that teams have to worry about irrespective of how healthy he is.

The Browns are slowly, surely starting to fill the many holes on this team.  The receiving corps remains a big hole still and no matter how hard the Browns p.r. department spins it and no matter how compliant the local media is in that scheme, the underlying facts won’t change until the Browns actually change them with better players.


It looked like the Twitter universe got a bit overheated on Thursday with “news” that the Browns were supposedly for sale.  The source of that rumor was a no nothing blowhard who got his one day in the sun by essentially making something up.

Maybe that’s unfair.  If you assume everything has a price, then the Browns, like any other team in any other sport, are for sale.  I’m sure that Randy Lerner, if you could find him and then wake him, would say he has a price.  It may be outrageous and unrealistic, but he probably has a price.

But the Browns thought enough of the essentially non-rumor to flat out deny it, which likely will only fan the flames further.  Remember, in sports when a player says it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.  When a general manager gives the manager or head coach a vote of confidence it’s the first step toward firing him.  And when an owner says his team isn’t for sale, it’s usually for sale.

Browns fans shouldn’t fret either way.  The Browns aren’t going anywhere even if they are sold.  The league is not going to let the Browns escape from Cleveland ever again.  Anyone buying the team will have to keep it in Cleveland.  Set that in stone.

If you accept that as a given, then fans should welcome a sale.  Lerner has been a disaster of an owner by any way you to want to measure.  It is literally a case where a new owner couldn’t possibly do any worse.

Don’t get your hopes up, though.  Lerner is a contrarian.  The more compelling the case for a sale, the likelier he’ll get further entrenched. 

It looks like whatever supposed quarterback competition there was going to be between Brandon Weeden and Colt McCoy won’t survive mini-camp.  Head coach Pat Shurmur has all but anointed Weeden the starter.  Maybe it was the anecdote Shurmur told about his time with Sam Bradford in St. Louis.  Maybe it was the passive aggressive way he punctuates every question about the offense with the comment “it all starts with the quarterback.”  Or maybe, just maybe, it is the fact that he is giving Weeden most of the reps with the first team.  Yea, that must be it.

McCoy fans, let’s face it.  Barring injury, it’s Weeden’s job if for no other reason then Weeden is Shurmur’s guy and McCoy is not.  That’s probably how it should be, unless you think Shurmur shouldn’t be trusted with any decision more difficult than paper or plastic.

What this all means is that the Browns’ management is taking a longer view of its path forward.  They recognize that this team isn’t playoff caliber and are willing to sacrifice another season so that a youngish team can mature all at once.  As far as plans go that’s as good of one as they’ve had for years.

At some point though the fans are going to get fed up paying for sacrificial seasons.  I suspect that there’s maybe one more season left in the tolerance bank so long as fans see legitimate forward progress and not the usual running in place on a 4-12 treadmill.


So Grady Sizemore is still feeling soreness and his rehab has had a setback, meaning he continues to collect a multi-million dollar salary while adding zero value back, which everyone knew was the most likely outcome.  That leads to this week’s question to ponder: Does Sizemore have the best agent ever?

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