Field of Scams

There's no justifying the public financing

          AS PRIVATE THIEVERY from the public purse goes, there are certainly more grave offenses than the ransoming now routinely conducted by professional sports franchises. But few of them are quite so egregious. In our own town at present, the Minnesota Twins are out to steal somewhere in the neighborhood of $250 million in public moneys for a new stadium at little or no benefit to the public and dramatic gain to themselves. And they know it, which is why they prefer that the issue remain under wraps until after the election. If the Twins succeed, the Vikings have already announced their intention to pile on.

          What the Twins want, in a nutshell, is for all of us to get together and buy them a new ballpark more deliberately tailored to a well-to-do clientele that will make the Pohlads a lot more money. The public, understandably, does not want to go along. So a number of the best minds in local politics and finance are now consumed with finding the most artful means of skirting the popular will. As one vocal critic, State Senator John Marty, told the Pioneer Press, "The way they're going to try to sell this is, 'This isn't going to hurt you at all.' The bottom line is that the public is going to build the stadium. And [revenue from] the naming rights, the concessions, the luxury boxes are all going to go to the owners, not to us."

          Occasionally a lonely voice cries out that Minnesota already tore down an outdoor ballpark, which misses the point. "Outdoors" is only the marketing hook. The new baseball stadiums are as much upscale malls as ballparks. They include lots of amenities, such as luxury boxes and gourmet eateries, designed to reach deeper into the pockets of the most well-heeled fans; more generally, they concentrate food and entertainment attractions within the stadium complex. Contrary to the rhetoric of boosters, the economic logic of the modern ballpark has more to do with pulling revenues away from surrounding neighborhoods than enhancing them. The point is to get people to spend as much as possible in this one place. And every vendor operating there pays tribute to the team owners in some fashion. It's an enormously lucrative arrangement.

          But should the public have its pockets picked to further thicken the Pohlads' bankroll? Any argument to that effect has to rest on one of two premises: the contribution of major league baseball to our vaunted quality of life, or the economic benefits to the metro area as a whole. On the first count, it's barely short of obscene to suggest that baseball warrants hundreds of millions from the public trough when Minneapolis is closing its community health care clinics and the state's per capita education funds are declining. On the second, common sense and at least one extensive study (by the Chicago-based Heartland Institute) indicate that sports teams don't grow a regional economy; they just channel entertainment dollars a little differently. In September 1994, when baseball went on strike, Hollywood had its best September ever at the box office. As for any supposed "multiplier effect" on local economies, a May 1996 Congressional Research Service study concluded that Baltimore could have created 20 times as many jobs by putting the money it invested in Camden Yards into more conventional development programs.

          As John Yewell suggested in last week's Twin Cities Reader cover story, the stadium debate is no debate at all. It's a purposely anti-democratic scheme wrought mainly by two groups acting in concert: on one side, those who stand to benefit directly, such as the Twins ownership, local bond houses, and local media (most especially the Star Tribune, which has more than its sports page to think about--Cowles Media owns a couple of the prospective stadium sites); on the other, that stratum of business and government for whom professional sports teams are a point of civic puffery.

          As to the latter bunch, the essential spirit of the endeavor was inadvertently summed up by Arne Carlson in a recent Star Tribune feature. So caught up in the rapture of sport was the governor that, for once, he said exactly what he meant: "If I was mayor of Minneapolis, I'd have this plan on my whole desk. I'd show you where my stadium is, where my marina is, where the Children's Theatre is going to be, and how it all locks together, and how this is going to have an impact on lowering crime.... People like to buy sizzle." They do indeed, though people in the governor's position are rarely so candid about how they sell it. Like the rest of the stadium pushers, he thinks the public at large will swallow anything in the end, and forget the bad taste by 1998.

 
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