Ballpark Frankness

In the early 1980s, shortly after buying the White Sox, Reinsdorf and Einhorn began complaining that their franchise wasn't sufficiently profitable. It's an old refrain in baseball; the desire for greater profits fueled the franchise moves of the Fifties and Sixties (including the one that brought the Washington Senators to Minnesota in 1961 to become the Twins), and in the Seventies usually led to a team winning some capital improvements or a larger percentage of concession revenue from the public entity that served as the stadium's landlord.

The White Sox, however, owned Comiskey Park, which was in need of major improvements. Rather than borrow money and rehabilitate a classic old ballpark, they suggested that a publicly financed stadium be built in suburban Addison, Illinois. When a referendum there failed, they threatened to move the team to St. Petersburg, Florida. Thanks to intense lobbying by baseball officials and pressure applied by then governor Jim Thompson, the state Legislature approved funding for construction bonds and the Sox got a stadium in Chicago.

To architects and visitors alike, the edifice is a travesty: It's a "superblock" suburban building that squats on a 15-acre parcel of land--a footprint that's 50 percent bigger than the one the old ballpark occupied. The structure soars 146 feet above the city streets--almost twice the height of its predecessor. The upper deck seats are so distant from the field and angled so sharply that the last row of seats in the old Comiskey was actually closer to home plate than is the first row of upper-deck seats in the new park. Additionally, the stadium is surrounded by a sea of parking lots, and ancillary development in the area has been nil.

Still, for the fraternity of baseball owners, the construction of the new Comiskey was a watershed. It legitimized blackmail, public financing, and sweetheart leases as standard parts of stadium negotiations, and established an architecturally unconstrained, outrageously priced facility as the norm. In Baltimore, the Orioles followed the White Sox' tactical lead but managed to avoid aesthetic catastrophe by implementing a quasi-urban design featuring a beautifully manicured field set against a nostalgic backdrop of older buildings and the Baltimore skyline. And when Camden Yards opened to sellout crowds, every owner in baseball wanted one just like it. During this decade eight new stadiums have been built; another four are under construction, and ground will probably be broken for as many as five more in the next few years. All but one--Pacific Bell Park in San Francisco--have been financed almost entirely with public money. According to published figures for stadium costs, by the end of the year 2000, municipal debt for baseball park construction and financing could exceed five billion dollars.

"The Twins want the public to enable them to make as much money as possible," says Neil deMause, who along with co-author Joanna Cagan wrote the exposé Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit. "Teams don't even have to decide on an architectural plan until after the money's been approved. They say, 'What can we do for this amount of money?' That's why the Seattle Mariners had huge cost overruns on Safeco Field--they came up with all these design changes after the concrete had already been poured."

With site requirements that often force the removal of older buildings and housing units and invariably lead to more parking lots and plazas (Coors Field in Denver avoids some of these pitfalls), retro parks promote little urban revitalization or economic development in the surrounding neighborhoods. For example, Mark Rosentraub, a professor of urban planning at Indiana University who has extensively studied the impact of sports facilities on jobs and revenues, found that the $400 million construction cost of Jacobs Field in Cleveland yielded a net job creation of only 2,000 lower-paying service-sector positions in the Gateway region that surrounds the ballpark.

"For publicly financed auto plants--like Isuzu in Indiana--government expenditures can run as high as $100,000 per job, and these costs are often criticized. But at least these are high-tech positions," says Rosentraub. "At a cost of $200,000 per job created, the issue of economic benefits connected with Jacobs Field isn't even worth mentioning."

Rosentraub also notes that the issue of potential job gains from ballparks is moot when you consider the net tax loss to the public: In Baltimore, for instance, Camden Yards yields $3 million in revenue for the city, while taxpayers foot the annual $14 million tax payment on the state bonds issued to pay for the stadium's construction.

As the White Sox settled into their new stadium, disparities in revenue between small- and large-market clubs were growing. Huge increases in the demand for local and regional sports programming brought on by advances in broadcast technology yielded a veritable pot of gold for large-market teams such as the Yankees, Mets, and Dodgers. The Chicago Cubs and the Atlanta Braves, owned by media conglomerates, kept pace by building large national followings through team-controlled cable networks.

Although the White Sox's owners didn't benefit from any significant gain in broadcast revenues, they did have a new cost-free ballpark--a competitive advantage not lost on other clubs. What better revenue stream could one possibly imagine than a taxpayer-funded ballpark? Given free stadiums, teams like the Orioles, Indians, Rangers, and Rockies could afford to vie for high-priced free agents. The result has been an enormous increase in player salaries, with superstars now pulling down as much as $15 million annually--two to three times what they earned as little as three years ago.

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