How the Atlantic League suckered New Jersey out of $70m for three now-shuttered stadiums (and still hopes to sucker more)

Apologies if this is a light posting week here at Field of Schemes — I have some other work responsibilities that are keeping me busy, though the news has been cooperating by being fairly light as well, or at least light on major items that can’t wait for a Friday roundup. If you’re really jonesing for some hot stadium-scam action, I would suggest you make your way over to Reason, where Eric Boehm has delivered a tale of the Atlantic League’s doomed stadiums in Atlantic City, Newark, and Camden that is a gold mine of schadenfreude. Let’s begin with then–New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman, who provided tens of millions of dollars in tax money to build the three stadiums between 1998 and 2001, at the opening of the Camden Riversharks stadium in 2001:

“These partners have heard the message from the movie Field of Dreams: ‘If you build it, they will come,'” Whitman said. “Soon we will see a field of dreams right here in Camden, and my prediction is they will come.”

Yes, she actually said it! And the fans did come, at first, because everybody wants to check out the new team and the new riverfront stadium and get some new gear with a cool logo of a shark with a bat in its teeth. Then the novelty wore off, and they stopped coming so much: According to Deadspin, attendance the Riversharks’ final season in 2015 was less than half of capacity, and even that was goosed with lots of free tickets handed out. Then the team folded and moved to New Britain, Connecticut.

Things didn’t go much better for the Newark Bears or the Atlantic City Surf, neither of which managed to reach voting age, either. (I have previously written about my attendance at the Bears’ last gasp, a tragicomic liquidation sale that largely featured old mascot heads.) But really, that’s to be expected in minor-league baseball, especially independent minor-league baseball, where you can’t even depend on fans of the major-league affiliate turning out to check out players who might some day play for the big club — or the major-league affiliate covering player salaries to help a club through lean attendance years.

The more damning parts of the article are the testimony that even when they did come, it didn’t amount to anything like what it would take to be worth the state’s public stadium expense. Here’s College of the Holy Cross economist Victor Matheson on Atlantic League attendance:

“That’s about 250,000 fans per season—or about the number of people who will visit an eight-screen movie theater over the course of a year,” he tells Reason. “But no one in their right mind would say ‘you know what the solution to all of Camden’s problems is: a new movie theater.'”

Then Matheson goes on to say that a movie theater might be better than a baseball stadium, because at least movie theater jobs are year-round.

The lesson here is, well, that elected officials are either suckers or complicit in siphoning public money to private sports team owners, which we all knew, but it’s impressive to see the level of suckerdom/complicity on display here. Especially when Boehm calls up Atlantic League president Rick White to see if he’s contrite about having sold so many cities a bill of goods, and instead finds that he’s still very much touting it:

“The model we are most comfortable working with now is to suggest to a community that if they were to invest in the infrastructure and potentially in the ballpark, we can suggest to them developers that can help improve the area around it,” White said in a phone interview.

I better run and go get my other work done, because it’s clear my work here will never be finished.

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10 comments on “How the Atlantic League suckered New Jersey out of $70m for three now-shuttered stadiums (and still hopes to sucker more)

  1. There was also a Ballpark in Sussex Nj called Skylands park not sure if it was Atlantic league but the team folded there too. I think it was Stl Cards Affiliate.

    1. The New Jersey Cardinals were NY-Penn – the only game I went to there was a bizarre affair that involved a game suspended by a sudden fog bank that was resumed the next night and again suspended by another sudden fog bank. I think a Can-Am team went in later (Sussex Skyhawks) and then also folded. (On train, can’t check right now.)

      1. Turns out there’s a new Skylands Can-Am team called the Sussex County Miners:

        I can’t wait to go there to see if I can catch another fog-out. (At the last one, local hysterically laughing teenagers said that this happened “all the time — what were they thinking building a ballpark in a stream valley?”)

  2. Some simple (ish) questions:

    I have often written in support of modest subsidies for minor league facilities as an “enabling” factor (and not in the bad way). A minor league franchise worth maybe $500k (if that) cannot possibly float a construction mortgage on a $10-15m stadium (unlike their professional counterparts). They can and should, of course, pay rent once that facility is built.

    If the Gov. committed tens of millions to these minor league facilities, what was the percentage of public funding on average? 100?

    Were there also private financial commitments to the facilities or were these another “pay us what you can if you can, we’ll build and operate it for you” deals?

