Take the Public Out of This Ball Game

For those of you keeping score at home, the Cardinals are playing quite well these days at the game that's dearest to the hearts of their genteel owners.

I'm not talking baseball here.

It's the New Stadium Game, played ever so quietly in the friendly confines of the Missouri Legislature. There, the House Commerce Committee graciously voted two weeks ago to offer tens of millions (or more) in corporate welfare to those scrimping Country Day alums who scratch and claw so selflessly to field the Redbirds at the ancient ruin known as Busch Stadium.

Who says government never helps the common man?

The legislative committee voted to allow the Cardinals "to keep the state's portion" of the sales tax generated at Busch Stadium -- reportedly $6 million annually -- to help finance a new stadium, according to the Post-Dispatch, which didn't mention how many years the charity would flow. The good intentions now go to the full House for debate.

If the skids aren't totally greased for this project to sail through silently, perhaps the legislators can explain why a state near the bottom nationally in spending for education, corrections, mental health and virtually all other social services can afford to forego scarce tax dollars for the benefit of its multimillionaire (or more) sports monopolists.

Or perhaps they can tell us why these businesses alone -- and not grocery stores, restaurants, car dealers and thousands of others that generate economic development -- are singularly entitled to keep for themselves the sales-tax dollars they presumably collect for the public.

Now, if the Post reporting is to be believed -- the paper is, after all, "proud to be part of the home team" with respect to the Cardinals -- the bill shepherded by Rep. Dennis Bonner (D-Independence) was really all about helping the Kansas City Royals and Chiefs with their stadium needs. The Cardinals, Bonner says, were just added on to pick up some needed votes in the House.

This, of course, conveniently ignores the fact -- omitted by the Post -- that what started out as a one-paragraph bill to help Kansas City teams turned out to be a one-paragraph bill with a 24-page monster amendment devoted almost entirely to the Cardinals' needs. Among the unreported tiny details: establishment of a "St. Louis Sports Facility Authority" with the ability to issues bonds for a new stadium.

Another St. Louis stadium authority? Why, what happened to the Greater St. Louis Stadium Authority -- created less than three years ago at the behest of the Cardinals by the very same people in Jefferson City -- for the purpose of studying this very subject?

Why, it was caught totally off-guard by this new legislation, or so the Post is reporting. So much for that sacred duty.

Incredibly, the paper treated the Cardinals as passive bystanders with the headline it placed on the story:



Well, that didn't quite happen, but the Post did its best to make the team out to be the reluctant recipient of all this good fortune:

"The Cardinals say the legislative initiative should not cause alarm because the team does not have a firm plan to replace the 34-year-old stadium," the Post reported reassuringly. "Cardinals President Mark Lamping, who supports the proposal, said the bill simply gives the team a funding option for the future.

""The only agenda we have is for the St. Louis Cardinals to be a stable franchise in St. Louis for the next 100 years,'" Lamping said.

That's nice. And at the rate we're going, the public will only have to build and tear down three more quarter-billion-dollar stadiums (in today's dollars) to make that a reality.

You would never guess that it was Lamping who has so skillfully shepherded this process along, from the creation of the Sports Authority to the stealth lobbying of politicians to the gentle and repetitive conditioning of the public through reminders in the sports media of how team owners are so gallantly "going into their own pockets" to subsidize the team's alleged cash-flow losses.

Lamping neither seeks nor receives the credit he deserves for having this "funding option for the future" fall into his lap. In fact, it may have been inadvertent that Bonner let us all in on how doggedly the Cardinals have pursued a new stadium for which there is no "firm plan."

Reported the Post: "(Bonner) said the Cardinals have been open with legislators about their intentions, even spending a few days in Jefferson City last month meeting informally with lawmakers and showing off schematics of a $250 million ballpark the team began pitching last year.

""It'll be a really beautiful project,' Bonner said. "It's not our fault if things in Jefferson City are happening and people in St. Louis aren't paying attention.'"

Indeed it's not.

If people were paying attention, this "beautiful project" would be viewed in a different light. Lamping has appeared some on KMOX (once with me) and other forums to discuss the subject, but he has the luxury of having the Post (and most of the other sports media) in his back pocket, effectively insulating Jefferson City from the widespread public skepticism a new stadium meets with here.

Most fans like Busch Stadium just as it is and don't share the team's view that it's near obsolescence at the tender age of 34. Plus, the facility is owned outright by the team, so why would it give it up?

The answer is simple: If the public would just give the team a nice little $250 million facility, the revenue streams from luxury suites and enhanced concession opportunities and all the other trappings of the new-age stadium would vastly improve the cash flow -- and thus (and most significantly) the franchise's value -- so much so as to offset the benefit of actual ownership of an older facility.

This is about greed of our city's sports monopolists, nothing more or less, and the fact that it's no different than the greed of other cities' sports monopolists doesn't make it right. If Busch Stadium needs to be replaced, let its owners do what owners do in any other business: put up or borrow the needed capital-improvement funds themselves.

Need help? As suggested in this space last fall, a creative approach (either to renovate Busch or build a new stadium) might be to sell personal-seat licenses to fans in exchange for the right to purchase those seats and a piece of the stadium ownership and cash flow. It would be something like the Rams' PSL deal, but with a semblance of self-respect for the buyers.

If we baseball fans need to buck up to keep our team competitive and prosperous -- a debatable proposition but one that can be debated another time -- then we baseball fans should make the investment, for better or worse.

Leave the public out of this. The Cardinal owners may be playing in the state Capitol better than their team does on a baseball diamond.

But this is a bad game.

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