This article appears in the July 13 issue of ESPN The Magazine. Financial analysis provided by the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.
In the year since The Magazine last calculated its Ultimate Standings, the world has gone to hell in a handbasket. Banks have collapsed, markets have crashed, millions of Americans have lost their homes, and millions more have lost jobs. Many sports teams spent the past decade squeezing customers for every last dollar; they suddenly find themselves scrambling to create new ways to connect with fans.
Our Standings rank all 122 MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL franchises by how much they give back to fans for all the emotion, money and time fans invest in their favorite teams. This year, the rankings are more important than ever. The downturn has left fans with less money to spend, driving them away from expensive sports events. It has also increased demand for value. To fans who can afford only one or two games per year, every busting-ass-to-first sprint on a grounder means a lot. So do a fast-moving hot dog line and players who are quick to visit a children's hospital. The Los Angeles Angels are No. 1 in our Ultimate Standings because they understand the importance of value, performance and effort -- and did so long before the recession hit.
Our Standings combine results from fan surveys and from analyses of how efficiently teams use the money fans spend (see our methodology here). This year the Angels excelled at both parts of that test. Fans love the experience of going to Angels games, in particular the friendliness that extends from ticket takers to food vendors to parking lot attendants (Fan Relations: No. 8; Stadium Experience: 16). Even more, they love the 75 promotions in 81 home dates this year, with giveaways ranging from Rally Monkey banks to nacho chip platters to Bobby Grich replica jerseys.
Tickets to root-root-root for the 2009 Halos cost an average of just $20.05, and the total fan cost to attend an Angels game is the fifth lowest in MLB and 32% less than it costs to attend a Dodgers game. The team also has low-cost parking and concessions and the least-expensive caps in all of sports. Yet the Angels aren't luring fans to the park on the cheap out of necessity: Since the start of the 2007 season, they've won 232 games (Bang for the Buck: 6), more than any MLB team except the Red Sox.
On the field, manager Mike Scioscia (Coaching: 5) has instilled a hard-charging, take-every-extra-base style of play (Players: 14). "Hiring Mike in 2000 was really a turning point," says GM Tony Reagins. "He's helped make sure that down to the lowest levels, we teach the concept of doing little things very well. Our scouts look for players who are a good fit with our style. Our player development people teach them year after year what we expect. And once they come up, that's how they play." Statheads carp that the Angels don't focus enough on on-base percentage or hitting for power. But their knack for identifying talent, executing Sciosciaball and developing good pitchers has the Angels in pennant contention virtually every year (Title Track: tied for No. 1).
The Angels are owned by Arte Moreno, a Vietnam War enlistee, Little League coach and former billboard magnate. Before he bought the team in 2003, the franchise was so moribund that it had once received revenue-sharing payments from MLB despite playing in the nation's second-largest metropolitan area. Now a whole team of smiling, red-shirted, halo-A'd employees pitches in to draw families to the ballpark -- and the Angels have drawn at least 3.3 million fans every year since 2004, never finishing lower than second in AL attendance. "We all come from sales," says team president Dennis Kuhl, who has worked with Moreno for more than 30 years. "We'll try discounting tickets; we'd rather fill a seat for some money than leave it empty. We really believe that promotions drive attendance. And we want a dad to be able to buy something for his kid, like a T-shirt, for under $10."
Yet for all the Angels' commitment to customer service, no team is immune from the tragedies of everyday life. For the Angels, this season has been clouded by the early-season death of pitcher Nick Adenhart and two serious fights among fans. On Opening Day, a fan died when he fell and hit his head after he was punched. And on June 24, an off-duty police officer shot two men during an altercation in the parking lot of Angel Stadium. Still, the concept of an "Angels way" dedicated to fans is Moreno's vision (Ownership: 11). "The fights were unfortunate but isolated incidents," says PR boss Tim Mead. "Everyone here, from our security guards, who work closely with the police, to ushers to food vendors, pays attention to detail to make this a family place to watch a ball game."
The team also spends money in creative ways to help build its brand. Moreno, who once told a reporter, "Leverage is the American way," was part of a group that paid $42 million for a powerful radio station. He renamed the station KLAA and began airing Angels games. Result: The team's popularity spread, and Moreno was able to land a local TV deal worth $50 million a year. The Angels also generate $26 million a year in stadium sponsorship revenues.
All of which is utterly opposite the anti-Midas touch exhibited by the owner of our last place team, the Los Angeles Clippers. That would be Donald Sterling, a billionaire Beverly Hills real estate baron who faces federal racial discrimination charges. For decades Sterling notoriously squeezed profits from the Clippers, who have been the biggest losers in pro sports (707—1,317) during his 25-year tenure as owner in LA. And the 2008-09 season was one of the most epic disasters in the Clippers' sorry history. Former No. 1 draft choice Elton Brand bolted for Philly; Eric Gordon injured his right ankle on the first day of training camp; Ricky Davis flunked a drug test; Al Thornton ate fast food for pregame meals; Baron Davis, a $65 million free agent who was wooed to the team (then abandoned) by Brand, succumbed to ulcers; former GM Elgin Baylor sued the franchise for racial and age discrimination (in a case separate from the federal charges Sterling is facing); and the team finished 19—63. Cue the locusts.
As his organization spirals downward, Sterling can take comfort at least in the fact that coach/GM Mike Dunleavy and his players have raced even faster to the absolute bottom of fans' hearts (Coaching: 122; Players: 122; Ownership: 116). Yes, the Clippers did draft Blake Griffin -- and fans are already worried that Griffin will eventually follow in the footsteps of Lamar Odom, who launched his career as a Clipper, then headed for the life raft as soon as free agency beckoned.
Despite all that, the Clips have increased in value by an average of 12% a year since Sterling bought them in 1981 and are now worth $297 million, according to Forbes. But here's the thing: The Angels have jumped in value by 19% a year since Moreno bought them and are already worth $509 million. It's hard to lose when you've got monopoly control over any territory in a league that shares billions of dollars a year in TV cash. But as the Angels, Colts, Red Wings, Steelers or any of the teams that perennially rank near the top of our Standings can tell you, to make big money, you've got to build an experience that fans believe in, enjoy and share.
It's an investment franchises can't afford not to make.
Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. Additional research was provided by Morty Ain, Jason Catania, Anna K. Clemmons, Andy Kamenetzky, Brian Kamenetzky, Eddie Matz and Doug Mittler. Fan surveys by Maddock Douglas and GMI NetReflector.