James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Saturday, April 24, 2010

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Pricing most people out of the ballpark

If you live in Hennepin County, in Minnesota, you probably need to read this.

If you live in Minneapolis, in Hennepin County, you do need to read this, unless you're one of the minority of residents who have followed the stories of local sports stadia very carefully and in detail.

If you live anywhere in the United States that has or is likely to get a professional sports franchise, it would be a good idea to read this.

If you're a pro baseball or football fanatic who reads this, don't bother to scream at me. I've heard it all before.

If you're a fan but not a fanatic, someone who enjoys seeing a game in person now and then, you'd probably better read this and then begin to figure out what you'll do instead of attending the occasional baseball or football game.

If you are a sports writer or broadcaster, button your lip. I don't have time for your self-serving, franchise-serving crap.

Now then:

The new Minnesota Twins stadium – they want us to call it a “ball park,” not a stadium – is open for business.

It obviously is going to make the Pohlad family, heirs of the late multibillionaire Carl Pohlad, even richer.

It also is going to make it much more difficult, and in very many cases impossible, for average Minnesotans to attend a few ballgames each season. Today's modern sports stadia are playgrounds for the wealthy, or at least those who are "well off," not places of relaxation and entertainment for the masses.

We pay, but we don't get to go to the games, or at least not often.

Minnesota Public Radio estimated that the new stadium will increase the team's revenues by somewhere between $40 million and $60 million per season. Estimates by various organizations put the team's previous revenue at somewhere around $158 million a year – but those estimates are entirely unreliable.

The Minnesota Twins, the Pohlad family, have never opened their books to anyone, even when demanding, and getting, public financing for their new playpen.

No business other than a professional sports business, could get away with that, but the owners of sports franchises pull it off regularly. There is no reason whatever to believe anything they say when they are poor-mouthing in order to get tax money poured into their pockets. They will provide no demonstrable facts to support their claims.

Local sports writers, and some from other towns, fairly drool in their awkward sonnets about the joys of outdoor baseball and the new stadium. They've also been extremely harsh in criticisms of anyone and everyone who does not equally share their pants-wetting ecstasy over the new playground, which is why I feel no need to be polite to or about them. Twins owners are happy, the sports writers are happy; they know which side of their bread is buttered and who provides the sweet spread.

The team's television broadcasters obviously have been ordered to promote the new stadium with every other breath. Through every game they natter and natter and natter about it's supposed wonders to the degree that I have taken to watching games mostly with the sound off. I find their constant excessive praise not only irritating but downright infuriating. It reminds me, always, of the fact that as a resident of Hennepin County, I am paying an additional tax to increase the wealth of the Pohlads.

A few other people have told me they have the same hostile reaction to the unrelenting stadium blather.

The new stadium cost somewhere around $544 million. Again, don't trust the figures. The real cost may be considerably higher and we, the major funders, may pay more than we've been told will be “our share.”

Residents of Hennepin County are paying roughly two-thirds of the total cost through a small sales tax attached only to purchases within that county, my county.

State law required that any such sales tax had to be approved in a referendum of county residents. However, polls showed that county taxpayers would reject a stadium tax by a wide margin, so the Minnesota Legislature, led by rural-area legislators whose constituents are not paying, voted to allow the special sales tax without a referendum. A majority of Hennepin County commissioners, perhaps eager to have their names in stone or bronze somewhere in the stadium and obviously eager to please the area's big-money cabal, agreed to the supremely underhanded deal.

So now we have a new outdoor ball stadium.

In Minnesota.

This has been a very unusual and early spring. All of the games in the new facility have been played as scheduled. That will not be the norm over the years, unless our climate has changed permanently.

In a normal year, we can expect numerous games to be rescheduled in spring and fall, and others to be played in conditions so miserable that only a handful fanatics will attend. We can expect players to be injured – throwing hard when temperatures are too low, slipping on wet and perhaps even somewhat icy grass.

The Minneapolis StarTribune reported recently that the average ticket price for a Twins game this year is 45 percent higher than last year. The newspaper said the average cost of a non-premium ticket for a major league game – that's throughout the major leagues -- is now $26.74, but the average price ticket price for a non-premium Twins game is $31.47.

“Premium” means games in which teams that actually have a chance to make the playoffs play, and, of course, those played by the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, which command even higher prices.

Here a confession: I am a baseball fan. I love the game. It is the only thing increasingly silly ol' George Will and I have in common: We agree that it is a beautiful, graceful, mentally and physically demanding sport. My wife shares my love of the game. We spend an undoubtedly absurd number of hours in front of a television set, watching Minnesota Twins games, playoff games, the World Series.

