Ballpark Frankness

The Cardinals want a new stadium. They'll probably get it. But unless baseball cures its own ills, it might be better being a no-show.

One hundred years ago, the St. Louis Perfectos, which were formed as the Browns in 1892, became the St. Louis Cardinals. A century later, the new owners of the Cardinal baseball team are facing two basic issues that have become increasingly complicated: where to play their games and how to pay their bills. The two issues are related. Though the wheels have begun to turn for a new stadium for the Cardinals, at least one authority on the topic warns that unless baseball drastically restructures its revenue-sharing, building a new venue won't hide the fact that the Cardinal team on the field will be a "Four A"-quality squad, not much better than minor-league.

Thus far, by most measurements, the owners who took over in 1996 have had a good time of it. Attendance jumped from 2.6 million during the first two years of their ownership to 3.1 million last year. There has been one playoff appearance and, of course, the media and fan hysteria around Mark McGwire's record 70-home-run season in '98.

Thrown into the midst of this love fest over the supposed national pastime is the Greater St. Louis Sports Authority and, on Jan. 29, a report by the Cardinals to that newly formed public authority. What was in that report and, more important, what motivated that report could result in a new baseball stadium to replace Busch Stadium, which opened in 1966.

When a new turf might be provided for the Cardinals is strictly conjecture, but one reasonable bet might be placed on 2004 -- the 100-year anniversary of the St. Louis World's Fair and the Olympics and the bicentennial observance of the Louisiana Purchase by President Thomas Jefferson. "2004 certainly has a nice ring to it," says Cardinal President Mark Lamping. "How the stadium rolls into 2004, I don't know. But it would be nice to have some stadium component, whether that means you're playing games then or you're breaking ground -- who knows?"

The crawl toward the demolition of Busch Stadium and the construction of a new stadium took an official step with the creation of the authority by the Missouri Legislature last year. The seven-person authority, made up of reps from the city of St. Louis and Franklin, Jefferson, St. Charles and St. Louis counties, will submit a report to the governor by Dec. 1. Though by definition the authority was formed to look at all sports, there's little doubt that the report's main topic is the Cardinals' desire for a new stadium and how much -- or whether -- the public should pay for that facility.

Lamping knows that even discussing the idea of public financing of a sports stadium brings up nasty memories of the $250 million, publicly financed Trans World Dome, which was built to lure an NFL franchise and succeeded in drawing the decrepit Rams. The Rams pay only $25,000 per game for rent, which barely covers the cost of turning the lights on. "The well has been poisoned and the view has been clouded by virtue of the NFL experience here in St. Louis," says Lamping. "You cannot separate the two because of that. That's unfortunate, because they're two totally different situations." Lamping says the Cardinals' owners don't expect a new stadium totally paid for by taxpayers. It's also clear that it won't be totally paid for by the owners. How that mix will be sorted out is up to the authority.

The Cardinals owners have history, tradition and a rabid fanbase on their side. Lamping stresses that the ultimate club normally used by owners, the threat of moving the team, is not an option. "The Cardinals have been in the community for more than 100 years. Nobody is talking about the Cardinals' leaving St. Louis," says Lamping. "We are planning to stay; we are not threatening to move. That's why we're talking about this, even though some look at us and say, 'Why are you bringing this on yourselves?'"

Money has something to do with it. In the report to the authority, on the cash-flow page, the owners state that they lost $16.4 million in 1996, $13.5 million in 1997 and $3.2 million last year.

As Busch Stadium ages, it costs more. Maintenance costs are expected to be $1.3 million this year and to reach $2 million by the year 2005. If nothing changes in St. Louis, it's possible that by 2005 Busch Stadium will be Major League Baseball's second-oldest stadium, behind Chicago's Wrigley Field, because most other cities either have new stadiums or have facilities under construction.

