The annual PirateFest celebration at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center is a refreshing salve for Pittsburgh Pirates fans suffering through the cold winter months, giving them a chance to reconnect with ballpark friends, ensconce themselves in memorabilia and interact with players, coaches and management.
That last part is usually entertaining, as the paying customers get a chance to fire questions at front office members in a public forum. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette‘s Bill Brink reported from last weekend’s PirateFest, the atmosphere surrounding the question-and-answer session was predictably more friendly this year after the Bucs’ big breakthrough.
Despite all the good feelings, there were still some pointed queries lobbed up to the stage, including one about the Pirates’ regional television contract with Root Sports, a division of DirecTV. Multiple media sources have reported that the Bucs get in the vicinity of $20 annually from Root Sports Pittsburgh for the exclusive local game broadcast rights, an amount that ranks among the smallest in Major League Baseball.
Pirates team president Frank Coonelly disputed that report to the curious fan, saying the deal with Root Sports is in the “top half” of MLB, although he didn’t elaborate on whether he was meant simply annual value or if other media rights and benefits were included in his evaluation.
With the sequel to “Anchorman” coming out in theaters this week, I’ll hope you’ll indulge a line from the original: Coonelly should stop talking for awhile. Maybe sit the next couple plays out.
If Coonelly is referring to pure revenue when he says the Pirates’ regional TV deal is in the top half of MLB clubs, then where is that money going? If you operate on the premise the Bucs aren’t getting nearly as much money from TV than most teams, their modest payroll increases over the past three years are understandable.
If that premise is incorrect, the Pirates have some explaining to do, especially in this cautious offseason.
There’s an alternate theory on this, one that says Coonelly is embarrassed that the terms of the Root Sports contract – which expires in 2019 – have become public. Assuming he played a significant role in the negotiations, it has to be at least a little humbling, and maybe he’s being “creative” with the numbers to save face. Wendy Thurm of FanGraphs would suggest Coonelly is doing just that.
Considering the Pirates drew huge audiences last season on Root Sports, including a 16.37 rating in late July that ranks as the highest for any MLB team in the past two years on a regional sports network (RSN), the organization could stand to make a lot more if negotiations were going on this winter. As it stands, Root is getting a heck of a bargain for that kind of reach.
My bet would be on Coonelly fudging the facts. He’s never been the most graceful interview and shows an adversarial relationship with the local media when they report something he doesn’t like. I would hope that if the Pirates were more flush with cash, they would’ve been more aggressive in the bidding for first baseman James Loney and more generous to pitcher A.J. Burnett, who still may return to Pittsburgh at a reduced rate.
Just because you have a ton of money doesn’t mean you have to immediately invest it in the major-league roster. The Houston Astros get $80 million per year from Comcast SportsNet, according to Forbes, but they would be wise to hold onto most of that until their homegrown prospects develop.
The Pirates are in a more advanced spot, of course. I said Monday that fans need to accept that chairman Bob Nutting isn’t going to dramatically increase his spending in the short term, but if the Bucs’ financials are healthier than we are led to believe, their frugality this winter is troubling.