Braves, Rangers Indicate No End to Publicly Funded Stadiums

Baltimore’s Camden Yards opened to almost universal praise in 1992. The success of the park and its broad appeal spurred the development of new stadiums throughout baseball. Since the construction of Camden Yards, 21 of the league’s 30 franchises have received new stadiums, while eight others have undergone renovations (sorry, Tampa Bay). In Cleveland, they’ve seen both occur.

Averaging roughly one new stadium per year has been great for business, as attendance has gone up across the league and the old unsightly multipurpose stadiums have been retired. It would be reasonable to think, however, that such a boom in stadium construction would naturally result in an equally steep decline. There are, of course, only so many clubs for which to build new park. Reason isn’t always at play in such cases, however. Both the Braves’ relocation to a new home next year — and a recent announcement by the Rangers that they plan to build a new air-conditioned ballpark just 20-some years after debuting the old one — should solidify that notion for us. As long as they create profits for ownership, stadium building, renovations, and fights for public money will never end.

Baseball is a business, and franchise owners acts as corporate heads looking to extract money and increase profits wherever they can. Getting the public to fund a stadium is a very big part of that and most owners have been incredibly successful in this regard. Of all the news stadiums built in this era, only the San Francisco Giants privately funded their stadium, with the St. Louis Cardinals representing the only other club to account for a significant portion of their stadium’s expense. In most cases, we’ve seen public fights, with threats to relocate elsewhere — sometimes to another city and sometimes just to a neighboring suburb. We’ve seen this play out recently in the case of both the Braves and the Rangers — and, despite all of the new stadiums, we’re not done seeing it.

The Braves have, until now, been located in the city of Atlanta, a city that is also in the process of funding much of the cost of a new football stadium downtown. Doing the same for a baseball stadium would have been a difficult sell, seeing as the current stadium is just 20 years old and in relatively good condition. The original Braves lease lasted just 20 years, making a move possible following its completion.

Enter Cobb County, an affluent suburb willing to take on the cost Atlanta likely wouldn’t — with a location more “convenient” for the Braves’ suburban fans. The organization’s decision to move out of the city contradicts a more recent trend of locating stadiums downtown, but it also gives the Braves a large amount of land surrounding the stadium to provide for more development, itself a growing trend.

Unlike the Braves, the Rangers didn’t need to move to the suburbs. They were already there in Arlington, and their competition for the Rangers was potentially Dallas. The Rangers used public funds and taxes to help build their current stadium, originally constructed in 1994. As Arlington finished paying down that debt, they then helped finance AT&T Stadium in the same fashion, and the city expects to do the same as the bills for the new ballpark come due. The Rangers’ current lease was going to be up in 2024, and the new proposal, which has received city council approval (while still awaiting voter approval), will extend the lease another 30 years, through 2054.

On the one hand, most of the stadiums built in the last two decades remain in good repair. They’re state-of-the-art facilities in prime locations. When you account for more recent renovations, almost all of baseball’s teams are currently located in modern ballparks that feature not only attractive amenities for fans but also big profitable features for teams, like luxury suites, other exclusive all-inclusive areas, and ample advertising space. The graph below (courtesy of Sean Dolinar) shows the build date for all stadiums as well as the renovation dates for older stadiums like the newly renovated Wrigley Field and the recently revamped Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium. Those older stadiums do come with more headaches, but the benefits of those historic stadiums outweigh the costs, especially given recent improvements. The graph also depicts the expiration dates for every club’s stadium lease. Some leases have options to continue, but the initial end date is shown.

Stadium Lease

The stadium in St. Petersburg actually predates the existence of the Rays, who tried to lure the San Francisco Giants in a move that now seems crazy, but which was more credible at the time. While there’s progress there, stadium problems in one city will continue to be cited by MLB as a tool to extract public funding elsewhere. The other current problem area is Oakland, where the specter of Fremont or San Jose were insufficient to get a deal done with Oakland. As a result, the club stays in the Coliseum, whose renovations in 1996 served more as a band-aid than permanent solution, and another 20 years have now passed.

