New Stadia: Atlanta, Arizona, Seattle

Some teams have all the luck. The Atlanta Braves -- the decade's most successful franchise, owned by the world's largest media company -- got a new stadium virtually free, thanks to the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Since moving from Milwaukee in 1966, the Braves had occupied Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium (AFCS). AFCS was a standard mid-Sixties "ashtray," a circular structure built for both baseball and football which provided terrible sight lines for both. The NFL Falcons flew to the nearby Georgia Dome in 1992, leaving the Braves as the sole tenants. Not for long.

The Braves saw their opportunity when Atlanta was awarded the 1996 Summer Olympics. The Olympics required a new open-air stadium for track and field and the opening and closing ceremonies, and with an ecstatic city proclaiming that the Olympics validated Atlanta's status as a world-class city, the local Olympic committee would have no trouble financing one. But once the Games were over, without a permanent tenant the shiny new stadium would soon become an eyesore.

Enter the Braves. They would move into the new park at the start of the 1997 season -- if the Olympic committee renovated it for baseball after the Games were over, then effectively gave the $230 million facility to the Braves. The club's only investment was $23 million in upgrades and modifications.

As a result, the Olympic stadium was built with a full grandstand at one end of the oval, 36,000 hard plastic seats at the other end. These seats were removed after the Games, converting the 85,000-seat stadium into a baseball park seating just under 50,000. The extra space became a pedestrian plaza surrounded by shops, offices, and parking lots.

Local criticism focused on the stadium's isolation from its surroundings. Although located less than a mile from downtown Atlanta, Turner Field is surrounded by highways which restrict pedestrian access. A fence separates the grounds from the neighborhood, and the parking lots provide further distance. With few estaurants, bars or souvenir shops near the park, fans must either bring their own or pay inflated stadium concession prices.

The new park brought higher ticket prices, of course, but also better seating. Turner Field has more than 28,000 field-level seats, with 6,000 more at club level and only 15,000 in the upper deck. (By comparison, more than half of AFCS's seats were in the upper deck.) Even after allowing for 62 space-hogging luxury suites, Turner Field's small foul territory and a baseball-only configuration keep most seats close to the action.

Perhaps most importantly, the Braves' sweetheart lease would place the club among MLB's richest even without the extra cable-TV revenue. At AFCS, the Braves paid rent equal to 5% of the first 1.2 million paid admissions. The stadium authority kept all parking and signage revenues, and took 10% or more of gross concession receipts. All told, the authority earned $5.6 million from the Braves in 1995 -- not a bad return on a 30-year-old stadium which had been built for $18.5 million.

At Turner Field, by contrast, the Braves keep 100% of concession, advertising and luxury suite revenues, 91.5% of parking revenues, and half of all money earned from non-baseball events. They pay only $500,000/year in rent plus the cost of maintaining the stadium, a total of less than half of their expenses at AFCS. Financial World concluded that the Turner Field increased the Braves' value by $106 million. Not bad for a team which was already coining money.

In Phoenix, Bank One Ballpark and the Arizona Diamondbacks arrived together in 1998.

The groundwork had been laid in 1989, when the Arizona legislature authorized Marciopa County, which includes Phoenix, to levy a quarter-cent sales tax to build a baseball-only park. Although Phoenix voters had just rejected a stadium referendum, the legislation allowed the county government to bypass the voters when the opportunity arose.

That opportunity arose in 1994, when MLB announced it would expand by two teams for the 1998 season. Taking no chances, Maricopa County voted the sales tax increase, but conditioned it on Phoenix receiving an expansion franchise by April 1, 1995. The artificial deadline put MLB in the embarrassing position of charging groups from Arizona and Tampa Bay $130 million for expansion franchises even as it was simultaneously insisting that unless the players accepted a salary cap or punitive luxury tax, many clubs would soon go broke.

