NBA commissioner Adam Silver made headlines this summer when he claimed that a “significant number” of teams are losing money. Naturally, this raised some questions: How many teams count as “significant”? And are they actually “losing” money or, as some suggest, is this statement just the first shot fired in what will likely be a work stoppage next season? It didn’t take long for the Players Association to disagree, pointing to record team values and a $24 billion broadcast deal that kicks in next year. The current NBA CBA expires in 2021, but either side can opt out after the 2016-17 season.
One thing is for sure: the teams on this list are bleeding red ink. In the NHL, clubs in small, struggling, and tropical/desert markets continue their quest to fill arenas and sell merchandise. Even in terms of its rich franchises, the league has the fewest clubs valued over $1 billion—only Toronto, Montreal, and the New York Rangers—compared to the NBA with 11 clubs, the MLB with half its teams, and the NFL with every team over the billion-dollar mark (even the Buffalo Bills are valued higher than the Maple Leafs!).
The age of big television deals is also bringing about disparity between teams within leagues—most notably in baseball. Many Dodgers and Astros fans, for example, are unable to watch games due to broadcasting quandaries, leaving loyal fans upset and powerless, and fringe-fans uninterested. If only this were happening up the I-5 instead, then Mariners fans wouldn’t have to sit in Safeco Field with paper bags over their heads.
So while the Yankees, Cowboys, and Real Madrids of the sporting world take in enough revenue to run a small country, here we’ll detail the teams that aren’t faring so well—whether due to the curse of their geography, sky-high payrolls, not making the playoffs in eons, or just bone-headed businesses decisions. (Disclaimer: I am not an economist. All financial data is courtesy of Forbes, with the dots connected by sports knowledge, wit, and sarcasm.)
15 Philadelphia 76ers
When you lose games on purpose, it’s no real surprise that profits take a hit. As expected, blowing up the the roster means hauling in the high draft picks, and shedding talent translates to shedding expenses. But fans are unhappy and attendance has dropped by 17 percent in a season alone. Management added 45 staff members to its ticket sales team in an attempt to woo fans back to their seats. Woo them back to what, exactly? We’re not sure.
14 Minnesota Wild
The financial scene has improved for Minnesota since the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season, when fewer home games and steep signing bonuses left the club $30 million in the hole. But despite three consecutive playoff appearances and nightly sellouts, the Wild are still losing money. A state debt forgiveness package for Xcel Energy Center construction costs should help the bottom line, and money saved from these payments will go into arena renovations. They don’t call Minnesota the “State of Hockey” for nothing.
13 Detroit Tigers
Despite four years of topping the American League Central, the Tigers entered this season with many exasperated fans among the Detroit faithful. And with an aging roster and the third-highest payroll in the AL, it’s safe to say the clock is ticking. While Miguel Cabrera returned from ankle surgery to lead the batting race, the Tigers’ playoff bid fell short. Attendance has dropped 10 percent since 2013, owing to a bottom-feeder record and the Blue Jays likely luring back some Canadian fans.
12 Detroit Lions
Let’s be honest, no NFL team is actually struggling financially right now. But since I’d feel bad about excluding an entire league from this list, I’ll pick the most recent team to be in the red. The Lions are still working off the heavy debt accrued from their portion of financing Ford Field. Payroll expenses have also hit the team hard, with Calvin Johnson’s $20 million option and over $25 million in signing bonuses to Matthew Stafford and Ezekiel Ansah.
11 New Jersey Devils
The Devils have not made the playoffs since their remarkable Stanley Cup run in 2012. Attendance has dropped 11 percent over the past two seasons, with a poor record and no real marquee players to showcase. Put into perspective, Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos had as many goals as Devils’ leading scorer Adam Henrique had total points. But the new ownership group says they are not in a hurry to turn a profit, and that they want to “get [the team] to the right place” first. The team’s new slogan “We Are All Devils Inside” is a decent start.
10 Houston Astros
After five years of decreasing or stagnant revenue, this may be the season that Astros’ profit margins see a spike. One can only assume owner Jim Crane is crossing his fingers that the on-field success will transfer to the pocket book. Six consecutive seasons below .500 and a decade since the last playoff appearance has not been kind to the bottom line. But the ‘Stros, who eked out a wildcard spot and knocked out the Yankees, have seen attendance jump 12 percent from last season, treating fans to one of the best home records in the majors.
