Braves Flying Squirrels need a new stadium. So says the Atlanta Braves AAA San Francisco Giants’ AA team management, and various mayors over the past decade (see what I did there? Same argument, different decade).
The Diamond, built on the site of the old Parker Field on the Boulevard is 28 years old this year. The city needs a new modern stadium -say the folks that are pushing it- with hotels and shopping and restaurants all around to “bring fans downtown” and to “stimulate the economy.” Problem is, they can’t seem to come up with a plan that all the interested parties can agree on. Some say they should build this great new stadium downtown; others say they should keep the Diamond but do a major renovation, while others think the site of the current stadium (with convenient interstate access) should be reconfigured and a new stadium built there, along with the other amenities.
Why do they need a new/reconfigured/rebuilt stadium? There are two contributing arguments: first is the old “if we don’t give the Squirrels a new stadium, they’ll leave like the Braves did (the Richmond Braves left for Gwinnett County, GA, when they didn’t get a new stadium)”, and the ever-popular “it will good for the economy – think of the economic benefits for the city and surrounding counties.”
Currently, the localities around Richmond that
pay tribute support for operating costs through an organization called the Richmond Metropolitan Authority (RMA). The city has more votes on the board of this organization than the counties do when it comes to making decisions about the Diamond. Currently, they’re squabbling about whether/how to pay for a $300,000 lighting upgrade that’s required by AA baseball to bring the field up to spec. One of the localities wants to withdraw their portion of the payment because the city of Richmond can’t make a decision about whether/where to locate any new stadium that might get built. Lots of talk and studies have happened in the last decade, but no real actionable plan has surfaced. Understandably, they don’t want to plow a hundred grand into lights that might become scrap in a couple of years.
Details, details…whatever. We don’t really need a new stadium. The owners/politicians want a new stadium, for reasons you can probably guess. Any money kicked in by the city and surrounding counties is money the owners don’t have to pull out of their own pockets. The mayor and other leaders want some monument attached to their “legacy”, or at least their name on some plaque prominently placed on the foundation. Never mind that that monument might be a money-losing albatross for years to come, as some of these stadium deals turn out to be (New Jersey is still owed $110 million on the old Giants stadium -yeah, the one they tore down- and it only cost $78 million to build). Despite the cries of “economic benefits” to the area, these deals turn out to be transfers of public monies to private pockets: owners and players (maybe not the players so much at the minor-league level, but in the majors of all professional sports).
The News Herald in Florida published an editorial last week about this very thing. Seems politicians there re wary of doling out more taxpayer-funded favors to professional sports teams:
It’s a familiar refrain from the mouths of team owners and local politicians throughout the nation. Savvy businessmen convince the government to underwrite some of their risk while elected officials get to wrap themselves in team colors while boasting to voters about how they brought, or kept, pro sports in their town. Rah, rah, rah!
The problem with that theory is that there is scant evidence that such economic benefits actually occur. Numerous studies done over the last 25 years have found that professional sport teams have little, if any, positive effect on a city’s economy. Usually, a new team or a new stadium location doesn’t increase the amount of consumer spending, it merely shifts it away from other, already existing sources. Entertainment dollars will be spent one way or another whether a stadium exists or not. Plus, the increase in jobs is often modest at best — nowhere near enough to offset the millions invested in the projects.
Most of the benefits go to ownership and players. A 1999 Cato Institute report found that 55 percent of the gains from subsidies to pro sports teams go to players and 45 percent to owners.
Some in Tallahassee are wary of making such a commitment. Senate budget chief Joe Negron, R-Stuart, says he won’t support any new incentives for sports teams unless the state finds a way to pay for them. A Senate panel, for example, last week approved the elimination of a 30-year-old tax break for banks in order to pay for the Dolphins stadium bill.
But it’s not about the amount of money, but the principle of spending it on pro sports.
Warren Meyer, who writes for Forbes Magazine and blogs at Coyote Blog, has written extensively about what a bum deal professional sports stadium subsidies are for the localities that pay for them:
Readers will know that I am not a fan of publicly-funded stadiums. Had the mayors of the 40 largest cities in the US signed a no-public-funding pledge 30 years ago, and stuck to it, we would still have the same number of sports teams in roughly the same places, but without all the taxpayer subsidies. It is rivalry among cities the creates a sort of prisoners dilemma problem and we end up with rampant public subsidies.
What I hadn’t realized was the role of outright bribery and kickbacks in this process. Apparently, it is routine that city and county officials take compensation, in terms of free personal access to luxury boxes, in return for approving these public stadiums
In late August, when the Mobile City Council and Mayor Sam Jones first toured the $2.5-million addition to Ladd-Peebles Stadium, including 11 new skyboxes, District 6 Councilwoman Connie Hudson said she was surprised to hear the city council would have a suite separate from the mayor’s, which is located just between the 40- and 50-yard lines.
“It was announced to me on the day we toured,” Hudson said. “We’ve always shared, like we do with the Baybears.”
The 11 new skyboxes bring the total at city-owned Ladd-Peebles Stadium up to 14, as three were built in 1997 in part of the press box addition. In addition to the two skyboxes available to the city, the Mobile County Commission also has a suite, which brings the total of skyboxes for local government use to three, or 21 percent of the skyboxes in the 61-year-old stadium.
One of the real problems I have with the “we need a new stadium” mantra is this: we rarely fill up the one we have now. I’ve sung the National Anthem at games in July and August, when only three or four thousand fans filled the 9,560 available seats. The only times I’ve seen it sold out are when they have fireworks after the game. True, the Squirrels have the best attendance in AA baseball, but still the Diamond is only two-thirds full on average. So, it’s not the need for more seats that’s driving the quest for a new stadium. It really boils down to the team wanting a new stadium, and the local politicians wanting to give it to them so they don’t move to another locality to pick their citizens’ pockets.
Like the Herald editorial says: it’s the principle of the thing. Don’t get me wrong: I like going to the occasional baseball game, and the Squirrels do a great job of entertaining all around the actual game. It’s great cheap entertainment. But, building a new stadium isn’t likely to bring any new economic benefits to the area, it’ll just shift around how people use their disposable income. That’s not something we need – not if it comes at the cost of millions of dollars that could be more sensibly used somewhere else. If the owners really need a stadium, and it’s a money-making proposition for them, they’ll fund it themselves.