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May 26, 2006

Stealing Minnesota

Lessons of the Twins' Big Stadium Payday

by Neil deMause

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If you're planning to tune in tonight's big Francisco Liriano-Felix Hernandez matchup at the Metrodome, be aware that first pitch has been pushed back to 7:32. That's because at seven o'clock, in a special on-field ceremony, Gov. Tim Pawlenty will sign into law a bill giving the Twins nearly $400 million in sales-tax money to build a new open-air stadium in downtown Minneapolis.

If this sounds weird to you, you're not alone--it does to me as well. Not the delay of game time--given that it's Liriano vs. King Felix, I'll forgo my planned quip about how even watching sausages being made is preferable to seeing a Twins-M's matchup--but rather that the Twins, the poster children for futile stadium campaigns for a decade or more, have suddenly hit the public jackpot.

This is Minnesota, after all, the state that had rejected public stadium funding time and time again, all the way back to the Scott Stahoviak era. Along the way, Twins owner Carl Pohlad had promised to up and move to North Carolina, offered his team up for contraction, tried to play a regular-season series in a temporary stadium to hook fans on the lure of outdoor baseball--everything short of threatening to play in the hollowed-out skull of Kent Hrbek--all seemingly for naught. To a generation of baseball fans, it seemed like the Twins would be fielding balls off the Hefty bag beneath Teflon skies for all eternity.

Eternity, it turns out, ran out at five o'clock on Sunday morning, when the Minnesota state senate, by a two-vote margin, made Carl Pohlad a happy man. As the dust settles, it's clear that there are some lessons to be learned here, both for the dwindling number of baseball franchises still seeking new homes (let's see, we've got Oakland, Florida ... hey, Toronto, haven't you been on this line once already?) and for those boggling that even in the traditional land of naysayers, the public stadium funding juggernaut rolls on unabated.

A good slogan is worth a thousand words. Back in the day, the Twins' stadium campaign went under the catchy title "Minnesota Wins!"--catchy, that is, if you're Letterman. The new campaign, meanwhile, had Hennepin county commissioner Mike Opat's phrase, "three cents on every $20"--representing how much Hennepin County taxpayers would be hit by the new 0.15% sales-tax surcharge that would fund the public's stadium costs.

As economic analysis goes, it was pure hokum: As I noted here one year ago, it would be equally accurate to say that the Twins stadium would cost $320 per man, woman, and child in Hennepin County. The public will be on the hook for three-quarters of the construction cost, but Pohlad will reap all of the new stadium revenues--the same deal, in essence, as was resoundingly rejected nine years ago, and a richer public payday than any recent stadium deal outside of MLB's pantsing of Washington, D.C.

As p.r., though, Opat's line was pure genius: The "three cents" shorthand regularly appeared in news stories on the stadium plan, and Twins supporters showed up at legislative hearings rattling jars of pennies. In the end, no one can say whether the motto won the day--but in a plan that passed the Hennepin County commission by only one vote and the state senate by two, it certainly couldn't have hurt to have legislators thinking of the stadium in terms of pennies rather than bundles of C-notes.

Lobbyists trump public opinion. Ask Minnesota state senator John Marty, a longtime opponent of Twins stadium bills, and he doesn't mince words: "It was all about the lobbying." Two polls on the eve of the legislative vote showed that voters opposed the Twins stadium bill by a more than two-to-one margin, but, says Marty, "Because of lobbying, most legislators don't believe that. They say, 'This may be true statewide, but not in my district.' Because they spend all day talking to the lobbyists, the Twins executives; the teams are constantly running ads on television, at the games, telling people 'contact your legislator.' So they are convinced the public opinion is split, and angry on both sides, but basically favors this."

The cost to the Twins of ten years of lobbying: $15 million, plus another few hundred thousand in campaign contributions. If you're scoring at home, that's a return on investment of more than two thousand percent.

"Minnesota rightly has a reputation of being a cleaner state than most, and I've never suggested that the problem with the legislature is vote-buying," says Marty. "The problem is they don't buy votes, they buy access and goodwill. If I give you a thousand bucks, you don't have to know anything about me--you're probably going to like me a little better, even if it's subconsciously."

Make the sale before you describe the extras. Under the deal agreed to this weekend, the Twins ownership will spend $135 million toward the $520 million stadium (about half the Twins' costs, it's estimated, will be made back on the sale of naming rights to the building, all of the proceeds of which will go to Pohlad and Co.); they have also promised to be on the hook for all cost overruns. This applies only to overruns on stadium construction, however--any additional costs for land and infrastructure will presumably be charged to Hennepin County.

Sound familiar? Reports out of Minnesota are that, as with the Washington Nationals deal, a combination of lowballed land price estimates and rapidly rising values for downtown real estate could yet send the public's tab even higher than what's been initially reported.

The waiting is the hardest part. As I've written before, the thing about stadium campaigns is that while the opposition needs to post a perfect record, a team only needs one win to take home the grand prize. Flags fly forever, and so do stadiums--or at least until the next time an owner thinks it's prudent to declare the old place obsolete.

And patience, too, can be a tactical maneuver when it comes to wearing down the opposition. For state legislators, says Marty, "we're all sick of the issue. So one of the lobbying efforts that's very effective is 'the only way this issue will ever go away is if we pass it.'"

The issue is gone, and so soon will be the Metrodome as a home for pro baseball. And with it goes not just the memories of pop-fly inside-the-park homers and Chuck Knoblauch hot-dog-toss night, but also one of the best lease deals, from the public's perspective, in all of sports. According to Judith Grant Long's research, the Metrodome bore the singular distinction of actually making money for the city year in and year out, thanks to a lease that forced the Twins to share concessions, parking, and ad revenue with their public landlords. That nonsense has been dispensed with under the new deal: starting in 2010, the Twins will join the ranks of their MLB brethren who play rent-free.

If there's a silver lining, it's that unlike in some other deals I could mention, no historic buildings will meet the wrecking ball. And even if the price tag was expensive, at least Twins fans can look forward to sitting beneath an open sky and smelling the fresh, clean air of ... uh, the garbage-incineration plant next door.

Ah, well. A whiff of dioxin can't be that dangerous, I suppose, compared to exposure to Rondell White.

Neil deMause is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Neil's other articles. You can contact Neil by clicking here

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