Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
2005-12-19 11:59
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Rockies ownership wants their payroll to be at $45 million next year. Roughly half of that will be consumed by two players -- Todd Helton ($16.6 million a year from here to eternity) and Jason Jennings ($4.4 million for 2006, but then mercifully we are rid of him). $45 million is a small-market payroll. Colorado's peers in that bracket are teams like Milwaukee and Pittsburgh. It's true that they're spending more than Tampa Bay, Kansas City, and Florida (take a look at the Marlins' salary breakdown sometime, it's pretty funny), but they're getting readily outspent by teams like the A's, Blue Jays, and (most importantly) the other four teams in their division.

Denver is not a small city, nor is it a poor sports market. The Broncos have to be one of the most enduringly successful franchises in American sports. The Avalanche's sellout streak was unharmed by the NHL's strike and attendance continues to be great despite some of the highest ticket prices in hockey. The Nuggets...well, you can still see the Nuggets play pretty good teams for $10 some nights. The point is, this region is perfectly willing to shell out to see pro sports, so long as the teams win consistently. The first half-decade of Rockies baseball illustrated that an audience much greater than small market size exists for major league baseball in Denver. During the franchise's formative years at Mile High, I believe they set records for single-game and season attendance that still stand. The first year at Coors, the wild card season of 1995, was wildly profitable as well.

But Denverites don't truck well with losing ugly (just ask Gary Barnett), and the Rockies seem to have been redrawing their estimated market size smaller and smaller every year since '95. That's why Todd Helton (and Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle) got the contracts they did when they did, and now the team squeezes every dollar. The unspoken corollary to the Rockies' Incredible Shrinking Market Size is that were the team every to somehow become good again, people might start coming back. Coors Field has a national reputation akin to a death camp for pitchers, but it's actually a beautiful place to watch a baseball game, and most people in Denver are somewhat aware of this in the backs of their minds. If Dan O'Dowd's latest top secret plan of building on the cheap through the draft ever pans out, the Rockies could be in a position to retain a few of their most valuable homegrown chips when the time comes, and even add a free agent piece or two if they're ever really in position a piece or two away. Assuming it's not too late. Which I don't think it is. I hope. This isn't South Florida.

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