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Wanna Buy a Tony Award?

Imagine that you’re super-rich and considering endowing a chaired professorship, which will forever bear your name at your alma mater. If you went to Yale College, it will cost you at least $3 million.
People give to charities for all kinds of reasons – some more noble than others. But one important motivation is recognition. If Yale mandated that it would only accept anonymous donations, its fundraising would be decimated.
There are a lot of different ways to garner public recognition. If I had 3 million bucks to throw around, I’d think long and hard about trying instead to buy myself a Tony Award. For as little as $200,000, you might be able to purchase an 8% chance at winning a Tony.
Let me emphasize that this is at best a crude ballpark estimate. Over the last 5 years, 12.2 new plays have been produced on Broadway each year. For a play, which generally runs about $2.5 to 3 million these days, my friend Jack Thomas at Bulldog Theatrical tells me you can usually find yourself among those listed above the title for about $200,000. Some investors split this minimum ante and put up or raise just $100,000 each and get listed as Bulldog Theatrical / Cantab Theatrical.
The Broadway League, which runs the Tony Awards, has been cracking down on producer proliferation by limiting the number of producers who can rush the stage. But my memory from this year’s telecast is that the show let the larger gaggle of over-the-title producers stand together in a clump in the wings for a quick live shot before turning the cameras to the general partners who got to go up to the podium. So $200,000 doesn’t give you a chance of making an acceptance speech. But if you have over-the-title billing, you will receive the prize that evening. And there is nothing to stop you from shamelessly carrying the hardware around from party to party and later ostentatiously displaying it on your mantel until you shake off this mortal coil.  (Note to universities: you should at least give chair donors an actual school chair, or better yet some garish object d’art that will generate inquiries from dinner guests).
If you invested $200,000 in 15 different plays each with an independent 8% chance of winning, the binomial distribution says you’d have about a 72% of winning at least one Tony. Of course, in any given year these probabilities are not independent. If you could buy producing credits on all of the plays that were produced in a year, then for about $2.4 million you could guarantee winning a Tony. This covering strategy is usually not feasible though.  Some of the new plays each year are produced by non-profit theaters – like the Roundabout, Lincoln Center Theater, and the Manhattan Theatre Club – which generally aren’t looking for Tony-hungry commercial producing partners.
By the way, if you’re solely interested in winning an award, investing in a play is a lot cheaper lottery ticket than investing in a musical. There are about 10 new musicals a year, with a minimum buy-in more on the order of $1 million. A Tony for “Best Revival of a Play” might provide the best probabilistic bang for the buck. There have only been an average of 4.6 play revivals per year over the last five years, and these awards are generally easier to predict: the category is dominated by well-known vehicles, generally starring famous names (for example, Jude Law in Hamlet, and Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice).
Again, I want to emphasize the lack of precision in my estimates. But for roughly the same amount of money you could buy either a university chair or a pretty fair chance of winning a Tony. This post cuts against interest, but I’m surprised that more of the well-heeled don’t prefer supporting the theater – and this is even before taking into account the slim possibility that your theatrical patronage will produce a positive return (or at least return some of your initial investment).
This “buy a Tony” strategy might be replicated to probabilistically purchase other awards. If you happen to know, please add a comment speculating on parallel numbers for an Oscar or an Emmy.  Turns out that an EGOT might be for sale.