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Monday, May 14, 2001

Seven Fans per Night: The $60 Million Pyramid Invades the Old Dominion

A new member of the Primer team reports that the ‘new stadium’ craze is trickling down into the minor leagues.

A rather mystifying element of the human spirit is its love for the exorbitant.?   According to the early Christian historian Eusebius?not to be confused with   Houston?s back-up backstop, Tony Eusebio?incredibly fervent ascetics would display   their piety by standing atop large ?poles? in prayer for decades at a time,   oblivious to hunger or the elements.? One need not doubt their level of commitment   to spiritual well-being in order to question the practicality of their method   of expression.? Predictably, Eusebius? writings suggest a ?competitive nature?   in these monks, whereby one would strive to stay on his pole even a year longer   than the last.

This is not to suggest that modernity has left the Desert Fathers in the dust.?   For more than a decade American cities have been in an equally fervent rush   to build sports stadiums, each one more attractive (and more expensive) than   the last.? This phenomenon is more pronounced, at least on a popular level,   in baseball?a sport with a rich tradition of unique ballparks, not just   large stadiums or arenas.? Even non-sports fans know of Baltimore?s ?historic?   Camden Yards; yet, while it is the crown jewel of the new-classics, Camden Yards   is more commonly regarded by most baseball fans as the first-among-equals of   a ballpark renaissance that still replenishes itself by the year.

So pervasive is this ballpark renaissance that even minor-league cities have   joined the fun of stadium-building.? Not surprisingly, these cities mainly do   so for the same reasons that major-league cities do so?namely, leverage and   greed.? These qualities are manifested in the minors? affiliate-hopping nature;   the list of cities which have lured affiliates away from other cities solely   because of stadium projects is staggering.? Yet, despite the motivation, at   least this process displays some coherence.? Still other cities, it appears,   intend to build new parks just for the spirit of it.

According to an April 27, 2001, front page article in the Richmond (Va.)   Times-Dispatch, written by Gordon Hickey and Tim Pearell, Richmond city   and regional leaders are considering a new, $60 million stadium for the Triple-A   Braves beside the Canal Walk downtown location.? ?The concept is consistent   with what a city would like to do to continue to create a vital downtown,? said   City Manager Calvin D. Jamison.

Well, the accompanying artist?s renditions are pretty?that much is true.? What   is also true is that:

     
  1. Richmond already has a ballpark, named The Diamond;
  2.  
  3. The Diamond was built way, way back in 1985; and
  4.  
  5. At the time it opened, just 16 years ago, many observers considered it at   least among the nicest facilities in Triple-A.

Just the same, R-Braves? General Manager Bruce Baldwin was positively magnanimous   at the news.? ?If people feel a downtown location is best for the community,?   Baldwin offered, ?we wholeheartedly support it.?

If one?s intuition suggests that replacing a 16 year-old stadium is a preposterous   idea,? logic supports it.? The premise of the idea is to attract more fans by   moving the Braves into the heart of the city; presently, however, the team plays   at the corner of streets aptly-named Boulevard and Broad, not even three miles   from downtown, in a stadium with a capacity identical to that of the proposed   ballpark.

Unlike in the case of major league stadium schemes, neither Baldwin nor the   parent club in Atlanta figure to receive a direct benefit from the project in   the form of tax subsidies and other kick-backs.? The Atlanta Braves currently   lease from the Richmond Metropolitan Authority (RMA), which built The Diamond   on the site of the old Parker Field during the 1984-85 off-season for $6 million?one-tenth   the estimated cost of the project under consideration.? The RMA would hold the   deed to the new stadium as well.

On the other hand, the reasoning behind this ballpark push is transparent and,   more than likely, quite faulty.? While it is of course structurally sound, it   is true that The Diamond aged extremely poorly in the 1990s in terms of design   and amenities.? Hickey and Pearell correctly note, in a testament to the pervasiveness   of the current ballpark boom, that once Toledo?s $42 million downtown stadium   opens next season, Richmond will have the second-oldest park in the International   League.? From a distance, The Diamond?s exterior architectural design resembles   a cross between a half-completed football stadium and an alien space pod.? Once   inside, The Diamond provides no luxury suites and 99 percent aluminum bench   seating, while juxtaposing a right field view of Richmond?s skyline, such as   it is, with a center field view of a parking lot.? The Diamond is, in all senses   of the description, a minor league stadium built in the 1980s.? In the post-Camden   lexicon, however, that?s not a desirable destination for baseball fans.?

