MILWAUKEE - Milwaukee Brewers owner Mark Attanasio was talking with Bob Uecker recently about the famed broadcaster's most recent Hall of Fame induction. This one was into the World Wrestling Entertainment shrine.
Always on the lookout for fresh sources of revenue, the conversation got the wheels turning in Attanasio's head. Noting Uecker's longtime friendship with WWE Chairman Vince McMahon, Attanasio couldn't help but think of the promotional possibilities.
"Maybe we can bring the WWE here and have an event here," Attanasio said at a news conference this week. "I see everybody smiling but you can make a lot of money at those things."
While it's not likely WWE superstars John Cena, Triple H or The Miz will be sharing center stage at Miller Park with Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun and Yovani Gallardo, it is a measure of the Brewers' quest to maximize revenues.
Revenues and payrolls have been increasingly topical these days, with Attanasio taking a shot last week from New York Yankees president Randy Levine over his musings about the challenge of trying to sign Fielder to a long-term deal.
But trying to find the money to keep Fielder is just one of the many challenges facing Attanasio as he tries to support a mid-level payroll with the smallest media market in the major leagues.
The Brewers' current payroll for 2010 is $90.1 million, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts. That's far short of the Yankees' major league-leading $213 million, but also a huge jump from their $39 million payroll when Attanasio bought the team in 2005.
Even as the man writing the checks, the size of those checks gives Attanasio reason to pause.
"I couldn't imagine when I bought the team that we'd ever be at a $90 million payroll," said Attanasio, acknowledging that figure is higher than the number generally reported. "It doesn't show up in the newspapers because they don't compute incentive payments and other payments, but the number we see in the budget has a 9 in front of it now and I never thought that would be the case.
"On the other hand, the budget that the Chicago Cubs have has a 1 and a 4 it looks like. You have to keep pace. Baseball is a very competitive sport."
Despite the Brewers' rapid payroll growth, they still rank fourth in the National League Central Division, a group not generally considered among the biggest spenders. The Cubs lead the way at $144 million, followed by the St. Louis Cardinals at $94 million, the Houston Astros at $92 million, the Cincinnati Reds at $76 million and the Pittsburgh Pirates at $39 million.
Attanasio noted when he bought the team the Brewers were lumped in with the Pirates among the hopeless small market franchises. But success on the field, highlighted by a wild card playoff berth in 2008, has led to consecutive years of 3 million attendance, elevating the Brewers' financial neighborhood.
"The fans have been terrific in supporting us and allowing us to be in this zip code here," he said. "You go back to when I first bought the team and there were a lot of comparisons with us and the Pittsburgh Pirates. You don't hear those comparisons anymore. I'll take that as a positive for now."
If Attanasio is just coming to grips with the idea of a $90 million payroll, can he imagine spending $100 million or more? And is there any way a market like Milwaukee's, even with the help of revenue sharing and luxury tax payments by the Yankees, can support that level of expenditure?
On the plus side, Attanasio points to a boost in local television income that will kick in for the 2013 season. On the negative side, he concedes the regular full houses at Miller Park mean that they've just about maxed out the revenues from ticket sales.
And while the Brewers' average ticket price this year of $22.10 is below the major league average of $26.79 and less than half the Cubs' majors-leading $52.56, Attanasio doesn't plan on using ticket hikes to support increased payrolls.
"We're committed to keeping this an affordable experience for our fans," he said, noting the Brewers consistently rank near the top in fan satisfaction. "And we want to keep it that way here, so were not really looking to raise ticket prices to raise payroll. We've kind of pretty much optimized everything we can do here."