The nation's recessive economy and other discouraging economic factors are seriously jeopardizing Buffalo's bid for a National League expansion franchise.
Bisons President Robert E. Rich Jr. painted a gloomy picture of the city's major league future during two interviews this week with The Buffalo News.
In addition, Rich and his wife, Mindy, submitted a letter to The News that poses the question: "Is baseball expansion economically feasible at this point in time." The letter appears on the editorial page of today's editions.
"While we remain committed to bringing major league baseball to Buffalo, we have said that we do not believe in baseball at any cost," the Riches wrote. "The economics must make sense not just for us personally, but for the City of Buffalo, County of Erie, and especially for our fans, too."
Rich wavered on whether he is close to withdrawing his expansion application.
"I won't quantify that," he said.
The weakening of Buffalo's bid comes as the National League prepares to announce the finalists among the 10 cities seeking expansion teams. Members of the National League Expansion Committee have said a "short list" containing from five to seven cities will be announced before Christmas. A league spokesperson could not confirm if that timetable remains accurate.
In their letter to The News, the Riches indicated they anticipate Buffalo's inclusion on the short list.
"How seriously they (baseball's owners) take us will be evident later this month when a short list of candidates for expansion is announced," they wrote.
And if Buffalo should fail to be included on the short list?
"I won't contemplate that," Rich said.
But Rich is contemplating the staggering financial commitment an expansion team will require.
The National League's two expansion franchises, scheduled to begin play in 1993, will incur start-up costs of at least $125 million. The figure includes the franchise fee, player salaries, spring training arrangements and travel costs. However, the two expansion teams will not share in baseball's national television revenues during their first season. Each of the 26 existing teams would receive about $13 million in 1993 as long as the national TV contract remains valid.
But there are no guarantees that baseball's national television revenues will maintain the rampant growth exhibited during the 1980s.
"National television ratings for baseball have dropped so precipitously that CBS has asked for money back from major league baseball," the Riches wrote.
That's a frightening omen for all franchises, but particularly those in smaller markets. Franchises such as Milwaukee, Seattle and Minnesota rely heavily on national television revenues to balance their exorbitant budgets. And those budgets continue to escalate as annual player salaries reach an average of $500,000.
"The cost of free agent signing has gone through the roof in just the last few weeks," the Riches wrote. "The number of mediocre players earning one million dollars is at an all-time high -- with no end in sight."
Buffalo's metropolitan population and television market-size, small by major league standards, have been the crux of arguments against the city's ability to sustain a big league franchise. The Triple A Bisons have countered those arguments with record ticket sales at Pilot Field, and by pointing to revenues attainable through cable television.
However, while the Bisons have sold more than one million tickets during each of their three American Association seasons played at Pilot Field, ticket prices are expected to double if the city acquires a major league franchise. And local television and radio revenues, relatively meager in baseball's smaller markets, provide minimal protection against runaway player salaries.
"If it gets to the point where we have to price everything so expensive that we can't have the same crowds who have been enjoying Pilot Field, if that becomes clear because of the price tag, the economy and salary escalation, it's the end of the game," Rich said.
The Bisons have sought to lessen the financial risks inherent to major league ownership by obtaining a highly favorable lease for the use of Pilot Field. The team's demands include annual city payments of $1.5 million in parking revenue and annual county/city commitments of $650,000 for capital improvements. The team also has demanded a rental waiver during its first season, as well as during any subsequent season it does not share in baseball's television revenues.
But city and county officials are opposed to backing Buffalo's baseball venture with tax money.
"I can't disagree on the severity of the language," Rich said. "It's not an adversarial relationship as far as we're concerned. It's not a matter of us versus them. It's a matter of whether the community can afford it.
"We're in a tough position," Rich said. "(We'll be) hampered by low TV revenues, (and) no doubt have lower attendance than bigger markets. We should have at least as good a lease as existing cities."
Rich says he will continue pursuing big league baseball for Buffalo should the city fail to acquire an expansion team.
"Expansion is not the only route we can take to bring big league baseball here," the Riches wrote.
However, baseball is opposed to the relocation of existing franchises and Rich admits that "nothing is imminent."
"We're agonizing over a lot of these questions," he said. "We have given eight years of our lives in this."