- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A new major league baseball stadium is more than just a fancy playpen loaded with amenities such as comfortable seats, gourmet food stands and, in the case of the Washington Nationals, cherry trees beyond left field. A new ballpark is a dream factory, a symbol of hope for its inhabitants and fans whose constant turnstile clicks represent the sweet sound of success.

That’s the plan, at least.

Ballpark economics worked in Cleveland where, in 1994, the perennially downtrodden, attendance-challenged Indians moved from ancient, way-too-big Cleveland Stadium, the “Mistake by the Lake,” into cozy new Jacobs Field and began an unprecedented era of achievement. Instantly, the Indians were transformed into winners, and fans flocked to the park.

However, the plan went awry in Pittsburgh when the Pirates moved from outdated, sterile Three Rivers Stadium into state-of-the-art PNC Park in 2001. They continued to lose, and it wasn’t long before fans began to stay away, even though many consider PNC to be the most attractive of baseball’s new breed of stadiums.

This is more than the tale of two teams and their ballparks. It illustrates the tale of many teams and many ballparks — gleaming new facilities built to attract fans and provide the revenue needed to build a contender — fancy, modern structures such as the $611 million glass-and-steel palace on the banks of the Anacostia River the Nationals are scheduled to occupy next spring.

When the Lerner family bought the club last year, one of the first priorities was sprucing up aging RFK Stadium. But with apologies to the venerable old park, this was like applying lipstick to a pig.

“When we get the new ballpark, that will really make it next generation,” Nationals President Stan Kasten said. “The fans will spend their money, but we’ll give them a good reason to spend their money. We’ll have a venue worth coming down to. If four hours are asked of your time, you’ve got to be entertaining for four hours. It has to be done in a comfortable, safe, efficient, entertaining way.

“And if you do that right, you also provide new revenue streams to facilitate the product on the field.”

The expected attendance bump and the income it generates is part of Mr. Kasten’s master plan to rebuild the Nationals. But just one part. More fans is a given, but history tells us that more victories is not. Providing posh suites, giant digital scoreboards and amusements for the kiddies is easy. Winning is hard.

“You can look at all these ballparks, but it still comes down to the talent level,” Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said.

A starting point

“New stadiums, in and of themselves, are not a panacea,” said Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp Ltd., a sports business consulting firm. “You have to have good management that targets player acquisition and player development.”

The opening of Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992 ushered in the era of the new ballpark. Existing franchises have since moved into parks in Cleveland, Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta, Houston, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Detroit, San Francisco, San Diego, Milwaukee, Cincinnati and St. Louis. Expansion clubs built new stadiums in Phoenix and Denver.

In almost every nonexpansion case, attendance increased markedly during the first year. Team payrolls usually went up, and performance on the field immediately improved on occasion. Sometimes, it took a few years. And in some places, it has yet to happen.

Cleveland and Pittsburgh represent opposite extremes. When the Indians moved into Jacobs Field, they drew about 8,500 more fans per game than the previous year, better than 20,000 more per game than the year before that. After finishing 10 games under .500 in their old park in 1993, the Indians stood 19 games over when the lockout ended the ‘94 season.

The next year, Cleveland won 100 games during a shortened season and played in the World Series, their first postseason action in 41 years and the start of five straight playoff appearances and six in seven years. They returned to the Series in 1997. During the eight seasons from their first year at Jacobs through 2001, the Indians finished no worse than second. During that time, there were 455 consecutive sellouts.

The Pirates, on the other hand, drew nearly 9,000 fans per game more in their new ballpark than they did the previous year but won just 62 games, seven fewer. Since then, the club’s best finish is 75-87, in 2003. By 2004, attendance at PNC Park was about 2,000 less per game than the last year at Three Rivers.

“The assumption is that the fans will come out to a new ballpark the first year and probably for the first couple of years,” said Mr. Melvin, an assistant general manager with the Orioles when the team moved to Camden Yards and later the general manager in Texas after the Rangers moved to their new park. “But eventually it gets to the point where you have to start winning ballgames. The newness wears off.”

‘An ongoing cycle’

Mr. Melvin replaced Dean Taylor as the Brewers’ general manager after the 2002 season, when the club went 56-106 and attendance dropped by more than 10,000 per game. This was just two years after the Brewers moved into Miller Park. The Brewers are in first place in the National League Central, but improvement has been slow.

