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February 25, 2004

New Jersey and Baseball

Perfect Together?

by Andrew Baharlias

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The Newark Star Ledger reported Feb. 10 that George Zoffinger, the CEO of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, recently met with senior officials of MLB to discuss the possibility of bringing a franchise to the Xanadu/Meadowlands Sports Complex. Xanadu, which is a planned 4.76 million-square-foot family entertainment, office and hotel complex to be built at the Meadowlands Sports Complex, also calls for the redevelopment of Continental Airlines Arena (current home of the N.J. Nets and N.J. Devils) and is a joint venture between affiliates of Mills Corporation and Mack-Cali.

The idea of Major League Baseball in New Jersey is not a new one. A long-time hotbed of International League and Negro National League action, the Brooklyn Dodgers relocated a total of 15 games to Jersey City's Roosevelt Stadium in 1956 and 1957 as part of an effort to motivate New York City to give ground in difficult negotiations for a new Brooklyn ball park. The state has flirted with the Yankees for the past 20 years. In 1987 New Jersey was finally poised to redevelop the Meadowlands for baseball when voters soundly rejected the notion, a typical action for a state that pulls in so many directions at once that it's a wonder that it doesn't tear along the Pennsylvania border and sail down the Delaware into the Atlantic Ocean.

MLB, with its Kremlin-like secrecy and infighting, is much the same. Though Doug Pappas correctly suggests on his Web site that last week's meeting was likely not "about anything of consequence," there is no doubt that New Jersey is a viable market for a major league franchise. The Garden State has the location, the affluence, the population base, and the television market necessary for baseball to prosper. By several measurements, New Jersey presents a more viable market for baseball than do several current major league host cities, not to mention most if not all of the relocation possibilities mentioned for the Montreal Expos.

New Jersey also has promising possibilities for competitive balance problems, if only by presenting the possibility of blunting Yankees revenue. The critical questions, then, are: (1) why doesn't MLB have a franchise in New Jersey; (2) what would the Mets and Yankees do if such a franchise was in the offing; (3) is the Meadowlands really the best place to locate a franchise, and if not, what is the best place; and (4) who's going to play there?

1. VETO VETO

The Yankees and Mets share territorial rights to parts of New Jersey, the City of New York, parts of New York state, and parts of Connecticut. These territorial rights give each franchise the ability to summarily block any major or minor league franchise from setting up shop in their backyard. With the exception of Commissioner Bud Selig exercising his "best interests of baseball" powers, there is no situation in which both the Yankees and Mets would voluntarily waive their rights. Given Selig's wishy-washy response to the A-Rod trade--"I feel sort of uncomfortable about this, really it bugs me, but, well...OK"--it is hard to imagine him standing up to the mighty Yankees or the cranky Mets. Additionally, any franchise relocation requires a 75% approval from baseball owners, and veto aside, Steinbrenner and Wilpon could have enough clout with owners to quash any franchise relocation.

Generally speaking, MLB franchises are incredibly protective of their territory. The Yankees and Mets would not be the first teams to make the argument that their franchise values would be diminished by the addition of another team into the market. The Orioles have for years made this claim with respect to a possible relocation of the Expos to either the District of Columbia or Northern Virginia, and O's Owner Peter Angelos has vowed to fight MLB in court if the D.C. area wins the relocation beauty contest.

Many teams are so protective of their territory that they're liable to flip out if even a rookie league or short-season minor league team wants to get in on their action. This scenario played out in 1998 when the New York Mets got behind a proposal to put a minor league team in Brooklyn as part of a rejuvenation of Coney Island. The Yankees had a similar issue in that there was a proposal to bring a minor league team to Staten Island that would become part of their farm system. In a rare showing of cooperation between the teams, the Mets and Yankees agreed to concomitantly waive their territorial rights so the Brooklyn Cyclones and the Staten Island Yankees could come into existence. The results have been nothing but positive, as a spirited rivalry on a minor league basis has developed between these Class-A franchises. There is an interesting possibility here, that within certain limits, the presence of varied baseball options in a market doesn't wound the existing franchises, but simply breeds more baseball. Call this a subject for future research.

In the unlikely event that the commissioner decided to force the issue (as he may have to with the Orioles), MLB would then have to take shelter with the Major League Agreement, which prohibits owners from litigating against the commissioner's office.

2. IS THE MEADOWLANDS THE BEST PLACE TO PUT A THIRD TEAM?

Being part of the New York Metropolitan area has several benefits for the State of New Jersey. Aside from being the largest television market in the United States, New Jersey, with 372 people per square kilometer, is also the most densely populated place in North America; don't try making reservations, because you can't get a table. Additionally, according to the 2000 census, New Jersey overtook Connecticut as the wealthiest state in the nation, with a median income of $55,146 a year. In 2002, per capita personal income checked in at $39,453--second highest in the nation.

New Jersey is home to eight minor/independent league baseball teams (with an expansion Atlantic League team on the way--the Bergen Cliffhawks are supposed to take up residence at Xanadu), one NHL franchise (N.J. Devils), an NBA franchise (N.J. Nets), two NFL teams (Giants and Jets) and a host of other professional franchises that run the gamut from lacrosse to soccer to arena football to a billion-dollar horse racing institution.

New Jersey residents supported their eight minor/independent league teams last year to the tune of 2 million in paid attendance. Not a small number, but a closer look into these attendance figures show a potentially troubling picture for viability in the northern part of the state.


