Minor league baseball stadiums are not good for economic development

Camden, New Jersey just decided to tear down a baseball stadium that is less than twenty years old. The stadium did not lead to economic development and no team has played there for several years:

Taxpayers spent more than $18 million to build the stadium that would eventually be named Campbell’s Field, as part of a minor league ballpark-building frenzy across New Jersey that saw similar stadiums erected in Newark, Atlantic City, and Somerset—all part of redevelopment schemes that attracted independent minor league teams (that is, minor league teams not affiliated with the Major League Baseball farm system)…

The sad saga of the Camden Riversharks—the Atlantic League team for whom the stadium was built prior to the 2001 season—will come to an official end more than three years after the team picked up and moved to New Britain, Connecticut, leaving Campbell’s Field vacant. The city tried to attract a new team, but after those efforts failed, the Camden County Improvement Authority signed off on a plan to demolish the stadium, according to NJ.com. The Riversharks and Campbell’s Field were supposed to revitalize the impoverished city by being the centerpiece of an economic development plan along the edge of the Delaware River. Now, the demolition of the stadium is the first step in a new $15 million economic development scheme that will turn the site into a complex of athletic fields for Rutgers University’s Camden campus, NJ.com reports…

In the team’s final two seasons, the Riversharks averaged about 3,000 fans per game—which is actually not bad by the standards of independent minor league baseball—but the team never turned a profit and abruptly skipped town in 2015 when negotiations on a new lease stalled.

By then, the ballpark was so deep in debt that it faced foreclosure because the team had missed several lease payments. To bail it out, Camden paid off $3.5 million in outstanding debt and purchased the property. The city planned to impose a new ticket surcharge to cover those costs, but the city only received one payment from the team before it moved away, NJ.com reported last year.

This is a consistent story with sports stadiums: they primarily benefit the teams and their owners, not communities. Local officials and politicians want to be the ones who can say they helped keep a sports team in town or they attracted a new franchise but using public dollars for this effort is not a good investment in the long run.

While the story is not quite the same with tax breaks for corporations, there are some parallels. Communities often want to jumpstart economic development. New businesses, particularly headquarters or large office buildings, as well as stadiums can appear to be good ways to do this. They bring jobs, something every local leader supports. They bring increased status for a community, a less quantifiable feature but still important as communities jockey to attract additional firms and residents. Thus, communities are willing to offer tax breaks in a variety of ways – sometimes to help construct infrastructure, sometimes provided per job created, sometimes to construct the stadium – to beat out other communities. The question of whether the community benefits in tangible ways in the years to come is not often raised.

A related earlier post: championships won by sports teams do not necessarily lead to better outcomes in cities.

If golf and football are dying sports, what would happen to that land?

I recently discussed NIMBY responses to redevelopment of golf courses but this had me thinking more broadly about land dedicated to sports and recreation: what happens to the land if the activity becomes less popular?

Golf was the sport cited in the CityLabs article:

Golf is dying, many experts say. According to one study by the golf industry group Pellucid Corp., the number of regular golfers fell from 30 to 20.9 million between 2002 and 2016. Ratings are down, equipment sales are lagging, and the number of rounds played annually has fallen.

Part of the bust can be blamed on the fallen fortunes of a single person: Tiger Woods. Golf boomed in the 1990s and early 2000s as the charismatic superstar raked in titles. Then, beginning in 2009, it faced a one-two punch of recession and bad press when its star golfer’s chronic infidelity came to light.

But the bigger story involves the sport’s aging demographics and the athletic tastes of Millennials, who just aren’t that into an expensive, poky sport that provides few health benefits. Unless the golf industry can change its ways, the decline will mean a lot of empty greens across the country. How that land is used—or isn’t—could reshape America’s suburbs for decades to come.

Beyond golf, the next sport that comes to mind is football. If youth leagues continue to see a decline in participation, less park and school land would be needed for football fields. What would then happen to that space? For a good number of high schools, that land is already shared with sports like soccer and lacrosse. Park space could simply become large fields again. But, some football facilities could be turned over to other uses (and cause NIMBY issues similar to those faced by golf course redevelopment).

What other sports could be next? Baseball still has a lot of young players but imagine that participation dries up in a few decades. Baseball fields can take up a lot of space. Could there be sports that arise and take up some of this space? Nice basketball courts would be welcomed in many places but neighbors and communities often have concerns about building these. I can think of several lesser known sports but cannot realistically imagine they would become so popular as to take up public park space or space at schools. But, perhaps parks in a few decades will include a much wider variety of sports fields and spaces to better serve a fragmented sports playing populace.

Sports spaces come and go over time. Bowling alleys thrived decades ago but now are more sparse. Skate parks started a few decades ago and now are found in many American community. Large cities have spent millions on helping to fund sports arenas but this could stop as communities realize who benefits from the stadiums. Is it too far-fetched to imagine that in a few decades very few people will play sports outdoors due to a combination of a lack of interest in physical activity, inside facilities, e-sports, and simulators that could provide similar experiences? Could parks and outdoor spaces become exclusively about “natural settings” and open land?

