How high can the value of the Bucs, Rays and Lightning go?

At $1.22 billion, it's more than the value of the Rays and the Lightning combined.

Published December 1 2014
Updated December 2 2014

It's hard to believe but the team value of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is approaching that of twice the worth of the Tampa Bay Rays and Tampa Bay Lightning — combined.

In 2014, the Bucs are valued at just over $1.2 billion, up an impressive 15 percent in the past year. The Rays trail far behind at $485 million while the Lightning bring up the rear at just $230 million, according to Forbes, which has tracked sports team values for 17 years.

How can a team like the Bucs be valued so highly, especially when a regular football season is a mere 16 games and baseball, by contrast, runs 162 games? Is the country's love affair with football so passionate? Is the money-making strategy of the NFL so vastly superior to Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League?

The simple answer is: Yes. NFL teams share close to 61 percent of total revenues the National Football League generates, which include TV rights fees that will grow to $4.9 billion this season.

In addition, leading football team brands are massive marketing machines that generate huge revenues from stadium sponsorships, high-demand corporate suites, premium seating and a broadening advertising reach. The Dallas Cowboys, for example, boast deals with upscale watch maker Hublot and Carnival cruise lines that will pay the team in the low seven figures combined annually over five years.

The spike in football team values seems especially hard to swallow these days, not only because of the Bucs' dismal performance this season. There are growing public concerns over the NFL and its poor handling of a spate of domestic violence cases, most infamously involving running back Ray Rice. And rising football casualties (witness the recent suicide of Ohio State University player Kosta Karageorge) appear tied to repetitive brain injuries from football concussions.

So far, those issues are hardly hurting the financial worth of football teams. The Cowboys, valued by Forbes at $3.2 billion, are the most valuable sports team in America. The average NFL team is currently worth a record $1.43 billion, up 23 percent from a year ago. That's the biggest year-over-year increase since 1999.

Contrast such mammoth numbers with the Rays, whose modest $485 million value ranks them last among 30 MLB teams. That's far below Forbes' estimated worth of the New York Yankees: $2.5 billion.

Ranking the Rays at the very bottom of baseball feels harsh, especially for a team that had won at least 90 games in the 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 seasons. Only the Texas Rangers matched the Rays in that time span. Yet the Rays continued to suffer the lowest average attendance in 2014.

At $230 million, the Tampa Bay Lightning rank 26th in value among 30 hockey teams.

What timing. The low-priced Lightning enjoyed a first place standing as of Monday in the NHL's Atlantic conference.

Can football's ratings and money dominance go on forever? Critics point not only at the domestic violence scandals and rising worries over concussions. They also cite what some call the increasingly "arcade-style" of play in which sky-high game scores have become the norm and quarterbacks are breaking records seemingly every week.

And college football, increasingly televised as moneymakers for university coffers, is learning from the same NFL playbook.

Not that hockey or baseball are starving.

The Lightning team's value soared 28 percent in just the past year. The Rays gained 8 percent in the same period.

Don't forget how low these teams were priced when they were last acquired.

The Glazers bought the struggling Bucs franchise in 1995 for $192 million, a hefty price at the time. Stuart Sternberg acquired the low-performing Rays in 2004 for $200 million. And Jeff Vinik purchased the Lightning in 2010 for just $93 million.

Sure, football values have soared the most. But all three owners made wise investments — as long as sports fever endures.

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected]