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.

Camden will be latest city to tear down its nearly new Atlantic League baseball stadium

In 2001, the state of New Jersey spent $18.5 million ($10.5 million on construction, and $7 million on environmental cleanup) to build a new waterfront minor-league baseball stadium in Camden, across the river from Philadelphia. An independent-minors Atlantic League team moved in, and was named the Riversharks, and everyone sat back and waited for the revitalization to come.

Sixteen short years later, Campbell’s Field, named for the soup company that started in Camden, is set to be demolished. The stadium never made money, and the state ate its construction debt — along with $18.3 million spent on a cross-river tram that was never built — and sold the stadium for $3.5 million in 2015 to the city of Camden, which figured it could pay that off with rent from the team. Then the Riversharks owners, not interested in trying to pay rent on revenues from just 3,000 fans a game, declined to renew their lease and instead moved to New Britain, Connecticut to replaced that city’s departed Double-A team and become the Bees. With nobody using the stadium aside from Rutgers University, it will now be torn down and replaced by athletic fields, or maybe an Amazon headquarters, or maybe something else, nobody knows.

If it feels like you’ve read this before, it’s because you have: The Atlantic League in particular now has a long and sorry history of talking cities and states into building new stadiums for its teams and then slinking out of town not long after. The Newark Bears were first demoted to an even lesser indie league and then went bankrupt in 2014 (I still have a jersey and other goodies from their going-out-of-business sale), and their riverfront stadium is now set for demolition; the Atlantic City Surf only lasted 11 seasons before giving up the ghost and leaving its ballpark as a high-school field where the scoreboard doesn’t work; the Bridgeport Bluefish are being evicted so that city can turn their stadium into a concert amphitheater.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s that minor-league baseball stadiums are incredibly risky gambles, since 1) it’s the rare team that brings in tons of fans after the initial honeymoon period and 2) it’s all too easy for a team to relocate or fold years before the stadium is paid off even if 3) the team is helping to pay off the stadium debt, which it usually isn’t. The Atlantic League particularly targeted itself at small Northeastern cities looking to reinvent themselves as baseball attractions, got a whole lot of stadiums built, and then with few exceptions (teams in Long Island and Bridgewater Township, New Jersey are still going strong, so far at least) pulled up stakes and skedaddled when things weren’t going so well.

I want to have an excuse to link to Deadspin’s Dan McQuade’s lovely remembrance of the Riversharks, so let’s quote from that here:

I liked going to Camden baseball games. Once, I took my father and he won the team’s “Best Beard” contest. He got a hot lather machine for his victory. I’ve lived in Center City Philadelphia for more than a decade now, so games were always a quick PATCO ride away. I could even walk over the bridge if I wanted to! I don’t remember much of the baseball—Von Hayes was the team’s manager one season—but I do remember enjoying my trips there…

Since December 2013, the state has handed out $1.2 billion in tax breaks to businesses to relocate to the city. Subaru is well along on its construction of a new headquarters in Camden; it got $118 million in tax credits from the state to move down the road from Cherry Hill.

The Sixers got $82 million in tax breaks for their new practice facility. When that was announced, a Camden resident asked Sixers CEO Scott O’Neil if there would be jobs for locals. “We need a shooting guard,” he replied. (This is still true.) Holtec International got $260 million in tax incentives to move to the waterfront. (That construction forced out a needle-exchange van; Camden hasn’t been signing Community Benefits Agreements with these companies.)..

The teams of the late-’90s New Jersey minor league stadium boom—the Camden Riversharks, the Atlantic City Surf, the Newark Bears, the Somerset Patriots—are mostly gone. Only Somerset, in Bridgewater, still exists. The promises of economic revitalization by baseball have failed. Now we’ll see how Camden fares under this next plan. Hmm.

 

Eleven years after opening, Atlantic City stadium left without team

Desperately-searching-for-a-silver-lining headline of the day:

No team, but stadium can still be asset for Atlantic City

Apparently the Atlantic City Surf of the indie minor Can-Am League folded on Monday, after a dispute between the team and the city over which would pay for maintenance on Bader Field, which despite having been built only 11 years ago (with $15 million in public funds) now has no working heat or bathrooms. City officials are now exploring using the field for concerts or high school baseball practices, because everyone knows concertgoers and high school kids never need to use the bathroom.

Still, state senator Jim Whelan defended the public money spent on building the stadium for the Surf, saying, “This place had 11 good years.” I guess if you set the bar low enough, anything can be considered a success.