Stadium Sale: The Name of the Game Is Deceit

Apr 19, 2000 at 4:00 am
Sometimes a little detail can tell you a lot about a big project.

Say, naming rights.

Naming rights are what you sell to giant companies when you build a new stadium in America these days. Recently Federal Express absolutely, positively committed $205 million to have the Washington Redskins play in a place called FedEx Field.

An oil company called Enron paid $100 million so that the Houston Astros would play in a stadium known as Enron Field. That's the same figure Staples, an office-supply company, forked over so that the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers and Kings would call the Staples Center their home.

It's not a foolproof investment for the companies. In Philadelphia, for example, the First Union Center is affectionately abbreviated the F-U Center by some. Still, naming rights are all the rage now, with the bar raised far beyond the paltry $1.3 million-per-year, 20-year deal that TWA made to sponsor our, ahem, convention-center-expansion dome in 1995.

Should I mention, then, that the Cardinals are planning to retain ownership of the naming rights for the public baseball stadium they would like St. Louis to give them?

It's just a little detail. The only reason I know it is that RFT staff writer Bruce Rushton raised a naming-rights question at the Cardinals' stadium news conference two weeks ago, and the owners quietly told him -- as reported in this week's RFT cover story -- that, yes, the team would retain those rights.

Now, the owners were speaking from the podium at the time, but I can only assume they spoke quietly, because to the best of my knowledge no one else in the media has bothered to report this $100 million-or-so detail. For certain, the Post-Dispatch has not.

This is indeed one of those little details that tells you a lot about a big project, not so much because it would be such an outrageous welfare payment but because of how its omission distorts what's happening here.

What the Post has reported, repeatedly, is that the Cardinals "are willing to contribute $120 million" to the stadium project, $100 million in cash and $20 million in real-estate value for 8 of the 20-or-so downtown acres the Cardinals' owners acquired with the team. In an editorial Sunday, the paper said the team "will pony up $120 million, about a third of the $370 million cost."

Let's get this straight: This is to be a publicly owned facility, paid for with a pre-cost-overrun price to taxpayers of a quarter-billion dollars (certain to go up), not counting the $600,000-plus that would be lost annually in property taxes by the city and its public schools.

But even though it is to be the public's stadium, and even though naming rights have become a towering source of revenue for stadiums across North America, the Cardinals not only would be gifted these millions, they would then be credited as having generously "contributed" them to the project as evidence that the team is paying its "fair share."

Are we that abjectly stupid, St. Louis? What part of "give the Cardinals a new stadium" do we not understand?

It would be horrific enough to hand the Cardinals' Cincinnati-based ownership group (another story) this outrageous welfare payment. But should the public really have to send a thank-you note if they "contribute" it back?

Understand that this simple point will be made complex. Naming rights are customarily entwined with other advertising and sponsorships and luxury seating -- not to mention "little" details such as exclusive pouring rights in a stadium (of some interest to beer and soft-drink companies, for example) -- and there's no telling who would get what in this proposed "partnership" between public and multimillionaire preppie guys.

Besides, when the ownership group cut its sweetheart deal for the team with Anheuser-Busch (after selling some land and parking garages, it now owns a $200 million-plus franchise for virtually nada), team officials said the brewery retained 15-year naming rights on the ancient ruins of Busch Stadium. For all we know, that commitment could follow the Cardinals to a stadium they don't own.

But the real issue here isn't about contractual obligations. It's not about revenue splits.

It's about deceit.

The facade of the team's "contribution" to the project is no more disingenuous than the basic posturing about how the owners love St. Louis and its team but not so much that they'd willingly submit to a vote of the people on a stadium. Nor does the team seem willing to share any more than its unaudited, unverified, self-generated one-page "financials" with its future "partners" in a stadium, even though the whole deal is said to be predicated on the team's economic needs. Indeed, officials won't even tell the public who owns what share of the team.

When the need is to appeal to fan loyalty and pride, the Cardinals become a public trust. But when the need is to explain why hundreds of millions in public resources should be transferred to wealthy monopolists -- at the direct expense of schoolchildren, no less -- the Cardinals become just another private business that shouldn't have to respond to such intrusions.

The Cardinals have an interesting strategy. On one hand, team president Mark Lamping is smooth as silk with his slick charts and diagrams and detailed, dynamic plans to document the vast benefits of a new stadium. But when the RFT raised the most basic questions about vast holes and inconsistencies on the cost side, the crispness devolved to blank stares, indignant "no comments" and referrals to the politicians or whatever sick false gods we pinkos pray to.

At this point, team officials seem content to field the queries of "Just how wonderful will this wonderful place be?" that are fired off by TV sports "journalists," who cover the story like teen girls cover the Backstreet Boys. The Cardinals can happily count on not being asked to explain the unexplainable, which is why -- if a new stadium is needed -- they can't do it with private finances, like the San Francisco Giants just did (but only after being rejected for handouts four times by the voters).

The Cardinals' owners like to talk about how much the team means to St. Louis and its economy. What they conveniently ignore is how much St. Louis and its economy -- as America's No. 1 baseball town -- have meant for more than a century to the team they have owned for less than five years.

There's certainly a name for what they're trying to do.

But I don't think they'd want to put it on a stadium.