- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 3, 2002

"If you build it, they will come," intoned the ethereal voice in "Field of Dreams." That line worked fine for Hollywood. But in real life, stadium development went further, starting with the new ballpark, watching the fans and their money roll in for years and years, and then seeing the franchise become transformed in the process.

Until now, that is. A nasty combination of a declining economy, baseball's stagnating popularity, poor team management and ever-rising ticket costs have combined to render the economic effects of a new stadium to its home team almost negligible.

Consider the following: In just its second year in their new stadium, the Milwaukee Brewers' attendance this season dropped 30 percent. The Pittsburgh Pirates' total draw in a 2-year-old park fell 26 percent the second year, and already is back to where it stood in the final years at Three Rivers Stadium. Detroit, playing its third year at Comerica Park, saw its 2002 attendance fall 38 percent from the first season there. By comparison, the Baltimore Orioles' attendance at Camden Yards did not begin to fall significantly until 1999, their eighth year in the new ballpark. The same situation existed in Cleveland, where the Indians also enjoyed eight years of steady or increasing attendance at Jacobs Field.

The Brewers and Pirates saw smaller increases in revenue from their brief honeymoons in their new ballparks. When the Detroit Tigers and San Francisco Giants opened new stadiums in 2000, they saw local revenues jump 123 and 162 percent, respectively, from the year before. Both clubs stood in the top 10 in baseball that year in local earning power. The Brewers saw a 48 percent jump in local revenue in their first year at Miller Park, while the Pirates' jumped 104 percent at PNC Park. Both teams ended 2001 in the bottom half leaguewide in earning power and remain there.

"Baltimore, Cleveland, Colorado, the teams that really got out in front of the new stadium boom, really enjoyed a tremendous advantage for quite a while," said Dick Freeman, the Pirates' chief operating officer and a key figure in the development and operation of PNC Park. "In effect, they became big-market teams on the backs of those ballparks and had a lot of success. But now, the [economic] impact has been leveled significantly. Even with new stadiums, many teams, including Baltimore and Cleveland, are now reverting back toward the roles they had before this boom started. With PNC Park, we're only on a level playing field at best."

Baseball's flattening new stadium effects provide a cautionary tale for Washington, actively seeking to relocate a team here and build a new ballpark, and any jurisdiction hoping for a significant fiscal return on a taxpayer investment in a new stadium. Dozens of academic studies have shown public sector returns on stadium investments are minimal, and more savvy teams have sought public-sector assistance using quality-of-life arguments instead.

The declining effects also contrast sharply to those in the NFL, NBA and NHL. Newer stadiums provide teams such as the Washington Redskins unprecedented earning power, but salary caps in basketball and football have allowed teams such as the Sacramento Kings and Philadelphia Eagles, both playing in older facilities, a chance to be competitive in terms of both wins and dollars. Economic disparity, largely driven by arena economics, does exist in hockey. But that sport's reigning superpower, the Detroit Red Wings, play in Joe Louis Arena, a 22-year-old building.

"More than 80 facilities in the four sports have been built in the last 10 years at a total cost of $12.3billion. So much new building, it literally means that every team with a new stadium or arena can't win. It's mathematically impossible," said Rick Horrow, a Florida-based stadium development consultant and a visiting professor of sports law at Harvard University. "Ideally, a new facility should provide the new revenue that provides the opportunity to be more competitive. But it's no guarantee."

While many of the economic issues with new baseball stadiums owe to broader factors such as a 6.1 percent decline in overall baseball attendance this year there is still plenty of blame to go around at the team level, too. In Milwaukee, Miller Park's much-heralded retractable roof sprung leaks soon after its opening. Flowing streams of water during storms are still a problem. The club lost 94 games in 2001 and 106 this season.

The Pirates went a step further. PNC Park's stunning vista of downtown Pittsburgh did little to obscure the team's 62-100 record in 2001. Owner Kevin McClatchy promptly followed the season with an across-the-board ticket price increase and a 72-89 season in 2002. The club already has announced prices will remain as is for 2003.

"We certainly didn't count on losing 100 games the first year in the new park, and in hindsight, raising prices was probably not the best thing to do," said Freeman, who is in the process of leaving Pittsburgh to join the San Diego Padres in a similar role and aid that club's ongoing push for a new stadium, set to open in 2004. "Pittsburgh wants to see a winner."

The Cincinnati Reds, ready to open the new Great American Ballpark in 2003, are watching the situations in Pittsburgh, Detroit and Milwaukee carefully. With a fan base already unfulfilled by the disappointing return of Ken Griffey Jr. to his hometown, Reds officials know there is not much margin for error.

"We know we can draw here," said John Allen, Reds chief operating officer. Allen predicts a total attendance of 2.8million next year in the new ballpark, which would be a franchise record. "But we also know we need to perform on the field, and have high hopes for our younger players such as Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns to continue to develop. And we have to have a ballpark experience that is second to none."

Allen, too, admits his team has no shot of dominating the National League for any extended period after moving into the new ballpark.

"We still won't be on any economic level with Los Angeles or Arizona or Atlanta," he said. "The new ballpark, and the new labor deal, definitely help. But the difference in media rights [fees] is still quite vast."

The depressed economic effects still will not deter any future stadium development. Cincinnati, St. Louis, both New York teams, Florida, San Diego, Oakland, and Philadelphia all have new stadiums on the way or are seeking improved facilities.

"PNC Park really hasn't put us out in front of anybody, but ultimately, it's going to give us a chance. We'll be in the game," Freeman said. "Without it, we would be a guaranteed failure."

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