New Stadia: Toronto and Chicago
When Toronto received an AL expansion franchise in 1997, the Blue
Jays occupied Exhibition Stadium, a cavernous oval constructed
for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League.
Exhibition Stadium was even less suited for baseball than its
American multi-purpose counterpart. A Canadian football field is
longer and wider than an American football field, placing one end
of the stadium so far from the action that thousands of seats
were unusable for baseball.
The Jays, the City of Toronto and the Province of Ontario all
knew that a new stadium would soon be required. They didn't
have far to look for the textbook example of how not to build
one: Montreal's Olympic Stadium, constructed in an
overtime-fueled, damn-the-expense rush for the 1976 Summer
Olympics. The "Big Owe" cost Montreal taxpayers over $1
billion, yet Its trademark feature, a retractable Kevlar roof
lowered on cables from a inclined tower, wasn't ready until
1987. The retracting mechanism didn't work properly for
another two years, couldn't be operated in the high winds
that often precede a rainstorm, then was destroyed by a severe
storm in 1991. Despite its cost and relative newness, Olympic
Stadium is such a white elephant that for the past decade, every
plan to save the Expos has started with "build a new,
Toronto's civic leaders vowed not to make the same mistakes.
They did, however, invent entirely new categories of
The Jays, too, wanted a retractable-dome facility. When their
plans were announced in January 1985, the cost was estimated at
$150 million. By October, when construction began, estimated
costs had risen to $225 million. The original plan called for a
$30 million contribution from the government of metropolitan
Toronto; $30 million from the Province of Ontario; and $150
million from 30 local businesses, each of which contributed $5
million in return for skyboxes, advertising rights, concession
contracts and other benefits. This left the project a few million
short -- and because a public entity would operate and manage the
facility, the taxpayers assumed responsibility for cost
Poor management doomed SkyDome from the start. Its builders
wouldn't settle for building the world's first truly
functional retractable-dome stadium; SkyDome had to be a
full-service entertainment complex! First they added $36 million
of new restaurants and recreation facilities. Then, in a move
which simultaneously reduced SkyDome's capacity and sent
costs soaring, management replaced more than 5,000 seats in right
field with a luxury hotel offering ballpark views. The hotel,
originally budgeted at $37 million, ultimately cost $112
The redesign also contributed to other aspects of SkyDome's
cost overruns. The park was supposed to be ready for Opening Day
1989. When delays flowing from the expensive, extensive
modifications threatened this schedule, SkyDome authorized the
same ruinously expensive overtime which had sunk Olympic Stadium.
But whereas Montreal needed to finish its park in time for the
1976 Olympics, SkyDome was racing only a self-imposed, artificial
deadline. Jays' fans wouldn't have abandoned their team
if it had to play a few more months in old Exhibition Stadium.
When the dust had cleared, a 1993 audit concluded that SkyDome
had cost $608.9 million, a "mere" 179% cost
But these problems were forgotten on June 5, 1989, when SkyDome
finally opened to rapturous press and public acclaim. SkyDome was
"the first 21st century stadium"! As tall as a 31-story
building, the SkyDome complex included a hotel with 364 rooms, 70
of which overlooked the field; five restaurants and bars;
shopping boutiques; a health club with sauna, pool and running
track; and even a 150-seat movie theater. And the 11,000-ton
retractable roof could slide into place within 20 minutes, even
as the game continued below.
The park soon became Toronto's #1 tourist attraction. The
Jays sold out the rest of the 1989 season within days. The next
year, they sold all 26,000 season tickets offered, turning away
9,000 prospective purchasers. Toronto became the first club ever
to draw 4,000,000 fans in a single season, maintaining this level
for four seasons despite the majors' highest ticket prices.
The Jays plowed the money back into the ballclub, winning
back-to-back World Series in 1992-93.
Off the field, though, the picture wasn't so pretty. In 1990
SkyDome hosted 170 events and grossed $17 million -- but owed $30
million/year in interest on the bonds sold to finance cost
overruns. Biting the bullet, the Province of Ontario agreed to
absorb SkyDome's entire debt. Now artificially profitable,
SkyDome was privatized in 1994. The five-year-old facility sold
for $151 million, a quarter of its original cost.
But even wiping out its debt couldn't keep SkyDome in the
black. The 1994-95 strike and the Blue Jays' declining
fortunes combined to reduce attendance by 1,500,000 fans/year.
SkyDome lost $3.8 million in 1997, then another $2.5 million
during the first 10 months of 1998 -- just as the bill for
mismanagement of the park's luxury suites came due.
Before SkyDome opened, companies lined up to lease the suites.
Taking advantage of the seller's market, Skydome management
demanded the first and last year's suite rent in advance.
Nine years later, the new owners faced a year with no luxury
suite income. Moreover, SkyDome had short-sightedly signed every
tenant to a 10-year lease, ensuring that all of the more than 150
suites came up for renewal at the same time -- just as
Toronto's new basketball and hockey arena began competing for
the same corporate business. Even the Blue Jays threatened to
return to Exhibition Stadium unless they received a more generous
SkyDome filed for bankruptcy in November 1998. At the time, its
owners owed more than $1 million in back taxes and had repaid
only $17 million of the $75 million they borrowed to buy the
park. SkyDome was sold yet again in early 1999, this time for
less than $110 million. The Blue Jays signed a new 10-year lease
only after receiving $72 million in "economic
In less than a decade, despite generating all the revenue its
builders could have imagined, the "world's first
21st-century stadium" had cost investors and Ontario
taxpayers more than $500 million MLB's Canadian franchises
occupied the two most expensive stadia ever constructed -- but
Toronto could still thumb its nose at Montreal and sneer,
"At least our roof works."
