Home Field Advantage

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

As a newspaper story, covering the debate over a new Minnesota Twins stadium should be like shooting fish in a barrel. It's got all the right elements: a business scion blackmailing the state for a bigger slice of the corporate welfare pie; politicians who've never just said no; a PR apparatus that plays faster and looser with the facts than a used-car salesman; and a public that can't think of a good enough reason to subsidize a billionaire.

And yet, popular perceptions are that the Twin Cities' newspaper of record has acted as a cheerleader for the stadium proposal. Indeed, the Star Tribune's editorial page has gone so far as to castigate individual politicians and writers for scrutinizing the project too closely, while its sports columnists have shrilly upbraided the public for its failure to see why subsidizing major league sports is the finest kind of capitalism.

The day after the Twins first asked taxpayers to subsidize a new outdoor baseball stadium to the tune of some $250 million, Star Tribune sports columnist Patrick Reusse--usually the paper's resident curmudgeon--cheered the state's negotiators for driving such a good bargain for the public. The next day, his colleague Sid Hartman one-upped him.

"Never has the owner of a football or baseball team offered a package such as the $158 million gift and 49 percent interest in the team that Twins owner Carl Pohlad has offered the state as his contribution toward the building of a $354 million baseball stadium," Hartman enthused, before delivering a threat that not even the Twins had put quite so bluntly. "The Minnesota politicians who make the decisions will have to decide if they want major league baseball. My prediction is that the Twins will be in Charlotte, N.C., by the year 2000 if a new stadium is not built." Even after learning that the "gift" was actually a loan, with the public's repayment to Pohlad guaranteed, the Strib's columnists continued to laud the deal, exhorting fans to get involved in selling it to politicians.

A number of possible reasons why the Strib's coverage has seemed more fawning than hard-edged have been bandied about by local media watchers. Corporate conflict of interest--land owned by the Strib's parent company could end up as a stadium site--may have come into play. Or it could be journalism's long tradition of rooting for the home team--which, after all, sells papers. It could also be mainstream journalism's tendency to let public officials set its agenda, leaving the opposition out of the process. Likewise, it can't be a secret in the newsroom that Publisher Joel Kramer favors helping the Twins get their field of dreams.

But media critics and other observers have noted an even more fundamental problem with the Strib's coverage of the stadium debate. The Newspaper of the Twin Cities appears to have fully accepted team owner Carl Pohlad's definition of "the problem": that in the days of free agency, team owners can't afford top-notch players without the extra income generated by the skyboxes and food courts of a taxpayer-financed stadium. Without the players, the logic goes, the team can't win; if they can't win, they can't turn a profit; if they can't turn a profit they will have to leave town, knocking the Twin Cities from among the ranks of "major league cities." Thus, Minnesota taxpayers should step up to the plate and help the state's fourth-richest citizen have his ballpark frank and eat it, too.

While there have been plenty of celebratory columns and editorials in the Star Tribune since the stadium flap began, no twist in the saga of the retractable roof does as much to illustrate the paper's performance as the days surrounding the Pioneer Press's biggest scoop on the beat.

When the Twins unveiled the proposal they'd been hammering out behind closed doors for months, negotiators bragged that it was one of the most generous agreements yet struck between a pro sports franchise and a local government. In addition to contributing $82.5 million of the $350 million cost, Pohlad was giving the people of Minnesota a 49 percent stake in the team. But two days later, the Pi Press revealed that Pohlad's "contribution" was not a gift, but a loan. Worse, the 49 percent stake in the team Pohlad would give the state would leave taxpayers liable for stanching the Twins' losses--past and future--if the new stadium didn't make the team profitable. What the Pi Press story boiled down to was that the Twins lied, and the governor's negotiators let them.

Normally, in a two-newspaper town, when one paper scoops the other on such a visible issue, the loser immediately starts trying to uncover something new on the story for the following day's paper. The second-day follow-up allows the scooped paper to both set the record straight and claim some headway of its own. But in the days after the Pioneer Press deflated the stadium celebration, there was silence on the part of the Newspaper of the Twin Cities. Thirteen days later, Terry Fiedler, a writer from the business desk, finally penned an article that described the emerging details as the Twins deal "morphing" from the original proposal.

Fiedler says the deal struck him as odd from the start, but it took him a while to write the story because he had other duties at the business desk and because he had a hard time lining up the necessary interviews. Which begs the question: Why didn't newsroom managers consider the Twins lying a big enough story to cut Fiedler some time to report it? And if Fiedler really couldn't be spared, what about the other reporters who had been following the issue?