One hundred miles to the east stands a minor league stadium built in the 1990s,   Norfolk?s Harbor Park.? It?s on the waterfront; it?s pretty; it?s fan-friendly.?   And it really burns out the old turnstiles, right?

Well, not exactly.? The following is a portion of the 2000 per-game attendance   rankings for all 30 Triple-A teams, not counting Mexican League teams (courtesy,   minorleaguebaseball.com):

                             
RankTeamAvg. Attendence
10Norfolk Tides6,953
11Richmond Braves6,946

Seven fans per game.? That was the benefit that Harbor Park, just seven years   after it opened, derived for the good city of Norfolk?a larger market than Richmond   and, in fact, the largest market in America without a single major-league sports   franchise.? Seven fans per game.

It should be noted that the two teams? attendance figures did not compare so   closely in 1999.? Again, their rankings per-game among all Triple-A outlets:

                             
RankTeamAvg. Attendence
5Richmond Braves7,481
9Norfolk Tides6,760

Richmond actually out-drew Norfolk (to say nothing of 25 other Triple-A teams)   in 1999 by over 700 fans per game.? This begs the question: did The Diamond?s  
  level of comfort and enjoyment depreciate so much between 1999 and 2000 as to   lose 500 fans every night?

No, but the team certainly did.? The R-Braves have been rather neglected by   Atlanta since the early 1990s and haven?t posted a winning record since 1995.?   In 1999, while drawing the fifth-most fans in Triple-A, they finished last in   their division, with a record 64-78.? Last year, the Braves were truly wretched,   finishing 51-92, 30 ? games behind the division champion and 15 lengths behind   the closest competitor.? They played their best ball, relatively speaking, in   September?when attendance is traditionally the lightest. Yet, despite playing   shoddy ball and being shackled by an unattractive stadium, the Richmond Braves   finished seven fans per night away from the top tier in Triple-A attendance.?

At the major league level, there is a quite detectable correlation between   winning percentage and attendance; the correlation between the two is likely   not as high at the minor league level?in part because the nature of minor league   baseball is different.? Even the most die-hard R-Braves fan would not equate   a Governor?s Cup to a World Series title.? It?s nice if a? minor league team   wins consistently, of course, but it?s more important for it to develop players.?   Buffalo, in featuring both marginal major league-quality players and Cleveland?s   (and, as it has turned out, other teams?) stars, has done both throughout the   1990s.? Richmond, largely because it has been denied top prospects and instead   been force-fed the likes of Toby Rumfeld and Pascual Matos, has done neither   in the past half-decade.

Richmond?s fan-base in recent seasons has, in fact, outperformed the team by   a wide measure.? It?s a good minor-league sports town that has supported the   R-Braves for 35 years, has taken to hockey quite rabidly since the early 1990s,   and is enamored of arena football.? The fact that a gimmicky downtown stadium   is being pitched to a viable fan-base is quite insulting indeed.

Certainly, The Diamond could use some touch-ups.? The front office in Atlanta   has requested an expansion of both the home and visitor clubhouses, as well   as the addition of a batting cage and weight room.? More comfortable seating   arrangements could be provided.? A better sound system could be installed.?   The entrance could be modernized somewhat.? Perhaps Baldwin?s office could even   redesign the 1980s Diamond logo, which looks like something that was rejected   by the Harry Dalton-era Brewers.? Richmond has already budgeted money for a   renovation, something that would cost perhaps one-fifth of a new stadium and   would not render the current park irrelevant.

Of course, undergirding the downtown stadium push is the now-hackneyed ?downtown   revival? prophecy.? For instance, the Times-Dispatch cover story quotes   City Manager Jamison as saying, "I want to have something that can really   create an excitement, an energy, a destination for the entire region."?   Excitement and energy are nice qualities, but they are intangible qualities   just the same.? Of more tangible interest would be the economic impact, not   only for the downtown location but for all the locales comprising the stadium   consortium.

