Profitable Pirates to pay down huge debt

Rob Biertempfel
| Friday, April 18, 2008

The Pittsburgh Pirates turned a profit in 2007 -- the franchise's fourth consecutive year in the black -- and will do so again this year, regardless of how many games they win or lose.

Team President Frank Coonelly said the profit will be used to pay down the franchise's debt, which will help field a better team in the future. The Pirates have endured 15 consecutive losing seasons.

According to Forbes Magazine's annual team valuations, the Pirates' 2007 operating income was $17.6 million. That ranks 18th among the 30 major league clubs. Forbes estimated the team's value at $292 million, putting it at No. 28 among the 30 major league clubs.

"Their numbers are never right," Coonelly said Thursday. "But, we are profitable."

Coonelly said the Pirates' actual profit is much lower, taking into account annual interest payments of "over $5 million, maybe approaching $7 million" on the franchise's $100 million-plus in debts.

When interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization are thrown into the mix, Coonelly said the Pirates rank 27th in revenue.

The Pirates expect to receive about $35 million this year through Major League Baseball's revenue-sharing system, Coonelly said, adding that it's incorrect to believe that money must be used only to increase player payroll.

"The revenue-sharing plan says you have to use those proceeds to improve your performance on the field," Coonelly said. "That's written extraordinarily broadly, and we did that on purpose. Paying down debt can help you improve on the field. You can't get any better while you're taking a (huge) interest hit on all the debt you have. You can't be building an academy in the Dominican Republic. You can't be improving Pirate City. You can't be spending on major league payroll."

This year, the Pirates broke ground on a $5 million baseball academy in the Dominican. The club contributed $2 million of the $30 million necessary to renovate its spring training complex in Bradenton, Fla.

Coonelly denied that principal owner Bob Nutting is pocketing the Pirates' profits.

"We're paying down debt and reinvesting in the club, not spinning off money to ownership," Coonelly said. "If the Nutting family wanted to get into a business that would just spin off money, baseball would not be that business."

The sport is not necessarily a loser for owners, though. According to Forbes, Major League Baseball's profits increased 7.7 percent last year to $5.5 billion. The magazine estimates the average team is worth $472 million, a one-year hike of 9.5 percent.

The Forbes estimate means former owner Kevin McClatchy's purchase price of $92 million in 1996 was $200 million below its current value.

Where is all that money going• Not necessarily to the players. According to Forbes, player costs in Major League Baseball (salaries, bonuses and benefits) have fallen over the past five years from 66 percent of revenue to 56 percent.

In 2003, 16 teams lost money. Last year, only Toronto, Boston and the New York Yankees posted operating losses. But, Boston and New York recouped their losses with the dividends from their cable television deals.

Last year, Forbes reported the Pirates made $25.3 million profit in 2006, the year PNC Park hosted the All-Star Game.

"It was the highest-profit season in the recent past for the Pirates," Coonelly said. "I don't expect us to be seeing $25 million operating profits. I expect (growth), although I don't want to promise it."

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