I hate to be a killjoy, but somebody has to look at this baseball deal with eyes that aren't clouded by sublime pastoral cliches. Do you mind my asking why we allow baseball officials to squeeze our municipalities, and make poorer people pay for stadiums that make rich people richer?
In all the irrational euphoria surrounding the potential relocation of the Montreal Expos in Washington, we've forgotten to take a hard look at whether the financial details really make sense for the city. Here is one of the questions we should be asking: If we strip away all the pastoral nonsense, and the nostalgia, and the exuberant projections about urban redevelopment, doesn't it look like the nation's capital is being extorted by Commissioner Bud Selig?
To win a baseball team, the city has had to agree to publicly finance a $400 million stadium -- despite the fact that there was no other serious bidder. Meantime, Selig and the owners, who bought the dying, hapless Expos for $120 million and have been operating them at a loss, will relocate them here and try to sell them for at least $300 million. In other words, Washington is building a stadium so that MLB can sell the team at a huge profit, while city businesses and ticket buyers will be left with the debt, higher taxes, and spiraling ticket and concession prices, and a team with a tattered payroll and no prospects of winning anytime soon.
Maybe someone could explain to me why that's a good deal for Washington. And while they're at it, maybe someone could explain why baseball is worth it at any price.
"The reason the district is offering to pay so much for the stadium is the monopoly leverage the league has. It's not based on any rational study of the economic benefits," contends Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, a think tank that studies economic impact issues on the city.
Here is what has not been addressed by anyone involved in the deal, from the mayor's office to the city council to the prospective owners (who are being so conspicuously quiet as they cross their fingers and hope this sweetheart deal goes through):
Who will pay for cost overruns -- which there almost certainly will be because there always are? What happens if it costs $600 million instead of $400 million?
As matters stand, the stadium would be paid for by putting a tax on tickets and concessions, and by taxing the city's largest businesses, those that make more than $3 million in revenue a year. But who will pay if the projected tax burden grows?
The guess here is that overruns will be paid for by individual taxpayers, otherwise known as ordinary people.
The city will be relying heavily on good attendance at games to help pay the bills, with taxes on your tickets, hot dogs, drinks, caps and parking stubs. Right now the Expos are the cheapest ticket in baseball at $10.82, but that won't stay true, not with all that debt to service. Two other Washington franchises, the Redskins and the Wizards, are among the most expensive tickets in their respective leagues, and you can probably expect the same from your baseball team, as costs are rising across the league, and only a handful of teams actually make money consistently. According to Team Marketing, a tracking firm in Chicago, it costs a family of four an average of $155.52 to go to a major league game these days.
So this is what Washington is buying: The Expos are in a race with the Mets to finish last in their division, they have the worst attendance in the league, and their payroll and roster have been sliced to bits, making it hard for them to win quickly. What will happen after the thrill of their relocation to Washington wears off, and the reality of their cost and their mediocrity sets in?
"If attendance is below average, it could create problems," Lazere says. "What is the contingency if attendance is not as high as expected?"
Who will pay if the team is on a losing streak, and no one is buying beers? Who will pay when attendance sinks after the first season and that concession tax doesn't yield $10 million toward servicing the debt but instead yields only $4 million?
"I get the sense that Washington was so desperate for this franchise that they wanted to do whatever possible to get the team here and worry about a lot of potential problems later, and those problems are going to manifest themselves in the next two to three years and it's going to be serious," says Russell Adams, who covers the economics of baseball for the Sports Business Journal.
Who will pay? The proponents of baseball in Washington have done their level best to make it sound as though the stadium will be a painless deal for residents, and a good thing for the local economy. You won't feel a thing because only large businesses will be taxed, and the area will grow.
But public financing is a shell game, and the notion that a stadium can have a positive economic impact on a city is largely myth. The business tax "is problematic," says Andrew Zimbalist, an economist who studies the business of sport. "It raises the cost of doing business. It might result in higher costs, in layoffs, maybe some businesses relocate. You have to be careful." And when the city has other financial needs, from the troubled Metro system to water pipes to schools to health care, it makes it a lot harder to raise taxes to pay for them.
If you want hard evidence of what stadiums can do for a city, look no farther than Cleveland, which has new stadiums for the Indians and the Browns as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- and was just named the poorest city in the country. "A stadium by itself is unlikely to have a positive economic impact," Zimbalist says. "It can have a positive non-economic impact, but that's a function of how people respond to the ballclub."
Why is the spiritual need for a baseball team in Washington so deep that this town is willing to take on a $440 million project -- $400 million for the stadium and $40 million for renovating RFK stadium, site acquisition and infrastructure -- when it's badly in need of better trains and schools? Perhaps because baseball, more than any other sport, has convinced the United States that its presence validates a city as "major league." It continues to traffic in nostalgia and Rockwellian images of fathers and sons, Cracker Jack and sunsets, and it continues to convince us that baseball somehow makes you complete as a city. Even when the truth is the kids in D.C. don't play baseball because there aren't sufficient funds to keep them in equipments or fields.
There is something else at work here, too, an odd mix of inferiority and superiority. Washingtonians don't like to be told they can't have something, and yet they don't even have statehood. It's a city populated by strivers who believe that with diligence they can have what they want, and the idea that someone might deprive them of what they deserve (especially someone from Milwaukee) makes them crazy. This is a city that tells itself it's a seat of power, and yet has no voting rights. Baseball has rendered it powerless. And no one's been able to rest since.
The truth is that with their payroll troubles, baseball owners need Washington a lot more than Washington needs baseball. But somehow, Washington has convinced itself that without baseball, it's a ghost town. And that was the stance the city leaders took at the negotiating table.
Who's going to pay for that? You are.