Cardinal Sin

It's welfare for the wealthiest

Should tax dollars subsidize the runaway salaries of millionaire baseball players? Should the public shore up the bottom lines and net worth of even wealthier team owners?

Those simple questions are the essence of the Great Stadium Debate now raging in Jefferson City at the behest of your St. Louis Cardinals. Their request for a quarter-billion dollars in public assistance -- arguably more, if you factor in the team's retaining stadium-naming rights -- is predicated on keeping the team "competitive."

Just ask them.

The Cardinals are touting a study they had ladled up for the Greater St. Louis Sports Authority (itself concocted a few years back at the team's urging). The study -- coincidentally published at the apex of the teams lobbying blitzkrieg of the state Legislature -- concluded last week that the team could not afford to build its own stadium and keep top players.

No one is arguing that the team's Cincinnati-based ownership group -- collectively worth billions -- could not muster financing for a new stadium. Instead, the Cardinals' plea is for the public to retire stadium-construction debt so that the team will be free to remain a high-stakes player in its sport's undeniably insane game of spiraling salaries.

If the public will be so kind as to "find" $19 million or so annually for debt service, we the people might have both a free-agent relief pitcher and a third baseman to show for it. How moving.

What a wonderful use of scarce public dollars: placing the marginal cost of wildly compensated athletes on the state's payroll indirectly by covering a legitimate cost center (debt service) for the Cardinals. At least that would be the case unless Cardinal owners decided to take a stand on salaries, in which case the public's $19 million would flow ultimately to the owners' bottom line (and, in multiples, to the net worth of their franchise).

It's public welfare for multimillionaires, any way you cut it.

But let's say the federal government were overthrown by a capitalist coup and it was no longer an option for the public to subsidize rich people's diversions. The closest real-life example we have of this fantasy is the peculiar case of the San Francisco Giants.

Much to the consternation of fellow cartel members in Major League Baseball -- and only after four voter rejections of funding requests between 1988 and 1992 -- the Giants scraped together roughly $350 million to construct Pacific Bell Park. It was the first privately funded major-league baseball park since Dodger Stadium was built in 1962.

And it's working.

The team raised $165 million in sponsorships, naming rights, concession and beverage rights and charter seat licenses (selling some 16,000 seats for one-time charges ranging from $1,500-$7,500 in a program similar to that of the St. Louis Rams). It borrowed $170 million from a bank and received $15 million in tax-increment financing for improvements around the stadium.

In 1999, the Giants, with a losing team, drew 2.2 million fans, including 9,000 season-ticket holders, generating $65 million in revenue and a payroll of $45 million. One year later, the team sold out 40,800-seat Pac Bell Park for all of its games, with 29,800 season-ticket holders, revenues of $146 million and a team payroll of $56 million. (All this according to the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Sun-Sentinel.)

And, despite dire predictions that the team could not stay competitive while retiring a $20 million nut, the team finished with the best record (99-63) in Major League Baseball.

What about that, Cardinal owner Bill DeWitt Jr.?

"There's no way you can compare us to San Francisco," DeWitt told me. "Do you realize they don't pay any taxes, while we have the highest rate in the league? And they're in a much larger market. It's not appropriate to look at the details in a vacuum."

Fair point there. Unfortunately, the very citizenry that is beseeched for public charity is not privy to those details at all.

We're left to speculate with the crumbs that we have. To wit:

· The only team to outdraw the large-market Giants was the tiny-market Cardinals, for whom a record 3.3 million fans turned out last year in the ancient ruins of Busch Stadium. If market size is so crucial, why has San Francisco maxed out at a number below what we already have?

· Broadcast revenues appear to be similarly comparable. As the RFT reported last year, according to Broadcasting and Cable magazine, the Giants received $14.5 million a year for local rights. The Cardinals got $12 million a year, not including what the team made reselling the time it bought for 45 games on KPLR-TV (Channel 11) ["Card Sharks," Bruce Rushton, RFT, April 19, 2000].

· As for taxation, the Cardinals' best argument (maybe their only good one) is that the city's 5 percent amusement tax is arbitrary, unfair and out of date. But it's hard to believe that the state of California isn't somehow getting its fair share of revenue from the proceeds of Giants games, and it's even harder to accept the notion that the Cardinals should be singularly exempt from state taxes that other businesses collect from their customers in Missouri.

The bottom line is clear: Although the Cardinals, starting in a strong position, wouldn't see their revenues jump by $81 million in a new stadium, they certainly would realize a terrific increase. Otherwise, they'd stay put in a facility they own outright.

The Cardinals aren't willing to say how much of an increase is projected for a new stadium -- so much for the team's self-proclaimed public candor -- but it's a safe bet that the new revenues from club seats, posher luxury boxes and improved concessions would easily outpace the $19 million in debt service. And that's not including what the team would save from not having to do ancient-stadium maintenance.

In a nutshell, the Cardinals could do what the Giants did, but they simply don't want to. It's not that a private investment in a stadium would be so bad for the team. It's that a public gift of more than $250 million represents such a wonderful windfall.

That's why team owners are leveraging their monopoly status to play area governments against one another: They are hellbent on receiving their fair share of public assistance from someone. And they probably have the political clout to turn the unseemly prospect into reality.

Besides, the Cardinals have sentiment on their side:

Who can turn away from the sight of a starving multimillionaire?

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