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Chat: Neil deMause

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Welcome to Baseball Prospectus' Thursday February 26, 2009 1:00 PM ET chat session with Neil deMause.

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Join the man who gave us "Field of Schemes" to talk about the latest machinations related to stadium construction, and how this New Yorker feels about the Big Apple's new pair of venues.

Neil deMause: Hi, and good to be here. I'm happy to take your questions on stadiums, ticket prices, or anything in the off-the-field realm, but a reminder that I don't have any special insight into, say, whether Travis Hafner's bat is going to bounce back this year. (Unless you're in my Diamond Mind league, in which case he's definitely all recovered and you need to trade me for him right now.) Without further ado:

Drew W (NoVa): Where to the A's go now that the Fremont plan is a bust? Was Fremont ever a legitimate destination for the A's?

Neil deMause: That's certainly today's $64,000 question. Taking your second question first: Fremont was always a gamble - the traffic problems weren't going to go away, nor were the folks who didn't want a stadium in their neighborhood - but it was as viable as anything back when it was going to be a loss leader for a lucrative condo project. Now that "lucrative" and "condo" don't go together, not so much. It's not the nattering nabobs of NIMBYism, or whatever Lew Wolff called them, that killed this project, but rather the subprime loan bankers.

Where next? Lots of people are jumping on the San Jose bandwagon, but while this makes sense demographically, still no one knows how to pay for it: San Jose won't go for public funding, and local law requires a public vote if they even try to give Wolff free land as part of the deal. Then there's the little matter of the Giants' rights to the South Bay - this isn't the Orioles' situation with D.C., where it was just part of their TV market, but rather serious "nobody better step foot on my lawn" territorial rights. Sure, Bud Selig can change the rules, but he won't do that without a payoff to the Giants, which on top of paying for a stadium could make this a money pit for Wolff.

That leaves us with Sacramento (smallish, isolated from the Bay Area), Portland (even smaller, nowhere near any other population centers, economy in the crapper), Las Vegas (not bloody likely)... the same motley crew as the Marlins were picking from a couple of years back, and the Expos before that. I still say the most likely scenario is Wolff stays put in Oakland for the next few years, and hopes either the housing market recovers or a couple of million people unexpectedly move to Fresno in the interim.

mdurkin1918 (New York): Hey Nd, I'm hearing the economy is hitting the Yankees ticket sales pretty hard. How does that affect their model? Can it result in more affordable tix for the average fan?

Neil deMause: Not immediately. All signs - including those from Yanks COO Lonn Trost in interviews this week - are that the economy is pushing people to downgrade their ticket plans, which means everyone is fighting over the same $25 upper deck and $12 bleacher seats, and lots of $85 seats in the outfield corners still available. (On WFAN yesterday, Trost blamed this on corporate bigwigs being ashamed to be seen in public sitting in good seats. Uh, sure.)

Down the road, though, I have noticed that StubHub is fairly hopping with seats at reasonable prices, leading me to believe that either season ticket holders are dumping their excess tickets, or professional scalpers got greedy and are stuck with more inventory than the economy can handle. So my advice is to remain patient, and see if some bargains show up as the season approaches - maybe the Yanks will even have to offer special two-for-one deals to fill their pricier seats like NBA teams are now doing. It'd still only help for Tuesday nights in May against the Twins, not weekends vs. the Red Sox, but twas ever thus, even at the old place.

GBSimons (Loganville, GA): With the A's plans for Fremont down the drain, the Marlins struggling to gain approval for their new digs, and plenty of backlash against the cost overruns on the two NY ballparks, might we finally be getting to the point where politicians and the general public realize building stadiums for billionaires is a bad use of public funds?

Neil deMause: Okay, maybe that's the $64,000 question.

I think the general public has been there for a while now - cf. the Safeco Field vote way back in 1995, where the public rejected it in a referendum, then the state legislature stepped in and paid for it anyway. So what you're really asking me is whether elected officials are going to get smarter and less craven. Shall we all hold our breath at once?

Besides, in my very first article for BP, I wrote: "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." That was in 2003, since which time the Nationals, Mets, Yanks, and Twins have all gotten record-breaking public subsidies for stadiums. This recession isn't that one, sure, but I'm still not going to believe it's over until I see it.

jlarsen (Chicago, IL): If the Rays can stay competitive and break the inagural year's attendance record, should the front office start pushing the new stadium idea again(however, with more choices of location)?

Neil deMause: I think they're going to be pushing it regardless what the team does on the field this year - don't they have some task force of bigwigs (or maybe muckety-mucks, I can never remember) researching how to come up with a more viable plan? The timing even works out in the end - they can wait out the economy a bit, then come back next legislative session.

