Marlins’ publicly-funded stadium not the exception among Major League Baseball teams

There is a lot of conversation today about the trade/fire sale undertaken by the Miami Marlins and how this relates to the team’s opening of a new stadium for the 2012 season that was largely funded by public money.Yet, this is a larger trend: 20 of the last 21 baseball stadiums built have been partly funded by public money.

And like nobody else, he hoarded massive checks from MLB while passing along the bill for the stadium to the taxpayers.

The Marlins can claim the money comes from tourism-tax dollars. Truth is, Miami-Dade County moved general-use monies from property taxes to free up the tourist cash. This is the dirtiest secret of Selig’s two decades as commissioner: The “golden era” of which he so often brags came off the taxpayer’s teat.

Of the 21 stadiums built since Camden Yards started the boom in 1992, the San Francisco Giants’ AT&T Park is the only one privately funded. Baseball’s business plan depended on new stadiums with sweetheart deals filling the coffers of ownership groups lucky enough to leverage politicians or voters into signing off on them. Cities signed deal after dreadful deal, few worse than the Marlins’, who paid for less than 20 percent of the stadium, received a $35 million interest-free loan to help and used $2.5 million more of public money to fund seizures.

Despite Loria and Samson’s protestations otherwise, this was always the endgame of their stadium gambit. Selig saw the Marlins’ audited finances every year. He knew they were lying. He went along with it anyway. That’s how he does business. He protects his friends. It’s why Fred Wilpon still owns the Mets. It’s why Frank McCourt doesn’t own the Dodgers.

As I’ve written about before (see here and here), studies show the construction of sports stadiums tends to benefit team owners and not the public. Teams are often able to hold a city hostage because no political leader wants to be the one who lets the favorite team go. Yet, the economic data would suggest it wouldn’t really hurt a city to do just that.

This leads me to a thought: what city would be most willing to let a team leave town for another locale? Even if pro sports teams don’t necessarily bring in money, they are also status symbols to show a city is “major league.” What will be the next team to go? One way to think about this is to look at cities that lack major teams. We could look at Los Angeles and the NFL; even though the metropolitan area has two baseball teams, two basketball teams, and two hockey teams, the city has not had a NFL team since 1994. Despite all the conversation about teams possible moving there (the Vikings were one of the recent teams though they got a publicly-funded stadium in a close vote last year), no one has moved yet. Seattle and the NBA is another interesting case; the city lost the Supersonics, now the Oklahoma City Thunder, after the 2007-2008 season and there have been recent conversations about a new stadium and team.

My guess is that the Marlins won’t be leaving Miami anytime soon though it would be appropriate if the city did renounce them. What an odd franchise overall: they were an expansion team that started play in 1993 presumably to take advantage of the growing city (the 8th largest metropolitan area in the United States) and its Latin American population (in recent years, 27-28% of baseball players were Latino), they have won two World Series titles (1997 and 2003, the year of Bartman), and held multiple fire sales.

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