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, smaller ballpark."

Toronto's civic leaders vowed not to make the same mistakes. They did, however, invent entirely new categories of mistakes.

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 overruns.

Bad move.

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 million.

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 overrun.

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 lease.

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 improvements."

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 Dome.

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 Comiskey.

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 stadium design.

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 0967398606.

Copyright © 2000 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the April 2000 issue of Boston Baseball.

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