Did The Marlins Kill Publicly-Financed Ballparks?

No.

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.

Why?

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.

We hoped you liked reading Did The Marlins Kill Publicly-Financed Ballparks? by Wendy Thurm!

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Wendy writes about sports and the business of sports. She's been published most recently by Vice Sports, Deadspin and NewYorker.com. You can find her work at wendythurm.pressfolios.com and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.

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Robbie G.
Guest
Robbie G.

How about Bud Selig seizes all of the Marlins’ assets (i.e., its players, mostly), re-distributes them via some sort of draft, dares Jeffrey Loria to take some form of legal action, and MLB lets the Rays move into Miami’s fancy new stadium? I realize there are all sorts of problems with this plan but I have to say that I would be more than okay with it.

David
Guest
David

You propose that the chief agent of the interests of MLB’s owners, step in and punish an owner seeking to enrich himself in a time honored fashion? Owners have been playing this game for years. The only reason McCourt had to go is that he was actually devaluing his franchise. Loria most certainly did not do that. Whatever dent this makes in ticket sales is more than ofset by payroll savings. And, there’s a nice new publicly funded stadium to boot!

Mike K.
Guest
Mike K.

That’s not quite right. The Dodgers’ value was never in doubt. (In fact the franchise turned out to be more valuable than anyone imagined.) The problem was that McCourt was siphoning off so much revenue, the business became insolvent.

Baltar
Guest
Baltar

I share your fantasy.

ausmax
Guest
ausmax

Tampa Bay and Miami are farther apart geographically than New York and Boston. How would you feel about the Yankees moving to Fenway?

B N
Guest
B N

While obviously that wouldn’t be a good idea. Apples and oranges, for a variety of reasons:

1. History – The Sox and the Yankees have been in place for a hundred years. The Florida teams have been there less than a generation.

2. Fanbase – The total fanbase for the Rays plus the Marlins is dwarfed by that of either of those northeastern franchises. By some opinions, the lack of attendance for the Rays is BECAUSE of their stadium placement.

3. Traffic – While Boston and New York are not that far apart, it takes forever to get between them during any reasonable hour of the day. By comparison, inter-city driving in Florida is a breeze. 😉

Obviously, however, it makes no sense to transplant the two Florida teams and make them rebuild their fanbases in a new city. The Rays should just commandeer Miami’s public funding contributions and make a new stadium in their area. 🙂

JKB
Guest
JKB

As a NE Tampa, Hillsborough County resident and Rays fan that already has to drive 1 hour SW to see the Rays, Miami is the opposite direction from what I was hoping! It takes about as long for me to drive to the Trop as it does to drive to Disney World. Put them in Tampa or Lake Buena Vista.