Ballpark Frankness - an article on the stadium swindle game

by Matthew Gast

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I grew up a baseball fan in Chicago, where I was fortunate to learn the game in two stadiums from an older era (the Cubs' Wrigley Field and the White Sox Comiskey Park). Moving to Minnesota and suffering through the Teflon-coated monstrosity known as the Metrodome was a shock to the system because it was hard to believe that a stadium could be that bad. When you get down to it, the Metrodome is the baseball equivalent of many user interfaces in the technology industry: not just bad, but aggressively bad.

I also was able to witness the building of the new Comiskey Park for the White Sox, which the author refers to as the first effective use of the "modern" algorithm for ballpark construction:

  1. State that the present stadium is "inferior" for some
    reason and that "competive pressures" require a new stadium. (Do not provide proof that the stadium is inferior, since it may be easy to rebut. Simply repeat that the stadium is inferior over and over again, until the media stops checking facts due to fatigue. It is, however, acceptable to stop maintaining the stadium so you can claim it is getting "run down.")

  2. Threaten to move the team someplace where the properly appreciative taxpayers will buy you a stadium. (St. Petersburg, Florida, used to have a "state of the art" facility built with no team in mind, simply to attract one to the area. Now that the Tampa/St. Petersburg area has the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, it is sadly no longer possible to use the area as leverage.)

  3. If there is still doubt, commission an "independent" report that shows that building the stadium will create incredible economic growth in the area. (Ignore that pesky Mark Rosentraub. More on him later.)

  4. If you reach this step and still have not succeeded, wait for the public to forget and try again.

It is particularly amusing, in a sadly ironic sort of way, that we can credit Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner of the White Sox, with a high-profile successful implmentation of the above algorithm. Reinsdorf has been a pioneer in transforming the sport from what I learned into something that looks like a day at the theme park, where fans don't need to watch the game. It is no wonder the sport is in trouble, given that the core product is no longer the sole attraction at many parks.

One of the few experts who is willing to speak out against public financing of stadiums is Mark Rosentraub, an economist who has studied sports economics extensively and author of Major League Losers: The Real Cost of Sports and Who's Paying for It. Subsidies are often used "create jobs" at a high cost. In the linked article, Rosentraub notes that the cost to the public treasury of high-tech job creation may be $100,000 per job, but the cost of jobs related to the construction of Jacobs Field in Cleveland was $200,000 per job! Elsewhere, Rosentraub
has said
that "[t]he Indiana Pacers have a slightly smaller [economic] effect on Indianapolis than a very large Wal-Mart store."

The new urban stadiums are better than the "concrete donut" multi-purpose stadiums from the late 1960s and early 1970s, but that isn't saying a great deal. Many of the new stadiums move fans in lower-priced seats farther from the action. Two observations that particularly struck me were both quoted from the book Field of Schemes. One is that new stadiums can increase attendance temporarily, but that the "new stadium" effect eventually wears off. In the meantime, owners have not learned how to make baseball more attractive to the fans, so they are left with the same quandries they had before multi-bazillion dollar stadiums. (At least they can successfully make taxpayers foot the bill for the stadium.) One long-time fan also contends that seats far away from the field of play fail to entertain children, thus strangling the future of the game. Children who do not learn baseball and cannot appreciate it will not grow up to be the future fan support the sport needs.

In the decade since I left Minnesota, Carl Pohlad has been attempting to blackmail state and local officials into giving him a new stadium. This story, along with many others, say that part of the problem with proposed plans is that Pohlad, a billionaire who, by some accounts, actively supported contracting his team, does not want to contribute anything to the cost of a new stadium. He has very little support among leaders for an expensive stadium because they have correctly assessed the backlash that would result from giving a billionaire a $300M stadium, and they have also concluded that the money could be spend better elsewhere. Now, if only we could get public officials everywhere to follow their lead.