In the days that followed Fiedler's article, the deal started to smell worse and worse. First, all but one of the members of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which owns the Dome and was theoretically in charge of brokering the deal, wrote to the Strib insisting that what they knew about the proposal, they learned from local news media. Plus, it turned out that as early as one year after a new ballpark opens, the state could be required to buy Pohlad's share in the Twins for his overall investment in the team and the park, minus tax breaks. "In year one, in a worst-case scenario, the state's buyout could cost the state $167 million," reported the Strib.

Yet before the week was out, the paper carried an editorial complaining that "stadium opponents have succeeded in clouding [the air] with their negative spin on the deal." The misunderstanding, it posited, shouldn't keep Minnesota from going forth with the deal. The Strib's institutional opinion contradicted its own reporting.

"The deal [MSFC head Henry Savelkoul] worked out may not be as some people initially understood it. It's still better than most other stadium-building cities have gotten. And, to cite one revisionist complaint, did anyone really believe that in offering $82.5 million in upfront cash to help build a stadium the Pohlad family was proposing to make an outright gift rather than a recoverable investment?"

The answer is a no-brainer of the simplest variety: People believed that Pohlad's contribution was a gift because they had seen it described that way in the pages of the paper.

The episode reflects what some staffers say is "dissonance" within the Strib's editorial hierarchy on how to cover the stadium debate. The staffers say that back when the Twins first expressed their desire for a new stadium, Managing Editor Pam Fine decided that Jay Weiner would be the beat's lead reporter. Reasoning that the ballpark buck would ultimately stop at the Legislature, she also chose State Politics and Government Editor Dennis McGrath to lead the ad-hoc stadium team. McGrath would call on business writer Fiedler, state politics reporter Robert Whereatt and others as needed.

The former editor of Corporate Report, Fiedler has penned the beat's most critical pieces to date. When the proposal first surfaced last June, he put together a lengthy article examining the Milwaukee Brewers' uphill push for a taxpayer-financed stadium and the parallels between Wisconsin's situation and Minnesota's. Among other things, the story noted that the Brewers and the Twins both employed the same consultant to help negotiate, Bob Starkey of the accounting firm Arthur Andersen.

Weiner, by contrast, came to the story from the sports section, where there's a tradition of rooting for the home team. He was chosen, McGrath says, because his area of expertise is sports business, and because he covered the 1995 Target Center bailout.

Fiedler says he's been asking to be more involved with the stadium story ever since then, but has only occasionally been freed from his usual duties on the business desk. The day after the Twins announced their package in January, Fiedler wrote about the tax advantages the deal contained for Pohlad. The Strib buried that story behind more upbeat coverage of the "unprecedented" proposal.

Fiedler says he knew the deal contained more caveats, but didn't have the time or the freedom to run down his hunches. He says he and his editor, McGrath, are "more intensely interested in [the intricacies of the deal] than some other people higher up in the paper." McGrath has tried to get more business and legislative pieces included on the beat, he adds, but Pam Fine and Executive Editor Tim McGuire make policy on really big stories.

McGrath says it's coincidence that the more critical pieces bear Fiedler's byline. He can't recall how he first became aware that the Twins misrepresented the deal. The Pi Press story "got to some of it," he concedes, and "Terry had several important elements."

Once it became clear there was a need for a story explaining how the deal had been "mischaracterized," it was discussed by everyone on the ad-hoc stadium team. Weiner, McGrath says, provided Fiedler with guidance and helped set up interviews with the stadium negotiators, but was too busy to report the story himself: He was in the throes of writing a piece for Super Bowl Sunday that looked at sports as a form of worship. McGrath cites that front-page story as one of the best of the beat so far.

"We genuflect today before the god of sports, celebrating Super Bowl Sunday, the holiday on which a football game tells us about our nation," wrote Weiner. "Today, too, is an opportunity for self-examination for Minnesotans. We are about to make a decision that will determine our own level of sports worship: Do we build a new stadium for the Minnesota Twins?... All things considered, Twins baseball in Minnesota has been a relatively cheap date."

Pop sociology aside, it's hard to believe that any editor would choose a look at sports fandom over an article probing the possible use of hundreds of millions of tax dollars. Few newsmakers are willing to lambaste the reporters who cover them on a daily basis, but one MSFC source believes that Weiner was given a brief hiatus from stadium coverage because "sometimes people get too close to a story."

"There's no plot to minimize critical coverage," says Fiedler. "Somebody's making the news judgments and news calls. But I've never been told, 'You can't do that' or 'You can't take that angle.'" There's every possibility that's true. But usually, editors push reporters to make their stories tougher and harder-edged.

