Sports

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

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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.

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  1. So, Nick is to the Nationals as George F. Will is to the Cubs, sortakinda?

    Perhaps the opposite.

  2. OMG! RACIST!

    Rally monkey? Baseball’s weird.

  3. Jesus that was long.

  4. > … unlamented Montreal Expos

    The Expos are actually reasonably well lamented up here in Canada. But perhaps it’s just the crowd I hang with.

    Nos Expos, nos amours!

  5. Meanwhile, in Indianapolis:

    WRTV News reports, somewhat dramatically, that Lucas Oil Stadium could close if a state bailout deal is not reached for the Indianapolis Capital Improvement Board. The CIB, which operates the Indianapolis Colts’ one-season-old stadium along with Conseco Fieldhouse, home to the Indiana Pacers, is facing a $47.4 million operating deficit, after failing to budget properly for $26 million in annual operating costs for Lucas Oil Stadium.

    Via Field of Schemes

    Wait- it costs money to run a giant professional sports stadium? Who could have known?

  6. Duh! Just noticed “Left Field Gate” after the 300th post of that video.

  7. Just caught Gillespie on CNBC arguing against the GM bailout and letting GM go bankrupt…

    Way to go! You really are the voice of reason.

  8. Wait, the Nationals have a Rally Monkey? No wonder they suck. They can’t just steal our Rally Monkey and expect it to work. There can be only one.

  9. Here’s a great idea! How ’bouts we start taxing other stuff around the whole country to pay for something in DC that 99.999% of us will never get to see. Let’s say we start taxing beer, or cigs or how ’bout a “sin” tax on guns or strippers or prostitutes (oh… wait they’re still illegal… never mind). That way we can pay for that shiny new stadium and we can all “feel good” about ourselves as a country. After all, it’s not how you feel, it’s how you look, and dahling… jou look mahvalous!

  10. I blame Art Modell for all this stadium horseshit. May that sclerotic piss-smelling shitweasel die of an agonizing testicular MRSA carbuncle soon.

  11. One of the advantages of living in a backwater like Iowa is that no one ever talks about building monumental money pits for professional sports teams.

  12. One of the advantages of living in a backwater like Iowa is that no one ever talks about building monumental money pits for professional sports teams.

    True, but we really appreciate it when you help pay for our subways and bridges. We use the money we saved to pay for ballparks.

  13. As much as I hate the notion of the Federal Government involving themselves in state and local matters via the tax code, perhaps the only wat that these taxpayer built monstrosities could have been avoided was to make the tax exempt status of any state’s muni bonds dependent on a state not having any tax revenues used to build these things.

    What really is irritating is that, for NFL teams at least, these businesses make terrific profit margins even when they pay for their new stadiums. I think Roberet Kraft paid for the vast majority of the New England Patriots’ stadium, and they are very profitable. In baseball, I believe the San Francisco Giants have continued to make a decent profit after paying for their stadium.

    These subsidfies are state-enforced theft, pure and simple.

  14. You guys are such pessimists. Probably a bunch of Republicans. Now that Obama is ready to rule (from day one!) everything will be all right. I’m sure that stadium will just mint money now.

    Oh…wait. That’s capitalism. Never mind.

    I’m sure that stadium will provide many, many social benefits now. Signed rally monkeys for everybody! And ponies!

  15. Just wait till that cute rally monkey eats a child’s face.
    Tick…tick…tick…

  16. Most baseball teams and other sporting teams around the country sell monkeys wearing a team shirt… it’s not just you Anaheim. Hell, my school does too.

    Anyway, while the community surrounding the baseball team has not been growing like expected, it still has been growing and it must be noted that they have only been in the stadium for a year. Give it a little time.

    And the comment about taxing the rest of the country is just another example of the rest of the country hating on DC. The citizens of the district are severely underrepresented in Congress who controls way too much of the districts affairs and often leaves its residence short changed.

  17. “There are no sit-down restaurants. There’s not even a gas station.”

    Interestingly, before the stadium was built, there was Exxon station on North Capitol Street just a few blocks to the north, just before you get onto the ramp to the freeway to Virginia.

  18. Everybody knows the Nats aren’t winning and the stadium neighborhood isn’t successful. But it’s not because of some flimsy pseudoscientific thing like “economics.” No, it’s the Curse of Youppi.

    C’mon, people. Youppi gets his H1-B, DC taxpayers buy him a plane ticket and put him up in some nice digs, the Nats start selling Montreal-rubbed meat, poutine, and Labatt’s at the games, and it’s all presto fixo.

  19. I blame Art Modell for all this stadium horseshit. May that sclerotic piss-smelling shitweasel die of an agonizing testicular MRSA carbuncle soon.

    Don’t forget that walking turd, Pete Angelos! It’s a Maryland bi-fecta of vile thievery!

  20. “Stadiums cost $300 to $500 million.”

    Not up here in NY. The Mets just spend $800 million on Citi Field, and the Yankees just spend $1.5 BILLION on the new Yankee Stadium.

  21. Not up here in NY. The Mets just spend $800 million on Citi Field, and the Yankees just spend $1.5 BILLION on the new Yankee Stadium.

    The Nationals Stadium also cost more than $500 million. Exactly how much more appears to be anyone’s guess, but probably at least $600 million. And I’m not sure that includes all of the various costs associated with the project. The land acquisition was comparatively cheap because it was built in a dodgy warehouse district next door to one of DC’s worst neighborhoods.

    The whole thing was a boondoggle, especially in a city that can’t keep its streets properly paved, its schools in even marginally acceptable condition, or its city offices in working shape. I think it’s entirely appropriate that the team stinks.

  22. Don’t forget that walking turd, Pete Angelos! It’s a Maryland bi-fecta of vile thievery!

    Bob Irsay and His Midnight Moving Vans complete the trifecta.

  23. I agree with Warty…

  24. As of December, the National’s ownership group had not even paid their first year’s rent to the city yet (which was due at the begining of the season) citing that the stadium ‘was not finished’ so they were not contractually obligated to pay rent. Depsite playing in it all year.

  25. From the quoted passages–

    “It is sad. I live in a ghost town,” said Robert Siegel, an advisory neighborhood commissioner

    “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.

    I think the “seized” in this sentence deserves some ‘scare quotes’…

  26. “Robert Siegel, an advisory neighborhood commissioner”…

    Is he a “Don Corleone” or a “Judge Smails”…

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