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BILL SHAIKIN / ON BASEBALL

Arte Moreno's latest free-agency decisions cut both ways

Angels owner pledges not to pay for contracts that would raise ticket prices, but how loyal will fans be if the club can't compete for championships because it doesn't secure best players available?

December 18, 2010|By Bill Shaikin

What Arte Moreno had to say had an oddly familiar ring. The stakes for Carl Crawford had gotten so high, he said, that the Angels could not have signed him without having to double their average ticket price.

"Go ask the fans: Do you want to pay 50% more for tickets?" Moreno said.

That quote is not from Moreno's exclusive interview with The Times' Mike DiGiovanna on Friday. That quote is from 2005, when the Angels' owner explained that calling his team "Los Angeles" instead of "Anaheim" would enable him to charge more to advertisers and broadcasters, generating the revenue to field a first-class team while keeping ticket prices relatively low.

The issue might not be Crawford. The issue might be our expectations.

After all, wasn't the point of the name change to ensure the Angels would make so much money that they would not have to choose between signing a megabucks free agent and jacking up ticket prices?

If Moreno had poured $145 million into free agents in his first winter in charge — including the best player on the market, Vladimir Guerrero, and the best pitcher on the market, Bartolo Colon — how much more would he spend with an L.A. label?

In retrospect, maybe we missed the point.

Moreno wasn't trying to build the Los Angeles Yankees. He was trying to eradicate the Anaheim Angels, and the California Angels too.

He bought the Angels in 2003, seven months after they won the World Series, but he wasn't about to fritter away all that goodwill. They went from trophy winners to 85-game losers, and Moreno vowed, "Never again."

He signed Guerrero, Colon and Co. The Angels won five of the next six American League West championships. The novelty of selling 3 million tickets became routine. The player payroll hit $100 million in 2004 and $120 million in 2008, with a projection of $133 million for 2011.

So, Crawford? The Angels needed a left fielder, needed a premium defender, needed a dynamic hitter with speed. Crawford fit all three needs.

The Angels made no secret of their interest. The fans made no secret of their disappointment.

"When do you get to a point as a business person," Moreno told DiGiovanna, "where you say, 'Jeez, I'm doing this on emotion, I don't want to let the fans down, so what I'm going to do is bankrupt the franchise'? "

That rings a little hollow, given the millions Moreno spent to fight the city of Anaheim and secure the label of the second-largest market in the country. Of the 26 contracts in major league history worth at least $100 million, the Angels have accounted for none of them.

The Angels would be better off with Crawford than without him, but it's hard to say they can't get past the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees without him. The AL has sent six teams to the World Series in the last six years.

"When we picked up [pitcher Dan] Haren, we picked up $12 million," Moreno told DiGiovanna. "If I'm going to spend $20 million [on Crawford] and go to $144 million without taking care of the bullpen or third base, as a fan, when do you get to the place where you say, 'What are my expectations of the owner, and what am I willing to pay for a ticket?' "

The Angels had the lowest average ticket price in the AL last season — $19, according to Team Marketing Report. The average price for the teams that sold more tickets last season than the Angels — the Dodgers, Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals — ranged from $30 to $52.

That would seem to indicate the market could support a 50% price hike. Moreno won't consider that, based not on focus groups or marketing surveys, spokesman Tim Mead said, but on his principle that affordability and competitiveness are the keys to ensuring that the franchise prospers in the long term.

The Angels' television contract expires in 2015, and their stadium deal expires in 2016. Until new, more lucrative agreements are in place — and the TV deal could be extended long before then — Moreno is betting good ticket prices and a pretty good team are good enough to engender fan loyalty.

That kind of loyalty keeps the park full, even when the team is not playing well. That kind of loyalty will be sorely tested if the Angels miss the playoffs again — and Crawford does not.

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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