"Certainly [it's] a possibility that people feel that the company has an interest and that it somehow affects the news columns," Fine says. "I'm generally surprised that people don't understand that the editorial department and the news department don't discuss the editorial page's point of view." But the paper has "covered all of the key angles involved and a lot of the subtext." The Strib news staff, she adds, is "covering the stadium story the way we would cover any big story, and that is without interference from the corporate structure." Plus, she's not sure critical coverage is what the paper is after, she adds. "Neutral" or "objective" coverage is the Strib's goal.

As proof that there have been plenty of hard-hitting stories on the beat, Fine offers up Weiner's articles detailing a late-January rift between MSFC head Savelkoul and the rest of the commission's members. That story, however, was sparked by an angry open letter from the commissioners to the Strib in which they complained that they, along with the general public, had been misled by the Twins and Savelkoul.

Fine and McGrath both say they're not sure when or how they became aware that the Twins had misrepresented the deal. In fact, Fine won't even define the Pioneer Press's discovery of the deception as a scoop: "I think it's true that the Pioneer Press mentioned the $82.5 million loan issue before we did and there's no question that I wish we had come back with our own story more quickly," she says. "But when we did cover it we had more in-depth analysis and information on appreciation and other factors. We did give our readers a good package."

Last month, the Twins and Gov. Arne Carlson's negotiators admitted they'd made a public relations mistake and unveiled a new proposal. This time, the Twins offered to kick in a $15 million "gift," to which they said no strings were attached, and to forego the expensive retractable roof.

So far the Strib hasn't questioned provisions of the package giving the Twins a ticket-tax subsidy on both the Metrodome and the new ballpark that would more than offset the team's cash contribution to the cost. Nor did the paper note that as the new plan wended its way through the Legislature, the $82.5 million retractable roof reappeared, driving up the total public subsidy requested to nearly $350 million. In many ways, the Twins' new deal is a repackaging of their earlier proposal. And in many ways, the Strib's coverage is a repackaging of the "see no evil" mentality they exhibited before.

"Newspapers are self-regulating as institutions," concludes Neil deMause, a Brooklyn-based media critic who has studied media coverage of stadium campaigns nationwide. "You don't go out and hire people who are going to stir up trouble. And they wouldn't last long if you did."

John Cowles Jr. first started working for a domed stadium in the early 1970s, when he was president of what was then the Star and Tribune Co. He and other local power brokers wanted the downtown venue so badly that they formed a development company, funded it, and used its coffers to give public officials the $10.5 million they needed to purchase the stadium site.

Articles in the Star and the Tribune, then separate newspapers, praised the investment group's corporate largesse even as Cowles and the other businessmen were outlining the quid pro quo to city officials. They wanted the rights to develop 200 acres of land surrounding what would become the Metrodome. Twins owner Carl Pohlad joined the investment company's board of directors in 1984 and served on it until 1989.

In 1979, 45 news staffers at the Star and the Tribune were so embarrassed by Cowles's dealings that they all pitched in and took out a full-page ad disassociating themselves from the papers' coverage of the Dome debate. A year later, a Star reporter spent six months looking into the land deals surrounding the Metrodome. His finished five-part series on the complicated land swaps languished in the Star's computer system for eight months until a former city policy aide wrote a letter to the editor accusing the paper of burying it.

After the Twin Cities Reader wrote about the flap, the Star published the articles, accompanied by a column by Executive Editor Tim McGuire (who holds the same position at the merged Star Tribune) explaining that the original articles hadn't met the paper's standards. It goes without saying that the paper has never done a follow-up showing who profited from the deal and by how much.

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.

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.

"A big part of the problem here is that opposition to public financing for a new ballpark has been so heedless of the consequences of losing the Twins that proponents haven't been able to put the issue on the table for rational public-policy analysis and discussion," the Strib editorialized. "So they've found themselves backed into a corner on how to pay for a stadium--going for now with what seems the funding source of least resistance rather than what might make the most sense."

That doesn't mean, according to the Strib, looking at private financing, or at whether the Twins really will leave. When it says "creative financing," the paper means a public funding instrument other than new cigarette taxes or slot machines at the race track.

"You invariably end up with the press accepting the premises put forward by the team," explains deMause. "Professional sports teams are an urban necessity, and the need of owners to make unlimited amounts of money, often straight from the public coffers, is just part of the game.

"Regardless of whether a newspaper as a corporation is involved in stadium development, pretty much all corporate media tend to have an ideological involvement with official sources and official power. Basically, what it comes down to is that if you want to get quoted by the paper, you have to have an official position or money," he concludes. "Just the fact that you're a taxpayer concerned about where your money is going isn't enough."

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