Location, Location, Location

Why downtown's the best place for a stadium, even without state money

May 8, 2002 at 4:00 am
DeWitts have always been picky about ballparks.

Thirty-six years ago, William O. DeWitt, then owner of the Cincinnati Reds, refused to sign a lease for brand-new Riverfront Stadium, even though the government paid for the whole thing. He was scared that a ballpark would be flooded by the Ohio River. He wanted a baseball-only venue, not a round stadium to be shared with a football team. And he wanted a ballfield in suburban Blue Ash, close to his fanbase, which lived north of the city.

The Blue Ash Reds never came to be. Instead, city leaders who saw Riverfront Stadium as a linchpin for downtown redevelopment convinced DeWitt to sell the team. The team's new owners kept the Reds downtown and proved him wrong. "I think he was surprised, let me put it that way," says former City Councilman Eugene Ruehlmann, who remembers DeWitt as a detail man who emphasized proper seat width and provided city officials with statistics showing where Reds fans lived. The only thing that flooded Riverfront Stadium was cash, and the Reds took full advantage, winning back-to-back World Series in 1975 and 1976.

William O. DeWitt Jr., now principal owner of the St. Louis Cardinals, was learning the business of baseball back then from a desk set up in his father's office. Today, he's asking Missouri taxpayers for $100 million -- that's a total of $210 million over 30 years -- to build a new downtown ballpark, or else.

Or else what?

Despite overtures from both sides of the Mississippi River, including East St. Louis and St. Peters, so far the team has refused to pit one community against another. Unlike his father, DeWitt Jr. and his partners have been going full-bore for a taxpayer-subsidized stadium that would be built downtown, not in the suburbs. The deal that now faces rough sledding in the state Legislature is supposed to be the final showdown -- team president Mark Lamping has vowed that the Cards won't return to Jeff City if lawmakers reject them this session, which ends May 17. City and state officials who favor $100 million in state subsidies, plus $60 million from the city and $40 million from St. Louis County, warn that the Cards will leave downtown if they don't get what they want.

But there are plenty of reasons the Cards have fought so hard for a downtown stadium and plenty of reasons to doubt they'll abandon St. Louis, no matter what state lawmakers do.

Moving poses risks. Staying downtown would follow a proven business model that's been adopted across the nation.

Studies by the state and team show that a new downtown ballpark is a sure-fire moneymaker, even without a state subsidy. Using economic multipliers that extend benefits beyond the ballpark, the team figures that a new downtown stadium would generate $553 million in annual economic activity. Figuring additional per-fan spending of $15.62 at a ballpark built next to Busch, a new stadium would generate more than $51.5 million in new revenue each year, according to the state Department of Economic Development. Much of the money would come from well-heeled fans who can afford premium club seats, for which the team can charge upwards of $100. Busch has 281 such seats. The new stadium would have 5,562.

Of course, such a stadium could be built anywhere. But unless the Cardinals find a sugar daddy willing to subsidize it, they're better off staying put. And sugar daddies are tough to find, especially ones who can offer more than what is already in the team's pocket.

Besides $60 million in construction costs, the city has agreed to give the team a break on the 5 percent admissions tax, which would be reduced to 1.5 percent after the first $85 million in gate receipts. St. Louis County Executive Buzz Westfall has promised to kick in another $40 million. Though they're making no promises, the city and state have agreed to do their best to find money for expensive infrastructure improvements, particularly a new MetroLink station and a revised Highway 40 interchange. Indeed, the Cards may well find it easier to squeeze the state for transportation improvements if they don't win a direct stadium subsidy. And if the Cardinals did move, they'd be stuck with more than 25 acres of downtown real estate blighted by an empty stadium that would cost millions to demolish.

In contrast, St. Peters Mayor Tom Brown, who has been wooing the team, can offer little more than free land and no ticket tax. The Cards in 1999 paid St. Louis $2.6 million in ticket taxes, a significant sum but well below the $4.2 million a year the city would pay in debt service for a new downtown stadium. There's no evidence that Illinois lawmakers are interested in handing tax dollars to the Cardinals [see "Hartmann"].

There's no question the Cards are a boon to downtown St. Louis, but it's equally true that downtown has been very good to the team. Over the past 20 years, annual attendance at Busch has averaged 2.7 million fans, and that includes three seasons shortened by player strikes. In 1974, when the city's population was about 600,000, the Cardinals drew 1.9 million. In 1989, the Cardinals sold more than 3.4 million tickets, a franchise record, even though they finished third and even though the city's population had dropped below 400,000. The Cards draw better today than in the 1980s, when they made three World Series appearances, winning once.

The Cards' success downtown isn't unique. Professional sports franchises across the nation are enamored of downtowns, and with good reason. Corporate suits, not bleacher bums, pay the bills in pro sports these days, and downtown locations maximize bucks from big business.

The Baltimore Orioles changed the national stadium-scape ten years ago by moving from the suburbs into downtown Camden Yards, which has proved a financial bonanza for the team. Since then, just one new ballpark has been built in the suburbs, and that was a geographic anomaly. The Ballpark at Arlington, which opened in 1994, is located between Dallas and Fort Worth, allowing the team to tap fans from both cities. Nine of the other eleven ballparks built since Camden Yards have been in downtowns, and the other two, in Atlanta and Milwaukee, are within two miles of downtown cores.

Team owners are willing to pay to be downtown. The San Francisco Giants moved downtown into privately funded Pac Bell Park two years ago and are now league leaders in attendance and the standings. The trend goes beyond baseball. Twenty-four of the 30 basketball and hockey arenas built in the U.S. and Canada during the 1990s were built in downtowns, including several constructed primarily with private money.

Downtown St. Louis has lost corporate headquarters over the years, but it remains the densest white-collar cluster in the region, even though the state says St. Charles County -- which accounts for about 8 percent of Busch Stadium visitors -- is the area's biggest economic engine. And corporations are key in the stadium business.

"Clearly, being downtown these days is seen to be a significant advantage," says Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College who specializes in the economics of sports. "Baseball stadiums and their clientele have been gentrified. If you're going to have a lot of club seats and a lot of catering and a lot of luxury boxes and generate tens of millions of dollars from those sources, it's best to be in walking distance, frankly, to the businesses."

Like his father, DeWitt Jr. has supplied lawmakers with statistics that show where the team's fans live. Just 7 percent hail from the city. About a quarter of the team's fans come from Illinois. By far the largest number -- 33 percent -- live in St. Louis County. In essence, downtown is a central location for the team's established fanbase, a reliable revenue stream that's stuck with the Cards win or lose, unlike cities such as Detroit and Milwaukee, which have seen attendance at new ballparks plummet within two years if the team doesn't win.

DeWitt and his partners are businessmen, not riverboat gamblers. Pulling out of downtown St. Louis despite what they've been given so far would be like discarding three-of-a-kind to chase a straight. They have a proven location. Even without the state, they have $100 million in subsidies from the city and county on the table. And judging from the very economic studies they're using to make their case in Jeff City, they'll make $50 million a year in additional revenue with a new downtown stadium, without hiring a single additional employee.

The senior DeWitt realized one thing in Cincinnati, even if he guessed wrong: As with any real-estate deal, the biggest thing when it comes to stadiums is location, location, location. So when the Cards play chicken in Jeff City, lawmakers should remember that chickens don't fly. If DeWitt Jr. learned anything from his father and what happened after he sold the Reds, these Cardinals won't leave their roost.