Aside from fewer maintenance expenses, by having better seats in a newer stadium, ticket prices could be increased. Lamping stresses that the number of inexpensive seats would be about the same but that the price tag on the better seats would go up. There likely wouldn't be more luxury boxes, but they'd be better, and costlier, ones.

The overall capacity of the stadium might be slightly less, but the facility would be more linear, less circular, and its baseball-only design would provide better sightlines. As for location, downtown is preferable, and a likely spot is immediately south of Busch; the site, owned by the Cardinals, now holds a bus-parking lot. If that happens, the current Busch Stadium could be removed for parking. But nothing is guaranteed.

"The best place to have a stadium is in downtown St. Louis. Having said that, if that's not possible and we are forced to make a decision to go to a different location in order to have a stadium built, maybe you have to go to your second choice," says Lamping. "It's a different community than what it was in the early '80s. When you see the construction of a 10,000-seat arena on the west side of the Missouri River, when you see the growth of Earth City, (it's) significantly different today than it was the mid-1980s; when you see the commerce that's out there, it's a much more mobile community, and it's going to get even more so."

A new stadium in St. Charles? Earth City? On the East Side? Unlikely, but who knows?

All the talk about a new stadium is predictable, even logical, though Mark Rosentraub, author of Major League Losers: The Real Cost of Sports and Who's Paying for It, thinks public officials and the Cardinal owners ought to have a heart-to-heart talk before they plunge ahead. "The issue is not what St. Louis would or would not do, and it's not what the Cardinals would or would not do," says Rosentraub. "It's much more evident now that, in the absence of sufficient revenue-sharing, even if you were to build a stadium for the Cardinals and hand them the keys, they can't generate enough money to be a competitive baseball team any longer. The market can't do it."

The fundamental problem is that only 39 percent of a team's baseball-related income is put into the pool for revenue-sharing. In pro football's NFL, that amount is 80 percent. Public officials should not make any promise about funding a new baseball diamond until Major League Baseball commits to sharing its wealth in a more equitable manner so that smaller markets' teams can compete. Rosentraub thinks the McGwire mania could be used as leverage because the players' agreement expires in 2000, with an option year possibly pushing it to 2001.

"St. Louis is the remaining poster child for revenue-sharing, because you have the highest attendance outside of any large market in baseball. St. Louis goes crazy over baseball. You have fan evidence," says Rosentraub, who is also a professor at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University in Indianapolis.

With this approach, city, county and state officials need to form a "united front with the team" and argue that unless there is better revenue-sharing, or talent-sharing, or some effort by baseball to protect the small market, they won't even proceed with a plan for a new stadium. In the long run, it's sensible for the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers to protect the smaller markets, because if the big markets become too dominant, competition and fan interest -- and, hence, attendance and ratings -- will drop.

Rosentraub blames media magnate Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Dodgers, for hiring free agent Kevin Brown away from San Diego as another example of how the big markets rule. The Cardinal owners, whether they're currently losing money or not, can't compete with that, no matter what kind of stadium they have. "Let's just assume the Cardinals' owners are not the bastards some of the owners are," Rosentraub says. "How can they compete with Murdoch, who has a cable network? How can they compete with Atlanta Braves, who have a cable network? How can they compete against the Yankees, who get over $60 million a year in nonshared media revenue? This is not going to happen."

Meanwhile, the Cardinals will come up short as current revenue-sharing rules apply. "Whatever money they put into it, you're going to get a Four-A team, which is essentially what you have now. You got a superstar and some other decent players. Can you win a championship? No. Can you compete for a championship? No. And if you make the playoffs, you'll get blown out in the first round."

But whatever the macro-reality of "Major League Baseball" is, chances are a referendum on public funding of a baseball stadium likely would pass, particularly if McGwire had just had a good year. Rosentraub's advice is not to leap into that commitment until baseball carves up its pie more fairly. "Don't do it," he says. "Because if they do it, you're going to create some kind of a financial debacle. You'll have to oversubsidize it and you won't get want you want, which is a good team.

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