                                  Total       Average
                                 Attendance  Attendance
Lakewood BlueClaws                445,838     6,654
Trenton Thunder                   427,567     6,108
Somerset Patriots                 345,798     5,161
Camden Riversharks                300,130     4,547
Newark Bears                      191,034     3,032
Atlantic City Surf                177,723     2,576
New Jersey Cardinals (Augusta)    117,220     3,349
New Jersey Jackals (Little Falls) 104,100     2,669
TOTAL                           2,005,310       

Lakewood, Trenton, Somerset and Camden (let's not include Atlantic City in this analysis as the city has long-standing problems of its own that baseball can never fix) all fall south of New Jersey's version of the Mason-Dixon line. These teams sharply outdrew their northern counterparts of Newark, Little Falls and Augusta by a factor of close to 2:1 (based on average attendance). In addition, despite its rich baseball history and recent renaissance, average attendance in Newark is practically half of their Atlantic league rivals in Somerset.

What is equally puzzling is that Lakewood, an A-ball affiliate of the Phillies and a suburb more known for its large orthodox Jewish population than anything else, actually outdrew the Trenton Thunder, the Double-A affiliate of the Yankees. For those of you unfamiliar with New Jersey geography, Lakewood is in the middle of nowhere, and Trenton is the state capital where more than half of the state's employees come to work each day.

On the surface, these decidedly southern cities and their attendance figures suggest that the wrong question has been asked. The issue shouldn't be whether or not the NY/NJ market needs a third team, but if the NJ/Philadelphia market needs a second.

There are several reasons why the Northern New Jersey teams don't do as well as their southern/central New Jersey counterparts. First and foremost is the fact that any team in the north is competing to some extent with the Yankees and the Mets, not to mention the many attractions of the big city itself. Although Newark has done much to improve its image in recent years, there's still a long way to go before it becomes the Riviera of the North. Traffic congestion in northern New Jersey is so terrible that it alone could strangle the life out of any sports franchise. There is no walk-up to the Meadowlands complex--it's in the middle of a swamp--and it has not yet been penetrated by rail. As such, all customers come by car, and the network of roads and parking lots surrounding the complex are simply not up to the task. The experience of driving into the Meadowlands at game time is like being the rodent in a giant game of automotive gerbil stuffing.

In their entire combined New Jersey history, the Nets and Devils have never had strong attendance records and have struggled to remain profitable despite favorable leases and success on the ice/court (long-term in the case of the Devils, arguably the NHL's best franchise for 10 years, recent in the case of the Nets). The absence of public mass transit options, like the proposed rail-link to the Northeast Corridor line that was supposed to happen almost 20 years ago, have killed these franchises and possibly the Continental Airlines Arena as well.

Not that these teams have always acted as if they were aware of their best interests. Facing revenue streams limited by their lack of drawing power, these teams have elected to raise prices, in effect taxing their most loyal customers. This is one of the most effective ways of alienating people, right up there with promising "no new taxes" and then taxing the hell out of the very people who got you elected. In the early 1990s a senior Nets executive was asked if he thought the Nets' attendance problems had anything to do with not having public transportation in the form of a rail-link. His reply was that he felt New Jersey just needed a winning team. Ten years later, the team is winning but attendance is still poor. Ipso facto. Trains are now said to begin running to the Meadowlands in 2006, which will ameliorate but not eliminate the transportation problems inherent in having a development which is not organically linked to any community.

New Jersey is desperate to save the Meadowlands complex from what may be its inevitable obsolescence. That the Devils want to leave for Newark, the Nets for Brooklyn, and the Jets for the West Side of Manhattan shows that they finally perceive that calling a freestanding island of asphalt home is less attractive than being an integrated part of a community. Fortunately for the Meadowlands, these communities have not rushed to reciprocate these feelings.

Still, for New Jersey, it may not be the big cities or the sports complexes but instead the suburbs where the future lies. Central/western New Jersey (where Somerset and Trenton are located) is experiencing an economic boom as companies and their employees flock to the rural atmosphere and less congested highways to escape the expensive grind of New York City. As part of this boom, entertainment venues such as minor/independent baseball offer residents a decidedly local alternative to the hustle and bustle of either Philadelphia or New York and therefore survive and flourish.

That is not to say that the Meadowlands would fail to support a major league franchise, but the myriad disadvantages located above might serve to mitigate an otherwise natural combination. An alternate location in Central New Jersey would be just as profitable. Using Middlesex, Ocean, Somerset, Monmouth and Mercer counties as a drawing base could be just as powerful as the northern counties that would support the Meadowlands. The problem is, where do you put the Stadium? That's a topic for another article, I'm afraid.

3. LAST NOTE: A TENANT

Territorial rights would no longer be an issue if the team that moves to New Jersey is the Yankees. In fact, the Yankees could relocate while claiming to maintain, Al Davis-style, their rights to the city of New York. Though the possibility of the Yankees crossing the Hudson has been downplayed in recent years, such a plan could be resuscitated at any time. The stadium situation in New York City is so ridiculously convoluted that most people (including the ones who supposedly are going to finance the project) truly have no idea what's going on at this point. In fact, Fred Wilpon told the Newark Star Ledger Feb. 21 that the Mets had restarted conversations with New York City officials about a new stadium. However, he had no idea where those talks would lead and said, "Will anything happen? I couldn't tell you."

As with the Mets' hopes for a new ballpark, the 2012 Olympic Committee and the New York Jets think that they can accomplish the impossible feat of building a stadium on the West Side of Manhattan. There is only one thing to say to these dreamers: If the Yankees couldn't get it done, what makes you think they can?

Andrew Baharlias was Staff Counsel to the New York Yankees between 1997 and 2002. He can be reached at abaharlias@wholesomereading.com.

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