San Diego is on the financial brink. So is Chula Vista. But the pro football team known as the San Diego Vampires — er, San Diego Chargers — creeps about the county, plotting how to suck money out of drained corpses. One idea is for the City of San Diego to give the team a slug of expensive land on which it would build houses and offices, raking in money so that it could build a stadium in Chula Vista, which no doubt would have to sacrifice some red bodily fluid too.
To understand this greed- and deceit-infested pro sports environment, San Diegans should read the revised and expanded edition of the book Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit, by Neil deMause and Joanna Cagan. The first edition came out ten years ago. That’s when pro sports teams were sucking $1 billion a year out of ailing local and state governments for new stadiums and arenas. Now the figure is $2 billion a year, and cities are much more destitute than they were then. (San Diego claimed it was financially fat and sassy in 1998, when voters authorized the massive subsidy for Petco Park. Six years later, the City admitted it was in horrendous shape.)
The book’s new edition came out April 1 from the University of Nebraska Press. It is 389 pages; the old edition was 226. The revised edition’s coverage runs to year-end 2006, but deMause has a website, FieldofSchemes.com, that tracks the various ballpark, stadium, and arena scams being perpetrated around the nation. For example, the book reports that the attempt to move the New Jersey Nets basketball team to Brooklyn is moving forward (if corruptly). The website has just revealed that Brooklyn’s crumbling economy may delay the project for years.
Not surprisingly, San Diego flimflam is a major focus of the book’s new edition. In a discussion of how owners threaten to move teams if they don’t get their manna, Larry Lucchino, then partner of majority Padres owner John Moores, complained that he was not getting his way. Lucchino warned, “The question of relocation [would] have to be addressed.” The book shows how, in the early days of the Chargers’ former notorious 60,000-seat ticket guarantee, the team would make more money not selling tickets than selling them. The book discusses how the late Joan Kroc wanted to give the Padres to the City but Major League Baseball nixed the deal because such an arrangement would open up “the heavily guarded major league financial books to public scrutiny.”
Then there is the story of how the Padres rented talent in 1998, the year the City voted on the giveaway and the Padres went to the World Series. When the vote came, giddiness was ubiquitous. The book quotes Padres icon Tim Flannery saying as the vote neared, “You don’t want to be, five years from now, watching players that were once Padres playing in a different city and you say, ‘Golly, I didn’t know that was going to happen.’ ” However, as skeptics had predicted, not long after the Padres won the vote, stars such as Ken Caminiti, Kevin Brown, Steve Finley, and Greg Vaughn were gone. For the next five seasons, the team stank.
The book probes the dubious deal that gave Moores 26 blocks of downtown real estate at extremely low prices. “There’s no doubt that the new district will be a good one for John Moores and friends. By committing to aid in downtown redevelopment, Moores effectively gave himself and his colleagues first dibs on prime land,” say the authors. They quote the Reader’s revelation that a Moores-controlled company “purchased a half-block piece of property near the stadium site the day after the successful referendum vote.”
New chapters in the revised Field of Schemes cover financial machinations that steer public money into private pockets, such as tax increment financing and payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs), by which New York developers would be exempt from property taxes, then pay fees to a so-called infrastructure corporation. The latter scheme was an effort to do a deal without going through the state legislature.
The book exposes the biased coverage of mainstream media, which slant stadium-subsidy news because they stand to gain financially from new facilities. In the mid-1990s, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were seeking a stadium handout. The managing editor of the Tampa Tribune told the staff, “[The paper’s] coverage of the stadium [would] be limited to finding solutions for it to be built.” The book also shows how in votes around the country, proponents outspend opponents by 100 to 1 or more. The 100-to-1 ratio was what the Padres enjoyed.
If you have ever wondered how a seemingly doltish Allan H. (Bud) Selig became commissioner of Major League Baseball, this book will clarify the matter. Selig was owner of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team. He promised that he would build a stadium with his own money if Greater Milwaukee officials would move a highway at a cost of $6 million. Five years later, Selig went to the then governor, Tommy Thompson, seeking financial help. Remember, this was the Tommy Thompson who made a national reputation for slashing social welfare — but not corporate welfare. The voters overwhelmingly nixed Thompson’s plan for a lottery to pay for the stadium. In a deft and deceitful move, Thompson got the state legislature to boost the sales tax in the five counties surrounding Milwaukee. Selig would still have to put in some money, but in further fancy footwork, he got out of that obligation too. Selig got “his new ballpark virtually as a gift from the people of Wisconsin, just ten years after promising to build one himself,” says the book. And Tommy Thompson? He tried to run for president on the Republican ticket this year. Mercifully, the so-called welfare reformer didn’t make it.
Selig, after being named head of pro baseball, did just what team owners paid him to do: he sucked money out of a city that had pathetically run-down schools and inadequate services and infrastructure. It was Washington, D.C. The book devotes a chapter to this larceny. When the former Montreal Expos ran into trouble, Selig arranged to have Major League Baseball take over the team’s ownership. Then he launched what the book calls “the Extortion Across America Tour.” Selig solicited subsidies from Portland, Oregon; Las Vegas; San Antonio; northern Virginia; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Monterrey, Mexico. The most promising place for a fleece job seemed to be the nation’s capital, despite its poverty. Although according to polls two-thirds of the citizens opposed taxpayers subsidizing a new stadium, Major League Baseball insisted on it. The public’s portion of the cost kept rising as politicians haggled. One politico said that Major League Baseball should at least pay a third of the cost. Pro sports mogul Jerry Reinsdorf, negotiating on behalf of all the owners, made this classic comment: “Two-thirds/one-third is fine. But three-thirds/no-thirds is more what we had in mind.”
And that’s about what it wound up being. The citizens of Washington, D.C., shelled out $667 million, and baseball owners put up almost nothing. Selig had pulled the scam in a second needy city. And Washington got a lousy team — just what it used to have year after year before the original Washington Senators bolted to Minnesota following the 1960 season and the successor Washington Senators, formed in 1961, departed for Arlington, Texas, in 1972.