Ballpark Frankness

The Twins, a small-market team that has not had a meaningful free-agent signing since they snagged Paul Molitor in 1995, now insist that a brand-new retro park is necessary for them to "compete" in this out-of-control market. But even if the Twins enjoyed greater revenue streams, any potential increase in payroll will undoubtedly be matched dollar for dollar by all of the large-market teams, not to mention all the other small-market clubs that will soon boast their own publicly donated stadiums. Mark Rosentraub sums it up this way: "Even if the public builds the Twins a stadium for free, they will never be competitive and profitable in this market."

 

 

David Kern

New stadiums and high payrolls don't guarantee winners, either. The Orioles, whose staggering $78.5 million payroll is the second-highest in baseball, are just a few games better than the Twins, whose payroll ranks among the lowest. And the Twins could always follow the lead of the San Diego Padres: After San Diego agreed to build its team a new stadium, last year's National League champs slashed their payroll and jettisoned many top players.

Stadiums do contribute to a huge growth in the bar and restaurant business, as well as the parking industry. (The city of Detroit is even allowing casinos to be built around its new downtown ballpark, slated to replace Tiger Stadium next year.) This, in turn, reinforces the image of downtowns as entertainment zones rather than as places to live. Fine if you think $325 million is an appropriate subsidy for a few more Twin Cities dining and drinking establishments, but not so good if you're honestly after a "new urban village," as Norm Coleman claims he wants to build around the ballpark.

Because publicly financed stadiums are typically owned by a governmental agency that doesn't pay any property taxes, a new stadium also removes a sizable chunk of land from a municipality's property-tax rolls. With teams often enjoying complete control over all stadium-generated revenues (rather than just those that result from baseball events), rent payments are merely the return of a subsidy that would have come directly to the stadium authority had it retained management control of the facility. In most cases the public actually suffers a net tax loss.

At the same time, however, a publicly financed stadium enhances the value of a franchise--which helps explain why octogenarian billionaire Carl Pohlad continues to hang on to the Twins despite losing millions of dollars every year. The fact that the Baltimore Orioles were sold at a profit of $103 million after Camden Yards was completed in 1992 hasn't escaped him, nor has the fact that the Cleveland Indians, now on the market for $350 million, were purchased for a mere $35 million in 1986.

It's unfortunate that Coleman, like baseball's number one booster, Commissioner Bud Selig, has no interest in numbers unless they bolster his argument. Because if he were to take a look at baseball's attendance figures, he'd learn that the sport never recovered from the fan alienation caused by the 1994-95 strike. In other words, without the advent of public stadium subsidies, many teams would still be suffering annual losses of five to ten million dollars.

In 1993 major league baseball set an all-time attendance record of 70.2 million, thanks in part to 7.5 million fans who came to watch expansion teams in Colorado and Florida, as well as strong turnout at the year-old Camden Yards. Then came the strike and subsequent lockout, resulting in attendance of just over 50 million in both 1994 and 1995. The following year numbers rebounded to 60.1 million--14.4 percent below 1993, the most recent complete regular season. In 1997 attendance grew a mere 1.3 percent, to 62.6 million. Which brought us to 1998, a year Selig anointed as one that would represent the "middle stages of a remarkable recovery [from the strike]."

Indeed, abetted by the greatest home-run race in history, a perfect game, and a dominating New York Yankees championship team, baseball did set a new all-time attendance record last year, with 70.6 million fans. But 6.1 million of those fans were accounted for by the expansion cities of Tampa Bay and Phoenix. With those numbers subtracted, attendance grew all of three percent last year--down eight percent from 1993's all-time high. And this year, even with honest-to-goodness pennant races under way, another perfect game, and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa locked in a second consecutive home-run duel, attendance through August 15 is up just one percent over last year. Perhaps tellingly, the biggest attendance gain--a whopping 30 percent--has been posted by Detroit, a losing club that's playing its final season in one of the only remaining traditional ballparks. Meanwhile, turnout at the year-old, state-of-the-art Bank One Ballpark (complete with swimming pool!), where the resident Arizona Diamondbacks lead their division and boast the best left-hander in baseball in Randy Johnson, is down 18 percent compared to last year.

Says Field of Schemes co-author Neil deMause: "The new-stadium rip-off is just a way for owners to avoid admitting that they don't know how to draw fans, that they are unable to successfully market baseball as a game," rather than as a gimmick. And the massive public-financing deals have simply given the owners the financial wiggle room to ignore their sport's ills until another clever strategy can be hatched--be it international expansion, ads on players' uniforms, or demands for outright subsidies once stadium revenues run dry.

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