I do not personally know how wealthy Bill DeWitt Jr. is, because I do not know him, and because I have never seen his financial records. The first result of a Google search of his name indicates that he is worth $4 billion, as are most of the successive results, but again, I do not personally know this. It is possible that this is a mistake, or perhaps even a lie. I don’t think it is, but I want to keep an open mind about what I am not absolutely certain.
The numbers tell me that Bill DeWitt Jr. and company bought the St. Louis Cardinals for $150 million in 1996, that the franchise’s current value is around $2.2 billion (with franchises typically selling for higher than their estimated value, due to scarcity, but I’m willing to settle on the $2.2 billion number), and that this means DeWitt has received a 1467% return on investment. I know that inflation is real and that $150 million was worth more in 1996 than it is now, but that this $150 million comes out to a little over $245 million today.
These numbers suggest that Bill DeWitt Jr., a man who was born wealthy and who became even wealthier in his adult life, has become exponentially wealthier through his ownership of the St. Louis Cardinals, an entity which is undeniably a business but which also serves in a more significant way as a public trust. As a fan of the Cardinals and as a fan of professional baseball, I am glad that DeWitt hasn’t gone broke not because his net worth gives me any satisfaction whatsoever, but because it means the sport can’t be doing that badly. But I am also limited in how much I care about his personal happiness.
Some might call me a Bill DeWitt Jr. defender in the sense that I do not expect the Cardinals to spend disproportionately larger amounts on team payroll than any other team. I expect them to outspend teams that can’t draw fans into games, such as the Tampa Bay Rays, and I don’t expect them to outspend teams that own their own cable network, such as the New York Yankees. This is less a true defense of DeWitt and more an acknowledgement that all sports owners are bad on some level and that it isn’t worth my energy to hate all of them with the vigor I normally reserve for Stan Kroenke.
But there is zero part of me that believes Bill DeWitt Jr. isn’t extraordinarily wealthy and, to at least some extent, exploiting his position of power. One could argue that every single sports owner does this: even if he re-invested every penny he earned from the team into the organization, franchise value appreciation makes sports ownership a high reward investment with practically no risk, but an investment that can only be undertaken by those who are already extraordinarily wealthy. With that said, it’s about picking my battles against him.
On Tuesday, in an interview with 590 The Fan’s Frank Cusumano, DeWitt claimed that the Cardinals aren’t “a great profit opportunity”. This was used under the backdrop of labor negotiations between MLB players, who want salaries paid to them at the prorated rates to which players and owners agreed in March, and MLB owners, who are acutely aware that the bulk of sports fans will side with owners, whose income is far less famous than that of professional baseball players.
The latest round of labor negotiations are, depending on if you want to take an optimistic or pessimistic view, either an acceleration of the inevitable labor strife that was coming in 2021 with or without a global pandemic, or a preview of ugliness that is about to come. On a global scale, the plight of Major League Baseball players is insignificant compared to those who are not, even on the low end, among the richest 1% of Americans, but the metaphor is impossible to ignore. Bill DeWitt Jr., unless I (and every insider source on the matter) am dramatically underestimating how expensive it is to run a baseball team and the team is not profitable, has added over a billion dollars to his net worth, and we are as a society to accept this because he assumed risk by owning the team. And Bill DeWitt Jr., and his fellow MLB team owners, are not willing to accept the possibility of losing money for even a split second, instead wishing to place the burden on those who are far less financially comfortable than they are.
We are living in a glorious era for people to claim that the entire world is out to get them and that everything is a lie, and maybe that’s what DeWitt is hoping is implied when he cries poverty. Do I believe this to be the case, that DeWitt is being derailed by a vast conspiracy of haters and losers? Absolutely not. But that said, I am far too cowardly to declare that hedefinitely isn’t.
So open your books.
Let’s see, Mr. DeWitt, how much money the Cardinals are making. Let’s see if reports of your great wealth accumulation have indeed been greatly exaggerated. I may have my doubts, but I’m certainly willing to be swayed in another direction on the matter. It’s not as though I am just naturally on the side of a large cluster of millionaires, many of whom would love to shove me in a locker; I have an open mind. If you are truly broke, I am willing to side with you. And if you are, indeed, extraordinarily wealthy and growing more wealthy on the backs of the players you are trying to undercut and the fans who are being deprived of a thing they loved before you ever came around and will continue to love long after you are gone, I will be more convinced than ever of what side I am on.