What's Wrong With MLB in DC

The College of Cardinals for the Sistine Chapel was probably a close vote. They probably had a close vote for the pyramids. Sometimes good things come in a close race.
—Washington, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams after the first Council vote to approve a new baseball stadium on November 30, 2004.

Major League Baseball matter of factly took over the Montreal Expos with the intention of shutting down the team. Failing that, they were as cavalier about moving them to Washington DC. There’s nothing objectionable about MLB trying to sell a team that cost them $130 million for $300 million in a market that is supposedly better suited to host a professional baseball franchise. What was objectionable was Mayor Anthony Williams offering MLB a free stadium despite no credible claims of economic benefits, and despite 70% of Washingtonians opposing public financing.

Mayor Williams has long been obsessed with his legacy, first attempting to win the 2012 Olympics, and, when that failed, trying to lure in a baseball team. When that effort seemed to have slowed to a standstill, he moved to the more important but less boisterous issue of waterfront revitalization. But when MLB offered to let DC pay to have them play, Williams was fixated. He would be the mayor who returned baseball to the nation’s capital after 33 years.

And with such a boast in mind, he showed little concern for cost and financing considerations. The city has claimed the total cost of baseball at $435 million. D.C.’s independent Chief Financial Officer has put the tag at $535 million. The D.C. Auditor has put the price at $584 million, and an analysis by The Washington Post found that costs could rise to $614 million. Of course, the Williams administration is arguing that only their original estimate deems attention, as though $435 million for a stadium, even if that were not almost certainly a lowball figure, would make any economic sense.

It’s long been clear to close observers of the process that this never was a done deal. In the face of widespread public opposition, baseball Commissioner Selig and Mayor Williams made the choice to bring baseball to the nation’s capital, no matter public opinion. And once MLB told Williams that DC was their city for the price of a half billion dollar, publicly financed song, Williams promptly organized a celebratory press conference at the now defunct City Museum at which council members applauded the return of baseball, and the city’s journalists spent the next day echoing the sentiment.

But outside of the closed circle encompassing the Mayor and MLB, nobody — including the council and the press — had seen the terms of the agreement, which had to be reviewed and approved by the council after being made public.

When this happened, it turned out MLB’s offer demanded still more than complete public financing of the stadium. If the new stadium is not finished by 2008 the city will have to pay MLB compensation. Peter Angelos, owner of the neighboring Baltimore Orioles, had for years fought against a DC team that would compete with him regionally. If the new Nationals ever make more of a profit than the Orioles, the future owner must pay the Orioles the difference. And Angelos —not the future team owners — retains all TV rights to the new team in perpetuity. MLB, and not DC, retained exclusive naming rights for the team and stadium, the latter presumably to be sold by the league for a pretty penny indeed. And the team was to have full use of the new publicly financed ballpark for a meager land rent. MLB’s obligations to DC, by contrast, are limited to employing local youth to sell hotdogs, which is the kind of substitution employment critics argue is all the stadium would create, and to give out 200 tickets per game to churches in poverty-ridden sections of the city.

Mayor Williams pushed hard to get this deal approved quickly by The City Council, which passed the first of two necessary votes by one vote, with three lame duck council members voting for the funding deal. All three of their elected replacements, who will take office next year, were opposed. The city, it should be mentioned, does not own all the land where the new stadium is proposed.  The team does not yet have an owner. But the Nationals did have political momentum, merchandise, and a roster. Tickets were being sold! By pushing the deal through now, they could later respond to opponents of it by saying, “it’s too far gone to stop now.”

And the second Council vote also passed. But the legislation includes an amendment stipulating that the stadium must be 50% privately financed. And this broke the Selig- and Williams-crafted illusion of inevitability, as well as the private deal brokered between the two men that they had hoped to bully into law.

MLB has called the amendment unacceptable, and ceased all promotional activities, including the release of the new team uniforms, which had been scheduled for the evening of the second vote. They continue to offer deposits on season tickets, for a team that has never existed, but now they are also offering refunds on those same deposits, since the team may not be in DC after next season. Williams hopes he can either convince the council to further amend the legislation or to find the two or three hundred million dollars of private financing to please MLB before the league’s self-imposed December 31st deadline.

Because of its prepotency MLB is actually in quite a bind. All their operations had been arranged without council approval but they acted as if their preliminary agreement with the mayor was the real thing. Baseball owners are fearful that the council’s requirement for private funding could lower the potential sales price of the team. Moreover its not clear where if not DC the team could play after the coming season. But from the start baseball officials never addressed District citizens or lobbied the council directly, and they rarely spoke directly to reporters.

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Not all major American cities posses a franchise from each professional sport. Los Angeles lacks a football team. Baltimore does not have the NBA. And Washington DC does not have baseball. Is the seat of the United States government less of a city because of this?