As for the rest of the teams, the adequacy of the stadium is not the only issue when it comes to staying. The end of a lease can prove fruitful for owners trying to receive taxpayer money. The Braves used their lease to move out of Atlanta, and will have a new 30-year lease with Cobb County. The Rangers’ lease wasn’t scheduled to conclude for another eight years, but with the investment of Texas Live! in between AT&T Stadium and Globe Life Park — and also with Dallas looming — Arlington feels justified in spending taxpayer money on billionaire owners to secure the Rangers for the next 40 years.

The next fight for public money might not be for a brand new stadium like in Cobb County and Arlington, but it could be for renovations. The chart below shows a more targeted group of teams whose leases conclude sooner than most.

Stadium Lease 2030

Kansas City and Houston are still pretty far out. The Rockies have a favorable lease that they can renew for another 15 years, and they have made recent renovations that have improved the fan experience. The White Sox are in a similar position. Cleveland just made extensive renovations and received some public money, although much of it was financed by the team. The Mariners can renew their lease, and after some recent renovations there has been little cause for discord.

On the other side of the coin, the Angels have an opt out in a few years and are trying to get public money for more renovations. Camden Yards — once, and perhaps still, the ideal modern ballpark — might receive a push for larger concourses and additional all-inclusive areas that have been successful in more recently constructed parks. Battle lines are being drawn in Arizona as their lease comes to an end. Meanwhile, Atlanta is already gone, and Texas will have another stadium soon, as well.

Franchises will use whatever tools they have at their disposal to make profits from both willing fans and taxpayers, some of whom do not make the choice to fund the team. We’ve seen an incredible amount of new, beautiful stadiums along with some fantastic renovations in the recent past, but that doesn’t mean we’re finished. Leases run out; other municipalities come along willing to foot the bill even as some cities put their foot down. For the most part, Major League Baseball has done a very good job of staying in the same place, even if it comes at the expense of taxpayers.

In the last 40 years, just one franchise has moved (sorry Montreal) even as the the NFL has had double-digit moves with the NBA and NHL close behind. There’s no guarantee that it will remain that way in baseball, however. There’s considerable evidence, for example, that publicly funded ballparks do not actually serve the public, and if more cities like Oakland and the Tampa Bay area cannot come to terms with their respective franchises, the greater the possibility that a team will move to a city willing to absorb the necessary expenses. The desperation to retain clubs explains why most cities have put up public money (and the individual prestige of local politicians that comes with being associated with the project). We’re at the end of a Renaissance of great ballparks, but there are already signs that period is over as teams continue to find ways to improve their bottom line.

The table below shows all teams build/renovation dates as well as lease-end date, as best as I could find. Not all renovations are the same — some are naturally bigger than others — but I did my best to limit them to significant changes.

MLB Teams Stadium Build/Renovation and Lease End
Stadium Built/Renovated End of Current Lease
TBR 1990 2028
BAL 1992 2021
TEX 1994 2024
COL 1995 2017
OAK 1996 2024
ATL 1996 2016
LAA 1997 2018*
ARI 1998 2024
SEA 1999 2018
SFG 2000 2066
DET 2000 2035
HOU 2000 2029
MIL 2001 2031
PIT 2001 2031
CIN 2003 2038
PHI 2004 2031
SDP 2004 2033
TOR 2005 NA
STL 2006 2041
CHW 2007 2021
WAS 2008 2037
NYM 2009 2049
KCR 2009 2030
NYY 2009 2049
MIN 2010 2040
BOS 2011 NA
MIA 2012 2047
LAD 2013 NA
CHC 2015 NA
CLE 2016 2023
*Angels have on opt-out, otherwise the contract goes to 2027
Orange=Team-owned stadium
Red=New Stadium Coming

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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8 years ago

I was wondering how Giants are leasing their stadium if they paid for all the expenses for building it?

8 years ago
Reply to  jamesryu

According to Wikipedia, their lease is on the land, not on the building.

8 years ago
Reply to  pudds

I see. That’s strange.

City of SF: Hey Giants.. Can you move the stadium out of our land, so that we can build skyscraper?

7 years ago
Reply to  jamesryu

The land lease runs until 2066, which will almost certainly outlive the usable lifespan of the stadium.

7 years ago
Reply to  jamesryu

The Rays probably wish that there was a way that they could just pack up Turner Field and move it to Tampa once the Braves move out.

Every other park on this list will probably be gone before anything happens to Dodger Stadium, Fenway or Wrigley.