Trust Us

Six months after political heavyweights signed an agreement with the Cardinals, a deal is still up in the air

Ballpark Village, of course, is far from a sure thing. In the memorandum of understanding signed six months ago, the Cardinals say they'll reimburse the city and state for tax revenue that would have been generated by half of the village if it isn't built. (The penalty for not completing the second half on land already owned by the team is clear-cut: The team would turn the vacant property over to the government.) The promise has prompted the governor and the mayor to crow that this is a no-risk, win-win deal for taxpayers. But just how the parties would calculate the financial penalty is a mystery, especially given that no one has said exactly what Ballpark Village would be: Maybe some shops, maybe some residential, maybe some offices, maybe some restaurants, maybe an aquarium, definitely a parking lot. The formula for calculating penalties on the basis of something neither built nor precisely defined would be tricky at best. "I would love to see the legal agreement," Artibise says.

Artibise is equally eager to see what penalty the owners would pay if they sold the team. In the memorandum, the Cardinals say the public would share in any profits if the team is sold, but that is as precise as they get. If this is indeed a fair deal, the Cardinals should be prepared to write a big check. "To put it not even crudely, but relatively accurately, the current owners of the Cardinals only have less than $50 million invested in the team," Artibise says. "Ask anybody: The team right now is worth between $200 million and $250 million. With a new stadium, we're probably approaching $300 million or $300 million-plus. These four very rich guys come along, we build them a stadium, they flip the team and make 200 million bucks. What the hell kind of deal is that? I'd really like to see the fine print about this profit-sharing."

The Cardinals have come remarkably far without laying many cards on the table. Naming rights that could be worth more than $50 million are a case in point. Contrary to what the team and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch may say, the Cardinals haven't given up naming-rights money -- if they had, it would be spent up front to reduce public debt on a baseball palace with an estimated cost of $326 million. Instead, what we have is a trip-down-the-rabbit-hole scheme that has been so often mischaracterized by politicians and misreported by the media that it has taken on the aura of truth. The complexity is rooted in federal tax law: The IRS is taking a hard look at whether teams can legally bank millions in naming rights from stadiums financed by tax-exempt public bonds, which are supposed to be used for public purposes. The IRS has yet to come up with a definitive answer, and so the Cards appear to be trying for a deal that would allow tax-exempt financing while holding open the chance for the team to profit from naming rights should the feds settle lingering tax questions in favor of sports franchises.

A town-hall meeting on the stadium proposal attracted little public interest. The Dec. 20 event was sponsored by the Greater St. Louis Sports Authority.
Jennifer Silverberg
A town-hall meeting on the stadium proposal attracted little public interest. The Dec. 20 event was sponsored by the Greater St. Louis Sports Authority.

According to the memorandum of understanding, the team will negotiate a naming-rights deal, collect the money and deposit a portion into accounts that could be used to reimburse the state and city if new tax revenue from the ballpark isn't sufficient to cover the bond payments (and even then, the public would have to wait at least 10 years after the debt is issued before drawing from the accounts.) Whether there will be enough in those accounts to cover any shortfalls is far from certain. For one thing, the federal tax code has a 10 percent cap on the amount of private money that can be used to pay off tax-exempt government bonds, and the parties expect the team to collect more from naming rights than can legally be used to reimburse the state or city. That's why the memorandum includes provisions for the city and state accounts to be replenished with naming-rights revenue in case either entity draws money from the kitty over the lifetime of the 30-year lease. If the Cardinals had really given up naming-rights money, there'd be no naming-rights revenue available to put into government accounts decades after the deal is sealed, the stadium is named and the money collected.

It gets even better for the Cards if tax-revenue projections prove true and neither the state nor the city draws from the accounts. In that case, naming-rights money in the unused accounts goes for "the benefit of the stadium," according to the memorandum of understanding. That would presumably reduce the Cardinals' obligation to pay for maintenance and capital improvements. As it stands now, Foley admits that unused money in the accounts could be used for landscaping, restroom upgrades or any number of things besides reducing the public's debt. He'd like to change that but makes no promises. "I personally would like to see it go toward paying off the bonds," Foley says. "I would like to put an emphasis on that." The Cardinals, meanwhile, aren't talking. After a recent public forum about the stadium proposal, team president Mark Lamping dodged a question about naming-rights revenue, saying he'd talk to the Riverfront Times the next day. But he didn't return calls.

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