    The underlying question is, was the reason for failure of the business that there was too much stadium related debt/fees that the owners were responsible for? Or is this just a case of there being no viable business even if all the stadium costs were paid by others? Or was there perhaps enough money being generated to maintain the business, but too much disappearing through ‘expenses’ that were never satisfactorily explained (the infamous ‘owners salary’ and travel and accommodation costs for the non resident owner both at home and on the road?)

    When I speak in favour of minor league stadium subsidies, I tend to think of smallish cities kicking in $4-5m for infrastructure and so forth. Not $40m up front costs with no prospect of earning any annual revenue from either ticket taxes or team rent payments.

    250,000 fans annually in a short season league isn’t great, but it’s not terrible either (4-5k/gm if the above figure represents the home attendance for just one team).

    If your gate is $2-3m (at a modest $10/head avg) with potentially another $1-2m in concessions and merch and you can’t fund a minor league team with a payroll of maybe $250-300k and operating costs of maybe double that…. I guess I would wonder where the rest of the cash is going. If the team is responsible for stadium operations (not unreasonable), this could eat up another million or so… but it still doesn’t take the total budget anywhere near $4-5m.

    1. “Or is this just a case of there being no viable business even if all the stadium costs were paid by others?”

      Pretty sure that one.

      The Atlantic League went around telling smallish northeastern cities, “Hey, build us a stadium and you’ll get an independent league team! It’s the wave of the future, better than affiliated ball and sliced bread combined!” It wasn’t.

    2. If your gate is $2-3m (at a modest $10/head avg)

      From the little I know of it, this seems a very optimistic average for such a small team.

      1. It may be, but if we are to believe that 250,000 people attended games in an average season, and that (short) season is approx 100-120 games… then 50-60 home games would produce an average attendance of 4-5k.

        Some of the articles also suggested that the (roughly 10k seater) stadia were ‘around half full’.

        So unless the average ticket price was $2 rather than $10, I’m really not seeing how the total revenue is so low that a baseball team with maybe 35 employees (most of whom make less than $2k/month and are seasonal employees) and does not pay anything beyond stadium operating costs struggles to break even.

        In fact, if you cut the paid attendance to an average of 2600 at an avg ticket price of $10, the club is still generating close to $1.5m in gate alone (say $2.5m including concessions and merch).

        It’s not staggering revenue, certainly. But for a team with total expenses that should be less than $1.5m… the numbers really don’t add up to me.

        If I’m missing something, do point it out please…

        1. 1) Don’t believe that 250,000 people attended games in an average season. Minor-league teams tend to be, uh, “creative” with their attendance counts.
          2) Their stadium sat 6,400, not 10,000.
          3) Where are you getting “less than $1.5m” from? Atlantic League team budgets are over $2 million easily, and some are over $3m.

          1. Actually, that 250k number came from Prof. Matheson. So, presumably, at the top end they do attract that many paying fans. He would know.

            This stadium may have had a 6,400 cap, but some of those linked in the articles were clearly larger venues.

            Finally, the heart of the question originally is what are the total legitimate expenses of a run of the mill Atlantic or other Independent league team (be it Rookie, A, AA or other level)?

            Most minor league players (even in the affiliated system) make very little, it is reasonable to assume that most independent league players make a similar amount. One MLB team just announced they were increasing all their MiLB player salaries by 50%. When asked, the GM of that club said he expected the total cost of that decision to be in the hundreds of thousands, but well under a million dollars. And that’s for an MLB team with 4-6 real farm teams in organized ball.

            Non MLB players make garbage money. So, even if these independent teams have to pay players more than the $1100/mo some MiLB players are working for, the player payroll for a five month season is still likely under $250k. Non playing staff could equal that easily. Travel and accommodations are expensive even for fairly narrow geographic leagues, so lets say $500k for that and another $200k for equipment and promotion. Add 20-25% for contingencies if you like… we are still around $1.5m. If the team pays for stadium ops during the season that could bump it up to $2.5 or $3m, but most don’t as I understand it.

            Even if your $3m expense figure is right and the avg team only draws 2800 paying fans a night… at $10/head plus another $6-8 for concession & merch (which will likely be much higher… we haven’t counted sponsorships & advertising yet of course), you are still looking at breaking even…

            Unless you are paying a hefty owner’s salary and travel expenses on top of the actual team costs, of course.

  3. Consider the New. Indoor Arena which was built in Newark. At taxpayer expense to lure the pro teams from Hackensack. Nj. .. Plus the new Meadowland Fb. Stadium Built at taxpayer. Then The expense three small baseball std.. Are small potatoes..

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