Ballpark Frankness

 

 

Baseball used to be a game for everyone, drawing people from all backgrounds and economic classes. Though they may have paid different prices for their tickets, fans generally ate the same food, drank the same beer, and used the same bathrooms. They also sat in better seats, thanks to ballparks that put everyone as close to the action as possible. Nostalgia aside, those days are gone.

Next to the public-financing myth, the biggest lie about retro ballparks is that their smaller seating capacity makes them more intimate. Retro parks are designed to please owners rather than fans, and teams have made a deliberate effort to target corporate "clients" and the affluent at the expense of the middle class. Consider, for example, the publicity materials distributed by Ellerbe Becket in 1997 to describe the amenities of the proposed new Twins park. Seats in the lower deck would "provide fans with the ballpark's most intimate seating options," while fans sitting in the skyway level ("just 22 feet above the playing field") would have "an incredible view of the action...." Contrast these delights with those available to fans in the upper deck, 71 feet above the action: "Fans will enter this deck at row eight with the option of going up or down." Makes the average fan pretty eager to whip out his wallet to help pay for a ballpark, doesn't it?

At the same time the typical fan is being pushed away from the action in a retro ballpark, he or she is being made to pay more for the privilege of sitting there. Building amenities such as cafés and bars into the prime seating area of the lower deck translates into higher ticket prices. At Camden Yards ticket prices have doubled in less than seven years. And with lower-deck and club seats available on a season-ticket basis only in most new parks, the best seats simply aren't available to the average fan. Now contrast Philip Bess's 42,000-seat stadium design with the currently touted Twins plan, which costs twice as much to construct yet presumably includes only 26 rows of lower-deck seats (versus the 36 rows at the Metrodome) and has room for only 38,000 fans. But then, Bess didn't include important amenities like "access to personal computers and online services" that will be available to guests in the Twins' proposed new luxury suites.

While Minnesotans starved for outdoor baseball may not appreciate these concerns now, once the rediscovered novelty of the fresh-air game wears off, fans will stay away in droves as the game's built-in economic disparities force the Twins to field perennially inept teams. As longtime White Sox fan Doug Bukowski observes in Field of Schemes: "You put kids up there where they can't see...they get bored. And you don't make them baseball fans. Which means when they become adults, they don't want to go....[I]n the long run baseball, by pursuing these types of new stadiums, is only eroding its fan base."

In the strange world of sports finance, home teams typically share ticket revenues with visiting clubs but keep all revenues for luxury-box rentals and so-called personal seat licenses--a payment ($3,000 for the lower deck at Pacific Bell Park in San Francisco) in exchange for permanent rights to a particular seat. That's why luring corporate rentals and club-seating customers is so crucial. The Twins ownership is well aware that their fan base is too small to support franchises in four major sports; Pohlad and Co. only hope they can skim off as much money as possible before the market becomes saturated with the debut of a new hockey franchise and a new or remodeled facility for the Vikings. Mark Rosentraub likens the situation to that facing the hockey, baseball, and football clubs in Pittsburgh. "The regional economy is growing, but it is not large enough to sustain three teams," says Rosentraub. "So the Penguins teeter on bankruptcy and there is 'hope' that the Pirates and Steelers can make it in new facilities."

According to Field of Schemes authors Cagan and deMause, the Twins are simply following a time-tested pattern: First assert that your present stadium is inferior. Next talk about the need for more revenue to remain competitive and threaten to move to another city. Should those moves not produce the desired result, issue "glowing" reports on all the economic-growth and employment potential that a new downtown stadium will provide. Then keep a low profile and wait for public resistance to wane. If this strategy fails to produce a new stadium, simply repeat all the steps.

"In city after city, the people who want a new stadium built are usually the same people who are chummy with the media: politicians, business leaders, team owners," says Cagan. "Groups opposed to new stadiums are hard-pressed to get any favorable coverage by the media and are dramatically outspent and outfunded by corporate interests who want a new ballpark. Owners will be resistant to listening to any alternatives."

At any time he wishes, Twins owner Carl Pohlad can build a stadium that will solve his team's current revenue shortage, give loyal fans (a record three million of whom turned out in 1988) an intimate ballpark with classic features, and dramatically increase the value of his franchise. With naming rights that typically bring in $30 million to $50 million in other markets and a hometown municipality certain to help out with land and infrastructure costs (in the range of $25 million to $50 million), the old guy would probably have to shell out no more than $60 million--all of which would come back to him in added value, should he choose to sell. If Pohlad feels such an investment still isn't prudent, baseball's other 29 owners could throw in a few million apiece (chump change for them), and an urban ballpark in Minneapolis would be a done deal.

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