Few were fooled -- especially as the Diamondbacks' partnership was led by Jerry Colangelo, who as CEO of the NBA's Phoenix Suns was quite familiar with the economics of pro sports. Colangelo knew that the key was to generate as much money as possible from the new stadium. He succeeded: after just one season of play, Forbes valued the Diamondbacks at $291 million, ahead of the Mets, Dodgers and Red Sox.

The Maricopa County sales tax contributed $238 million toward the cost of the downtown stadium, which rises more than 20 stories high. From an original estimate of $279 million, the ultimate cost rose to $349 million, with the Diamondbacks responsible for $111 million of the cost. Bank One paid $66 million over 30 years for naming rights, only to have the park familiarly shortened by one and all to "The BOB."

By whatever name, the stadium is a technological marvel which neutralizes the oppressive Arizona heat without the claustrophobic atmosphere of a dome. The 4,500-ton retractable roof can open or close in five minutes. Between games, it remains open to allow the natural-grass field to grow; as game time approaches, air conditioners can cool the 22-acre facility by 30 degrees in three hours.

Jerry Colangelo's smart planning extends to the seating area as well. 85% of the BOB's seats are between the foul lines, and all of those seats are angled to face home plate. Behind the seats, more than 200 concession stands turn the concourse into a circular shopping mall, while in the outfield, a restaurant and beer garden are joined by 110 picnic tables and even a swimming pool. (The pool, and six party suites, are rentable by the game.)

Taking full advantage of the revenue generated by the BOB, the Diamondbacks acquired veterans Jay Bell, Andy Benes and Matt Williams before playing their first game. In 1999, after signing Randy Johnson, they became the only second-year expansion team to win 100 games and a division title. The Diamondbacks illustrate how quickly a well-run team can become competitive in the free agent era.

And then there's Seattle, which has spent most of the past 30 years redefining baseball incompetence. Seattle's original 1969 expansion team, the Pilots, went bankrupt after one season. Six days before the start of the 1970 season, a bankruptcy judge awarded the team to Milwaukee interests headed by car dealer Bud Selig. Seattle sued. With Washington's U.S. Senators threatening MLB's antitrust exemption, Seattle was hastily awarded a second expansion franchise, to start play in 1977.

The Mariners would occupy the new Kingdome, a facility constructed primarily for the NFL's Seahawks. Despite steep competition, the Kingdome ran away with the title of Ugliest Ballpark of the 1970s. Its dominant feature, a hideous gray concrete roof, brought Seattle's trademark overcast skies indoors. Even on the clearest summer day, the Kingdome felt like a dank mausoleum. Fans stayed away in droves. By the early 1990s, local merchants were buying up huge blocks of tickets to ensure that the club met the attendance guarantees in its lease.

The Mariners' ownership reacted in classic MLB fashion. They weren't the problem -- the fans were. The club would be sold and moved unless the fans agreed to build the club a new ballpark. Not just any new ballpark, but one with a retractable-roofed dome to guard against rainouts. Never mind that during the baseball season, Seattle gets less rain than any major league city outside California. Never mind that the roof added more than $50 million to the cost of the park. After all, it wasn't their money they were spending. Or so they thought...

The first act of the Mariners' stadium farce saw the King County Council propose a 0.1% sales tax increase to fund $410 million in bonds. Of this sum, $240.8 million was earmarked for the Mariners' new park, with the club responsible for the rest of the estimated $285 million cost. But when voters had their say in September 1995, the referendum lost, 50.1% to 49.9%, even though stadium proponents outspent opponents by more than 30:1.

That might have ended the matter, but the Mariners suddenly caught fire. Coming from far behind in September to nip the Angels at the wire, then knocking off the Yankees in a spectacular five-game divisional series, the club was embraced by the community as never before. Suddenly baseball seemed more important to Seattle -- important enough that no one wanted to call the Mariners' bluff. Summoned into special session by the governor, the Washington legislature crafted a plan to give the Mariners their stadium.

