Home Field Advantage

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

In fact, the trend is so pervasive that deMause and Cagan are writing a book about the willingness of local media to act as boosters in publicly financed stadium debates. One commonality the two have found is that where the mainstream media wants to both support a stadium campaign and maintain some semblance of journalistic objectivity, it simply ignores any organized, grassroots opposition.

"Opponents don't get quoted because they're not official sources, they're not considered the leading citizens," says deMause. "'Gadfly' is the sort of term that gets applied to these people a lot." In San Francisco, the most vocal critics of the Giants' repeated attempts to get financing for a new stadium were local politicians, and that made the newspapers more willing to be critical, he adds.

A local case-in-point is Fans Advocating Intelligent Spending, a St. Paul-based coalition of fans who favor outdoor baseball but oppose using tax dollars to get it. FANS head Jon Commers nearly explodes when asked about his efforts to be included in media coverage of the debate. When FANS formed last September, Commers says he called to introduce himself to both Patrick Sweeney, the Pi Press stadium reporter, and Weiner. Sweeney asked for proof that FANS was legally incorporated as a nonprofit. Weiner put a line into a story mentioning the group's formation, and eventually ran a single story profiling all of the stadium's organized foes.

"They've clearly decided they're not going to cover the opposition," says Minneapolis City Council member Jim Niland. "If Weiner's name is on it, you can almost be sure there's no opposition quote in it."

A year ago, Jay Weiner penned a 2,700-word feature outlining how the Twins could have their stadium, St. Paul could score an NHL team and the Metrodome could be paid off and taxpayers could keep their shirts. In the case of the stadium, the Twins, the taxpayers and corporate Minnesota would each ante up a third, or $85 million, with much of the money coming from the new skyboxes, club seats, concession licenses and naming rights.

In principle, it's the same scheme Hopkins stockbroker Ed Villaume has been shopping around town for more than a year. Only Villaume, one of the engineers of the 1995 Target Center bailout, has actually run his numbers past sports-industry finance types. Still, his proposal has so far merited a fraction of the number of column inches that Strib editors dedicated to Weiner's proposal. Villaume says he was told that the Strib would examine his proposal in depth once it had written about the planned new, privately financed Giants stadium in San Francisco. But that story came and went more than two months ago.

The stadium Villaume envisions has no retractable roof and would cost about $180 million. Half that amount would come from up-front franchise fees paid by beer, soda and food vendors who want to sell their products in the new stadium. The Twins would ante up $50 million and the balance would be paid for by luxury box owners, and by up to half a million fans willing to shell out some $40 to have their names engraved on a brick or a plaque, or perhaps even a seat in the new stadium. Cleveland's Jacobs Field and Chicago's Comiskey Park were built for less than Villaume budgeted. Toss in $25 million from naming rights, and the Twins could afford the equivalent of Baltimore's much-praised Camden Yards.

Villaume's first choice would be to build the brick stadium on the site of Minneapolis's central library--a location city officials rejected last year--so downtown workers could stroll from their offices to the bleachers and visiting suburbanites could leave their cars parked in the stadium ramp while they wandered over to the warehouse district's restaurants and bars after the game. He's thought this through down to how to pick the kids who'd turn the numbers on the outfield scoreboard by hand, and how to spin off charitable dollars to build rural diamonds for kids with big-league dreams. The trouble with Villaume is that he's taken the Twins rhetoric about baseball being about community seriously.

His deal is workable. It's just not what the Pohlads had in mind. If they use the revenue from the skyboxes and concessions to finance the ballpark, that $80 million to $110 million won't swell their corporate coffers or net them the top-notch players they say will make them profitable. So while fans would be happier and the team would have its blue skies, from the Twins' perspective there's no reason to build Villaume's ballpark.

"Typically what you find is that in most situations, teams cannot raise the money to both pay for a stadium and pay (their) players," says Paul J. Much, a sports-finance consultant with the Chicago-based Houlihan, Lockey, Howard & Zukin. "If you look at the playoffs last year, there were (the final) four teams. Three of the four had the three highest payrolls in baseball. At the end of the day, you've got to have a revenue structure that can be invested in players."

In other words, the actual stadium is beside the point. It's the revenue stream the Pohlads are interested in. Not only do they want those dollars, they believe there's no harm in asking taxpayers to underwrite their windfall. For its part, the Strib has raised lots of questions about the financing of the stadium deal, but they've been along the lines of whether cigarettes or slot machines should underwrite the ballpark, not about whether the public has any obligation to help a private enterprise become profitable.

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