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November 17, 2003

The Stadium Game

Is This the End of the Building Boom?

by Neil deMause

Next spring, the San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies will take up residence in new stadiums, Petco Park and Citizens Bank Park respectively. It promises to be a momentous occasion, not just for Phils and Pads fans who'll be inaugurated into the era of club seats and cupholders, but for baseball itself. Because it's looking likely that once the Dog Bowl and the Big ATM Machine That's Not The Vet throw open their doors, it will mark the first time since ground was broken for Toronto's SkyDome in October 1985 that not a single new big-league ballpark will be under construction on planet Earth.

It's been quite an 18-year run: 19 new stadiums, 18 new corporate monikers (including such double-dippers as Enron Field/Minute Maid Park and Pac Bell/SBC Park) and around $5 billion in taxpayer money sunk into the cause. The start of the new-stadium craze is easy to pinpoint. In 1989, SkyDome demonstrated that a retractable roof was technically feasible (if pricey--the SkyDome lid drove its total cost over $600 million in Canadollars), while introducing baseball's first full-scale food court, complete with baseball's first seven-dollar hot dogs. It also shattered attendance records: the Jays are still the only team other than the Rockies in their Mile High days to sell more than four million tickets in one season, demonstrating that fans would turn out just to take a gander at a new building (though the two titles won by the Jays in SkyDome's first five years helped some, too). When two years later Camden Yards inaugurated the "retro" craze, single-handedly sweeping HOK's old concrete-bowl blueprints into history's dustbin, it set off a feeding frenzy among teams to be the next kid on the block with a shiny new toy.

The result has transformed baseball. On the field, the new home run-friendly parks have helped create the surge in offense that typifies Selig-era baseball, while turning such traditional homer havens as Wrigley Field into relative pitcher's parks. In the stands, the layers of luxury seating that are de rigeur in modern facilities have made the cheap seat with a good view a thing of the past, as nearly every new park has featured upper decks more distant from the field than the old buildings they replaced. The new parks raised demand for tickets, and owners have taken full advantage--new parks have seen average ticket price as much as double in a single off-season.

It was a fad that was bound to end eventually, if only because there are a limited number of major league teams. Yet the supply of stadium suitors hasn't been exhausted: a visit to ballparks.com finds in its "future stadiums" section such vaporparks as Labatt's Park in Montreal, a riverfront park in Minneapolis, and a triple-decker New Fenway Park, all now lying dormant in some architects' desk drawers.

Is this the end of the new-stadium era, one we'll one day look back on like the 1910-1915 era that produced the first wave of steel ballparks (if perhaps not as fondly)? Or is it just a statistical blip, a pause in the action before the next round of construction? Let's take a look at the remaining candidates:

THE CONTENDERS

FLORIDA: The Fish have been angling for new digs seemingly since the day in 1993 that Chuck Carr took his first hacks in the batter's box. There are two time-honored tactics for convincing the public that your team needs a new stadium: make a championship run and hope the excitement generates enthusiasm for throwing public money at your club, or tank so badly that you can claim fans will never so much as smell the postseason without new digs. As the Marlins have gone from champions to cellar-dwellers and back again, their rotating owners (Wayne Huizenga, John Henry, Jeffrey Loria) have tried both, with similarly fruitless results.

The latest plan--announced by Loria's stepson David Samson the day of the Marlins' World Series victory parade, natch--sounds promising on the surface: a $325 million retractable-roofed stadium, financed in part by county hotel tax funds and sales tax rebates. That is, unless you remember that it's nearly an identical plan to the one first hatched three years ago by Henry, right down to renaming the team the "Miami Marlins" in appreciation for the public loot. That proposal crashed and burned when Governor Jeb Bush killed a proposed cruise-ship tax that would have funded it, and its latest incarnation could face a similar fate. There's a $115 million gap remaining in the finance plan, the city of Miami must agree to donate land (likely the site of Miami Arena, built at public expense in 1988 and abandoned just 11 years later by both the Heat and Panthers for new taxpayer-funded digs up the coast), and Miami is exploring its legal options for challenging $50 million in hotel-tax money that would be diverted from its convention-center expansion budget. There's also the nagging question of whether Samson's cost projections are reliable, given that Henry's near-identical plan was estimated at $60 million more, in 2000 dollars.