Anyway, if the Rays show they can draw fans to Tropicana Field, is that really a good argument that they need a new place? I'm sure it's a cruddy place to watch baseball and all (I've only seen it on TV, but heard pretty dire reports from those who've been in person), but if people will put up with it to watch baseball, the Rays can survive there, right?

Gunpuddy (Nashville): What happens to those minor league franchises like Memphis, which are drowning with stadium debt? What's the impact on the product? And is Nashville lucky not to have a new stadium?

Neil deMause: If there's one thing we learned from the last Great Depression, it's that minor-league teams, with their thinner profit margins, are screwed. The Redbirds have been doing well enough at Autozone Park to pay off their debt so far, but they have to be worried about corporate suite sales and the like - another questioner reminds me that the Cardinals' plan to buy the team from a local non-profit has been scrapped for the time being, leading me to believe they're worried as well.

As for Nashville, I consider any city lucky to have a stadium that has a longer history than the players playing in it, but that's my personal taste.

Otto (Halifax): Who thought it was a good idea to build an outdoor stadium in Minnesota?

Neil deMause: The people who saw the price tag on a retractable roof, and decided that earmuffs in April were the better part of valor.

lemppi (Ankeny, IA): Dave Dombrowski has a big payroll with several old guys on pricey deals. Most of those old guys look rather un-marketable. His local economic outlook is far worse then the national outlook in most respects. How would you proceed in this environment if you were him given the situation and possible dip (cratering?) in attendance?

Neil deMause: Are we giving up on the Tigers already? PECOTA has them finishing 2nd in a weak AL Central, so they should hopefully at least reap the rewards of an exciting race for the Seligpennant.

Anyway, those contracts are a sunk cost, and so long as people are still buying pizza Mike Ilitch can cover them, so Dombrowski shouldn't let it affect his decision-making one bit. How to get Michiganders to spend their last few nickels to go see Dontrelle Willis pitch if he can't come within ten feet of the backstop I admit is a problem, but maybe they could consider lowering the ticket prices that they doubled when they moved into Comerica. Or play a couple of games a year at the remains of Tiger Stadium to attract history buffs.

GBSimons (Loganville, GA): I saw a Rays game about five years ago when they stunk, and the place was a tomb. I next caught a game last August when they were in the playoff race, and the house was rockin'! It's amazing what a winning team does for atmosphere - and attendance.

Neil deMause: I started to do a study a while back of which factors most affected attendance. While I finally gave up when I realized I was never going to get the hang of regression analysis, it's pretty clear that market size and on-field success (particularly on-field success the year before) are by far the most important elements. People will go watch a game anywhere if the team is good - see Minnesota, 1988.

Mike (Chicago): Any news on whether (or I should say to what degree) the new cubs' ownership is going to gouge their season ticket holders? PSLs? Just higher prices?

Neil deMause: Reply hazy, ask again once the new owners are actually in place. Though I suspect either would be a tough sell in this economy. See the speculation about whether Cubs tickets are already easier to get this year thanks to people's lighter wallets.

Corkedbat (Dallas): The Ballpark in Arlington has a nice little museum. Just a few blocks from Camden Yards is the museum for where Babe Ruth was born. Any plans for a museum on any of the newer ballparks in the works? Is this more standard now? I don't recall seeing one in CO.

Neil deMause: The Mets and Yankees will both have them, with promised "interactive" exhibits. That probably means stations for playing home run derby on PS3s, though I'm still holding out for the Sparky Lyle Sit Bare-Assed On A Birthday Cake simulator.

Clint (Chicago): Hi Neil. Which of the new wave of stadiums built since the Rogers Centre do you think will be the first to go and then be replaced? The easiest answer is Rogers since it's the oldest, but this is something I've wondered about since the stadium boom of the 1990's.

Neil deMause: The Blue Jays have rattled that saber before, so I'd guess Rogers as well. Though the White Sox would undoubtedly raze the Cell in a heartbeat if they could get a new place. After that... Camden and Jacobs seem pretty safe, Turner as well... A lot will likely depend on how successful the Yanks' "five-star hotel with a ballfield" model is, and whether everybody else on the block decides they need one now too.

Ben H. (Portland, OR): I'm hoping you'll expand on your earlier brief answer about how Portland is viewed as a possible relocation destination. There seems to be a lot of opposition to public subsidies of sports here, but the legislature put some kind of plan in place to fund a stadium. I hear a lot of arguments from the 'pro-stadium' crowd that Portland is bigger than some existing markets, etc. I just worry that Portland is being used as a pawn by other teams and cities to do their own deals. Can you give an impartial outside view?