"Give" is the operative term here. Although the Mariners were nominally responsible for $45 million of the estimated cost (which had mysteriously risen to $320 million despite no change in the design), their share included the value of naming rights. But since the Mariners didn't own the stadium, the naming rights weren't theirs to sell! Since the Mariners sold naming rights to Safeco for $40 million over 20 years, if the stadium had come in on budget, the club would have paid less than 5% of its cost.

Not that there was a chance in hell of meeting the budget. By November 1996, 2-1/2 years before its scheduled opening, the cost of Safeco Field had already risen another $45 million. A spokesman for the agency which would own the stadium explained, "This isn't an overrun. This is part of the design process." Two years later, the estimated cost had risen to $500 million. By the time Safeco Field finally opened in July 1999, half a year behind schedule, the bill came to $517.6 million -- a mere $232.6 million above the original estimate. The Mariners were on the hook for about $100 million of this overrun.

The rest came from residents of, and visitors to, Washington State. Through creative bookkeeping, the state effectively contributed to the stadium project revenues from a small part of the local sales tax. The remainder came from a grab bag of sources: commemorative license plates, sports-themed instant lotteries, admission taxes, and special taxes of 2% on rental cars and 0.5% on restaurants, bars and taverns in King County, Washington. Thanks to a strong local economy, these taxes raised even more revenue than necessary to support the bond issue, which in turn spurred the Mariners to new heights in stadium-gouging.

Two weeks before Safeco Field opened, the club asked the government to pick up even more of the tab. Requesting mediation, the Mariners argued that their agreement obligated the Washington State Public Facilities District "to seek bond funding from (King) County in an amount sufficient to build the stadium, as long as the revenues from the dedicated taxes would support it."

In short, the Mariners now demanded not only the $372 million of public funds originally earmarked to build the stadium, but all money raised by the tax! But now that the threat to move had vanished, the Mariners were out of leverage. Even stadium supporters were outraged. Cynthia Sullivan, a member of the King County Council, said, "I think all the unmitigated gall on the face of the earth right now resides at Mariner headquarters." Nor were residents impressed when the Mariners suggested that by forcing the club to live up to its end of a written agreement, the nasty ol' government would be to blame if the Mariners couldn't afford to re-sign Alex Rodriguez.

Reviewing the project after its completion, ballparks expert John Pastier blamed the Mariners for nearly all of the overruns. The club first failed to specify its design requirements in a timely manner, then kept changing its mind about these requirements, demanding a larger scoreboard, a larger entrance rotunda, and a 30% larger parking garage. The Mariners' insistence that the stadium be completed as quickly as possible led to huge overtime bills -- yet although this overtime allowed the Mariners to reap millions in extra revenue with no corresponding benefit to the stadium authority, the club asked the government to pay for it. The matter remains in limbo.

What did the Mariners, and the taxpayers, get for their money? A jarring clash of "Camden Yards"-style retro architecture, with the requisite brick and exposed steel outside and unusual angles inside, topped by a gigantic, postmodern mechanical roof that dominates the site. Even though Safeco Field is a baseball-only facility, many of its upper deck seats are farther from the action than their counterparts in the multipurpose Kingdome. And unlike Arizona's Bank One Ballpark, or even the "outmoded" Kingdome, Safeco Field has no climate control: no air conditioning in summer, no heating in April and May. The Mariners pay maintenance expenses and $700,000/year in rent, while keeping all revenues from luxury boxes, advertising, concessions, and parking. The Mariners, not the stadium authority, keep the rent from non-baseball events.

Ticket prices rose, of course, to an average of over $25 per seat. But for all of Safeco Field's faults, nobody who goes there will miss the Kingdome. The taxpayers might, though. Pastier calculates that Safeco Field's public subsidy will come to about $15 per ticket over the life of the facility, a figure which will rise if the taxpayers ultimately absorb more of the cost overruns. If they don't, the Mariners' share will cost the club at least $10 million/year. The cheaper, open-air park rejected by the Mariners looks awfully good about now.

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

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