While President Obama and a bipartisan Congress spent most of last weekend trying to recoup $165 million in taxpayer money that insurance giant AIG paid to its upper-level employees, the Miami-Dade County Commissioners were finalizing a plan to spend $359 million in taxpayer money to build a new baseball stadium for the Florida Marlins “bailout”-demanding owner Jeffrey Loria.
The Marlins new stadium, anticipated to open in 2012, will be neither the first baseball-oriented stadium built with public dollars (that distinction belongs to Milwaukee County Municipal Stadium), nor the most expensive subsidized baseball stadium (that distinction belongs to the Washington Nationals’ new $611 million facility). Yet, this new stadium may ultimately come to symbolize all that is wrong with the relationship between Major League Baseball and the American city.
From a taxpayer perspective, the Marlins new stadium deal epitomizes fiscal irresponsibility. First, the specific terms of the Marlins stadium agreement skew hugely in the Marlins’ favor (more so than many other recent stadium deals). Under the agreement, the local government will be responsible for covering approximately three quarters of stadium building costs, while the Marlins will get to keep all stadium revenues — even those revenues from events completely unrelated to baseball, and even those revenues derived from selling stadium naming rights.
And we haven’t even gotten to the worst part. More on that after the jump.
Another huge problem with the Marlins stadium deal is that current owner Jeffrey Loria has never been one to invest his own money into the team — not even in terms of paying for player salaries. The Marlins total payroll is currently just $22 million, which is $58 million below the league median, and by far the lowest in baseball. Of course, in almost any other industry, attempting to garner subsidies by threatening to otherwise provide an inferior product would seem preposterous. However, because Major League Baseball has a monopoly over the number of premier American baseball teams, Marlins ownership is able to do just that.
Finally, there is also the issue of the agreement’s most offensive timing. The Marlins’ new stadium deal marks the first stadium deal of its kind since the financial markets imploded last September. Yet, even though Miami-Dade’s unemployment rate has soared, county officials still have not acknowledged that now is the worst of all times to hand $359 million in pork to the already fattest pig in town.
So, no matter how you spin it, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria is walking away with what Miami-Dade County Judge Jeri Cohen recently referred to as “a sweetheart deal,” even though Miami-Dade County taxpayers, probably more than any other time in the past 80 years, are struggling to make ends meet.
It seems only a matter of time before local taxpayers start screaming for an end to the great baseball owner “bailout.” And, when that time comes, the Marlins new ballpark deal will clearly be marked as “Exhibit One.”
For more on this topic, see my recent law review article, Sports and the City: How to Curb Professional Sports Teams’ Demands for Free Public Stadiums. I most recently presented this paper on March 13 at the Harvard Sports Law Symposium.