9 St. Louis Blues
What’s it like being the oldest NHL team to not win a Stanley Cup? Still, St. Louis has a loyal fan base—filling Scottrade Center to capacity almost every game—but the team hasn’t had a profitable year since 2006. The Blues haven’t advanced past the second round of the playoffs in 15 years, and despite being praised for their ability to assemble a quality team with little cash, they haven’t had a 40-goal scorer since 2007-08 (and we can’t exactly label Brad Boyes as a marquis player).
8 Detroit Pistons
The Pistons managed to escape the Great Recession relatively unscathed and with an NBA championship. But the struggling economy caught up when the good times ended, and now the club is having difficulty filling seats at the Palace (even when giving tickets away). Much like the Blue Jays stealing back Canadian baseball fans, the Raptors’ “We the North” marketing campaign is luring southern Ontario fans to the Raptors who may have made the trip across the Ambassador Bridge for a Pistons’ game.
7 Los Angeles Dodgers
Good things happened on the field this year for the Dodgers, who clinched the NL West for the third straight season. And Vin Scully managed to contain the excitement as well as ever, even at 87. The only problem is most fans need to be in Dodger Stadium to catch the action. Time Warner Cable is waiting for television carriers to pick up the (expensive) SportsNet L.A. channel that has rights to Dodgers games, leaving seven out of 10 fans in the dark. To quote Forbes, “the financial strength of the team is an enigma.” Ouch.
6 Washington Redskins
The Redskins took in the third-highest revenue in the NFL last season, but studies suggest they could be losing millions for sticking with the Native American-inspired team name and mascot. The situation grew even more dire this summer when a federal court ordered the team to drop its trademark registrations. Think about the necessary re-branding if the Redskins’ appeal is denied: What would be the new team name? More importantly, will longtime fan Chief Zee still show up to games in full costume? For a team that earns more revenue from its brand than the Packers, this could be a costly situation.
5 Philadelphia Phillies
This wasn’t a kind season for the Phillies. Fan-favorite Cole Hamels was traded in July (days after pitching a no-hitter). Six-time All-Star Chase Utley was dealt a month later. Ryan Howard’s injury-riddled and disappointing season culminated with a ultimately season-ending knee injury. And Cliff Lee, sidelined all season with a torn elbow tendon, will not have his option picked up next season. All this led to the Phillies’ worst record in decades, resulting in a drastic drop in attendance. The team’s new television contract with SportsNet Philadelphia kicks in next year and will boost the finances (if anyone tunes in to watch).
4 Atlanta Braves
It’s no shock that the rebuilding Braves are running into some financial trouble as they wait for the likes of Freddy Freeman and Jace Peterson to come into their own. GM John Hart cleaned the deck in trading Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, and Craig Kimbrel, among others. Despite picking up veterans Nick Swisher, Nick Markakis, and A.J. Pierzynski in hopes of fueling excitement in these rebuilding years, attendance is on the decline—now with only half of Turner Field filled on average. The team reported losing $14 million in the first half of the year alone.
3 Florida Panthers
What’s the worse deal here; buying a franchise that loses $15 million a season, or owning the team that has acquired Roberto Luongo for a second time? We’ll call it a draw. Either way, owner Vince Viola is looking for taxpayer money to help recoup the costs of running a club that’s made the playoffs once in the past 14 seasons, playing out of an area that is sucking the team dry. GM Dale Tallon is hoping 43-year-old Jaromir Jagr still has some flash to keep the Panther fan(s) in their seats.
2 Arizona Coyotes
The bad news for the ‘Yotes is that they lost over $34 million last year. The good news is CEO Anthony LeBlanc says that’s A-okay—he had expected to lose more. The $15 million per year of taxpayer money toward arena costs is helping the budget, and so is the team’s rock-bottom payroll. But the Coyotes are yet to make the playoffs since switching its name from Phoenix to Arizona (who else still searches for them under “P” in NHL '16?).
1 Brooklyn Nets
The Nets are still climbing out of the hole from the financially disastrous 2013–14 season that saw the team lose almost $395,000 per day. Nearly 20 percent of the team’s value is wrapped in debt, and a pricey payroll—Joe Johnson earns the league’s second-highest salary—along with an early playoff exit last season is not helping the cause. The Nets also have one of the league’s lowest broadcasting deals. Perhaps if Brook Lopez can pick up where he left off last season, and Jarrett Jack can be more valuable on the floor than the bench, the Nets may get the sell-out crowds they’re hoping for.