What questions should we ask to make sure the Orioles don’t screw over taxpayers in Camden Yards lease talks?

The Baltimore Orioles‘ lease on Camden Yards expires at the end of the 2021 season, which will only surprise you if you hadn’t realized the stadium that birthed the retro steel-and-brick trend was coming up on its 30th birthday. (Or hadn’t realized that the Orioles rent, not own, which has to do with Camden Yards also helping birth the put-the-stadium-in-the-public’s-name-so-you-can-duck-paying-property-taxes trend.) The Angelos family — increasingly brothers John and Louis, since their father Peter is now 90 and in poor health — has an option for a five-year extension but is considering negotiating a whole new lease, which has perked up the local media’s ears as to what it will mean to the team, and my ears because lease negotiations are typically a great place to hide public subsidies if you want.

So, what do we know so far, and what should we be trying to find out? From the Baltimore Sun:

The team and the authority — the landlord of the Orioles and Ravens on behalf of the state — have a “mutual acknowledgment” that they want to negotiate a new lease before the current one expires, officials from both sides said.

Sure! Cost and revenue certainty is always a good thing, so getting the O’s lease situation locked down for the long term would be good for both sides. Assuming, that is, that the terms are favorable for both sides, which is kind of an impossibility in any contract negotiation, so the devil is very much going to be in the lease details.

While the sons could one day own the Orioles, uncertainties about the club’s future stewards had created buzz that the team could leave Baltimore, a small-market city relative to others in Major League Baseball.

“Buzz” is a bit of an overstatement: There was that time last year that a former Sun columnist reported a “rumor” that the Orioles could move to Nashville, mostly because John Angelos has a house there, and, uh, that’s pretty much it. If you’re wondering, Nashville is slightly smaller than Baltimore in TV market size, and has never been seriously floated as an MLB expansion candidate; the Orioles are currently drawing terribly, but they’re also playing terribly, and were 6th in the AL in attendance the last time they were good, and Nashville doesn’t have an MLB stadium or plans for one, so it’s probably not the first thing on any Angelos’s mind, even if John might enjoy being able to roll out of one of his beds and go see a ballgame. But the “Uncertainty!!!1!” paragraph is a staple of these kinds of articles, so they had to stick in there.

The club has spoken publicly about its hopes of capitalizing on the stadium’s popularity by using it increasingly for non-baseball activities such as music or other year-round activities.

Again, reasonable, though there aren’t really a whole lot of non-baseball activities you can use a baseball stadium for. The Sun notes that Camden Yards hosted a Billy Joel concert last summer, but Billy Joel is 71 years old, so probably not going to be still touring at the end of a long lease extension. But sure, maybe some expansion of the Orioles’ right to hold non-baseball events, and then split the proceeds with the state, might be worth discussing.

Until last year, the stadium authority was paying about $15 million a year in debt service — principal plus interest — on the 30-year bonds issued to pay for Camden Yards. The bonds were paid off at the end of 2019 at a total cost of about $450 million, according to David Raith, the stadium authority’s chief financial officer.

The stadium authority will continue to receive $15 million a year in state lottery proceeds for various other stadium projects, including improvements to the Camden Yards warehouse, and to pay off $32 million left on the original bond deal for M&T Bank Stadium, home of the NFL’s Ravens. M&T Bank Stadium, which opened in 1998, cost about $310 million, including debt interest.

Okay, now we’re getting somewhere: Camden Yards was paid for with state lottery proceeds, and now that the initial construction debt is finally paid off but the lottery money continues to flow — for some reason Maryland didn’t set the payments so they’d go back to the state’s general fund once the stadium was paid off and be available to pay for other things during lean times — the Orioles could have their eye on it to fund “improvements.”

In fact, the Angeloses have been talking about publicly funded upgrades to Camden Yards since 2015, when it was reported that they wanted to retrofit the stadium with concourses where fans can see the game (or at least the airspace above the game) from the hot dog lines, and VIP club spaces at field level, neither of which were things anyone was thinking about when the building was built in 1992 — and neither of which may be things that anyone prioritizes in a post-Covid world, either, but presumably the Orioles owners can work that out once they’ve secured the money.