Though Marlins execs have never stopped griping about the unsuitability of Pro Player Stadium for baseball--when Game Three of the Series suffered a rain delay, it was as if God Himself had cast a vote on a stadium referendum--the team's real problem is the albatross of a lease that Huizenga designed as a way to siphon off funds from the team while crying poverty. (Economist Andrew Zimbalist estimated that in the 1997 championship year, it enabled the former garbage-hauling king to turn a $14 million profit into a $34 million paper loss.) What really needs to happen, says Zimbalist, is "Huizenga ought to renegotiate the lease. If he doesn't, they'll probably get a new stadium, and he won't get any money out of it. Pro Player is a decent stadium, and with a decent lease, that place can work."

ST. LOUIS: You'll be forgiven if you thought the Cardinals already had Busch Stadium's successor underway: after years of haggling with local elected officials, team prez Mark Lamping announced in September that he hoped to wrap up the team's share of its financing the following month, with groundbreaking scheduled for Oct. 15. October came, October went, and the St. Louis topsoil remains unsullied by shovels.

While the power of positive thinking may have made a nice storyline for Andy Benes, it's unlikely to conjure $225 million out of thin air, which is how much private cash Lamping needs to come up with to make the team's Ballpark Village plan a reality. This daunting sum would be the second-largest private ballpark expenditure in history (after Pac Bell); needless to say, it wasn't the Cardinals' original idea. But when initial requests for public cash met with a reluctant legislature, the team concocted a complicated scheme that involves private investors who will build and own the stadium (with the help of city and county subsidies), then lease the building back to the team for $14 million a year.

After the ball stopped bouncing, the Cards are still left with that $225 million financing hole, and so Lamping keeps declaring new target dates for groundbreaking (the first one was last May), as his credibility slowly slips away like the dying embers of Joe Girardi's career. The whole shadow play is eerily reminiscent of the drama surrounding the Boston Red Sox in the summer of 2000, when then-owner John Harrington extracted a promise of $100 million in state funds from the Massachusetts legislature with a commitment to raise $330 million in private funds. The Fenway eulogies ran fast and furious for a few months, until it became clear that no Beantown bankers were about to loan out megabucks for a project that would add, at most, $20 million a year (less revenue sharing) to the team's already bulging coffers. The Cardinals, with similarly strong attendance and revenue at their current home, may yet end up going back to the drawing board, or just sticking it out a few more years at Busch.

THE AGING VETERANS

BOSTON: When Harrington handed off the Sox to ex-Marlins owner John Henry, expectations weren't high: this was, after all, the man who arrived in Florida promising to build a stadium with his own billions, then promptly turned around and asked the governor for that cruise-passenger tax. So it was a bit of a surprise when Henry walked into Boston and immediately hired Janet Marie Smith, the self-proclaimed genius behind Camden Yards, to find ways of boosting revenue from Fenway without using public dollars.

Since then, the new Sox management has added the stunningly popular Green Monster seats, opened up more concessions space in the Fenway concourses, and generally done a lot of the things that critics like the fan group Save Fenway Park! have been saying for years could help make baseball's oldest ballpark both more fan-friendly and more profitable, all while hedging like crazy on the subject of Fenway's long-term future. Still, building a new stadium in the crowded Boston cityscape would be stunningly expensive (Harrington's plan was projected at $665 million), and the team would be back at square one in asking for public subsidies from a state facing a $2 billion budget deficit. So Fenway is likely safe for now, except perhaps from the threat of a few more ad panels on the Green Monster to help pay off Manny's declining years.

MINNESOTA: It was 1997 when Minnesota state rep Loren Jennings, in the wake of a legislative slapdown to Carl Pohlad's latest call for public stadium money, declared that "on November 13, professional baseball died in Minnesota." Six years later, the Twins are still unhappily ensconced in the Metrodome, and thriving: two straight AL Central titles, and attendance that has drifted back to respectability (1.9 million the last two years).

