Maricopa County to let D-Backs break lease early in exchange for dropping lawsuit, here comes the next stadium shakedown

My first thought yesterday when I saw the news about an agreement between Maricopa County and the Arizona Diamondbacks and read it the way people do nowadays — look at the headline and first paragraph, then let your eyes lightly graze the rest — was “Let the Diamondbacks break their lease early just in exchange for dropping a lawsuit that the team owners were almost certain to lose? What a bunch of saps!”

Actually reading the details, though, it appears to be … “a good deal” would be overstating it massively, but certainly a reasonable decision by the county under the circumstances, albeit one that opens the door for some immediate stadium subsidy shakedown shenanigans.

The story so far: Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick sued the county a little over a year ago, claiming it owed him $187 million in repairs and upgrades to Chase Field. The county responded by pointing out that most of that money — which was projected costs contained in a 2013 report — was for things that the team’s lease specifically said were the team’s responsibility. Eventually a judge ordered the two sides to go to arbitration, which is where things stood until yesterday’s agreement.

Under that deal, which still needs to be approved by the full county board, Kendrick will drop his lawsuit and his $187 million upgrade demand, though he could still eventually get $20 million in county money as reimbursement for some repairs. In exchange, the team owner will get to start looking for a new home effective immediately, and will be able to leave Chase Field without penalty starting in 2022 if it’s for another stadium within the county — and leave the county altogether with just minor penalties of $5 million to $25 million.

That sounds terrible — except that the Diamondbacks’ lease was up in 2027 anyway, at which point the team could have left without penalty. So really this is just giving up five years of the team being guaranteed to stay put in exchange for the small but real risk that an arbitrator would require the county to cough up a bunch of renovation money, which at the going rate for lease extensions isn’t a terrible tradeoff.

The problem now, of course, is that Kendrick is certain to start shopping around for a new home — or, rather, shopping around for somebody else to pay him to build a new home, since he wasn’t even willing to pay to fix the “old” one that’s just 20 years old — and the Phoenix area is potentially a great place to do so, since it’s full of independent cities (and Native American reservations) that can be played off against each other. Sure, that’s going staggeringly poorly for the Arizona Coyotes, but then nobody really cares about the Coyotes — nobody visible to the naked eye, at least — whereas the Diamondbacks are fairly popular.

And then there’s the possibility that Kendrick could threaten to move the team out of Arizona entirely — something that would be incredibly stupid to actually follow through with, since it’s by far the largest TV market still available, but not necessarily stupid to threaten in order to scare some cash out of local legislators. After all, the team’s lawyers already threaten to do so once — or rather, threatened to have the league threaten to order them to — and one particular clause they insisted on putting in the new deal sure makes it sound like they’re considering that leverage option again:

An even broader “out” clause is included, which county leaders said they agreed to reluctantly.

“In the event the MLB requires the Team to leave Arizona because of the condition of the stadium, the Team may do so without penalty or other payments if all parties have acted in good faith,” the agreement reads.

Maricopa County Board Chairman Steve Chucri, R-Paradise Valley, said he does not believe the league would move the team. He said the county would sue if it did.

“It’s a risk. But it’s incredibly unlikely,” he said. “There are far worse stadiums” that the MLB hasn’t required teams to leave, he said, so yanking the Diamondbacks would be bad faith.

On the one hand: Oh, man, you seriously want to go into court to try to argue that something MLB is doing is in worse faith than typical MLB practice? Good luck with that. On the other: Enh, the most it will cost the county is $25 million in lost penalties anyway.

This is likely to be a long, ugly battle, and will be a significant test of whether stadium subsidy demands are really starting to fall on deaf ears, or just resting after a prolonged squawk. Check back here in about five years, and we should have the answer.


11 comments on “Maricopa County to let D-Backs break lease early in exchange for dropping lawsuit, here comes the next stadium shakedown

  1. The one thing Maricopa County feared was being the next St Louis, with the unpleasant option of some arbitrator ruling they must pay $200m in repairs or be in default and possibly letting the Diamondbacks end up like the Rams.

    • So they were afraid they’d be forced to let the Diamondbacks out of the lease early, and to avoid that agreed to let the Diamondbacks out of their lease early?

      I should also note that unlike in the NFL, Los Angeles already has two MLB teams that would scream bloody murder if the Diamondbacks tried to move there. They could go to Montreal or Portland, I guess, but those are way smaller markets than Phoenix, and neither is more likely to offer lucrative stadium subsidies.

  2. As a Portland native who hates stadium subsidies, my greatest fear is that our town becomes the stalking horse linked a new round of MLB stadium shakedowns.

  3. The team name should be the Kendrick Diamondbacks. To dissuade all from the silly notion that somehow they belong to Arizona. An act so simple as refusing to allow a geographic identifier to be part of a trademarked team name would set an excellent context for these debates.

  4. I am not sure which municipality would be eager to build them a stadium, but it’s possible someone could pull a Cobb County/Bridgeview, Ill. and just do it without regard for the populace.

    Pretty safe bet Glendale would not. Maybe the next mayor of Phoenix would make it a priority, but where is a better location that is actually in the city limits?

    Tribal land, possible, sure.

    • That’s how this stadium got built. Funds were appropriated against the express will of the people.

      We’ll see how this plays this time around.

  5. DBacks aren’t leaving Arizona.

    They will end up on Salt River Indian Community Land , playing in a privately financed stadium. This is my bet.

    • Why the hell would any Indian reservation let them do that? It would represent a bizarre lack of self-respect from a pretty reliably proud demographic.

  6. The article about the parties being ordered to arbitration was a little light on details (basically just said that the judge agreed with the county that their contract with the team stipulated that disputes must be arbitrated, no indication as to whether this is binding arbitration or not).

    So Maricopa county appears to have responded to winning the first round of their court battle by conceding future battles in advance…. which is an odd strategy…. but I guess it keeps your “ruling” average at 1.000 and we are in a sabrmetrics world aren’t we?

    They aren’t giving up that much, but the question still remains why they chose to give up anything. They didn’t have to and since the arbitrator cannot substitute his or her own judgement/belief for actual contractual obligations set out in the agreement, I am at a bit of a loss to understand why they did so.