High-Dollar Stadiums In A Low-Rent Economy

Both New York baseball teams christen their deluxe new stadiums this week: The Mets on Monday and the Yankees on Thursday. But these high-dollar baseball palaces — designed to be financed in part by luxury suites and swanky seats — are arriving at what may be the worst economic time since Lou Gehrig retired.

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More than $2 billion worth of baseball parks officially open this week in New York City. That's a lot of money for a city still trying to clean up the financial wreckage from last fall's market crash. The Mets and Yankees are expected to draw eight million fans this year, but not every New Yorker is cheering for new baseball stadiums as the best use of public resources.

NPR's Mike Pesca has more.

MIKE PESCA: The argument against new baseball stadiums goes something like this: A baseball stadium now? The mayor threatened to lay off 14,000 teachers earlier this year. The city slashed $3 billion from its budget, and you're building baseball stadiums?

The counterargument goes something like this: What are you, a Red Sox fan? Well, that's just one counterargument. Here's another one more specific to the Mets' new ballpark Citi Field, provided by Texas Congressman Ted Poe, who doesn't like the new name.

Representative TED POE (Republican, Texas): Our struggling friends at Citigroup have plenty enough to plaster their name on a new ballpark and keep hot-dollar offices and secretaries for ex-CEOs. The coach at Citigroup is making cuts to the roster at every other position, but it seems the luxury suites won't be traded. Citigroup is striking out when it comes to wise usage of taxpayer money.

PESCA: The protests of that Astros fan aside, a contract's a contract, and the Mets are happy to sell their naming rights for $400 million over 20 years. Citigroup would never have signed that deal today.

A local legislator, New York Assemblyman Richard Brodsky has been the biggest splinter in the Yankee's bat. Here on station WNYC, he lays out some of the problems he has with their stadium deal.

Mr. RICHARD BRODSKY (Assemblyman, New York State Assembly): It's socialism for the Yankees and capitalism for the rest of us, and we need to stop pouring public money into private hands if the public gets nothing back.

PESCA: The phrase Brodsky used, public money, may be misleading. Unlike other places, New York didn't just dip into the Treasury to pay for new stadiums. The city didn't issue a levy or raise taxes. Instead, the stadium's costs are being paid by the purchasers of tax-exempt bonds. That's the public money part.

New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg rejects Brodsky's entire premise.

Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (Republican, New York City): We built these stadiums with private money, and the state and the city put in a relatively small amount for infrastructure, which is incidentally the job of the state and the city. That's what we're supposed to do.

PESCA: Of course, the relatively small amount for infrastructure was in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Also unmentioned in those comments was the fact that the mayor's office had attempted to negotiate a luxury suite for itself in the new Yankee Stadium. The public reacted to that request like Yankee fans once reacted to pitcher Ed Whitson - baseball reference translated: They booed him off the mound.

But the suite pullback was one of a few concessions made to critics of the stadium deals. The relative smooth sailing may seem odd in a place like New York City, where huge projects are often blocked by motivated citizens and outraged legislators.

Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist suggests that may be because the city actually struck a pretty good deal.

Professor ANDREW ZIMBALIST (Economics, Smith College): In the case of a privately-financed stadium like this one, during a recession, I think, you're generating economic activity. You're not depleting the treasury. The treasury of New York City, the treasury of New York state are contributing somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 to $200 million. But the amount of tax revenue that is going to flow to them as a result of the private investments that were being made, I think, will more than offset that.

PESCA: Zimbalist, it's important to note, has often been the bane of the greedy baseball owner. He has written the definitive book on why taxpayer-funded stadiums are a boondoggle, but he thinks that New York got the best deal it could hope for.

The numbers he quoted will never be agreed to by all sides. But the city's publicly-funded, nonpartisan, independent budget office estimated that the Yankee's deal will cost the city $362 million; the Mets agreement, $138 million.

The stadium deals could also become an issue in the upcoming mayor's race, unless the Mets or Yankees win the World Series. Then, any sane politician will just want to don a team cap and get a good spot in the parade.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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Ballparks Should Be Built For Fans, Not Architects

In a front-page article in The New York Times, architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff expressed "disappointment" on behalf of "students of architecture," because the Mets' and Yankees' new baseball parks don't embrace the modern but, instead, celebrate a "nostalgic vision."

Speaking for students of baseball, I'm sorry, but in constructing some things, the trick is not to run away from nostalgia but simply to monkey around with it and try to gussy it up a bit. Architecturally, baseball parks are like mousetraps. No one has found a way to build a better one than the Orioles did in 1992, when they gave Camden Yards to a grateful world. All of the 18 major league fields and scores of minor league parks built since then have been wise enough to follow that pretty model. Well, yes, the new $1.5 billion Yankee Stadium is a little grander — gold lettering on limestone, with something of a mausoleum aspect to its massive front palisade — but then, the Yankees are as nostalgic as everybody else in baseball. It's just that Yankee nostalgia deals with the majestic instead of the lovely.

People simply feel more affection for ball yards than they do for other sports' stadiums and arenas. Madison Square Garden, for all its fame, is merely an address, not a home. And a place like Gillette Stadium may be a cathedral to New England Patriots fans, just as Old Trafford is to Manchester United fans, but linear football stadiums — of both varieties — and the cereal boxes that accommodate basketball and ice hockey are pretty much just so many efficient people containers. Ball yards are quirky and idiosyncratic living things, because the architecture is part and parcel of the outfield itself — all the better that that's in utter counterpoint to the infield, that diamond of inviolate geometry.

In a subversive way, ballparks even sort of divert attention from the game itself. Football and basketball and soccer and hockey fans probably pay more attention to the action, but baseball fans are more engaged by the whole experience. It's rather like how some people go to restaurants primarily for the food, others just as much for the ambience. If football fans act more like baseball fans, it's when they're outside the stadium, tailgating. Baseball parks are sort of made for interior tailgating.

Well, two more major league parks — in Minneapolis and Miami — are coming. May we hope that they are wonderfully up-to-date with the toilets and the concession stands and the escalators and all that stuff, and horribly nostalgic with the architecture and the atmosphere.

Commentator Frank Deford reports from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Conn.

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