After a brief interregnum of Jesse Ventura, an implacable opponent of public stadium subsidies, the governor's mansion has now returned to the more conventional control of former state rep Tim Pawlenty, who quickly took control of the situation by asking for suggestions from the populace on what to do for the Twins. (BP readers who'd like to chime in should contact the Minnesota Department of Finance by Jan. 15). Minnesota residents have long been especially hostile to stadium demands--when Pohlad threatened to take the Twins to North Carolina, locals flooded legislators' phone lines with no-stadium calls--so if Pohlad stands a chance of seeing his payday, it'll likely happen only if he can prompt a bidding war between St. Paul and Minneapolis. These are the cities, after all, that once struck a peace accord in the competition for local businesses, only to see St. Paul's mayor immediately offer $90 million to a Minneapolis computer firm to move across the river.

NEW YORK: Not to imply that threats to move baseball teams out of town are always bogus, but the first time George Steinbrenner threatened to take the Bronx Bombers to New Jersey if he didn't get a new stadium, Tommy John and Joe Niekro were in the starting rotation. Nearly two decades later, the Bombers are still in the Bronx, and George's bluster has lost much of its sting: a $1.6 billion twin-stadium deal, announced the last day of Rudy Giuliani's mayoralty as a parting gift to the Yanks and Mets, was swiftly overturned by his successor Michael Bloomberg. With the city's attention now focused on building a Manhattan stadium for the Jets (and the Olympics), the Rudydomes are now so far on the back burner you'd need a telescoping pot holder to reach them.

The big loser here isn't The Boss--who, after all, would have the most lucrative franchise in pro sports if he played in Central Park--but Mets owner Fred Wilpon, who early on hitched his stadium wagon to the Yankees' (the Mets' Shea Stadium lease guarantees them the next new baseball stadium built in the city), never thinking that Giuliani's term of office would pass without a new building for his favorite team. Now, with Rudy gone (for now) and the city budget mired in annual multi-billion-dollar deficits, the two clubs must satisfy themselves with the $119 million in city money they received for new minor-league parks in Staten Island and Brooklyn, the $5 million a year in stadium "design and planning" money that Giuliani doled out as rent rebates (and Bloomberg left intact), and the distant hope of a Rudy return to office, or at least a Tommy John return to the mound.

OAKLAND: Well, that didn't work out so well. Throwing $130 million in luxury-seat money at Al Davis to bring the Raiders back from their L.A. exile was supposed to be a win-win for the team and the city. Instead, it led to a disfigured stadium, a Davis lawsuit that extracted another $34 million from Oakland taxpayers, and stepped-up demands by the A's for a building of their own. Oopsie.

After spending the better part of a decade being batted around by Al Davis' lawyers, though, the city of Oakland hasn't exactly leapt to spend more stadium money on the A's. And the team's owners aren't exactly in a strong bargaining position. They appear hesitant to leave Northern California (smart move, considering the kind of TV markets they'd be stuck with in the alternatives), but their options there are limited: Santa Clara County (Silicon Valley to you) offers plenty of potential luxury-box clientele, and absolutely zippo in the way of stadium prospects.

THE ROOKIES

Bud Selig's Stadium Extortion Across North America Tour, as Doug Pappas has dubbed it, has shaken loose an awful lot of cities that would like to acquire a whiff of big-league aura (Hop aboard, Las Vegas! Come on down, Monterrey!). But the only candidates to even hint at offering what the Commisserator and his cronies are really after--a publicly-funded stadium--are Washington, D.C., and Portland, Oregon.

Portland offers one of the few untapped baseball markets over two million in metro-area population, an extremely active baseball committee--and a state budget crisis that has led to the slashing of school programs and the early release of prisoners in an attempt to save a few bucks. After various financing schemes (including the ever-popular Indian casinos) fell by the wayside, stadium boosters were left with a plan that would redirect the state income taxes of players and team officials to provide $150 million in stadium funds. Though it passed the state legislature in September, holdout legislators demanded that a private guarantor agree to be on the hook for the $150 million if the player-tax scheme comes up short. Given that a state legislative analyst projected last May that tax revenue would be woefully insufficient, it's no surprise there's been no rush to volunteer.

