For true read on O's finances, Angelos needs to open books

April 16, 2006|By PETER SCHMUCK

It was the baseball business equivalent of a hanging curveball.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos told a Washington radio audience Friday that his club lost $15 million last year. He threw that number out there and now I'm going to hit it out of the park.

Earth to Peter: There are two ways to go with this. Either open the club's financial records to an independent audit and rub my nose in the truth of those numbers ... or stop using phony, manipulated figures to rationalize the sorry state of your baseball franchise.

I don't know what the truth is, but I do know this. Many years ago, when Angelos came home the conquering hero after paying a record price to keep the Orioles under local ownership, he told everyone who would listen that the team was a public trust and that the club's finances would be an open book.

Too bad for him that we live in the age of the Internet search engine, because I was able to set the way-back machine to Nov. 18, 1993, and pull up this Angelos quote from The Washington Post:

"I expect to be quite open about the Orioles' finances," he said. "I want the media and the public to know the financial picture of the team. I want them to know what the profits are and what the expenses are. I think the more the public knows, the better."

Now, all we get is an angry pronouncement that the club is losing a fortune and absolutely nothing to back it up. Pardon the skepticism, but I seem to recall that the Orioles spent the late 1990s with one of the highest payrolls in baseball and Angelos claimed at the time that the team was breaking even.

Let me get this straight. The payroll was $82 million in 1999 and the average ticket price at Camden Yards was about $19. Now the payroll is, what, $70 million, the price of many field-level seats have doubled since then, the Orioles are getting $75 million from Major League Baseball to help set up the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network and additional millions in MLB Internet revenue ... and they lost $15 million last year?

That's the year after Forbes magazine analyzed the finances of the 30 major league clubs and declared that the Orioles had the highest net operating profit ($34 million) in the major leagues. Orioles officials testily dispute that study - claiming that Forbes did not take all operating expenses into account - but they also haven't offered anything tangible to disprove it.

Major league clubs did not crack open their books for Forbes, so those numbers are very much open to debate, but there's only one way to clear this up once and for all.

It's time for Angelos to put up or shut up. I agreed with him when he insisted that the arrival of the Montreal Expos in Washington would have a negative effect on the finances of the Orioles, and I have no doubt that the Nationals have drawn away significant revenue, but the number that he threw out on Friday just doesn't sound right.

If the Orioles really did lose $15 million last year, you'd think that Angelos and his partners would welcome an independent audit that demonstrated to Orioles fans that he was writing a big check every year out of his own account to subsidize the team for them.

Instead, we hear rationalizations about the cost of setting up MASN, as if it's totally reasonable to expect the fans to keep paying for a subpar product while Angelos builds a cash cow network that could dramatically increase the value of the franchise for himself and his fellow investors.

I'm not totally denying the possibility that the losses are legit. The Orioles have experienced a steady loss of attendance over the past eight losing seasons and now draw about a million fewer fans per year than they did during a seven-year honeymoon period at the new Camden Yards.

The club also has experienced a sharp drop in season tickets the past two seasons, which it relates to the arrival of the Nationals, but relocation was not an issue when overall attendance began to decline in 1999.

Everyone knows why the fans started staying home in increasing numbers, and everyone knows who steered the Orioles over the rocky course that took the joy out of one of the most beautiful ballparks in professional sports.

Now, those fans are just waiting for Angelos to get MASN up to speed so he can sell the franchise for $700 million. It may be galling to watch him walk away with all that money, but a lot of fans think that would beat the alternative.

Of course, Angelos could choose to take his case to the fans ... if he really has one. He could agree to an independent audit of the club's finances, which would either show that he is the civic benefactor he claims to be or just another book-cooking corporate CEO.

I won't hold my breath.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

"The Peter Schmuck Show" airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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