 

My argument: a championship does not bring lasting urban hope or change

As the World Series gets underway with two starved fan bases, I’m sure some will suggest that a win for the Cubs or Indians will be good for their cities. A victory will give their Rust Belt cities suffering from numerous problems a needed boost.

I don’t think it works this way. Sports are primarily (1) entertainment and (2) business. On the first point, a win will excite people. It may scratch something off their bucket list to see their team win. There will be joy. But, cities have plenty of entertainment options and people will move on. See the White Sox: they had their own World Series drought before winning in 2005. But, where are they now? They have been an average to mediocre team in recent years and the hope is gone (as evidenced by the lack of fans attending games as well as by the general lack of interest). As the win moves further and further into the past, it will linger in memories but people will find other entertainment options. More and more, fans require their team to win now or lately. Maybe the leash will be a bit longer in Chicago or Cleveland but eventually fans will become upset if they don’t win again.

As for the business side, a win brings in money with more games (tickets, concessions), more merchandise sold, and a higher value for the franchise. Generally, we’re told by team owners and other boosters that sports franchises boost the local economy. However, related to the entertainment side, studies suggest if teams moved elsewhere, residents and visitors would simply spend their money elsewhere (rather than that money disappearing from the city). Who benefits most financially when teams win? Owners.

A championship does not affect the fundamental issues facing cities. Is Cleveland really a better place to live because the Cavaliers finally won? Did the 1985 Bears Super Bowl win set Chicago on a better course? All those Bulls and Blackhawks titles? The fans may have felt better, the city could celebrate, the owners could see their valuations go up, and regular city life would eventually go on. Manufacturing jobs were lost, white residents continued to flee for the suburbs, public schools and other local institutions suffered, politicians and leaders looked out for their own, and so on.

A championship may be for the fans but it is not really for the city.

 

 

Baseball games average 17 minutes 58 seconds of action

Surpassing football games, one analysis suggests baseball games average 17 minutes and 58 seconds of action:

By WSJ calculations, a baseball fan will see 17 minutes and 58 seconds of action over the course of a three-hour game. This is roughly the equivalent of a TED Talk, a Broadway intermission or the missing section of the Watergate tapes. A similar WSJ study on NFL games in January 2010 found that the average action time for a football game was 11 minutes. So MLB does pack more punch in a battle of the two biggest stop-and-start sports. By seven minutes.

The WSJ reached this number by taking the stopwatch to three different games and timing everything that happened. We then categorized the parts of the game that could fairly be considered “action” and averaged the results. The almost 18-minute average included balls in play, runner advancement attempts on stolen bases, wild pitches, pitches (balls, strikes, fouls and balls hit into play), trotting batters (on home runs, walks and hit-by-pitches), pickoff throws and even one fake-pickoff throw. This may be generous. If we’d cut the action definition down to just the time when everyone on the field is running around looking for something to do (balls in play and runner advancement attempts), we’d be down to 5:47.

I’m sure some might quibble with the methodology. Yet, the findings suggest two things:

1. A significant amount of excitement about sporting events may have to do with the time between action rather than the action itself. Sure, we care a lot about the plays but the fun includes the anticipation between action as well as the conversation and analysis that takes place then. In other words, sports involves a lot of patience.

2. The “feel” of the action may matter more for perceptions than the actual measurement of action. Football and other sports include faster action and more players moving at a time, giving an image of more total action. This particularly shows up on television. Perhaps it is more of a question of do fans prefer group action or more solitary action?

Selection bias with Derek Jeter’s fielding: bad stats, memorable moments

As Derek Jeter’s career winds down, one baseball pundit wrestles with how Jeter’s defense numbers are so bad even as we remember some of his great fielding moments:

Data-mindful observers couldn’t figure out why the decorated Yankee kept winning those Gold Gloves and garnering raves for his defense. Stats such as Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved didn’t merely suggest that Jeter was overrated; they pegged him as downright terrible. Even the best glovemen lose range as they age, which means Jeter actually hurt himself by playing past his 40th birthday and seeing his career defensive totals dip as a result, but the figures are unnerving regardless. Based on Baseball-Reference’s Runs From Fielding, which is based on DRS, Jeter’s combination of subpar defense and exceptional longevity don’t merely make him a defensive liability; they make him the worst defensive player relative to others at his position in baseball history.

That ranking is incredibly hard to fathom because of a very human weakness: selection bias. People remember a few extraordinary events, then ignore or even repress the information that might contradict that initial impression. With Jeter in particular, it’s nearly impossible to make the visceral reactions agree with the data, because Jeter has pulled off some of the most incredible defensive plays we’ve ever seen.

How to put this all together?

