Card Sharks

The St. Louis Cardinals want your money for their $370 million ballpark. But before the game begins, somebody needs to reshuffle the deck.

What if there's a players' strike and tax revenue from the stadium drops to zero? Surely that would dent the notion that a new ballpark would pay for itself. "Those are very good questions that should be asked as public authorities," Lamping responds. "If they're going to consider being part of it, they should ask those questions and deal with it at that point." What would his answer be if they ask? Lamping answers with a question: "How much is the public putting in?" Well, they're putting in $250 million. "They are?" he responds. That's what you've asked for. "No, no, no," he says. "What we've said is, we're going to put up the $120 million. There's $250 million to find. We would suggest that that would be handled via some sort of tax-exempt revenue bonds and that the annual obligation for those come from a number of sources. We need to find $19 million (each year), is what we said. If it doesn't come from the public and it doesn't come from the team, who knows?" What other sources might there be other than the team and the public? Again Lamping plays connect-the-dots, refusing to volunteer any examples or specifics for the public to consider. "I guess you'd have to look at what financing plans have taken place for other stadiums," he says.

OK, how about San Francisco? The Giants, with the help of corporate sponsors, are paying for their own $343 million stadium after voters four times rejected public financing for a new ballpark to replace Candlestick Park, a stadium notorious for poor attendance and a lack of premium seats and other amenities to boost revenue. There's no comparison, claim the Cardinals. For one thing, the Giants don't have as large a tax burden as the Cardinals, Lamping and other team officials say. Then there's the size of the Bay Area media market. The team notes that there are more television sets in San Francisco than in St. Louis, so the Giants can make more money from local broadcast and cable rights. But St. Louis, unlike San Francisco, is a baseball town, and that's reflected in the teams' contracts with local media. According to Broadcasting and Cable magazine, the Giants are getting $14.5 million a year for local rights. The Cardinals get $12 million a year, not including whatever the team makes from 45 games it broadcasts on KPLR-TV (Channel 11) (the team buys time from the station and keeps whatever money it makes from commercials).

The Cardinals propose paying $1 million a year to help pay for maintenance at the new stadium. Would this constitute rent? "I think you should look at it as, we're going to contribute $1 million a year, and what happens beyond that is a function of how the rest of the plan comes together," Lamping says. "Is there a possibility there could be more? Absolutely." Just how much more, the team won't say. "We have an idea of what would make sense, but we don't believe we should be negotiating a lease before there's even a belief that the stadium's going to get built," Lamping says.

Cardinals president Mark Lamping: "I guess if every time there's going to be public dollars involved in any project that we're going to put it forth for the people to vote on it, then why do we need legislators?"
Jennifer Silverberg
Cardinals president Mark Lamping: "I guess if every time there's going to be public dollars involved in any project that we're going to put it forth for the people to vote on it, then why do we need legislators?"

The team, which has committed $100 million in upfront money, says it will retain naming rights for a new stadium, a deal that could be worth well more than $100 million, judging from what's happened in other cities. Last year, naming rights for the Washington Redskins' stadium fetched $205 million. The Houston Astros, who got $100 million for their stadium that opened this season, have the largest naming-rights deal in baseball. Naming rights typically include a lump-sum payment on the front end and $1 million or more each year, but the Cardinals wouldn't necessarily have to wait for their money. In Denver, Ascent Arena Co., owner of the Nuggets basketball team and Avalanche hockey club, used $68 million in naming rights for Pepsi Center (plus revenue from suite rentals and corporate sponsorships) to back $139.8 million in taxable bonds.

Personal seat licenses (PSLs) are another potential source of upfront revenue for the team, but Lamping doesn't want to get into that. "We have absolutely no idea what the financing of this plan is going to look like," he says when the subject of PSLs comes up.

Query fans at Busch on any given day, and it's tough to find anyone who wants the place replaced. "It's 30 years old, but there's nothing wrong with it," says Larry Kleinkemper, who's been an usher for three years and a Cardinals fan since Stan Musial roamed the field at Sportsman's Park, where the team played before Busch opened in 1966. "It's a beautiful park. Of course, I'm prejudiced. I've been a Cardinals fan all my life." Kleinkemper, 69, would work for free. "I do it because I like baseball and I like to have fun," he says from the left-field stands during batting practice before a recent game against the Milwaukee Brewers. A few dozen fans line the outfield fence more than an hour before the first pitch in hopes of snagging a ball. When the gates open two hours before the national anthem, at least 50 fans in search of autographs stampede toward the first-base line to secure spots where players are most likely to saunter by. It's wet today from an earlier rain, causing a few of the autograph hounds to slip and fall as they sprint down the stadium steps. They get right back up and keep on going. It's like this every game, Kleinkemper says.

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