Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Third inning at the stadium game

Sports team owners today are adept at playing the stadium game with local elected officials, and know that it’s the threat of the “nuclear option” that can cause the leaders of even economically stressed communities to pay whatever it takes and build whatever has to be built to get a team to commit to come or commit to stay.

I sometimes get the feeling that team owners figure that Florida public officials are not that bright, and thus the owners can get away with more. Let’s be realistic here, spring training does bring in money and tourists, but only for a few months. True, some teams use the stadium complexes for player development and Class A teams from when the major league teams leave until September, and some complexes are used for amateur baseball, but many in Florida question the use of taxpayer money for funding the sports dreams of people who are worth millions or billions.

I have always said that the rustic character of spring training and less-inviting facilities have a purpose, which is to motivate players to do better and thus get a shot at the higher-level minor leagues and “The Show.” Yet teams seem intent on having super-luxurious facilities in Florida, especially when they can gull city and county commissioners into footing the bill.

There is also the advantage of renting the facility instead of owning it, as the Dodgers did in Vero Beach until the city of Vero Beach and Indian River County took it off their hands. The team that rents finds it is that it’s easier to pack up and leave if city officials refuse to play ball and approve even more subsidies — or another city comes along with a better deal.

That ability to make a rapid dash for greener pastures may leave local officials in a lurch, and also stuck with a giant white elephant of a stadium that has few uses, and none that can recoup even some sales tax revenue. True, local officials are at least savvy enough to ensure that teams will guarantee the bonds floated to buy or build a complex, but even if the locality is made whole, what then? The only option is to try to steal a team from another locality in Florida, and believe me that can be pretty costly.

That is what is happening now in Sarasota, Fla., where the Cincinnati Reds have announced that 2009 will be the last year of their spring training in the city, and they will go to Goodyear, Ariz., for 2010. It’s never a good idea to hurt the feelings of rich people, and the ownership of the Reds had to be feeling pretty down after voters rejected attempts to pick their pockets for a new facility for the Reds.

The Reds play at Ed Smith Stadium, near downtown. I went to a late spring training game there with my brother Robert, my first time there in the four years I have been in the area, and it is not that bad a place. I attended a number of Florida State League games at Holman Stadium in Vero Beach, and a couple of games at the Mets complex in Port St. Lucie, and I was expecting a real hole when I went to Ed Smith. I was surprised and got to see a good split-squad game against the Braves.

But the Reds wanted something new, and they wanted it mostly at taxpayer expense, and they had made noises that a city in Arizona was pretty much willing to do lots to get them to do spring training there. Since team owners only respect the voice of the people when the people say what they want to hear, the vote against a new taxpayer-funded facility for the Reds apparently showed that Sarasota’s people lacked the commitment to baseball.

Actually, what it showed was that the people of Sarasota had common sense. Baseball is not the only game in town in a city that prides itself on the arts. Sarasota is not St. Petersburg, but there is a vibrant arts community and people interested in paying to hear music, see pictures and attend street fairs. A team that could afford to blow millions on .220-hitting players could surely afford to refurbish the stadium they played spring training in.

It’s hardly a surprise that the Reds looked afield and found their new spring home in Goodyear, Ariz., though that city’s officials were not all thrilled at the one-sided deal with the Reds. The team will share the facility with another team, which means that someday they will want their own, and at government expense, no doubt. I’ll bet in five years, either the Reds or the other team will threaten to leave Goodyear unless they get their own facilities.

Experts on stadium deals say that teams always try to avoid referendums on packages of aid for a team because they know the people will never go for it. Sarasota voters have approved higher taxes for school and other desired services (though lately that sentiment has reversed somewhat), but I trust the people — and local elected officials should, too — that most of us can tell when a deal stinks.

In the next inning, the I-75 series: Fort Myers, Sarasota and the Boston Red Sox.

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September 15, 2008 - Posted by | The business of sports, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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