BIG BANG (for your buck) THEORY

Revisiting Thome deal: Was it right move for Phillies?

Posted: June 11, 2007

THE PRESS conference to announce that the Phillies' new home would be called Citizens Bank Park had ended. As Dave Buck remembers the scene from June 17, 2003, a few people lingered. Someone asked Citizens Bank President and CEO Steve Steinour what role the signing of Jim Thome the previous offseason had in helping convince him to commit $95 million for naming rights and advertising considerations over the next 25 years.

"I don't remember his exact words," Buck, the Phillies' senior vice president, marketing and advertising sales, says. "But it was something to the effect that it absolutely made them take a hard look, that it had a big influence on their decision to do the deal."

Jim Thome hasn't played a game in Philadelphia in nearly 2 years. He was traded to the White Sox at the end of the 2005 season after back and elbow problems opened the door for Ryan Howard to win the NL Rookie of the Year Award. In that sense, things didn't work out the way either player or team had envisioned.

As Thome returns tonight for a three-game interleague series, then, it's natural to wonder. Was the 6-years-plus-an-option, $85 million contract that convinced him to leave Cleveland worth it?

"The reality is: It sure was in November 2002," Phillies president Dave Montgomery says. "And what I mean by that is we were still trying to establish an identity as a franchise. And in my mind, that moved us up several notches."

It's easy to forget, now that the Phillies have an average attendance approaching 40,000 per home game, what it was like back then.

In 2002, the Phillies had a losing record for the eighth time in 9 years. Attendance at Veterans Stadium was just more than 1.6 million, barely half what it was when they went to the World Series in 1993. They were well on their way to becoming an afterthought in the region.

That began to change when former general manager Ed Wade persuaded Thome, an Indians icon, to leave Cleveland.

When the book is finally closed on this transaction, the Phillies will have paid Thome $61 million; the White Sox are obligated for $24 million of the $46 million he was owed at the time of the deal.

In return, the Phillies got:

* Two superb years. In his first two seasons wearing red pinstripes, Thome hit 89 homers (including the milestone 400th of his career) and drove in 236 runs.

* Aaron Rowand, Gio Gonzalez and Daniel Haigwood.

* Instant credibility, both in the community and the clubhouse.

The final attribute is difficult to define or assign a dollar value to. What is it worth to a team that is in danger of falling off the local sports radar to have fans walking the streets at Thanksgiving, talking baseball?

Quite a bit, actually, especially if that team is trying to sell naming rights, luxury boxes and premium seating. It wasn't just Citizens Bank that got caught up in the excitement, either.

"It definitely helped. It created a buzz among the sponsors," Buck says. "And we did the press conference when we signed him at the Preview Center and every presentation [for luxury boxes] we did after that started out, 'This is where you had the Thome press conference.' "

In the shorter term, the Phillies still had one more season to play at the Vet. And in that final year, attendance jumped more than 640,000.

In Montgomery's opinion, part of the reason was the season-long Vet celebration that was orchestrated by public relations vice president Larry Shenk.

"And the other excitement was Jim. There's no question about that," he says.

"Somebody said, 'Would you have had the same level of enthusiasm coming into [the new park] without Thome?' I don't think so. I think that's what set us up to be a more attractive, appealing club. Now it's primarily our own, homegrown guys - Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley - but that process was slow and some people might say we were too patient. And our fans were looking for, 'Let's see some return.' And for me, that's what Jim did for us."

And that translated into revenue.

"Absolutely," Montgomery says. "As much as we could tell people that this was going to be a different baseball experience, what your fans really want is a different baseball experience on the field. There is a correlation."

Pressed to guess how that translated into dollars, the Phillies president said he'd credit Thome with half the attendance increase in 2003 and another couple hundred thousand in 2004.

And, Montgomery believes, the team is still benefiting from that momentum to some extent.

"Once you come in [to Citizens Bank Park], once you've exposed fans to it, it's like when you do an economic analysis," he said. "There's direct spending and there's indirect. I still think our base today is, in some measure, a part of what Jim was able to do for us as far as the franchise's credibility with our fans and as part of the community.

"So give him a half-million credit for the first 2 years and then maybe 100,000 [a year] since then and you're closing in on a million people."

And that's only part of it. "That's where, to me, it gets fuzzy," Montgomery says. "Because you can say, 'How about your TV rating during that period? They were substantially better.' Well, we had long-term deals, so it didn't mean new contracts. But we sell or own advertising.

"Is there a certain percentage of these outfield signs that would not have been sold or perhaps sold at 85 cents on the dollar? Sure. But I'm a great believer in that you make decisions. And it was the right decision then, so it was the right decision.

"In our wonderful game, people are always going to go back, 'As it turned out . . . ' Or, 'If you had traded so-and-so . . . ' But at the time, if you believe it was the right thing - and I really believe us bringing Jim in here was certainly what this franchise needed in November of 2002."

Heck, the Phillies are still using him to sell tickets. After all, almost every promotion for the series that begins tonight begin: "Jim Thome and the White Sox . . . " *

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