The Marlins didn’t kill publicly-financed ballparks. Or arenas. Or stadiums. Not in Florida. Not anywhere. Sure, the Marlins’ fire-sale trade with the Blue Jays — which came less than a year after the opening of the publicly-financed Marlins Ballpark — won’t help the cause of those seeking public monies to build new sports facilities. But teams will continue to seek public financing and municipalities will continue to say yes.
Because the Marlins’ swindling of the Miami-Dade taxpayers is nothing new. It’s simply the latest example of public officials falling prey to threats that a city’s team will leave and fancy reports prepared by team consultants that say a new ballpark will bring jobs, tax revenue and economic development — despite study after study that shows those claims hardly ever are true.
Indeed, that’s exactly what the Marlins said when trying to convince Miami-Dade officials about the benefits of a new ballpark in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. But as the Miami New Times showed in 2011, as the ballpark was under construction, the Marlins’ claims turned out to be — how to say this nicely? — false.
Spend just a bit of time reading Neil deMause’s excellent blog (and book by the same time) Field of Schemes or the research of Harvard Professor Judith Grant Long. You’ll find countless examples of ballparks or stadiums or arenas built with public money on the promise that a city or a county would see big economic benefits. And despite those unrealized gains, demands keep coming and funds keep flowing.
Two Major League Baseball teams are desperate for new ballparks: the A’s and the Rays. We’ve covered the A’s situation extensively in recent weeks (here and here). The issue there is not public funding, as the A’s intend to construct a new ballpark with private financing (although the city of San Jose voted to sell public land to the A’s at a below-market price). The A’s move and plans for a new ballpark are being stymied by their cross-bay rival Giants, which claim territorial rights to San Jose and Santa Clara County. And one of the reasons the Giants are fighting so fiercely to keep the A’s out of San Jose is that San Francisco carries significant annual debt, the result of building the first privately-financed ballpark in decades.
And then there are the Rays. The timing of the Marlins’ sell-off couldn’t have been any worse for the Rays. Today, the Greater Tampa and St. Petersburg Chambers of Commerce issued a long-awaited report detailing how Hillsborough County (where Tampa is located) or Pinellas County (where St. Petersburg is located) could raise $400 million in public funds needed to build a new ballpark, with the Rays kicking in $150 million of private funds. The Baseball Stadium Finance Caucus proposed slightly different plans for the two counties, but each plan contains a mix of redevelopment money, a car-rental tax and an increase in existing hotel taxes. Since the Rays are currently located in Pinellas, that county could also re-direct funds it already uses for Tropicana Field.
It’s unclear from public accounts whether the Baseball Stadium Finance Caucus made any claims about whether a publicly-funded ballpark would create jobs, spur economic development or be a financial gain for the counties financially. That may be, in part, because the Caucus’ report side-steps the biggest issue: location. The Rays are locked in a long-term lease with St. Petersburg for Tropicana Field and the city has been unwilling to amend the lease to allow the Rays to move.
In some ways, I can envision a scenario where the absurdity of the Miami-Dade-Marlins situation works to the benefit of the Rays in the future. As chronicled in Jonah Keri’s book The Extra 2%, Rays owner Stu Sternberg and his team built a perennial contender in the American League East by shunning the old way of running a baseball franchise and, instead, have leveraged every resource to take advantage of undervalued aspects of the team — on and off the field. Where Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria has been greedy and undisciplined, Sternberg has been careful and calculated. Perhaps public officials in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area think Sternburg can be trusted in ways that Loria cannot?
Miami-Dade taxpayers spent $500 million on a new ballpark for the Marlins. Less than a year after the park opened, the team’s owner unloaded more than $100 million in contracts. There’s absolutely nothing Miami-Dade taxpayers or officials can do about it.
And therein lies the the core problem with publicly-financed sports facilities. Even if the economics make sense — even if the bonds and the sales tax hikes and the tourists taxes and the redevelopment funds pay for the new ballpark without gutting other public resources — it’s still an extraordinary expenditure of public funds for the benefit of a privately held sports team. And after the ballpark is built, the municipality has no control over the team’s decision-making. No control over payroll. No control over free-agent signings. No control over trades. No control over coaching changes. No control over attendance. No control over TV ratings. No control over the team’s on-field performance.
Public officials should think about that the next time they’re asked to pony up hundreds of millions of dollars for a new ballpark because the team is so important to the city.