James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Friday, January 16, 2004

Let 'em eat overpriced hotdogs

(Class War 3)

I am shocked – shocked and horrified, I tell you – to learn that Carl Pohlad does not believe in the free enterprise system.

For those outside the Upper Midwest: Carl Pohlad is the owner of a bunch of banks, some pieces of an airline or two and various other enterprises. Oh; he also owns the Minnesota Twins American League baseball club. He began his career in banking as a repossessor of property in Iowa during the Depression, and married the boss’s daughter. The most recent figures I’ve been able to glean from Forbes Magazine – widely accepted by journalists and business folks as an accurate source of such information – show that our Carl has a personal net worth of something over $2.1 billion. That’s with a “b.”

The United States Census for the year 2000, put the population of the country at 281 million. Of that number, only 84 individuals had more money than Carl Pohlad.

Surely this is a man who embodies the American Dream (as defined by bankers, stockbrokers and the like). This is a capitalist, a champion of free enterprise! During my years as a reporter specializing in finance and economics, I interviewed Pohlad several times, and kept an eye on what he was up to all the time. Talk about capitalists: I never knew the man to express an interest in anything other than money and the making of same. He was, and, well into his 80s apparently still is, a man totally focused on building his wealth. (Well, his grandkids say he’s nice to them.)

As the owner of the Twins, Carl has been pushing for six or seven years now to have the public build a new baseball stadium. The push is on again, big time, this year. And this year, Pohlad is joined by Red McCombs, a Texan who owns the Minnesota Vikings NFL team, AND some local rich boys who make a hobby out of telling the University of Minnesota how to run its athletic programs. McCombs and the latter group want new, separate stadia for the Vikings and the university football team. (It’s a long story, but the short version is that all three teams now play in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, which opened in 1982.)

That would be three new sports stadia, mostly or entirely financed with public money.

According to Forbes, McCombs is only the 185th richest man in America, with hardly more than a million or two above the $1 billion mark, and the U of M hobbyists generally have only a few million each, so we’ll stay focused on Carl, the real free enterpriser among them.

To give credit where it is due, Pohlad only briefly and early on claimed that his purchase of the Twins was anything other than an investment. There was a short period after he bought the team in 1984 when his flacks claimed he had “saved” the Twins from being purchased by someone who would move the team, but they dropped that act fairly quickly. These days he’s all business, in the way that the super rich are now: He claims to have lost many millions of dollars owning the Twins, but no one outside his family organization has ever had the teeniest peek at the books; we’re supposed to take that on faith. He says the team is a for-profit enterprise, and he won’t go on losing money on it indefinitely.

Indeed, in 2001 he worked out a deal with his bud, Bud Selig, who wears the title of baseball commissioner but in fact works only to enhance the wealth of team owners, leaving most of the once normal duties of that office undone. Major League Baseball was going to “contract” by two teams, one of which was to have been the Twins. The other big league team owners would have paid Carl about $150 million to shut down the Twins. Since Carl paid $36 million for the team, that would produce what most people would see as a fairly decent profit.

However, the public raised so much hell that the contraction plan was put on hold until 2006.

Carl continues to intone the mantra of big-league team owners in all sports: A new stadium is necessary to keep the team from bleeding money. (Repeat thousands of times.) And, of course, the public should pay most or all of the cost of building the stadium.

What keeps sticking in my head is that Pohlad and others of his tribe keep insisting that their sports enterprises are businesses, and ongoing losses can’t be tolerated. But when other businesses get into trouble, and the solution of their problems involves further investment, then the owners damn well make the investments. We, the public, do not build a new and larger shop for the jewelry store owner who must expand to continue operating profitably. The owners might borrow the money, but they’ll get it only if the business plan is sound, and they are on the hook to pay back the ENTIRE amount of the loans, with substantial interest.

Forget, once and for all, the claims that the public should buy the sports playgrounds because major league (or minor league) teams are good for the economy. Many independent studies have shown that sports franchises add little or nothing to any economy except the private economy of team owners.

But Carl and Red and the other guys don’t believe in the free enterprise system as I learned and monitored it as a business reporter over three decades. They also are not, as big-money conservatives generally claim to be, against spending huge amounts of public money for the benefit of private individuals or various segments of society. They just figure that they, not the poor, not the general public, not the schools nor the health care systems, nor anybody else, should be the beneficiaries of public largesse.

They’re not against public money creating private wealth; they don’t want to share.