Neil deMause: Portland is pretty darn small: Smaller media market than Indianapolis, and only a notch ahead of such metropoli as Pittsburgh and K.C. I guess that's "bigger than some existing markets," but that's like saying Dave Kingman has "more homers than some Hall of Fame members."

The current stadium plan for Portland involves converting their current baseball stadium for soccer, and building a new minor-league stadium for the Beavers, though the financing details are hazy at best, as probably befits a plan put forward by the son of the guy who oversaw the federal bank bailout. I was pretty skeptical of Portland's ability to build a stadium back when they tried it for the Expos, and nothing's happened since then to chance my mind.

As for being a pawn, that's going to happen whether Portland plays along or not. I still remember Rudy Giuliani holding a press conference to declare that the city needed to build the Yankees a new stadium because they were negotiating with New Jersey, and NJ's governor the next day holding her own press conference to say, "Hey, don't drag us into this."

ashitaka (long beach, ca): Hey Neil! Can you elaborate on territorial rights? Who determines them, and how often are they reassessed? It seems the population distribution in the Bay Area has shifted quite a bit over the last decade or so, to the point that it's unfair to the Athletics that the Giants command so much. Thanks!

Neil deMause: Bud Selig controls them, along with all else he surveys, though I wouldn't be surprised to learn that there's some super-secret Territorial Rights Subcommittee that meets at Jerry Reinsdorf's house on weekends. Likewise, I don't believe there's any set process for reassessing them. Like baseball's steroid policy, say, they just make it up as they go along.

The South Bay has certainly gained a ton in population of late, but then again, so has the East Bay. (Have you been to Hercules lately?) The problem here is that the Giants were counting on that Silicon Valley money when they agreed to build Pac Bell Park with their own money, and it's a bit unfair to pull the rug out from under them now. It's possible that there's enough money in the Bay Area overall that both the Giants and A's owners can be made happy, but it'd take a long, long stretch of negotiations to figure out a fair price - way longer than the Nats-O's thing a few years back.

dianagramr (NYC): Have you reached out to Lonn Trost to take in a game together from the "obstructed view" bleacher seats at the new Stadium? And ... wouldn't you say its HORRIBLE business practice to not disclose upfront (ESPECIALLY to season ticket purchasers) that some seats may have obstructed views?

Neil deMause: Horrible business practice, by the Yankees customer service department? Who could imagine that?

Given who we're dealing with here, I think it's equally possible that the Yankees were trying to snooker their fans into buying seats that face a blank wall (with a TV on it), or that they simply misplaced the stamp with "OBSTRUCTED VIEW" on it. Malfeasance and incompetence are both major parts of the Yanks' playbook.

As for Lonn and me taking in a game together, he doesn't take my calls. And after that last paragraph I just wrote, I don't expect he's going to start anytime soon.

dkralph (Felton, Calif): When politicians, as you say, ignore voters and step in and pay for stadiums that voters have disapproved of, do you think the motivation is typically to satisfy the team because it is a large business (so, presumably, in the interest of campaign contributions), to score a public relations hit, or because they feel a sense of civic duty, that the team "has to" stay in town and have a pretty ballpark?

Neil deMause: There are a bunch of likely factors: They're afraid of being blamed for the team moving, they're eager to please major local business leaders (and campaign donors), they're all giddy at the prospect of throwing out the first pitch at the place, they're just inured to handing out public money to development projects so what's one more? I don't think you can overlook the "edifice complex" - it's easier to put a plaque with your name on it on a stadium than on, say, reduced school class sizes.

drewfuss (kc): How do the two NY stadiums compare? Which upcoming ballpark are you most excited about (architecture/amenities/whatever)?

Neil deMause: I covered this for the Village Voice a while back - click the link if you want the details. Suffice to say that Citi Field looks like yet another Citizens Bank Park clone, while the new Yankee Stadium looks like a Vegas theme park version of the old one. If I had to pick one, it'd probably be Citi, but that's only because I prefer sterility to blasphemy.

I am excited about one feature of the Yankees' stadium, though: The several rows of box seats that will sit directly in front of, and about ten feet lower than, the front row of the new bleachers. The first game where the Yanks are down 10-0 in the 5th inning, it's going to be target practice out there.

brian (Brooklyn NY): I know this issue has been beaten to death (at least in NY) but do you have any idea what will happen to CitiField if the company is nationalised?

Neil deMause: You, me, and 300 million other Americans will find ourselves the proud owners of a great big billboard. What happens then depends on what the details of the naming-rights lease are, and they haven't been revealed yet. I'd expect that the government would sell off the name to some third party, though I suppose it's possible that they'd let Citi keep the name and hope it turns into an asset for a future private owner. Given the way they're handling the bank mess so far, I wouldn't put it past them.

