For the Washington Nationals, the fear has been realized. When Stephen Strasburg threw off the mound in the 5th inning during the Saturday 8/21 game at Philadelphia, and grabbed his forearm, the best news was going to be a strain. With Friday’s announcement that Strasburg not only had a strain in his elbow, but will require Tommy John surgery for a torn ulnar collateral ligament, likely keeping him out till April of 2012, the news was grim. If there’s a silver lining, at least it wasn’t his shoulder.
It’s a pain that will not only be felt by Strasburg, but also at the Nationals’ bottom-line.
On Friday, I looked into the financial implications of Strasburg being out for most, if not all, of next season for ESPN (Insider subscription required, see The Stephen Strasburg financial fallout).
While it is difficult to project the total loss in revenues for Strasburg, based upon his impact in the short time he was in the Nationals rotation this year, it's surely to be above $10 million – possibly tens of millions – when factoring in ticket, concessions, merchandise, advertising revenues, and additional wins.
To start with, approx. $1.5 million in extra revenues were made in his debut, alone.
His first two starts at Nationals Park were sellouts, something that had not been done since Opening Day against the Phillies (and hasn’t been done since). His third start at Nationals Park against the lowely Kansas City Royals on a Weds. drew 39 percent higher than the season average of 23,040 the Nationals had been drawing prior that 4th overall, and 3rd start at Nationals Park.
To place this in perspective, the game after Strasburg's debut drew 18,876 at Nationals Park, a 53% decline from his debut.
Tickets for his debut sold for $103.28 on the secondary ticket market compared to $52.98 for the game two days earlier against the Reds (see Ticket Prices for Stephen Strasburg Debut Skyrocket on Resale Market), and interest remained high for every one of Strasburg’s starts.
The financial implications reached beyond ticket attendance. Ratings for MASN set a viewership record by earning a 7.1 household rating as more than 165,000 households in the Washington region tuned in, and ratings remained strong for each of his game starts.
He was a marketing dream for the Nationals. On June 14, Strasburg graces the cover of Sports Illustrated saying, “Two Games. Two Wins. 22 Strikeouts,” and then having the headline, “National Treasure”. The Thursday following his debut, Strasburg does David Letterman's "Top 10".
Now, that will all dry up. With the Tommy John surgery, season ticket sales that would most assuredly have seen a bounce due to Strasburg as a selling point, now becomes a non-factor. The Nationals will now have to eat at least $5 million ($2.5 million in signing bonus payment, as well as $2.5 million in guaranteed salary for 2011). And there’s no guarantee that he’s back at the beginning of 2012.
In addition, there are wins that he could have added to a team in sore need of them. Over 12 starts, Strasburg went 5-3, a 2.91 ERA, and a ridiculous 12.18 Ks per 9. His 16.2 VORP was second only to Livan Hernandez’s insane VORP of 35.5 for the Nationals.
So, when Ben Goessling of MASNSports.com asked, “So what happens to the Nationals, financially, now that Strasburg is gone for a year?” Here’s what I had to say (see The economic impact of Stephen Strasburg on MASNSports.com)
Maury Brown, the president of the Business of Sports Network and bizofbaseball.com, isn't sure what the Nationals will do to make up for the loss of Strasburg buzz, but he thinks there's certain to be a financial hit.
"If there was a case to be made that the Nationals' fanbase was interested in something exciting, Strasburg surely pointed that out. Here it was, a great prospect and everybody was abuzz about it, and it's not just a local story, it's a national story," Brown said. "Fans will certainly go, 'Aha, look! This proves the point that if you give us something exciting, we'll come out.' It's going to be a case of saying whether the pieces are around the club are going to push them that far forward to spend."
"I don't see them going out and trying to find some front-line guy, some No. 1 free agent that lands out there. I don't see the Nationals competing for Cliff Lee this offseason. It doesn't strike me as beneficial at this point," Brown said. "I think they're in a precarious position to say, 'Let's go out and get a free agent for attendance.' Winning is the thing. That's what (team president) Stan (Kasten)'s always said. And I don't see them going out and adding a free agent for attendance. It just doesn't make sense with the model."
Finally, the Nationals will have Bryce Harper, but the addition of Harper is tempered in the knowledge that there is no Strasburg, and who knows if the Strasburg that returns is the Strasburg that had the electric stuff before his injury? Tommy John surgery could alter the type of pitcher he was.
And, it’s not just the Nationals that will feel the effect of the injury. With collective bargaining sessions set to begin shortly after the World Series, Strasburg will be “Exhibit A” for the league pushing for a hard-slotting system for amateur draft bonuses. While any player can become injured, an argument can be made that the amount of money doled out in salary for veteran players at the level that Strasburg is receiving at least has some ML service time to back up it up.
It will be a long cold winter for Strasburg and the Nationals. A club and team in dire need of such a talent, and draw now has to go another season without star with which to build around. As one writer said, “The Nationals just can’t seem to catch a break.”
Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey, as well as a contributor to FanGraphs and Forbes SportsMoney. He is available for hire or freelance. Brown's full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network.
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