Over the past decade or a bit more, I have attended about a half dozen Twins games a year, the first few years with a couple of old friends, in more recent years mostly with my wife.

This year, my wife will go to two games, one with a woman friend who bought the tickets and another with me. I will attend only the one game this year, and it may be the only game I see in person for several years. Or, we may go to Kansas City some time this summer, as we have done once a year in recent years, and if we do we'll probably go to a Royals game.

My two kids and their families gave me a $100 Twins gift certificate for my birthday. I spent about two and a half hours on the team's Web site, trying to purchase tickets in a decent location for one game. Finally found some in a location not nearly as good as the area from which we have watched games at the old stadium, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, along the third base line. Total cost for two tickets, out by the outfield, $120. I didn't buy them.

As expected, people are turning out in droves to see the new playground. That always works for three or four seasons before people realize that no matter how pleasant a stadium, the price is simply too high.

I continued to search and at last located two available seats on the first base side of the field up in the air, just short of the point where you start to be in danger of altitude sickness, for a weekend day game against a team that will not be a contender this year. I ordered them.

As I ordered them I discovered that in addition to the stated seat price I would be paying two admittedly small fees -- $3.50 and $1.50, as I recall -- for “handling” and something else equally as vague. Total cost $87.

That's without transportation costs, or any food or drink. Total cost for the outing obviously will be well over $100. For two to see a baseball game against a noncontender. In mediocre seats.

Obviously the average working couple with, say, two children, is not going to take their kids to a baseball game and sit in such seats. Their total cost for the one game would be somewhere around $200 to $225, without souvenirs or a program. And that's if they live in the area and aren't paying for a room somewhere.

So how about the “cheap” seats?

Well, unsold seats in the least expensive parts of the stadium are hard to find in this inaugural year. But suppose that family of four hit on four available seats, at the least expensive level, for a game they can attend.

I just found some seats available for a Thursday noon game – our working family would have to take the day off – for $15 apiece. There aren't many of them. The seats are very high, beyond the foul pole in right field. So: Family of four, parents taking day off work, $60 for tickets. Then transportation, which means either parking or public transportation. Figure $20 for that, conservatively. Throw in lunch and soft drinks, maybe peanuts later, another $40, very conservatively. Total cost for a weekday noon game against a noncontending team: $120. And that is, I stress, cheaper than most folks could manage.

How many games do you think that working family will attend in a year? What if Dad works in a warehouse and Mom is a clerk at Wal-Mart? What if one of them is laid off part of the year?

On the other hand, the new baseball stadium has about 60 luxury suites, some seating as many as 30 people, more seating 12 people. Prices for one game for those suites range from only $3,250 for a smaller suite during a non-premium game to $7,500 for a big suite when the Yankees are in town. Those are the prices shown on the Twins Web site.

Of course, the big suites come with a very nice spread of food and drink.

Those suites are one of the main reasons I and my fellow Hennepin County residents are paying a long-term extra sales tax. Increased seat prices just because we have a new stadium is the other main reason. They bring the Pohlads one hell of a pile of money.

From the git-go, Emperor Vespasian intended spectacles at the Colloseum in Rome to be free, and Emperor Titus, who finished the great construction, stuck with that program. Payback to the taxpayers. Romans got free tickets to watch gladiators die. Minnesotans have to pay through the nose to watch fly balls die in the wind coming in from beyond left field.

Oh, lest I forget: Zygi Wilf, owner of the Minnesota Vikings is demanding a new football stadium or, of course, he'll move the team.

Anyone who thinks he'd be able to move them under current conditions is a plain damned fool, but let that pass for now.

About 20 Minnesota legislators met with Zygi – another very, very rich man, of course – a couple of weeks ago. Many in the Legislature are ready to play ball with him. Of course.

Various financing schemes call for lots of public money for a new football playground. This time, in fact, some of the scheme's backers are looking to lay the whole public-financing burden on residents of Minneapolis alone.

Ladies and gents, this is the damnedest racket outside of war and banking. The public, or some of the public, pays for the stadia, which produce enormous income for team owners, and at the same time much – by now probably most – of the public is priced out of those same facilities. Baseball and football have become largely recreations of the well-off and rich, subsidized by the poor and the the majority of the middle class, who have other demands on their income.

Recently, I attended an opera presented by a very good company. The cost was only marginally higher than the price of a baseball game in Minneapolis.

While you're contemplating the joys of outdoor baseball in Minnesota, I'd like to talk to you about a nice condo in Florida....