Friday, October 13, 2006

"A New Ballpark Isn't Always A Blueprint for Success", The Sun 10/12/6

A New Ballpark Isn't Always A Blueprint for Success

October 12, 2006

Who said a team needs a new stadium with all sorts of revenue producing bells and whistles to compete? Five of the eight teams that made it to the playoffs this year play in what some would consider old and dilapidated facilities.

New York's teams play in old stadiums: Yankee Stadium was opened in 1923, and the first game played at Shea was in 1964.The Oakland A's seem to be a fixture in the playoffs, and they play in a football stadium built in the mid-1960s, while the Minnesota Twins, who also seem to have good teams, play out of a dome built in the early 1980s. After leaving Brooklyn after the 1957 season, the Los Angeles Dodgers played for four years in a football stadium (the Los Angeles Coliseum) before moving into Dodger Stadium in 1962.

In St. Louis, the Cardinals upgraded to a new, state-of-the-art Busch Stadium, only to cut payroll thereafter. And it took new baseball management — not a new stadium — to lift Detroit's fortunes. San Diego opened a new stadium in 2004 and has gotten better, but the team was a mediocre 82–80 when it won the NL West in 2005 and improved by six games to 88–74 when it won the divisional title this year. But neither winning divisional team will ever remind anyone of the 1927 Yankees.

During the past two decades, baseball team owners have put forth an argument that their teams cannot compete for top draft picks, and expensive and experienced talent, without the extra revenue that new stadiums can bring. Somehow the owners have managed to convince politicians that municipalities need to spend money on facilities or risk a slumping team.

Even the former mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, bought into it. In 2001, with George Steinbrenner's Yankees blowing out the competition when it came to banking stadium revenue in a then 78-year-old facility and the Mets ranked second in baseball revenues, Giuliani made his pitch. "The reality is, as I have said many times, both of them need new ballparks in order to be competitive," the mayor, standing outside Yankee Stadium on Opening Day, said.

"Maybe not this very year, but in order to be competitive over the next 10, 15, 20 years with their major competitors. Boston is getting a new ballpark; Baltimore has a new ballpark. Atlanta has a brand new ballpark. That's all going to enhance their revenues. And if the Yankees and the Mets want to remain competitive with Baltimore, Boston or Atlanta, then that's something we just have to do," Giuliani said.

Five years later, Baltimore and Atlanta have terrible teams and Boston failed to make the playoffs because of injuries and a fall off in talent that was not caused by a cash shortfall.

Oakland is making its fifth playoff appearance since 2000, despite losing players like Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Johnny Damon, Mike Mulder, and Tim Hudson. Minnesota has won four of the last five American League Central Division titles.

Neither Oakland nor Minnesota have new facilities, although that will change in 2010 when Minneapolis opens a new ballpark.The point is it can't be all about money. Perhaps general managers Billy Beane of the A's and Terry Ryan of the Twins, have figured out formulas that work for their teams.

Detroit got one of those shiny, new, revenue-producing places in 2000, but a funny thing happened along the way. Detroit had an awful team and people stayed away from the new park.

So it's not really the park that drives a team's fortunes as the owners, and baseball commissioners Fay Vincent and Bud Selig, claim. It's smart management. How else to explain the Florida Marlins winning a championship six years after Wayne Huizenga dismembered his 1997 championship squad? Or how the Marlins could make a run at the 2006 playoffs after getting rid of key players during the past two years in a stadium designed for football and which generates very little revenue for owner Jeffrey Loria? It has to be smart guys at the helm.

Think of all the cities that built — with taxpayers' dollars — new stadiums with the promise that revenue from the facilities would go to improving the team. That list includes Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. The Braves, for one, were good under Ted Turner and their on-field misfortunes may have a lot more to do with Time Warner cutbacks and mismanagement than anything else. The Braves have since been sold to another broadcast cable company, Liberty Media. Cleveland, Colorado and Arizona did do well for a while before sliding into mediocrity. The Chicago White Sox won a world's championship in the team's 15th year at its new stadium and Anaheim won a title in a renovated 36-year-old facility. But both are big market franchises that get a lot of TV and corporate dollars.

Two of baseball's most cherished parks are more like places to be seen than stadiums: The center of the Red Sox burgeoning entertainment center plans, Fenway Park in Boston (which doubles as a catering hall), has become more than a stadium. Meanwhile, Wrigley Field is a major revenue producer for the Chicago Tribune Company's Cubs by virtue of being "Wrigley Field." The Cubs are reasonably competitive in most years, but their losing ways have more to do with poor baseball decisions than the lack of a new stadium.

Sadly, Yankee Stadium, Shea Stadium, and the Metrodome, will be replaced within the next three years. The Yankees and Mets figure to see skyrocketing revenues at their new baseball palaces. The Twins will see increased revenue, too. Oakland's ownership wants a new stadium, and while the Dodgers' ownership has a huge debt from a rather large cost of purchasing the team from Rupert Murdoch, the McCourt family is renovating the stadium and is hoping to generate more revenue. The Yankees and Mets can always cover up management lapses but there is something to be said for working hard and finding the right players to make a good team. Beane and Ryan have mastered that job in Oakland and Minnesota unlike their colleagues in newer, flashier facilities in Pittsburgh or Kansas City where bad management has meant bad teams.

Sports owners like new stadiums because they can reap the benefits of raising prices on parking, concession, and both regular and luxury box tickets. While the teams can then produce more money for an owner, it's not necessarily the stadium that makes a team better. Just look at the five old stadiums that figured in this year's playoffs. Finding smart baseball people seems to be the answer, not new stadiums.


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