Stadium mania: field of dreams for the millionaire team owners

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Don Bayer, a St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan for over 60 years, remembers going to the 1964 World Series for the price of an $8 ticket. Today a beer in the new St. Louis ballpark goes for $8.50. Moments after winning the 2006 Series, the Cardinals announced that the top tickets for next year would go for between $100 and $150.

Writer Glenn Stout put it best, quoted in a Sports Illustrated article about new ballparks. “Today’s ballpark is not a place to play baseball — that’s completely secondary. It’s just a delivery system for food, beverage and memorabilia, and a facility for business — luxury boxes and really expensive seats.” That’s why Bayer, who used to attend 40 to 60 games a year, says he probably won’t step foot in a major-league ballpark again.

Robbing taxpayer Peter… The irony is that while fans are being priced out of attending games in person, they (and other taxpayers) are also paying the freight for these new ballparks. The website www.fieldofschemes.com monitors teams’ attempts to get new venues and estimates that approximately $2 billion in public subsidies per year goes to ballparks, stadiums and arenas.

Polls always show that most taxpayers would rather spend their money on schools and hospitals. But big-city politicians often direct taxpayer dollars to stadiums and arenas for the local professional sports franchises.

For example, take the case of Seattle. In September 1995, a proposal for a new stadium was rejected by voters in King County. But within two months, the Mariners baseball club began talks with local politicians on how to fund a new stadium — and, despite nine different lawsuits, the publicly subsidized “Safeco Field” opened in Seattle in 1999.

Most proposals for new venues never even reach the taxpayers. Before leaving office, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said he wanted to start talks about ballparks for the Yankees and Mets, his “parting gift” to the city. When asked why he didn’t put the new stadiums up for a vote, Giuliani replied, “because they’d get voted down.”

In the early 1900s, baseball stadiums were built and paid for by the teams. By the late 1960s, new parks were springing up in most major cities. These modern venues catered to baseball and football, were usually located downtown, and were built on the public dime. Owners, politicians and the media often trumpeted these new stadiums as part of a downtown renaissance.

But Roger G. Noll, co-author of Sports, Jobs, and Taxes: The Economic Impact of Sports Teams and Stadiums, disputes this claim: “There’s never been a publicly subsidized stadium anywhere in the United States that had the effect of increasing employment and economic growth in the city in which it was built.”

In some cities, crucial services deteriorated after stadiums were built. Baltimore and Cleveland have mostly publicly funded baseball and football facilities, but their public schools are in receivership. (Cleveland’s schools were actually once promised $15 million per year income from the stadiums.) And as Washington, D.C. built its new baseball stadium, thanks to the insistent “leadership” of Mayor Anthony Williams, the city also closed its only public hospital.

…to pay billionaire Paul. In the old days, sports venues hosted multiple activities and were expected to last 60 or 70 years. By the early 1990s, owners began asserting that facilities built in the ’60s and ’70s were already obsolete.

Not satisfied with simply having a new stadium, team owners also began to demand separate stadiums for each sport. They decided these new stadiums must come with private suites that teams could sell to corporations and individuals for thousands of dollars per year. For example, indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff had private suites at every sports facility in D.C. to woo his clients.

How do sports owners get their new stadiums? Many threaten to move their teams, painting local pols as “bad guys” who won’t work with them. Wealthy owners also enjoy backroom access to politicians, who get campaign donations for their troubles. Donations quadruple when you add the ones from “community leaders” who show their appreciation after stadiums are built.

Who are some of these owners? The Yankees’ George Steinbrenner, who was once suspended from baseball for illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon; the Seattle Seahawks’ Paul Allen, a Microsoft billionaire; President George W. Bush, a former baseball owner who brokered a deal for the new Texas Rangers’ ballpark.

So, what’s behind those feel-good stories about players and teams that we see on TV? Profits. Capitalism has turned sports into big business. You paid for the ballpark, but if you can afford to get in, can you still afford the beer?

Freelance writer R.V. Murphy offers his take on sports and politics at raymurphy@blogspot.com.

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