Washington: First in War, First in Peace, and Saddled With a Costly, Underperforming Taxpayer-Funded Stadium


Today is the home opener for the Washington Nationals, a relatively new franchise (its history dates back to just 2005) that is already among the worst in the Major League (it certainly doesn't help that the team takes on the legacy of the late, unlamented Montreal Expos and the original and expansion-era Senators).

More to the point, the Nationals were brought to the District of Columbia amid overhyped claims that bringing baseball back to the nation's capital, especially in a fancy new stadium that would have to be paid for by taxpayers, would jazz up the local economy like Marion Barry on crack (give the former and future mayor his due: For a while, he was against taxpayers footing the bill for the stadium). Where would the more than $600 million come from? It didn't really matter, did it, because the thing would be a license to print money, right?

After toiling for a few years in RFK stadium, the Nationals in 2008 moved into a state of the art new "pleasure-dome." Last year's opening day at the new field of dreams was given high fives all around. As The Washington Post's Marc Fisher put it:

For your $611 million, you get to spend more—for seats that feel vastly closer to the action than did the stands at RFK, for the Ben's Chili Bowl half-smokes that fans are queuing up for as if they were perfectly grilled tubes of manna, for the Five Guys burgers and all the other ways to eat your hometown allegiance.

Joe Hawkins, a fan from Woodbridge, noted that as a Virginian, he isn't spending a penny of his tax dollars on this new pleasure palace. But he said D.C. residents ought not grumble about shelling out for the stadium because "sometimes you got to spend money to make money."

Twelve-year-old Brennan Jones, a Little League catcher from Falls Church, served up this strike from Econ 101: "The District's going to make so much money. We're paying for this place every time we come." Brennan expects to come very often; during Nats batting practice last night, he got pitcher Luis Ayala to sign his Nationals rally monkey. The kid is set, probably for life.

Only a real Ty Cobb-type sonuvabitch would put a price tag on a kid getting his rally monkey signed. Hell, the stadium practically paid for itself in that one act. Especially when the kid channels Warren Buffet and declares the stadium a no-lose proposition. Who can argue with that? 

Certainly not venerable Post sportswriter Thomas Boswell, who channeled his own inner fan boy when he declared

The Nationals have been biding time, laying groundwork, in the disregarded backwater of decrepit RFK Stadium. Baseball was back in Washington…It was not until Opening Night—in a vibrant, intimate new ballpark already basking in praise—that Washington was truly back in baseball….Thanks to a District-paid ballpark that already has exceeded most expectations, the Nats have the financial foundation necessary to be competitive. If a winning team is built—far from a certainty—the Nationals boast a facility that can please fans, gush cash and create credibility.

"Create credibilty"? That's something a Nixon apparatchik would say, isn't it?

Fast forward into 2009, with the country in recession and the neighborhood around the "vibrant, intimate new ballpark" doing…not so well. Here's the Post on the matter in yesterday's paper:

At Nationals Park, District of Dreams Hits a Slump

Instead of an Ambitious Streetscape With Cafes and Shops, Idle Construction Sites Will Greet Fans for the Home Opener…

"Everybody is building these big buildings, and they're empty. It is sad. I live in a ghost town," said Robert Siegel, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who has lived in the ballpark area since 1979.

"It was promised that baseball was going to help make it a vibrant place, but it hasn't happened," said Siegel, who received $8 million from the city after it seized his land by eminent domain to make way for the ballpark. "There are no sit-down restaurants. There's not even a gas station."

The Post is quick to blame the sour situation on the knuckleball economy:

Across the country, development has slowed dramatically and left a ballpark that was once a symbol of the city's hopes a reminder instead of the struggling economy.

"It just so happens that implementation is occurring during the worst economic downturn in recent history. So things are going to struggle a little bit," said Neil O. Albert, the District's deputy mayor for economic development.

But this is simply wrong. Long after the recession has ended and the Nationals enter their second decade of cellar-dwelling, that lavishly funded taxpayer stadium (which is indeed a pleasant place to watch a ball game), will still be returning a big goose egg on its investment.

The plain fact is that publicly financed stadiums are a waste of money. As Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist puts it:

Stadiums cost $300 to $500 million. With football, you've got ten games a year and maybe a few auxiliary activities. If you are talking about baseball, it is 81 to 90 games a year plus a few auxiliary activities. Generally speaking, those are not enough dates to generate enough income in the stadium to justify the investment.

Zimbalist, it's worth pointing out, is something of an optimist on the issue. He also notes that arenas, which can host more events, are a different matter, at least when they are paid for by private interests. That's something that the Post's Marc Fisher understands. In laying out the math behind a planned soccer stadium in the D.C. metro area, he noted that the basketball and hockey arena paid for by NBA Wizards and NHL Capitals owner Abe Pollin does make money (Pollin did get some infrastructure paid for by the public).

Such logic seems to go by the boards all too often, alas, in good times and bad. When it comes to publicly financing boondoggle stadiums that suck taxpayer dollars out of the local economy like nobody's business, there's always next year. And another decade or more of paying off the debt accrued by the pols of summer.

Bonus video: Last year, as the Nationals threw out the first pitch of their new stadium, Reason.tv interviewed University of Maryland-Baltimore County economist Dennis Coates, who has calculated that professional sports teams costs local taxpayers about $40 per year. Watch below. Approximately 2.30 minutes. Go here for embed code, iPod-friendly version, and more links.