Home Field Advantage

Why the Star Tribune is cheerleading for a taxpayer-financed ballpark

Cowles died in 1983; today, both Cowles Media's corporate headquarters and the Star Tribune's headquarters sit in the shadow of the ill-conceived stadium. In fact, for a time last fall the lot that houses the smaller corporate building was one of the places city officials were contemplating as a suitable home for a new Twins stadium. The site is still theoretically under consideration, although Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and Twins officials say they prefer a riverfront location a few blocks to the northeast.

More ironic is Cowles Media's unspecified contribution to Minnesota Wins, the pro-stadium lobbying and PR effort founded by Bob Dayton, one of the heirs to the fortune of Dayton-Hudson Corp. In addition to being one of the Strib's biggest advertisers, the department-store company is among the investors in the Metrodome land deal. (The Pioneer Press also has donated money to the organization.) Minnesota Wins seeks to convince the public that a Twins ballpark is an appropriate use of tax dollars. In pursuit of that goal it has lobbied reporters and editors in a number of local newsrooms and has paid for journalists and others to visit new outdoor ballparks in other states.

Strib editorial page writer Chuck Whiting also visited a number of state-of-the-art venues when laying groundwork for crafting the paper's unsigned, official editorials. Minnesota Wins didn't pay for his travels, but it is worth noting that the Strib's editorial writers report to Publisher Joel Kramer. Kramer, according to Editorial Pages Editor Susan Albright, has been involved with the drafting of the paper's editorial line on the proposed stadium. And Kramer reports to Cowles Media, which happily donated a slice of the paper's profits to Minnesota Wins.

Even if there's no smoking gun there, there are plenty of media scholars who say no blatant conflict of interest is necessary to get a newspaper to root for the home team. Sports editors and writers freely acknowledge the symbiosis that exists between the news media and pro sports. Newspapers create excitement among fans, who drive up ticket sales. And while pro teams themselves don't buy a lot of advertising, a thriving franchise attracts readers to the paper who might not otherwise pick it up. Plus, a winning team creates opportunities for cross-promotions.

Does anybody remember the Homer Hanky? The brainchild of a Strib promotions department staffer, in 1987 the paper ran coupons readers could cut out and swap for one of the little cotton swatches. Fans could carry them down to the Metrodome and wave at the home team, which was enjoying a run for the pennant that would culminate in its first World Series win.

The promotion was a marketer's wet dream. There were truckloads of hanky tie-in merchandise and even a theme song-"Do the Hanky Panky." People called the Star Tribune from all over the country, asking how to duplicate the lucrative promotion. Soon newspapers and team owners nationwide were dreaming up their own alliterations. The coup netted the promotions whiz behind the idea a vanity plate emblazoned with "H HANKY."

The following year the newspaper toyed with trying to duplicate the feat by making little plastic Vikings footballs to put on car antennas. The idea eventually fizzled, partly because marketing honchos couldn't figure out what percentage of cars had antennas, according to one former promotions worker.

Ironically, one reason newspaper sports desks feel more free to cheerlead is because pro sports teams are relatively infrequent advertisers. "When [a story is] going to benefit directly an advertiser, they go a little more slowly to prevent the appearance of a conflict of interest," explains Robert Picard, a professor at the University of California-Fullerton and the editor of the Journal of Media Economics. "Still, when your team starts to get down into the [championship] stretch, you start seeing the press runs go up. When you get to the playoffs, you start seeing those cards on the racks hyping the coverage."

In Seattle, the daily papers reportedly have a formula for deciding how many extra papers to print in order to accommodate sports fans. If the Mariners play and lose, the next day's single-copy press order is 12 percent larger. If they win, it's 20 percent larger. The Sonics rate 10 and 18 percent and the Seahawks 9 and 15. Those larger press runs reach readers who might not otherwise pick up a paper.

"Sports sections are free advertising for these teams," notes Joe Adams, on strike from his post as sports editor at the Detroit News. "More often there are trades with ads for the team in exchange for tickets for the staff or luxury boxes."

Indeed, surveys of newspaper stadium coverage nationwide show that the papers almost always support the projects, according to media critic deMause and his partner, Joanna Cagan. The Cleveland Plain Dealer's coverage of efforts there to build a new football stadium was almost uniformly positive, they found. The paper was the largest contributor to the Go Cleveland! Committee, which lobbied for a sin tax to finance the facility. The Plain Dealer's publisher sat on the committee.

The Seattle Times not only contributed ad space to the campaign to build a new home for the Mariners, its news coverage went so far as to suggest ways in which state officials could finance a ballpark despite a public referendum rejecting the proposal. In Milwaukee, the daily newspaper's parent company registered as a lobbyist for the effort to fund a new Brewers stadium. The Arizona Republic has reportedly invested in Phoenix's expansion team, the Arizona Diamondbacks.

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