Public funds, sports stadiums, and Tampa Bay

J. Meric

Will the new report released by the Baseball Stadium Financing Caucus actually move the conversation forward? Or is this just another false start?

Professional sports stadiums present among the biggest and most easily identifiable collective action problems in our world. Enough of these things have been built now, and enough research has been done on them, that there's really no question that, if no state, county or municipal governments ever agreed to provide any public financing for stadiums, everyone would be better off except those who own sports teams. Countless studies have showed little to no benefit to the public. The community's leisure money is shifted from one form of entertainment to another. Job creation is minimal. Even the attendance benefit to the team tends to be short-lived. The public hands money to a private corporation -- which, almost invariably, is already making plenty of it - and gives it license to keep essentially all of it plus everything that comes of it. There's no reason the vast majority of teams couldn't build their own stadiums, as necessary; it's just that they don't have to, in the current climate, so they choose not to.

It's just a bad deal for the people at large. I think that on some level, by now, virtually every governor, city council and county board of commissioners recognizes that it's a bad deal. Yet, they continue to happen because there's the fear that the team will bolt to another location, and no politician wants to be the one who was stuck in office when the team left town (which is a bad thing for real-world reasons, too; the teams do provide jobs, even if it's a low number for their revenue brackets, and tend to have pretty active local charity arms). It's in everyone's collective interest to simply agree to stop doing these deals, but individual actors (cities, in this case) often have their own reasons to ignore the common good and do it anyway.

And so this keeps happening. But can it happen in Tampa or St. Pete? That's the question the Baseball Stadium Financing Caucus -- a joint effort of both cities' chambers of commerce, first convened more than a year ago -- set out to address in a report released this week.

The report's findings are mixed, at best, as is its methodology. The Caucus assumed a flat $500 million cost, with the Rays chipping in $150 million. No ballpark has had a price tag that low since 2006 (that was the new Busch Stadium, at $365 million), and while several of the newest parks were built for comparable reported figures ($515 million for Marlins Park, $522 million for Target Field), those were largely built in the depths of recession, while the Rays may face the rising prices of recovery. The Caucus recognizes that the projected price doesn't include things like parking, land, and infrastructure (as the Marlins' plan didn't). Further, as noted by Neil deMause on his excellent ballpark-related site Field of Schemes, a new book by Judith Grant Long finds that public stadiums have cost the public an additional $10 billion (about $83 million per project) beyond what is commonly reported, and that factoring those in, the public ends up financing an average of nearly 80 percent of the total cost. All in all, the figures assumed by the Caucus appear to be on the low end, to say the least.

Then there's the source of the money. Note that any money used by the government for these purposes (an auto rental surcharge planned by Tampa, for instance, or the one percent tourist tax hike in the calculation for either -- always preferable to hit up those just passing through) could be used for other needs. Indeed, some of it is a repurposing of money that is already being used for other needs, such as the downtown redevelopment taxes from Tampa. Although they've succeeded in minimizing new taxes on Hillsborough and/or Pinellas County residents, the limited look we've been given at the plan suggests that the cost may not be feasible, and the manner of paying for them still looks like a tough sell.

The Rays are a bit of a unique situation, but the unique factors bend both ways: the Rays, unlike many other teams in these fights, really do need a new stadium -- it's impossible to imagine they couldn't be seriously helped by a real baseball stadium in an advantageous location (though the extent to which it would help in attendance terms is up for debate); on the other hand, though, there's the issue of the Tropicana lease running for another 15 years, which will require either the Rays to relent and look exclusively in St. Petersburg or the Rays (or somebody) to handsomely compensate the city (another cost not factored into the Caucus' report).

So, while it's nice -- if you're a keep-the-Rays-here-at-all-costs person -- to hear the Caucus insist that it can get done in either county, it's not at all clear to me that this report moves us any closer to that.

And then, of course, there's that naughty neighbor to the south. More than one Tampa Bay scribe (here's one, here's another) has made the connection: the crime Jeffrey Loria perpetrated against Miami-Dade County and the City of Miami, less than a year after opening their $500 million-plus gift to him, has to make central Floridians a bit uneasy about entering a similar deal with the Rays.

Now, Stuart Sternberg (like almost every other owner in the history of professional sports) can truthfully say he's no Jeff Loria, but can we really expect voters and policymakers to see the difference? Casual fans and observers often see a direct, unshakable relationship between payroll and a desire to win, and they'll look at the Rays and see a team that's continually shedding veteran players and keeping payroll low. That's nothing at all like Loria's M.O., of course, but in the current climate the distinction may be lost on the public. That's not a bad thing: Inertia is a very powerful force in sports, and there's an excellent chance the Rays stay in town and a deal eventually gets done. Don't hold your breath, though; between the Caucus report, the Loria debacle, and the Rays' and St. Pete's unwillingness to work together on the lease issue, it looks to me as though they're about as far away from there as they've ever been. It's going to be a long, ugly road.

I can't tell you how to feel about that. I'll say this: as a Minnesotan, I'm strongly opposed to my tax money being used to fund playthings for billionaires, and as a Twins fan, I couldn't be more pleased and awed by the majesty of Target Field, particularly after 25 years in the Trop-like misery of the Metrodome. It's an uneasy balance, to be sure, but it works for me.

Bill Parker is one of SBN's Designated Columnists and one of the creators of The Platoon Advantage. Follow him at @Bill_TPA.

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