The Chicago White Sox were the next team to relocate. Comiskey
Park had been the majors' oldest active stadium since the
early 1970s, but notwithstanding its age, Comiskey inspired
little of the affection which had attached to Tiger Stadium and
Fenway Park, its closest age-mates. In the Second City, Comiskey
was Chicago's Second Ballpark: the nondescript facility on
the South Side, overlooking housing projects and the Dan Ryan
Expressway, paled by comparison to ivy-clad Wrigley Field,
nestled in a residential neighborhood on the North Side.
But although Comiskey Park was tolerated rather than loved, many
Chicagoans lived and died with their White Sox. Chicago's
baseball rivalry resembled the old Dodgers-Yankees battle for the
soul of New York, with the White Sox filling the Dodgers'
role of working-class heroes battling the smug suburbanites.
(Novelists Nelson Algren and James T. Farrell, and legendary
mayor Richard Daley, were White Sox fans. George Will and Ronald
Reagan are Cubs fans.) When owner Jerry Reinsdorf warned that
he'd move the Sox to Florida unless he got a new stadium, the
city and state took notice.
Reinsdorf explained that while he didn't want to move the
Sox, he simply couldn't survive in Comiskey Park. The White
Sox, who owned the park, could no longer afford the cost of
maintaining the aged, decrepit Comiskey. (Sound familiar,
Bostonians?) First he proposed a new park in suburban Addison,
but the locals voted down a pro-stadium referendum.
Reinsdorf has better luck a thousand miles to the southeast. St.
Petersburg, Florida wanted a major league baseball team. Behind
the scenes, White Sox officials whispered that its chances of
getting one would rise dramatically if it had a suitable stadium
ready for immediate occupancy. St. Petersburg officials promptly
approved one. The White Sox now had the leverage they needed to
negotiate with Chicago..
In the spring of 1988, with construction on the Florida Suncoast
Dome well underway, Sox officials began negotiating a lease with
St. Petersburg. Reinsdorf announced that the Sox were moving to
Florida -- unless the Illinois legislature approved financing for
a new park by the end of the legislative session on June 30.
Several weeks before the deadline, the Sox upped the pressure by
signing a contingent 15-year lease to play at the Suncoast
Back in Illinois, Republican Governor Jim Thompson proclaimed,
"I'll bleed and die before I let the Sox leave
Chicago." Many legislators were willing to hand him a
straight razor. One noted that for the same money, Illinois could
fund 7,500 teachers and place 2,800 more indigent elderly in
nursing homes. When the state Senate passed the stadium bill at
11:40 p.m. on June 30, all eyes turned to the state House. At
11:58 p.m., the bill remained six votes shy of passage.
Then, in one of those magical moments so common to Illinois
politics, time stopped. As Governor Thompson walked the floor of
the legislature, buttonholing one reluctant Republican after
another, the clock clicked to 11:59 -- and stayed there long
enough for six Republicans to shift their votes from No to Yes.
The Sox had their new park.
And Jerry Reinsdorf had a license to print money. The White Sox
received all revenue from New Comiskey, which boasted nearly
2,000 premium-priced club seats and almost 100 luxury boxes.
(Meanwhile, bleacher seating was reduced from 10,000 to 3,500.)
Reinsdorf would later estimate that the park was worth $20
million/year to the Sox. The club paid none of the construction
costs. Moreover, their lease provided that they would owe no rent
in any season where attendance fell below 1,200,000/year, and
that if after 10 years, attendance ever fell below 1,500,000 in
any season, the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority would buy
300,000 additional tickets.
Illinois taxpayers and tourists are still paying for New
Comiskey. The Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, which owns
New Comiskey, financed the $167 million by issuing bonds. The
bonds are repaid through annual contributions of $5 million/year
from the State of Illinois and City of Chicago, with another $8
million/year generated from a 2% hotel tax.
New Comiskey is also the ugliest stadium built in the past 15
years. It looms over a largely residential neighborhood, from
which it is isolated by a sea of parking lots. Old Comiskey was
75 feet high; New Comiskey is 146 feet high, with an upper deck
so steeply slanted that fans have complained of dizziness
climbing the stairs. Once they get to their seats, the view is
terrible: the front row of New Comiskey's upper deck is
farther from home plate than the last row of seats in Old
Ironically, the new ballpark Jerry Reinsdorf extorted from
Illinois taxpayers was rendered obsolete just one year after its
opening when Baltimore's Camden Yards rewrote the rules for
SIDEBAR: When the White Sox announced plans for New Comiskey,
architect Philip Bess was so revolted that he and others designed
a cheaper, more neighborhood-friendly alternative. A copy of
Bess's plan and accompanying essay, City Baseball Magic:
Plain Talk and Uncommon Sense About Cities and Baseball Parks, is
available from Knothole Press in St. Paul, Minnesota -- ISBN
Copyright © 2000 Doug Pappas. All rights
Originally published in the April 2000 issue of Boston
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