“The ballpark has helped,” Melvin said. “The fans’ expectations are new park, new revenues, new payroll and winning. But it can’t be looked at as a one-year thing. It’s a process.”

“When you move into a new facility, you’ve got all kinds of revenue opportunities, more revenues to devote to player development and player salaries,” Houston Astros President Tal Smith said. “And if you do it right, it translates to won-lost performance and that in turn generates more revenues. It’s an ongoing cycle. You’ve got an opportunity with a new stadium with suites and advertising, but you’ve also got to perform to keep it going. You’ve got to capitalize on it.”

Houston did not immediately benefit from its new park. In fact, the Astros did much worse. After winning three straight division titles while playing in the Astrodome, they slumped from 97 wins in 1999 to 72 in 2000. Mr. Smith attributes that mainly to a team built around pitching suddenly moving into a hitters’ park. But Houston bounced back with 93 wins and a division title in 2001 and won the pennant in 2005, a year after setting a franchise attendance record.

“A new stadium is nice,” Mr. Ganis said. “But it’s not going to be the holy grail.”

It wasn’t the answer in Detroit, where attendance improved by only about 5,000 during the Tigers’ first year in Comerica Park (due in part to Tiger Stadium’s nostalgic send-off the year before) and the win total jumped by 10. But then came a 13-win slide in 2001, and an attendance drop of about 6,500 a game. Two years later, the club bottomed out, going 43-119 and averaging fewer than 17,000. The novelty had worn off.

“You only have one shot,” said Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski. “People will come to see the new ballpark. Now, if you have a good ballclub and the fans are entertained, you have a chance of bringing them back.”

The fans did not start coming back until 2004, when Detroit improved by 29 games in the standings. By continuing to sign and develop young talent, hiring Jim Leyland as manager and signing some key free agents, the Tigers last season played in the World Series and set a franchise attendance record.

But Comerica was just one piece of the puzzle.

“There are so many other things involved,” Mr. Dombrowski said.

A little luck

No need to tell that to Pirates’ fans. The buzz of moving from Three Rivers to PNC quickly dissipated during the first season as Pittsburgh lost 100 games for the first time in 15 years. The club had nearly doubled its payroll, but questionable personnel decisions and a decimated pitching staff torpedoed any expected improvement. Three starters were hurt. Two of the them never pitched an inning, and the other, Jason Schmidt, was traded in July to San Francisco, where he became an instant star.

“It’s a process a lot of fans don’t understand,” said Cam Bonifay, who was fired as general manager during that season, before the Schmidt trade, and now works as an assistant to St. Louis Cardinals General Manager Walt Jocketty. “It’s not easy. It’s an awful lot of hard work. Then you’ve got to be lucky. You’ve got to stay away from injuries. We had three starting pitchers go down before the season. Instead of going into the new ballpark with one of the best young rotations, we were handcuffed.”

Mr. Bonifay said the revenues generated by the new park enabled the club to beef up its Latin American scouting and farm system and spend more money in the draft. But that was for down the road. In the short term, “PNC was beautiful, it was a great place, but we just couldn’t win,” he said.

The opposite occurred in Cleveland, where the Indians rode a perfect storm of smart decision-making, the blossoming of young talent and the new ballpark. They key was then-GM John Hart extending the contracts of several young players (Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and Omar Vizquel, among others) and filling the remaining holes with judicious free-agent acquisitions.

“It was well-thought-out, and we had the great good fortune to make good trades and draft good players,” said Mr. Hart, who now works as a consultant to the Texas Rangers. “That sustained us over a period of five to eight years.”

Jacobs Field was vital to Mr. Hart’s detailed mechanism. The Indians’ payroll eventually increased from less than $17 million before the move to about $75 million, “which is about all the market could afford,” he said.

“We didn’t have the big TV package. We were a stadium revenue-driven club.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Kasten has been working to implement his own philosophy and plans, many of which are borrowed from Atlanta, where he helped orchestrate the Braves’ streak of 13 straight division championships. To Mr. Kasten, who uses phrases like “fan-friendly” and “the customer experience,” the new ballpark is neither everything nor the only thing. But it is a pretty big thing.

“It’s very important,” he said. “We need a threshold amount of revenue to compete at the highest level. This will keep us over the long haul in the upper tiers of baseball.”

That’s the plan, at least.

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