- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2001

Sunday April 1 will mark the 30th Opening Day without a Major League Baseball team in the Washington area.
Of course, after six decades, the original Washington Senators fled to become the Minnesota Twins after the 1960 season. An expansion team became the second version of the Senators, playing from 1961 to 1971, then also leaving to become the Texas Rangers.
It was long assumed that Washington D.C. simply was not a very good baseball town. After all, the original Senators topped 1 million in attendance but once, while the Senators II never reached the million mark.
However, what about the quality of play? Major league sports teams have a tendency to blame the fans when failing to draw respectable crowds, while ignoring that the product on the field might be inferior.
While the original Senators made the World Series in 1924, 1925 and 1933 winning in 1924 the team was not really competitive after World War II, posting losing records in each of their last seven years in Washington.
Think that's incredibly bad baseball? Well, the Senators II mustered only one winning season during their 11 years in Washington D.C., experiencing eight years with more than 90 losses, including four seasons losing 100 or more games. Was it really surprising that the Senators II ranked dead last in attendance in five of their 11 years?
Despite this record, two efforts have been lingering to bring baseball back to the Washington D.C. area one group pushing for a team within the District and another in Northern Virginia. Government also has gotten into the act. The D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission and the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority (VBSA) act as cheerleaders for the return of major leaguers to the area.
An early 1999 proposal for a new ballpark in the District indicated that the $330 million estimated cost would be covered by city and federal taxes. At the time, Mayor Anthony Williams declared: "Baseball will be an economic home run for the District."
In a July 5, 2000, letter to Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore wrote: "I want you to know that if any team concludes that it must relocate, Virginia is ready to work with you and the team owners to form a responsible public-private partnership. I believe that the positive economic impact that baseball can have on Virginia will justify the Commonwealth's participation in this partnership." The VBSA envisions two-thirds of the cost of a $300 million ballpark being covered by taxpayers. However, Brian Hannigan, VBSA communications director, told me that since this cost estimate dates back to a 1996 report from the Virginia General Assembly, it is "not unrealistic" that costs could be higher now.
Naturally, taxpayer subsidies are justified by studies trumpeting big economic benefits. The VBSA released a report in July 2000 prepared by a George Mason University professor, Stephen S. Fuller, asserting that over 30 years, a new team and stadium would generate $8.6 billion in economic activity, and produce $693 million in revenues for state and local government.
In reality, such predictions amount to nothing more than wishful thinking. A more legitimate analysis examines sports activities in cities over time, and determines their actual economic impact. That's what economists at the University of Maryland Dennis Coates and Brad Humphreys did in two recent studies. They basically found that sports franchises can depress per capita personal income, have no net effect on employment and earnings, and have an overall negative effect on a region's economy.
In case you doubt who truly benefits from stadium subsidies, consider that both the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Milwaukee Brewers move into new, heavily subsidized ballparks this season, and their respective team payrolls will jump by about two-thirds over last year. Meanwhile, revenues for the Seattle Mariners jumped from $89 million in 1998, their last full season in the Kingdome, to $146 million in the new Safeco Field last year. Taxpayer-subsidized ballparks mean nothing to a region's economy, but a lot to team owners and players.
Nonetheless, Washington D.C. and Virginia officials stand willing to subsidize multimillionaire team owners and players. With no league expansion on the horizon, local baseball boosters are left looking for a team to relocate, like the Montreal Expos or bringing back the Twins. Both teams have been unable to squeeze taxpayers to pay for new ballparks, and the Expos owned the majors' worst attendance record in each of the past three seasons.
Plans are once again circulating, though, to keep the Twins in Minnesota, including an idea for a stock offering to help fund a new stadium. Meanwhile, after numerous setbacks, the Expos have made some progress on the business front in Montreal, including a new sponsorship deal with Molson Inc., and a local television contract (last year, the Expos were not on local TV). For good measure, both the Expos and Twins should field vastly improved teams this year. If each is competitive, that will only serve to boost attendance.
In addition, remember that no Major League Baseball team has relocated in the three decades since the Senators II moved to Texas. Still, VBSA spokesman Hannigan was optimistic during our conversation, but he was careful to say that he was "very positive" over "the long term" that Major League Baseball would enter this attractive market.
Mr. Selig and team owners generally like both franchise stability and taxpayer subsidies. So, the odds run against the District or Northern Virginia landing a baseball team soon, unless matters completely self-destruct in Montreal. Instead, the Washington area likely will continue to be used as leverage, as a threat in order to get new ballparks built in places where teams already reside.
As a baseball fan, I can understand the desire to root for a local team. And if a team owner builds his own ballpark, that's great. But if getting a team means subsidies, then Washington D.C. and Virginia taxpayers are better off without big league baseball in the area.

Raymond J. Keating is chief economist for the Small Business Survival Committee, and the co-author of "U.S. by the Numbers: Figuring What's Left, Right, and Wrong with America State by State" (Capital Books, 2000).


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