It’s as if when they sold naming rights to South Florida’s sports stadiums, the winning bid went to “controversial.”
The mere whisper of the word “stadium” in a public gathering risks argument.
Mention taxpayer money or public financing in the same sentence with certain marine animals, the argument’s liable to escalate into a fist fight.
The Marlins stadium deal became so diseased in the public mind, seemingly infecting all talk of public funded sports palaces. So much so that the Dolphins ownership, with a renovation package not nearly so onerous, with a Super Bowl sweetener, has had trouble persuading state legislators that Miami-Dade voters should decide for themselves whether to jack up local hotel taxes and finance 49 percent of the football stadium’s improvements.
It’s raging, divisive stuff, this stadium debate. Which makes it seem as if another pro sports financing plan, this one underwriting spring training stadiums for major league baseball teams, was conceived in another universe.
With relatively little rancor, the Florida legislature last week worked out a very, very swell financing package for rich, pro baseball teams that prefer the public pick up the cost of their spring training complexes.
The state will spend $3.3 million a year to underwrite 37-year bonds to build or renovate baseball stadiums and training facilities. Under the plan, local governments would be required to match at least 50 percent of the projects’ costs. State contributions for each project would be capped at $20 million in incentives for a single stadium but $50 million for a facility that can host two teams.
The scale of these Grapefruit League rip-offs may be smaller than what the Marlins wangled out of the public or what the Dolphins want from taxpayers, but proportionately, the gougings are even more outrageous. Yet hardly a peep of protest has come out of Tallahassee.
And no thought of a veto. Back in February, Gov. Rick Scott, elected as a taxpayer watchdog, had suggested putting even more state money — $5 million a year — into the baseball park pool.
The money will finance a kind of intramural poaching, helping some Florida cities to build new parks designed to lure away teams from other Florida cities, no matter that some of the jilted towns have long histories and considerable investments in spring training operations.
Toronto Blue Jays have been spending March in Dunedin since 1977. The town of 35,000 north of Clearwater pays $300,000 a year in debt service for the cost of stadium renovations back in 2002, the last time the team threatened to abscond for fancier digs. But Palm Beach Gardens, with the state’s $50 million subsidy, intends to build a double park and steal the Jays and the Houston Astros from Kissimmee, where the Astros have been spending their springs since 1985.
Under this deal, taxpayers in Dunedin and Kissimmee, through their contributions to the state treasury, help underwrite their own betrayals.
Stadium leases for the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, the Washington Nationals in Melbourne and the Atlanta Braves in Orlando are running out over the next few years, promising more extortion plots. And major league baseball teams haven’t demonstrated the slightest hint of loyalty to spring training towns. After 32 years, the New York Yankees jilted Fort Lauderdale for Tampa in 1993, and the Los Angeles Dodgers abandoned their own “Dodgertown” and 60 years of history in Vero Beach to head for a lucrative deal in Arizona in 2008.
After Hurricane Andrew, the Cleveland Indians abandoned Homestead and the city’s new $21 million stadium, despite $6.5 million in post-hurricane repairs, despite lots of rosy promises, without bothering to play a game. Cleveland slunk off instead to Winter Haven, and, in the way of major league baseball, quit that town in 2009 for fancier digs yet in Arizona.
The city of Fort Myers owes $2.3 million a year and another decade’s worth of mortgage payments on City of Palms Park, a baseball complex that has been empty since 2011, when a new $77 million stadium was built not far away to keep the Boston Red Sox from heading elsewhere.
Yet the state legislature decided last week to reward baseball’s mercenary behavior with mighty gobs of taxpayer money. It’s like subsidizing adulterous husbands as they seduce one woman after another. Of course, the state and local politicians who abet such public-financed cuckoldry reject the analogy. They rationalize the use of public dollars for these stadiums with two basic arguments. Without the subsidies, Arizona will steal even more Florida teams. A half-dozen Florida teams have snuck away to new, public financed parks in the Cactus League over the past decade or so. And — this will be familiar to folks who remember arguments over the Marlins stadium — proponents of spring baseball claim the 247 games, crammed into 37 days, generate an enormous economic impact. A report conducted by the Florida Sports Foundation in 2009 claims that spring training tourism rang up $750-million a year and more than 900 jobs for Florida.
Economists aren’t so sure. I asked Professor John F. Zipp of the University of Akron his thoughts, and he sent me his study measuring the sales tax impact in spring training towns. He compared the strike year, 1995, when spring break attendance fell 62 percent, with other years. He found little difference in tourist tax collections. Zipp also noticed that only 5 percent of the tourists going to Lee County, which carries $222 million debt on two spring training facilities, indicated their reason for visiting had something to do with baseball.
Last month, the Toronto Globe and Mail interviewed two independent Florida economists who’ve studied spring baseball. “Here’s the issue — communities obviously have to borrow to finance some sort of bond issue to build these facilities,” Roger Blair, chair of the University of Florida’s economics department told the Canadian newspaper. “The question becomes, is there sufficient additional economic benefit to offset the cost? Almost every study I’ve seen suggests this is not a good investment.”
Philip Porter, professor of economics at the University of South Florida dismissed the economic impact studies generated by major league baseball’s hired consultants, who he said don’t consider whether the heady revenue figures would have been generated without spring baseball. Porter was particularly dismissive about purported abstract advantages like community pride and “cultural” amenities. “Listen, I would love to have them all here so long as it doesn’t cost us anything,” Porter told the Globe and Mail. “But there’s no reason at all to subsidize pro sports.”
In South Florida, that argument lies at the heart of a great community debate. In Tallahassee, no one’s listening.