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March 4, 2007

Stadium Watch 2007

The Updates

by Neil deMause

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As of about now, Baseball Prospectus 2007 should be landing in mailboxes and on store shelves. This year's edition marks my debut as a contributor to the big book--if you turn way to the back, past the team essays and the oblique references to 19th-century literature, you'll find a series of short articles by myself and Maury Brown on various off-field matters, among them one on the four new stadiums (and one renovated one) that were approved in 2006.

The BP annual, as you may know, works on a crazy-short deadline, which allowed me to cover events up through mid-January. Naturally enough, in the few short weeks since, stadium news has busted out all over: some projects have lurched ahead, others hit unexpected roadblocks, and others just saw their price tags soar, which can't really be said to be unexpected given past stadium history. The scorecard so far in 2007:

Minnesota Twins

Where they were: Finally building their long-sought replacement for the Metrodome, after 11 years of beating on the state legislature's door paid off with $373 million in county sales-tax funds.

What happened since: While everybody was fussing over the money, no one seemed to notice that no one had bothered to secure the land for the new Twins stadium. In January, Minnesota papers were suddenly a-tizzy with the news that while the county planned to seize the property--a parcel mostly made up of parking lots adjacent to the Timberwolves' Target Center--by eminent domain if necessary, it only had $90 million with which to do so. If a judge ruled that the land was worth more than that, well, no one knew what would happen.

Come February, things were only getting more uncertain, with the Twins postponing the release of their stadium designs--we still aren't sure what the thing would look like, though almost certainly not like this--and local officials talking apocalyptically about needing to abandon ship and start over. County commissioner Mike Opat, who brokered the stadium deal in the first place, declared a couple of weeks back: "As we march on here, the price keeps mounting. At some point you have to decide there's got to be another site that works and isn't this expensive and doesn't bring so much hassle."

While Opat's tough words could just be calculated to scare landholders into agreeing to sell cheaply--figuring that if the stadium goes elsewhere, they'll end up with nothing--there's a fair chance that the Twins may yet have to take their loot bags of tax money and find another site, possibly delaying the project beyond its planned 2010 opening. Carl Pohlad might want to start taking his vitamins.

New York Yankees and Mets

Where they were: Breaking ground on two new stadiums with a total price tag of close to $2 billion, of which just under $700 million would come from city and state subsidies and tax breaks.

What happened since: In late January, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued his preliminary capital budget for the 2008 fiscal year, and it contained some surprises: Instead of the previously announced $258 million in city spending on land and infrastructure for the new stadiums set to open in 2009 (and to pay for tearing down Yankee and Shea), the numbers had suddenly ballooned to $381 million, without explanation.

The city Parks Department, which owns both the existing stadiums and the former public park where the new stadium is going up in the Bronx, subsequently confirmed that the Yankees project was now budgeted for an extra $35 million for "contingency funding and construction-related inflation" (read: cost overruns and the threat of cost overruns). As for the remaining mystery $88 million, Parks referred all other questions to a spokesperson for the city's Office of Management and Budget, who belied his title by not speaking. Ever. About anything.

The lesson here should be familiar to readers of these pages: public costs of a stadium always go up, even when the teams are supposedly on the hook for cost overruns. The Yankees project in particular was supposed to cost city taxpayers $135 million when it was first passed by the New York city council last April; a few weeks after that, it was at $160 million, and now it's $195 million minimum. Counting special tax breaks, meanwhile, federal, state, and city subsidies for the two projects now total just about exactly $800 million--pretty impressive for a pair of stadiums that were supposed to be "privately financed."

And speaking of inevitable cost overruns, this brings us to:

Washington Nationals

Where they were: Recipients of a $611 million stadium, overwhelmingly paid for by the city of Washington, D.C., set to open next April.

What happened since: The stadium is going up fast (see webcam here), and its price tag has actually remained steady for once, after jumping from $440 million to $611 million in the first year or so after it was initially proposed. (The Washington Post eventually revealed that then-mayor Anthony Williams had intentionally lowballed contingency costs to make the project more palatable to the city council.) To keep it under control, though, the city is building just 1,225 of the 9,000 parking spaces that the Nats had hoped for--which is potentially good news for polar bears, but means Nats fans should expect more long lines at the Metro station en route to and from games.

Though if the Nats continue their infatuation with Nook Logan, maybe there won't be any crowds to worry about.

Kansas City Royals

Where they were: Spending $250 million in county sales taxes to create a "360-degree entertainment atmosphere" at Kauffman Stadium.

What happened since: Royals officials revealed that they wanted to use $900,000 of their boodle to buy new computer and video equipment for their clubhouse, so that, among other things, players can play back game video on their iPods. County officials immediately cried foul, saying the renovation money was supposed to go to improve the fan experience, not buy new gizmos to help Joey Gathright understand exactly how much he can't hit, but Royals VP Kevin Ulrich defended the purchase as "an important piece to major-league teams. Hopefully, it will make the team better.

Which leads to the obvious question: Is Ulrich going to ask the public to buy him a pitching staff next?

Next up: A report on the teams that are still looking for ground to put shovels in - not to mention somebody to pay for the shovels.

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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