So really, it’s OK to agree in part with both sides of the argument. Even if we acknowledge the flaws of advanced defensive stats that aren’t yet based on play-by-play data or dispute the claim that Jeter was the worst ever, we can comfortably say he was overrated defensively by many people for many years, and cost the Yankees their share of outs. But we can also say that every huge-leverage play like The Flip negated a handful of squibbers through the infield during random April games in Cleveland, even if they left him as a net-negative defender on the leaderboards. Jeter might not have deserved five Gold Gloves, but he does deserve credit for crafting memorable plays that can’t simply be chalked up to coincidence or luck.

In other words, memorable plays that lead to key victories can go a long way to wiping out more objective data over a longer period of time. Of course, this is true across a broad range of contexts beyond baseball; showing unusual urban crimes and police responses as “normal” could have a similar effect on television viewers. In the long run, perceptions may have less of a shelf life as people who witnessed those events – like “The Flip” – stop remembering them or die and the data lives on.

A video goes viral with 320,000+ views in one week?

This silent newsreel of the 1919 Black Sox World Series is a great find. A news story about the video suggests it went viral with over 320,000 views in its first week online. Is this enough views to go viral?

This is an ongoing issue for stories and reports regarding online behavior. When does something go from being an online object of interest to some people to being a trend? Reporters often find Facebook groups or a few blog posts and turn that into a trend. Perhaps this is better than interviewing a few people on the street – also still done – but there are plenty of online groups, tweets, and posts.

We need some sort of metric or guidelines for making such proclamations. Unfortunately, there is little agreement about this for websites: should we count page views, unique visitors, click-throughs or something else? Should we just count the number of Twitter followers even though they can be purchased? Other mediums have agreed-upon metrics like Nielsen ratings or book sales or digital downloads.

In the meantime, I would suggest 342,000 viewers is not quite going viral.

Baseball stadiums of the future to be more integrated with surrounding cities?

Urban baseball stadiums became all the rage after the early 1990s (the new Comiskey Park in Chicago was the last of the old models) but one projection regarding baseball stadiums of the future suggests they will be even more integrated into the surrounding cityscape:

Looking forward, there’s no need for the high-arching concrete and steel that separate today’s stadiums from the city around them. Mirakian anticipates “transformative stadiums that will really build a community.” The glass structures horseshoed around Living Park, for example, aren’t just premium seating, but also serve to combine the city and stadium. A street front on one side that hosts everything from offices and apartments to retail and restaurants turns into a stadium portal on the backside, offering stellar views onto the field. Instead of rising out of the city, the stadium sinks into it.

Trending data suggested increased urban densification, giving Mirakian the idea to create a linear park environment that allows the building to play as the central theme—a place activated during a game, but where the community can gather at any time, during either the season or offseason. In this case, the building itself is defined by the edges of the city, acting as a window into the building on game days. There’s no need for fanciful facades, as the stadium instead flows with the park and city…

You’ll still find a traditional seating bowl tucked below premium glass-enclosed spaces, but with the future of team revenue not as reliant on gate receipts, designers can offer new types of space. A city park overlooks rightfield—a riff on Fenway Park’s famed Green Monster, but this time with a green roof—and an enlarged berm beyond leftfield gives the stadium community-inspired life and public accessibility 365 days a year…

Getting to urban sites often proves tricky, so Populous brought the public transit line straight through Living Park, giving transit users a free look at one of the most stunning views in the city. Mirakian called it a “pretty distinct” element of the design.

Sounds like the goal is to make the stadium more of a lifestyle center than just a place where baseball games are played 81 home dates a year. This may require owners to open their park up more to the community and other events, which should appeal to them in the long run because there is an opportunity to generate more revenue from other events. Think of recent efforts to have football games, rock concerts, and hockey games in baseball stadiums. (The owners of the Chicago Cubs have followed this plan in recent years with Wrigley Field.)

While this kind of park sounds appealing, another aspect of the experience is not addressed in the article: what are the costs for all of this? Can the average fan easily attend a game at this new stadium? Some of the new features may make attendance cheaper – we attended a game a few years ago at Petco Park in San Diego and they had a good number of cheaper tickets in their outfield lawn area. Yet, if the Padres were a better team, those prices might be a lot higher. Additionally, in bigger cities with more ticket demand, prices are higher: the cheapest seats at a summer premium game at Wrigley Field start at $25 (more like $34 when you factor in all the fees and taxes).

Note: although it looks less sexy than the Populous projection, the Lansing Lugnuts, a Class A team, are trying to bring in more residents into the ballpark itself:

The Lansing (Mich.) Lugnuts and the city that owns their ballpark want to take a page from Wrigley’s book and construct perhaps 100 apartments literally inside of the stadium. By way of a $22 million project split down the middle with public and private funds, the Midwest League’s Class A club for the Toronto Blue Jays and the city seek to expand and upgrade Cooley Law School Stadium in downtown Lansing, the state capital.

The plan, called the “Outfield,” would be part of a bigger plan to upgrade parts of downtown as a whole. It’s a similar concept to what Fort Wayne, Ind. has done with its pro team, the Tincaps, and the Harrison Apartments beyond the left field fence.

I wonder how much of a premium such apartments inside, or very near, a minor league baseball stadium in the Rust Belt can command.