Millard D. ?Pete? Stith Jr., a Chesterfield County executive and member of   the RMA?s stadium operating committee, considers the idea ?very exciting, particularly   for matinee games: people could come from their offices.?? Yes, downtown workers   could, but hardly anyone else could. ?HKS Inc., the architectural firm responsible   for the new Miller Park in Milwaukee, was contracted by the RMA to do some leg-work   and discovered something important: the site is not conducive to a parking lot.?   HKS Inc.?s study shows that there are a total of 9,000 spaces (including street-parking)   within a third of a mile of the proposed site.? Jamison told the Times-Dispatch   that parking wouldn?t be a problem, but his reasoning (most games are played   on nights and weekends) sounds more axiomatic than scientific.

In their 1997 book Sports, Jobs, and Taxes, renowned economists Roger   Noll and Andrew Zimbalist conclude that a new sports facility ?has an extremely   small (perhaps even negative) effect on overall economic activity and employment.?   No recent facility appears to have earned anything approaching a reasonable   return on investment.?? Noll and Zimbalist establish that a major league stadium   ?can spur economic growth if sports is a significant export industry?that is,   if it attracts outsiders to buy the local product?; however, they contend that   sports facilities attract neither tourists nor new industry.? Noll and Zimbalist   cite Camden Yards as the most successful export facility in all of sport, mainly   because it draws well from the Washington, D.C., market.? Even so, their research   concludes that Camden Yards costs Maryland residents $14 million a year.

Needless to say, a new downtown stadium in Richmond would not represent a significant   export industry; it is highly unlikely that anything more than a sliver of the   R-Braves? fan-base is culled from beyond the city proper and adjacent counties   which comprise the RMA.? Jamison indicated that no study has been prepared to   identify how much revenue a riverfront stadium would generate for downtown businesses,   but he did tell the Times-Dispatch he anticipated ?a project that has   the potential to galvanize the whole region.?

It is just as likely that an objective study would regard it as ?a project   that has the potential to divert from the whole region.?? According to University   of Oklahoma economics professor Daniel Sutter, money spent on professional sports   ?typically is offset by reduced spending on movies or amusement parks.? Related   spending also is typically diverted; people go out to eat at restaurants near   the stadium instead of the theater.?? Sutter states that the diversion effect   declines sharply as the size of the jurisdiction increases; in the Richmond   area?s case, the overwhelming majority of revenue created by the downtown stadium   would, in fact, constitute revenue diverted from the RMA?s own jurisdictional   area.

?Pete? Stith Jr., the Chesterfield County executive, told the Times-Dispatch,   ?All the localities have a stake in the city’s downtown being revived.? I don’t   think you’ll get many naysayers. It’s just, how are you going to pull it off?"

To date, no one has touched that question, which is an especially touchy subject   in a state where lawmakers are squabbling over slashing taxes (specifically,   the Car Tax).? Richmond Mayor and state Lieutenant Governor candidate Timothy   Kaine is on the record as being against the project.? Perhaps cognizant that   every locale but Northern Virginia has resisted a Washington-area major league   stadium push, Kaine prefers renovating The Diamond, earmarking the Canal Walk   plot for private business (so as to reap at least some tax revenue from the   site), and using the money left over for a batting order of actual needs.?

Jamison and Stith would be well-served to adopt that strategy.? Richmond City   needs to address several renovation projects, such as City Hall and the City   Jail, and it needs all the money it can spare for its school system.? Chesterfield   County, which takes pride in its schools, does not pay its teachers commensurate   with that image; according to the Virginia Department of Education, Chesterfield?s   average teacher salary for the year 2000-2001 lags $1,500 behind that of neighboring   Henrico County.? From this perspective, it borders on nonsensical to tax county   residents to develop a stadium that would likely divert from county businesses.

The comparison of early Christian ascetic practices to modern-day, ballpark-crazy   cities, while esoteric, is in fact rather apt. Both began with one act of intangible   benefit and have inspired numerous followers to try lavishly to out-do the previous,   with equally intangible results.? The difference, it appears, is that the ascetics?   choices affected only themselves, while the municipal leaders? choices affect   everyone within their municipality.? One hopes that the Times-Dispatch article   was the result of a civic trial-balloon, not the harbinger of things to come.   ????????????????????