Steve (San Diego): Is the Mets new field facing the same direction, ie how will the winds change?

Neil deMause: I just got this question the other day about the new Yankees stadium - does everybody have wind on the brain, or are you just trying to decide where to put Oliver Perez on your draft lists?

Home plate at Shea faced due east, at Citi it'll be more northeast. However, I think the bigger effect will be the ballpark shape: Shea was an open-ended C, so the wind off Flushing Bay tended to whip around the curve of the stands and freeze everyone to death, even on nights in mid-May when it was perfectly pleasant that day and who would have thought to bring a jacket? (Not that I have personal experience of this or anything.) Citi is more enclosed in the outfield, so the wind patterns will likely be affected, but how I couldn't even begin to guess.

What I'm seriously wondering about is whether the flight patterns at LaGuardia are remaining the same, and if so what that will mean for airplane flyovers. Those planes you would see out beyond the outfield at Shea are going to make quite the racket if the new stadium is 1000 feet closer to the flight path.

mattymatty (Philly, PA): In a recent column (I don't think it was on BP) Steven Goldman advocated for Northern New Jersey to get a team. Is that viable in any way?

Neil deMause: NJ definitely has the population, but we're back to territorial rights: The Mets and Yankees would scream bloody murder, since it's the awesome might of the NYC suburbs that is enabling them to pay for a share (though by no means all) of the most expensive baseball stadiums in history. I looked at this for BP a few years back and figured that a privately built stadium in Jersey for a team like the Marlins could pay for itself, but only barely, and that's before indemnifying the existing clubs. I think you'll see MLB in Portland way sooner than NJ, sadly.

MA (Athens, GA): How soon until some of these new stadium proposals are retooled as "shovel-ready" public works projects?

Neil deMause: It's happening already.

I have to run at 3 pm, so I'm going to speed through some of the remaining questions...

spf (Illinois): are there any franchises that are in jeopardy because of the economic crisis? Could we possibly see a team fold?

Neil deMause: In baseball? I don't see it. I am deeply concerned about whether to buy a WNBA mini-plan, though.

Jon (SF): Neil, in the long run will the Giants funding their stadium themselves put them in a better situation than the rest who take public funds?

Neil deMause: No, because they have (I think) $18 million a year in debt payments to make for another 20 years - it's always better to play with other people's money if you can swing it. Though I guess Peter Magowan can show his face in the expensive seats without being jeered. (Poor Lonn.)

Matt (Chicago): Neil -- are you familiar at all with the status of the "Ballpark Village" surrounding the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis? I have to imagine that it continues to be off in light of the state of the economy, but as I recall it was part of the whole package to make this palatable to the public by increasing the tax base, &c, &c. Also, I believe the Cardinals are on the hook for $3MM per year in penalties if the project is not completed by 2011.

Neil deMause: I admit I hadn't been tracking this - you mean they still haven't broken ground yet? Yeesh.

I really hope that if nothing else, the economic situation brings to all a halt all these "It's not just a stadium, it's an entertainment complex and a floor wax!" plans designed to muddy the financing waters so that everyone throws up their hands and just approves it. Though I admit it sure doesn't look like it.

David (Sonoma State University, CA): What's to make of the Giants' plan to have flexible ticket prices depending on demand for the game? Why don't more mid-to-low market teams do the same?

Neil deMause: I know that market-based solutions are all the rage these days (or were until last October, anyway), but I tend to suspect that anything that is more confusing tends to be bad for the consumer. Though given the ubiquity of StubHub, you could argue that all teams effectively have dynamic pricing in place already.

mhixpgh (Pittsburgh): Why do beer and hot dogs cost so much at a ballgame?

Neil deMause: Because you're not allowed to order in pizza.

Gray (Chicago): As much as it pains me, Wrigley will not be around forever...what would be your plan to replace Wrigley in 20, 30, 40 years?

Neil deMause: From a structural standpoint, not to mention a fan happiness standpoint, I don't see why Wrigley can't stick around for another 40 years, or 100. They might try learning from what the Red Sox are doing at Fenway to get more room to move around in it, though.

mhixpgh (Pittsburgh): I keep telling my friends here in Pittsburgh that all the Pirates really need is another new ballpark, then they'll really be able to turn things around. New revenue streams and all that. Whaddaya think?

Neil deMause: Excellent, they can play in one, and have one to stroke and hum to.

Neil deMause: And with that, I must run, lest my son's kindergarten teacher report me to child protective services. I hope we can do this again soon, and in the meantime, feel free to e-mail me with any urgent questions, or just if you want to kibitz, say, the upcoming Marlins stadium votes. Next Wednesday at 9 am, live on the Internet! I can hardly wait.


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