The Nationals’ $134 million payroll, by far their largest in 10 seasons since arriving in the District, can’t be stretched much more without new sources of revenue, principal owner Mark Lerner said Friday.
“We’re beyond topped out,” Lerner said prior to the Nationals’ home opener. “Our payroll, as you know, has skyrocketed to about $140 million. I don’t think we can go much farther with the revenue stream that we have.”
The Nationals enter 2014 with an increased payroll from last year’s $118 million figure, having traded for pitchers Doug Fister and Jerry Blevins, signed free agent outfielder Nate McLouth and seen several holdover players’ salaries rise.
If the club finds itself needing to make a midseason acquisition, the options might be limited, depending on any new revenue sources cropping up along the way.
To that end, Lerner said season-ticket sales are up slightly from last year, though still below the club’s self-imposed cap of 20,000. The Nationals drew a total of 2.65 million fans in 2013, an average of nearly 33,000 per game.
“I think we’re a little ahead of last year,” Lerner said. “We were pleased with it. … If we had gotten to 20,000, we would have cut it off. We were just short of it.”
Another potential source of increased revenue would be via a new or revised television deal, but no progress appears to have been made in the longstanding disagreement between the Nationals and Orioles over their annual rights fee. Lerner admitted future spending could be affected by the result of the TV contract negotiation.
“We certainly have to be careful in our projections and how we spend money,” he said. “We have to budget smartly. And if we get a better contract some day and we can use those funds to do more things, great. Right now, we don’t have anything more than we’re currently getting. And we’re budgeting accordingly. …
“We’ll look at it after this season, as far as looking at what we can do and what we can afford to do. We went into this saying it’s a business, and we have to run it smartly. We’re not going to do something where we’re losing tens of millions of dollars a year. Everybody can understand that. We have to be smart about it.”
Lerner confirmed the club is in negotiations with Palm Beach County about building a new spring training complex, likely one that would be shared with the Houston Astros. But even if a deal is struck soon, the Nationals would remain in Viera for at least one more spring, likely two.
“I’m hopeful,” Lerner said. “It’s been a long process, but hopefully sometime in the next few months we’ll finally be able to cut a deal with somebody and get that behind us.”
Lerner also addressed the story that emerged in November about the possibility of a retractable roof being constructed on top of Nationals Park. Echoing sentiments he expressed during a CSN Wizards broadcast from Orlando last month, Lerner shot down the notion that the club was actively the District to build a roof for the ballpark.
“We really weren’t pursuing it,” he said. “I think people got confused. My dad (managing principal owner Ted Lerner) was sitting with a group from the city, they were throwing around ideas. How can we make the park better? And the idea came up: How about putting a roof on it? You could have all kinds of events. But we didn’t specifically ask for it. I think that got a little out of whack there.”