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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
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:
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):
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:
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
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.
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