The greatest possible marginal profit the RMA could hope for would be the result   of revenue from an average of 5,500 more paying customers per game, at a slightly   higher ticket rate that accompanies any new stadium.? That figure is also the   difference between the average 2000 attendance of Richmond and the top-draw   in Triple-A, Sacramento of the Pacific Coast League?which joined Triple-A status,   opened a new park, played .627 ball while winning its division, and featured   several top prospects all last season.? A more realistic figure for a new downtown   Richmond park might actually be in the area of 10,000 a game in the first season.

And then what?? Probably the same cycle as that of Norfolk?s Harbor Park: impressive   early attendance, then a drift toward the Triple-A average.? Sacramento and   Memphis, both of whom averaged in excess of 12,000 fans per game in their first   seasons at their new parks, in all likelihood will not be averaging that same   number five-to-ten years from now.? Richmond may well drop down the attendance   list in the next few years as yet more new stadiums go on-line, but keeping   at least $40 million of the $60 million needed for a waterfront park seems like   a good trade-off.

As a baseball ascetic sits alone in the top row above home plate, he enjoys   a cool Friday night in April and cheers when the home-team turns a 6-4-3 double-play.?   He gazes upon the crowd, and 7,400 other people do the same.? He observes that   the players, not the ballpark, receive the salute?and notes that The Diamond,   like all the others, is simply a ballpark.

 

Basil Tsimpris Posted: May 14, 2001 at 06:00 AM | 3 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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Statements posted here are those of our readers and do not represent the BaseballThinkFactory. Names are provided by the poster and are not verified. We ask that posters follow our submission policy. Please report any inappropriate comments.

   1. Colin Posted: May 14, 2001 at 12:05 AM (#603762)
There are people here in Columbus, Ohio, who are pushing for a new stadium for the Clippers. Principally, I think, because the neighborhood the current park is in isn't all that great (but also not that bad).

So they're pushing to try and get a new one built closer to downtown (instead of five minutes away). I suspect they want taxpayer funding, though I haven't followed it that closely, but Columbus rejected taxpayer funding for an NHL arena, and that got privately funded instead
   2. Mike Emeigh Posted: May 14, 2001 at 12:05 AM (#603777)
I guarantee you that the Yankees will help the Clippers' current
ownership, by threatening to pull their affiliation. The Bronx Bombers
have pulled the same stunt in Greensboro, which plays in antiquated
War Memorial Stadium (quite possibly the worst minor league facility
going). Basically, the Yanks forced the sale of the team to local
owners a year ago by threatening to pull their affiliation, because
the city basically said "No (expletive) way" to the previous
ownership's "request" for a new facility. One of the new guys owns
land near Greensboro Coliseum which he has "generously" offered for
a new ballpark - if the city pays for the facility.

-- MWE

   3. Rich Rifkin I Posted: May 15, 2001 at 12:06 AM (#603793)
You cite the success story in Sacramento as being a best case scenario, in terms of the uncontrolable factors: quality team, winning record, and lots of good prospects. I would agree with that. However, it's interesting that the new ballpark in Sacramento, Raley Field (named for a small grocery store chain in Nortern California with its headquarters 2 blocks from the ballpark), is not in fact in Sacramento.

For years, the promoters of downtown Sacramento cried that its downtown needed a ballpark, a convention center, and all of those other investments which pay off big only for those who build them. But due to the expense of land in Sacramento, Raley Field was built in a nearby city, across the Sacramento River, in a different county, called West Sacramento (famous for being the hometown of Steve Sax.) West Sac has a few middle class neighborhoods. But for the most part, it is a ghetto, filled with run-down homes, Section 8 apartments, old motels, hookers, drug-addicts and recently arrived immigrants. Not exactly a destination city.

Raley Field is a really nice ballpark for the minor leagues. It is very close to the Sacramento River and it offers great views at night of the skyscrapers of Sacramento and a beautiful old bridge which links West Sac with the Capital city. Because it was built entirely with private funds (save some tax breaks), I think it could serve as a good model for other cities that want a new minor league park. However, perhaps because the owners of the River Cats paid for the stadium, the ticket prices and concessions at Raley Field are not cheap. It's often cheaper for me to go to an A's game in Oakland.

Whether the River Cats will continue to be a big draw into the future is unknown. But I would agree that a lack of success on the field, a lack of good prospects, and eventually an aging facility will test the long-term profitabitity of the Sacramento model.

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