If You Spend It, Will They Come?

Jerry Colangelo got a crash course in baseball economics. Time will tell what his grade will be.

Under terms of the partnership agreement, Colangelo stands to reap a fortune if he accomplishes two things. First, he must ensure that his limited partners receive at least a 5 percent return on their investments each year. Second, he must generate enough profits to repay investors their full contributions to the partnership, which currently stand at about $174 million.

Once the limited partners are repaid, AZPB's ownership stake in the team will go from 1 percent to 25 percent. It will likely take a decade to repay the limited partners' share, and by that time, the value of the Diamondbacks could increase to, say, $500 million or more.

Do the math. If the Diamondbacks are worth $500 million by the time the limited partners are paid off, Colangelo's company AZPB would own a share worth $125 million.

But getting there won't be easy. Colangelo must negotiate a treacherous and fickle sports market where fan support can turn to apathy overnight.

Colangelo embarked on the free agent spending spree not to simply put a competitive team on the field, but to right the Diamondbacks' listing financial ship, and preserve his chance for a bonanza.

"The only solution that appeared appropriate was to protect the investment already made," Colangelo says.

How confident is he in his buy-now, pay-later scheme?
"Let's try this game plan and move forward. Now, only time will tell, but the good news is this: We are going to have a four-year run here, with what is now considered to be maybe the second-, third- or fourth-best pitching staff in baseball."

On the field, the Diamondbacks have other serious problems that have not been addressed. The team set a National League record last year for most strikeouts (1,239) and was last in hitting with a .246 team batting average.

Acquiring the free agents also cost the team its second-, third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-round draft picks this year, leading some critics to say the Diamondbacks have abandoned their future for a quick fix.

Colangelo says the team determined that the best way to go after free agents was to make a big splash in one year and lose the draft picks all at once, too. He points out that the Diamondbacks have several of the hottest young prospects moving through the minor leagues, whom the team is jealously guarding.

"We don't believe the player-development area has been effected negatively at all," Colangelo says.

Despite the massive investment in free agents, the demand for season tickets has been slow to rebound. Season-ticket sales are still substantially below last year's--26,000 seats have been sold as of last week compared to 36,000 for the 1998 season. The Diamondbacks are offering 20-game packages in the hope of attracting fans with limited time and budgets.

The addition of Randy Johnson to the team is expected to be a marketing plus. But Johnson carries a notorious reputation from his days with the Seattle Mariners, and he clearly lacks the charisma of a Charles Barkley, whom Colangelo used to help whip the Valley into a frenzy over the Phoenix Suns earlier this decade.

One indication of the difficulty the Diamondbacks face in marketing is the fact that the first home game in the 49,075-seat stadium, slated for April 12, is not sold out.

But if all goes well during the season and the high-dollar pitching staff assembled by Colangelo performs as expected, it's conceivable that the Diamondbacks could be in the hunt for a playoff slot during the dog days of August and September.

If the team is in contention, Colangelo expects to see a packed ballpark down the stretch--the time that profits are made, fortunes built and pennants won.

Contact John Dougherty at his online address: jdougherty@newtimes.com

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