Times fumbles ball on Giants Stadium debt

I’ve beaten up on New York Times sportswriter Ken Belson plenty before in this space, in large part because of his failure to fully investigate the rosy economic claims of stadium boosters. So you’d think it’d be good news that today Belson tackles the troublesome fiscal legacy of New York-area sports stadiums:

It’s the gift that keeps on taking. The old Giants Stadium, demolished to make way for New Meadowlands Stadium, still carries about $110 million in debt, or nearly $13 for every New Jersey resident, even though it is now a parking lot.

The financial hole was dug over decades by politicians who passed along the cost of building and fixing the stadium, and it is getting deeper. With the razing of the old stadium and the Giantsand the Jets moving into their splashy new home next door, a big source of revenue to pay down the debt has shriveled.

New Jerseyans are hardly alone in paying for stadiums that no longer exist. Residents of Seattle’s King County owe more than $80 million for the Kingdome, which was razed in 2000. The story has been similar in Indianapolis and Philadelphia. In Houston, Kansas City, Mo., Memphis and Pittsburgh, residents are paying for stadiums and arenas that were abandoned by the teams they were built for.

And so on. Only one problem: Whether the debt on an old stadium is paid off before it’s demolished doesn’t matter one whit. While “Whattaya mean, we’re still paying for that pile of rubble?!?” is a natural reaction, it doesn’t make much economic sense. Stadium debt is, when you come down to it, a bookkeeping measure — the construction expense is sunk the moment you sign the contract to build the thing. The rest is just a matter of (in a manner of speaking) what kind of mortgage your municipality wants to take out.

If the state of New Jersey had chosen to pay off Giants Stadium by selling 20-year bonds, in other words, it still would have represented the same expense to the public — but since the bonds would have been retired faster, suddenly it wouldn’t make Belson’s hall of shame. That’s nonsensical. If cities shifted to paying for their stadiums with suitcases full of twenties, would that make them better deals?

The problem with tearing down stadiums early isn’t the debt, it’s the revenues that you’re giving up by allowing teams to move into new buildings with sweetheart leases. As Belson notes late in his piece, the old Giants Stadium generated about $20 million a year for the state; at the new one, the Jets and Giants supply only $6.3 million a year in lease payments. That’s a real cost, and one that could have been avoided if the state hadn’t agreed to rent public land to the teams so they could build a new stadium and get out from their Giants Stadium lease.

The real scandal here isn’t how debt service is financed, but rather that cities and states are tearing down perfectly functional stadiums just so that teams can stop paying rent, costing taxpayers millions. Now there’s a headline I’d like to see in the Times.

An anniversary few noticed: 100 years & Forbes Field

Few noticed a historic anniversary in stadium building yesterday, in part because almost two decades of mediocrity by the Pittsburgh Pirates has kept anything related to Pittsburgh baseball off the radar screen unless it involved a trade of their players to a big market team.

Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the opening of Forbes Field, arguably a moment that changed the stadium-building landscape forever. It was the first ballpark to cost at least a million dollars to construct. Forbes Field used more than three times the structural steel and concrete as Philadelphia’s Shibe Park which opened a couple months earlier in 1909. Now remembered as a small intimate ballpark that has long since been demolished, at the time Forbes Field was the most massive monument to professional sports ever built.

It was built entirely with private funds, and it ushered in a sort of competition among team owners to build similar ballparks, places like Fenway, Wrigley, Comiskey, Ebbets, and Navin in Detroit. The Pittsburgh area papers did some coverage of this anniversary on Sunday and Monday, and the Pirates did a ceremony yesterday at PNC Park, but enthusiasm for the Pirates is low, so very few noticed.

Though few visiting the Field of Schemes site will want to visit this issue further, for those who do, you might hit the library and check out a book entitled Forbes Field by David Cicotello and Angelo Louisa (a 2007 publication of McFarland Press).

To put things in a current context, MLB had the inhabitants of the two remaining ballparks of the Forbes Field era (Red Sox and Cubs) open up exhibition games in New York’s shiny new monuments to modern retro ballparks. The Red Sox played the first major league exhibition game in the Mets new place, and the Cubs played a preseason game in the Yankees new palace. My theory: Now that the real ballparks of a bygone era have inspired construction of numerous “retro ballparks,” MLB is not wedded to keeping the old dinosaurs around. In short, Fenway and Wrigley have served their usefulness in prompting the kind of new construction that has made team owners around the country lots of money. If dumping them for shiny new models is in the cards, MLB would not have a problem with that.

The irony is that if that ever occurs, the powers involved will propose tearing down an authentic ballpark of the past and propose building what would likely be yet another replica of the past, but with much more retailing space and nice new cupholders.

It is entirely speculation on my part, but consider that MLB officials also had the Pirates/Cubs game scheduled in Pittsburgh on the 100th anniversary of Forbes Field’s opening, with a brief ceremony as part of the action. I don’t think the three scheduling decisions were entirely random or done without some thought. The game on the 100th anniversary was scheduled against the same team that opened that new ballpark in Pittsburgh in 1909, but in 1909, the Cubs were defending World Series champions. Many regard PNC Park as a place that emulated some of the features of Forbes Field.

Unless you want to see the ballparks of this era gone forever, support the friendly folks at Save Fenway Park! or your local Wrigley activist should calls for a brand new ballpark in Boston or Chicago emerge any time in the next decade or so.