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.