State refuses to play ball

Published April 8, 2005

In the Sunshine State, where the obsession with sports borders on religion, it seems heresy that a pro baseball team - one with World Series wins in 1997 and 2003 - cannot persuade Tallahassee to hand over millions from the state coffers for a new stadium.

Sure, Florida government can summon the backbone to ignore an expensive amendment approved by voters for smaller class sizes in schools. The state can successfully overturn a voter-mandated high-speed rail project. Those are just pesky little issues of education and transportation easily dismissed with political sleights of hand.

But what about a request to provide a mere $60-million state tax break to help Miami-Dade County build a $420-million roofed ballpark for the champion Florida Marlins?

Remarkably, the state Legislature has shown unusual common sense and financial restraint. Without a new stadium, the Marlins are threatening to uproot the young franchise and head to more subsidy-friendly cities. To their credit, state legislative leaders aren't biting. At least not yet.

In a country that never met a new and publicly funded sports stadium it can't live without, Florida just might buck the national trend.

The issue loomed anew this week in Tallahassee in a Senate committee hearing. Staff economist Ross Fabricant argued that publicly financed sports stadiums do not increase economic activity but merely shift money around that otherwise would have been spent on area entertainment.

Citing dozens of academic studies, Fabricant said public subsidies of stadiums are a lousy way to create jobs or build tax revenues. Fabricant apparently is in good company. I checked with some of the nation's top sports economists.

"The number of economists not on the consulting payrolls of leagues, teams or chambers of commerce who think that (sports) stadiums provide net economic benefits for an area could fit comfortably into a phone booth or a Geo Metro," says University of Chicago economist Allen Sanderson.

Adds Clemson University economics professor Raymond Sauer: "Academic economists are in almost unanimous agreement that sports venues are not economic engines."

Philip Porter, an economics professor at the University of South Florida, for years has consistently pooh-poohed most financial impact studies that claim sports stadiums and major sporting events contribute significantly to a region's economic well-being.

If it were only that cut and dried.

Yes, the wise use of state tax dollars is a discipline Florida never seemed to learn. But true economic development and the creation of new and decent-paying jobs are rarely the only driving forces behind public spending.

Consider New York City's imbroglio. Last week, the New York Jets - who play football in New Jersey - were awarded the right to build the world's most expensive football stadium on the western edge of midtown Manhattan.

The award was immediately contested - hey, this is New York - as rigged and unfair. But the reality is the city is as keen on a new stadium to boost its chances of winning the Olympics there in 2012 as it is on returning the Jets to their namesake New York.

Montreal could not muster enough support for its Expos baseball franchise, so the team moved to Washington, D.C. and was renamed the Nationals. The team plays this year in temporary quarters at RFK Stadium but eventually will settle into a new baseball stadium.

Does the D.C.-area public support spending tax dollars on a new facility? No. But watch it happen anyway.

In southern California, the San Diego Chargers are pitching a new stadium as part of a larger development project that includes more than 6,000 housing units, offices, retail, a hotel and a park. The project goes before city voters in November 2006.

That's clever packaging. A lone stadium sure to be voted down is now just one piece of a broader offering to taxpayers. Here's a wild idea. Rather than exaggerate, obscure or fib outright about the economic benefits of sports stadiums, tell it like it is.

This brand new stadium won't generate much new economic development or create many, if any, worthwhile jobs. But it might offer some civic pride and entertainment and keep our pro sports team here. "If citizens want to spend money on a sports facility - and don't rob the poor in the process - just because it would be fun, and with their financial eyes wide open in terms of it not being any catalyst for economic growth, then I have no problem with such a commitment," says the University of Chicago's Sanderson.

One looming sports battle could hurt Florida's economy.

Arizona, which has its own Cactus League and spring training facilities for Major League Baseball teams, is targeting several Florida-based MLB teams to move their spring training out west.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano in February named a 25-member commission to expand the state's 12-team Cactus League by luring two teams from Florida's 18-team Grapefruit League. The most vulnerable teams are the Cleveland Indians in Winter Haven; the Baltimore Orioles, which want a new stadium to remain in Fort Lauderdale; and the Cincinnati Reds, which want $25-million in public money to renovate their stadium in Sarasota.

(For the record, the Reds' Ed Smith Stadium ranks among the more pitiful facilities in Florida.)

What should Florida do? It can let Arizona swoop in with subsidized promises of new facilities and other perks. Or it can be prepared to make a counter offer, judiciously, to preserve a significant component of Florida's tourism industry and history.

Clemson professor Sauer says Florida has more cause to protect spring training, which attracts out-of-state tourists, than to contribute tax dollars to a Marlins stadium.

"If I were Gov. Bush and Major League Baseball threatened to pull up stakes unless the state invested many millions, here is what I would do," Sauer said. "I would look at the numbers, then call their bluff."

The Tampa Bay area had more than its share of baseball brinksmanship in the 1980s and 1990s when team after team threatened to move here from other cities. Nobody came. A new franchise, the Devil Rays, was born and started playing in 1998.

A few months ago, the Marlins huffed and puffed that the team might move to Las Vegas if a tax-subsidized stadium was not approved. On Jan. 5, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said he hoped to make an announcement about a Major League Baseball team coming to Las Vegas "within the next month."

Nothing happened.

But the season is young. This year's economic games are just beginning.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or 727 893-8405.