Defenders of the stadium often argue that next season, which would be played at a refurbished RFK stadium, had already sold out. But what had been sold were 15,000 deposits for season tickets, while RFK has a capacity of 56,000 and the future stadium is set to hold 41,000. And it remains to be seen how many depositors ask for refunds following the second council vote. Tony Tavares, the MLB-appointed president of the Expos-Nationals, had projected prior to the second council vote that the team would sell 20,000 season tickets and average 30,000 fans per game. By any estimate none of the above are sellout numbers, and MLB now sees itself forced to offer refunds for tickets that it should have not begun to sell in the first place.

That 41,000 people are going to be happy watching baseball is not the main reason for the team’s relocation to DC, the mayor’s office explains. Mostly, we are told, the move will profit the city through so-called development intangibles: increased prestige and an urban revival centered around the stadium, triggering further development and bearing social and economic fruit for the city. But a fan base drawn primarily out of the surrounding Maryland and Virginia suburbs, which of course will pay indirect taxes while at the stadium, should not be the key beneficiary. Mayor Williams, though, takes a business approach to the complaint that most of the stadium-goers will come not from the city but its suburbs, arguing that “that is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s a good thing, because it proves that … this initiative is going to draw investment from outside the city.”

Issues of class and race, while not widely discussed, hover over the unbuilt stadium, whose supporters are now offering the historic distortion of the baseball-happy  DC of the first half of the last century, when the sport was the glue between the races. But it is not by chance that the flight of baseball from DC coincided with the aftermath of the riots following the death of Martin Luther King and subsequent white flight, which led the Senators to move to Texas.

Instead of scarcely proved residual benefits, Mayor Williams ought to be concerned with the very immediate problems confronting the District’s residents, who are 61% African American, and burdened with pressing education, health, and employment needs in part because 42% of the property in the District is tax exempt, controlled by a mix of federal tenants, international entities, universities, churches, and other tax-exempt organizations. And no one outside of the administration and the developers who stand to profit seriously claims that these residents will reap any benefit from the team and stadium.

In addition DC, which of course faces this high taxation without congressional representation, despite a larger population and federal tax contribution than several states, has also had to deal with Congress’ perennial intervention. It came as no surprise, then, when MLB called Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) as soon as the city exercised its democratic apparatus and the Council demanded some private financing for the construction of the stadium. After conceding that Congress should not get directly involved, Davis preceded to announce that he put the chances that the deal will survive at “better than 50-50”and warning DC Council members that they would damage the city’s national image for “this mayor, the next mayor and the next” if they did not reach an agreement, which is to say give in to MLB’s demands. Again, those who want the stadium have few rational arguments to employ. Rather, they must claim a deal is inevitable, as though that were reason in itself to accept such a deal.

Of the numerous economic feasibility studies that have been issued over the past year, no independent evaluation has supported the construction of a baseball stadium with public money. Even the Cato Institute released a brief against the stadium. Mayor Williams said: “I can’t imagine why, with all the things happening in the world, the Cato Institute would take the time to analyze the impact of baseball in Washington, D.C.” The Institute’s study shows that the net economic impact of professional sports in Washington, D.C., and the 36 other cities that hosted professional sports teams over the past 20-odd years was a reduction in real per capita income over the entire metropolitan area.

But such arguments are wasted when speaking to those consumed with stadium fever. Not only has the mayor succumbed, but the local press is almost unanimously behind him. The Washington Post, in an editorial on the day of the first Council vote, claimed that the first reason to approve the construction of the ballpark was that it provides common conversational ground for people from disparate neighborhoods and communities. And, it continued, “It serves as a source of pride in good times and diversion in bad. It would, above all, put the nation’s capital back where it belongs: in the big leagues of this quintessentially American game.” So Washington DC needs to recover its lost status thanks to… Baseball? Can anyone keep a straight face and say that this will really be the effect of moving the retooled Washington Expos into town?

Throughout the negotiations, Major League Baseball has repeated the mantra: “We have a deal with the city. We have a deal with the city.” In fact, all it had was an agreement with Mayor Williams and his Sports and Entertainment Commission, an agreement Williams had to have approved by the Council.

The Council’s new proposal is far from ideal. But it is a step towards the will of the residents and economic common sense. But MLB and the mayor may still bully through a deal, negotiating in secret and then acting as though matters have been settled when officially nothing is done. There is still a possibility that the Nationals will remain in DC. If that does happen, please, let us not pretend that citizen consultation and urban development matter here. Because the District of Columbia will remain right where it belongs: at the bottom of America’s urban democracies. And this would not be news. But a council that stands up to baseball and the mayor, and puts the interests of the city first, would be.

Daniel Lobo is an urban designer and researcher living in Washington DC. Born in Madrid, after an early career in contemporary art he moved to England where he graduated with a degree in City Design and Social Science from the London School of Economics. He has spent the last five years participating in planning and development initiatives in the USA’s National Capital Region.




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