As for D.C., the city council has declared that it won't discuss a stadium bill until MLB commits to the District as the Expos' new home. This leaves the minions of Bud in a bit of a bind: Hand over the keys to the 'Spos and then hope that an appreciative Washington finds three million Ben Franklins in its budget for a stadium, or take their chances with Portland and the rest of the smaller markets. Neither option is especially desirable when viewed through MLB's greenback-colored glasses, which is no doubt why the good people of Quebec (and Puerto Rico/Mexico) can look forward to another year or two of Endy Chavez brightening their workaday lives.

THE LONGSHOTS

No self-respecting sports owner would be caught dead without a drawerful of HOK blueprints to whip out, should an obliging state legislature turn up with a fistful of cash. The Royals have griped about the inadequacy of Kauffman Stadium for ages (Bud Selig, entertainingly enough, asserted early last year that "the stadium issue has to be addressed for Kansas City to keep up with Detroit"), but seem content for the moment to lobby for state subsidies to renovate one of baseball's underrated gems.

The Dodgers are in the process of being sold to a real-estate magnate, Frank McCourt, renewing talk of cashing in on the land under Dodger Stadium (the city of L.A.'s contribution to that "private" facility, back in 1958) and building anew elsewhere.

The Toronto Blue Jays' honeymoon period at SkyDome is long over--the team briefly threatened to move back to its old home of Exhibition Stadium in 1998, though the Ex was then in the process of being demolished--and the team would no doubt love it if a new stadium materialized, perhaps in conjunction with a Toronto Olympics bid.

One province over, Montreal was never keen on funding another ballpark--after accruing a billion-loonie debt on the Big Owe, can you blame them?--and with the Expos likely headed out of town one of these years, chances are dwindling fast. But then, stranger things have happened: In 1992, you would have been laughed out of San Francisco to suggest that the Giants would be playing in a brand-new waterfront ballpark in 10 years time, instead of their then-certain destiny in Tampa Bay.

But then, 1992 was a different time. Pac Bell Park became the only privately funded ballpark of the last four decades for a reason: It was built in a city with the world's highest concentration of dot-com tycoons, at precisely the moment when they were flush enough to be hit up for the long-term seat licenses that laid the foundation for the new park. Five years later, or 10 miles east, and the Pac Bell financing plan would have collapsed faster than the Nimitz Expressway.

The dodgy prospects of even an unmitigated success like Pac Bell--one estimate by Sports Business News projected that the team needs to sell 30,000 tickets a night for the next 20 years just to break even on its stadium debt--points to the dirty little secret of the stadium boom: On their own, they don't make money. Though team owners have been enriched by their new digs, it's not from the new luxury-box and concessions revenues, which wouldn't even pay debt service on all the steel and concrete. The only money to be made in new stadiums is by subsidizing team profits with the public purse.

And the public purse is becoming more difficult to pry open. This is a result of a confluence of factors, says Zimbalist: "One is the fiscal environment of cities and states. Another is that we're a good way through the stadium boom, and some of the remaining candidates are these historic stadiums that look a lot better on reflection. Another is that for those people who didn't understand this beforehand, it is now painfully apparent that new stadiums by themselves don't do very much--you also have to have a good team. Detroit and Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and Milwaukee have dramatized that. And, I think, there's growing education that the promised economic booms from stadiums don't realize themselves. So there's more enlightenment on the side of the public, and a little bit more resistance than there used to be."

No one's yet ready to declare the end of the stadium boom--Zimbalist pegs the Expos (wherever they ultimately land) and the Marlins as the most likely prospects, though he says, "I expect the county and city of Miami to bargain pretty tough." (The Marlins are actually one potential exception to the building-your-own-stadium-doesn't-pay rule: Thanks to that godawful Huizenga lease, they have more marginal revenue to gain from a new stadium than possibly any team in baseball. Of course, they're also owned by a notorious tightwad who stole everything from his last team's computers to Vladimir Guerrero cut-outs when he relocated to Florida, so it's anyone's guess.) But for the first time in recent memory, even the most advanced stadium proposals are far from sure things, and could remain stalled for years, or forever. Which means there could be baseball played in Pro Player and the Metrodome--and Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium--for a long time to come.

Neil deMause is co-author of the book Field of Schemes and runs the fieldofschemes.com Web site. He lives in Brooklyn with his partner Mindy, their son Jordan, and a circa-1986 Yankee Stadium bleacher seat. He can be reached at neild@drizzle.com.

Neil deMause is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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