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Baseball: not for smaller cities anymore?

CASH-STRAPPED TEAMS IN CITIES LIKE MINNEAPOLIS CAN'T COMPETE WITH THE BIGGER-MARKET CLUBS.

By Dante ChinniSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 19, 2000



MINNEAPOLIS

As ballparks go, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome is not a charmer.

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Dropped in the middle of downtown, the home of the Minnesota Twins looks like a huge spacecraft - a great gray oval with red support poles and a white pillowy top.

And for most Minnesotans, the folly of its design is never more apparent than when a baseball game is scheduled for a brilliant, blue-skied day. Summer, after all, is the best time of the year: Why spend it indoors?

The way the Minnesota Twins see it, however, the Metrodome is a problem every game day - rain or shine.

As more and more teams build charming retro ballparks to lure fans to plentiful concessions and pricey skyboxes, Minnesota draws only about 14,000 fans to each game in its futuristic vault. The result, the team says, is that it doesn't have the money to compete.

The stadium issue is one part of a complex economic equation that could doom small-market teams to a downward spiral of failure or even lead to their relocation.

The story is familiar in all of America's major team sports, as the Green Bays and Edmontons of the athletic world attempt to compete with clubs from distended metropolises such as New York and Los Angeles. But by all measures, the problem is the most acute in baseball. Large-market owners have adamantly refused to share money with their smaller counterparts - as other sports have - rejecting any serious attempt at making a more-level league. And players have also so far rebuffed any plans for a salary cap.

One answer, owners say, is to build cozy new stadiums in an attempt to draw more fans and generate more money through lucrative ventures like luxury boxes. It certainly worked in Cleveland - one of the first cities to build a new park - as the Minneapolis-size city turned itself into a perennial contender.

But now that most teams have new fields, some economists say the financial jolt isn't as significant as it was back when the building boom began in the early 1990s. Indeed, they say, stadiums will never enable cities like Minneapolis to catch up with the Yankees and Dodgers, which make millions in huge local TV contracts.

Seeking remedies

As the gap between the haves and have nots has grown more pronounced, baseball is addressing the issue with increasing urgency.

In July, a special Blue Ribbon Panel, made up of former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, former Sen. George Mitchell, and political columnist and ber-baseball fan George Will, examined the game's financial state and found a lot of bad news. According to the report, only three teams had turned a profit since 1995; the rest were swimming in red ink - including the Twins, with losses of more than $36 million.

The panel called for major restructuring of financing that would level baseball's economic playing field, including the establishment of 40 to 50 percent revenue sharing, a minimum payroll of $40 million for all teams, and a luxury tax on teams with payrolls larger than $84 million. Similar moves in recent years have allowed pro football to thrive. In the 1998-99 season, not a single NFL team ended up with a loss.

The panel also recommended that if organizations can't field competitive, financially sound teams, relocating franchises "should be an available tool."