The Cards hold all the cards as the propaganda machine fires up

Nov 17, 1999 at 4:00 am
In what may have been the tossing of the ceremonial first ball in the new-stadium game, the Cardinals' erstwhile business partners at the Post-Dispatch proclaimed Sunday, atop their "Imagine St. Louis" section, in large letters:

"The Cardinals say they need a new ballpark soon. They're hoping fans here are more supportive than their counterparts in Minnesota."

The subhead explains: "Residents of St. Paul, Minn., voted recently to reject a sales tax increase that would have helped finance a new stadium for the Minnesota Twins. The Cardinals want to build their new stadium with a public-private partnership. Are Cardinals fans willing to pitch in? If not, what happens next?"

Set aside the paper's patronizing tone, one that appears to converse with third-graders: That's how "Imagine St. Louis" reads every week, so it's not as if the Cardinals' quest for a new stadium made the editors suddenly stupid. And set aside also that team president Mark Lamping is taking the low-key road, saying little while allies like the Post do his early lobbying. This is as managed as news gets.

The headlines confirm beyond a doubt that St. Louis has entered the dress-the-turkey phase of the Cardinals' stadium campaign, just in time for a post-Thanksgiving report from the Greater St. Louis Sports Authority, an entity ordered up by the team two years ago (and dutifully provided by state government) for the purpose of getting them a new place to play.

The bottom line, which is what the business of stadium-hopping is all about, is that the Cardinals want out of Busch. They want out for the same reason that every other major-league team wants out of its stadium (unless it's in a brand-new one), which is that they can enormously improve both franchise value and profitability with the upgraded luxury suites, club seats and other enhanced revenue streams of a new stadium.

Especially if the public serves it up to them like a Redbird relief pitcher hurling in the ninth.

The Post story sounds like a call to the bullpen.

There's the Cardinals saying they need the new stadium soon, a subtle-but-significant advancement from the pronouncements by Lamping, just months ago, that all the team sought was some help in kicking ideas around for the sake of long-term planning.

Suddenly there's need. Suddenly there's urgency.

There's also preemptive guilt-tripping, laying out the hope that our fans will be more supportive than those ingrates from Minnesota who turned their backs three weeks ago on their team by refusing a lousy little sales-tax increase. Note how the terms "fans" and "taxpayers" have become interchangeable.

And, of course, there's the gentle jargon of corporate welfare -- the trusty public-private partnership -- which rolls off the tongue so much more elegantly than a phrase such as "transferring hundreds of millions of public dollars to the pockets of rich Country Day guys and their millionaire athletes." It's not a scandal. It's a partnership.

It's only natural that our daily newspaper would next wonder aloud whether the fans would be willing to pitch in. It's a curve setting up the fastball.

And here's the "out" pitch: If not, what happens next?

Oh, my. We've got uncertainty. What if the cost of maintaining an outmoded stadium from the '60s relegates us to mediocrity or worse? How can we possibly hope to compete with megasalary monsters like the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets?

Now, the hammer, the cold reality that a team never even suggests unless all else fails: What if some other city steps up with a willingness to "support" the Cardinals with tax dollars and we don't? What if we could lose our most cherished civic treasure?

No doubt the Cardinals' owners have every reason to want to stay here -- including loyalty and personal ties -- and clearly they will stay, if they get the new stadium they want. But the majority control of team ownership resides in Cincinnati -- the DeWitt family's St. Louis ties aren't so strong that its members actually live here -- and they wouldn't be the first to move a team in tears because they simply had "no choice."

At this point, the Cardinals are taking the high-road position that moving isn't even under remote consideration, focusing instead on their dedicated corporate citizenship. Already the media are parroting undocumented financial claims about the team's alleged struggles, juxtaposed with pure propaganda about what the team contributes to the local economy.

As is the sports industry's custom, the Cardinals point to every dollar spent as if it had no offset. If you didn't eat at the ballpark, would you not eat? If you didn't wear a Cardinal shirt, would you go shirtless? If you didn't pay for baseball tickets, would you simply send those dollars overseas, so that they meant nothing to the local economy?

Of course not. But you'll be hearing about all those tens of millions the Cardinals contribute to the economy, as if all the fans would either move away or hibernate without them, as if the radio and TV stations would go silent without their broadcasts.

If it makes you feel any better, we are not alone in this. This is how stadium projects are peddled everywhere. But don't take too much comfort in having that company: It is, after all, the teams' combination of market scarcity and mobility that gives them their ultimate clout in hometowns like St. Louis.

As nationally noted stadium expert Mark Rosentraub says in his must-read book Major League Losers: The Real Cost of Sports and Who's Paying for It, "the perverse and unfair sports welfare system" is gripping virtually every major city in North America.

"It is likely, no matter where you live, that you will be confronted with demands for subsidy to help a "struggling' sports franchise," Rosentraub writes.

Rosentraub cites, at great length, case studies and statistics that show that the purported economic benefits of sports franchises are universally and dramatically overstated. He notes that the "modern sports welfare system" is sustained by the league's ability to control the number of teams that exist and the number that can exist in any one market, among other factors.

"The acquiescence of public officials to the demands of team owners and the resulting sports welfare system is maintained by the perpetuation of several popular myths," says Rosentraub. "Each time an owner demands a subsidized stadium or arena, taxpayers are told that teams (1) convey major league status to a city, (2) attract businesses and jobs to a community, (3) redevelop downtown areas, (4) improve the quality of life, and (5) provide opportunities for family entertainment.

"These tales, told and retold in every city, do little more than obscure the workings of each league and the unfair nature of the legalized form of extortion practiced by major league baseball, the NFL, the NBA and the NHL. The primary winners in this welfare game, the owners and the players, have been joined in the retelling of these myths by the national and local mass media, local real estate investors and some politicians in order to fan the fears that cities will lose their beloved teams if they do not meet the extortion terms specified by owners."

Does all this sound familiar? How about eerily familiar?

It has only been several years since St. Louis humiliated itself with the Rams giveaways -- "St. Louis's largesse undermined the financial health of every city as a new benchmark for subsidies was established," notes Rosentraub -- but that doesn't mean our number isn't up again. Indeed, don't be surprised if the Cardinals play a fairness card here: How can a city that spent hundreds of millions to lure a football team from Los Angeles not give decent "support" to a hallowed hometown institution that has been here for more than a century?

Almost certainly, the answer is that St. Louis -- taxpayers, fans or both -- will be expected to buck up for the Cardinals, in a big way. And this much seems even more certain: If the Cardinals want to play in a new stadium, the Cardinals will play in a new stadium.

If that's the case, they should do so with their own money, just like any other business would. If it's not, and St. Louis -- taxpayers, fans or both -- must help "save" its baseball team, then St. Louis should have a piece of the action. More on that next week.