And again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Upgrades to stadiums are nice enough, so long as enough new revenues result that there’s a way both the Orioles owners and the public can come out ahead. The worrisome part would be if the Angeloses try to fob off such improvements as necessary “maintenance” — which the state is on the hook for under the current lease, and yes that’s the lease that the team owners want to tear up and renegotiate, curse you and your logical consistency — that’s required to get the team to stay put in Baltimore, which could end up resulting in state taxpayers throwing good money after bad.

All this is very preliminary, obviously, but it provides a guide to how to monitor the Orioles lease talks: If the framework is “Here’s how we can make the stadium bring in more money, and how to share it equitably between the team and the public,” that’s great; if it’s “Here’s what state taxpayers need to do to keep the team happy so we don’t run off to, uh (throws dart at map), Nashville,” then that’s what got Maryland into this three-decade-long budget hole to begin with. The time to start asking questions of the state of Maryland about how it’s going to get a fair deal for taxpayers is now, while the terms of discussion are still being framed. I remember Season 5 of The Wire well enough not to count on the tattered remains of the Baltimore Sun to do this job, but maybe somebody somewhere? I’m available for freelance assignments and/or bar mitzvahs!

Share this post:

6 comments on “What questions should we ask to make sure the Orioles don’t screw over taxpayers in Camden Yards lease talks?

  1. Two questions:
    What about the rent the Orioles pay currently? Knowing how that is structured (flat fee, percentage of ticket revenue, etc.) might help inform what a future lease could look like.

    More generally, why aren’t baseball stadiums (stadia?) used for other events? Seems like there would be a niche for events in between the 10-15k people you get in a basketball/hockey arena and the 50-75k people
    attending a concert/promise keepers/whatever in a football stadium.

    1. As I recall, the Orioles agreed to pay a share of revenues as rent in exchange for the state taking on maintenance costs. Then when the Ravens took on maintenance costs in exchange for free rent — because by then the Tax Reform Act had kicked in and made it harder to finance stadiums with rent payments — the Orioles said, “Hey, we want free rent too!” The resulting lawsuit didn’t get very far.

    2. I saw Billy Joel at Coors Field (the MLB stadium in Denver – I know these corporate names are hard to keep up with, but that one actually hasn’t changed… yet); and it was quite good. I was struck by how much better baseball stadiums are for concerts then football stadiums, because everyone is facing the same direction. The sound was really good too.

      I noticed all concerts were paired night to night with another musician. I assumed they saved costs on the setup. Anyway, I’m sure tours big enough for stadiums are a hit and miss type things, some summers they’re on, others not. Not mention COVID-19.

  2. There’s no practical reason why a baseball stadium can’t be relatively easily adapted for small to mid sized outdoor concerts (10-20k) if they are designed properly. Stages can be built or moved into infields without too much effort, and without doing significant damage to the playing field if proper provisions are made to support them (IE: they aren’t set up and supported on the grass, but rather on proper foundations that are covered with soil when the game is being played.)

    Outdoor acoustics can be problematic (some ballparks seem to have been specifically designed to produce multiple waves of echoes… fans of the film Airplane will recall this being referenced), but it’s nothing reasonable design or renovation can’t fix.

    Question: Not being familiar with Maryland tax or estate laws… does anyone know what rules will be in place for the Angelos family inheritance etc? Is it likely that the team will have to be sold or that taxes will apply when the present owner is, um, no longer legally able to own property or businesses?

    Sometimes (depending on the way the business is set up and in what jurisdiction) this can be dealt with through directed gifts (IE: before death/probate etc). Morbid subject I know, but these are the kinds of questions that may play a significant role in determining the future of the franchise.

    When they play decently people show up. When they are a national embarrassment and/or field a triple A team, fans stay home. I see nothing wrong with that, particularly in one of the nation’s most economically challenged cities.

    1. I have seen many Orioles games in TV from Camden Yards, and the reality is if they are playing the Yankees or Red Sox it is like Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park South. I bet if MLB had their way, they would consolidate the Rays and Orioles and put them in Camden Yards and then add an expansion team to replace the Rays.

  3. A novel lease set-up:
    Discounts for any season over 500 & rebates for any season with playoff games.

Comments are closed.