Asked if the state should help finance a new ballpark for the Minnesota
Twins and their fans, Minnesotans answered in a way that could hardly have
been more emphatic: No! Even as the team threatened to leave for North
Carolina, it was clear that most Minnesotans saw any public contribution
as an improper subsidy for a private enterprise, especially one viewed
as part of an arrogant professional sports scene dominated by billionaire
owners and overpaid athletes.
And so as the Twins begin what could be their final season under the
Metrodome's Teflon sky, the vernal optimism that's so much a part of April
baseball is absent. And, barring some Frank Capra-like miracle, the word
"no!" seems likely to echo through the Dome as summer comes and
In their contempt and indifference, Minnesotans have set themselves
remarkably apart from other sports markets.
Indeed, the nation is in the midst of an unprecedented boom in new stadiums
and arenas for major league baseball, football, basketball and hockey,
aimed at making teams more competitive. It's a boom in which the public
has agreed to pay the bulk of the cost of new sports palaces. Some numbers:
Over the next five years, 26 new stadiums and arenas are scheduled to
open in 20 cities. Altogether, these venues are expected to cost $6.4 billion,
of which the public will pay or assume risk for $3.85 billion -- about
Next year alone, 10 new major league stadiums and arenas will come on
line. The public has agreed to finance more than two-thirds of the $2.4
Of the 11 metro areas discussing new baseball stadiums in the mid 1990s,
only the Twin Cities has decided, apparently, not to go ahead. From that
group, new ballparks already have opened in Denver, Atlanta and Phoenix,
each based on the retro-style parks built this decade in Baltimore, Cleveland
and Arlington, Texas. Construction has also begun in Milwaukee, Detroit
and San Francisco, the only city yet able to achieve a privately financed
ballpark. And new baseball-only stadiums are underway in Houston and Seattle,
cities replacing multi-sport domes similar to Minnesota's.
Houston's case is particularly striking. After the city refused to replace
the aging Astrodome, the football Oilers fled to Tennessee, beginning play
there last fall. Fearing that the baseball Astros also would leave, the
city moved to build a retractable-roof ballpark with astonishing speed.
The Texas Legislature authorized higher taxes on rental cars and hotel
rooms; the city then passed a referendum, established a sports authority,
issued bonds and broke ground _ all in 1997.
"I was dragged kicking and screaming," said now-retired Mayor
Bob Lanier, who called the new ballpark "corporate welfare" but
decided reluctantly that he'd rather have a Houston with pro sports than
without. He concluded that refusing subsidies wouldn't really punish teams
and players. They'd just take their game elsewhere. "I decided to
grin and bear it," Lanier said, taking solace that the new ballpark
has "added sizzle" to downtown revival.
Elsewhere, voters in Cincinnati have authorized a higher sales tax to
help pay for two new stadiums. The football stadium is underway, and the
county offered last week to build for the Reds a $235 million baseball
stadium on the city's riverfront. A final deal is expected this spring.
And in Pittsburgh, where voters rejected a tax increase for sports,
officials last month announced a revised $803 million package for new stadiums
for the baseball Pirates and football Steelers as well as for expanding
the city's convention center. About 85 percent would be financed by the
public, although not through new taxes.
Pittsburgh's plan falls roughly in line with the 16 new baseball and
football stadiums opening over the next five years, for such teams as the
Milwaukee Brewers, Seattle Mariners, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Of those
16 new stadiums, 10 have more than 70 percent public financing.
That's a long way from Minnesota's offer of zero. And it prompts questions
about why Minnesota has emerged as the lone exception to the sports construction
Answers depend largely on who's talking.
"Being a baseball fan, I feel suddenly out of place here,"
said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in
Northfield, Minn. "Maybe I'm expected now to take the Twins sticker
off the back of my car or risk offending my neighbors. Should I ask someone
to go to the game with me? Or would it be an insult? I mean, gee, this
is baseball! People should lighten up a little."
For Schier and a minority of Minnesotans, the state's defiance is short-sighted.
Standing up against Big Sports might feel noble, they say, but the state
will soon regret not swimming in the same stream with everyone else. "It's
not as if the state is starved for money," Schier said.
Most Minnesotans, however, see virtue and sensibility in their stand.
They can almost hear their mothers' voices: Just because everyone else
is doing it doesn't make it right.
"Baseball hit a nerve in this state's egalitarian instinct,"
said Bill Holm, author of two books drawn from his experiences growing
up in southwestern Minnesota.
Most Minnesotans feel no obligation to fund big-shot bankers and ballplayers,
he said. And they maintain a keen sense of distinction between public and
private, regarding baseball as a private business that should stand on
its own. If the Twins feel compelled to leave, he said, then Minnesotans
will get along fine without them.
The same public-private calculation also may apply to pro hockey, he
noted, now that the Legislature is showing resistance to providing $65
million toward the new arena in St. Paul for the NHL Minnesota Wild.
Holm and Schier were among a dozen social observers asked to dissect
the reasons for Minnesota's uncommon reluctance to approve public money
for pro sports. Nearly all mentioned the state's exaggerated populism --
its historic distrust of big, monied interests, especially the banks, railroads
and timber companies said to have exploited farmers and laborers in times
Here, the Twins, with banker Carl Pohlad as owner, provided the perfect
foil. The perception that Pohlad "misled" legislators about his
original contribution to a new stadium, a contribution that turned out
to be a loan, was something from which the Twins never recovered.
"Moralistic" was another common description of the state.
Minnesotans, it was said, tend to believe that they have a corner on civic
virtue and to expect standards to be higher here than elsewhere.
High expectations foster a superior quality of life and a compassionate
array of social services, but also a smugness and a fondness for scolding.
The loudest cheer at a Twins game is for the "no smoking" announcement,
two observers noted.
Indeed, "bad behavior" cuts deeper in Minnesota, some said.
And a new breed of athlete who spits at umpires, whines about multi-million-dollar
contracts and seems ever more eager to jump to bigger markets draws an
extra measure of contempt here.
Also cited was Minnesotans' belief in government and sense of priority.
In many states, the effectiveness of government spending is highly suspect.
But Minnesotans trust that spending on welfare, schools and other high-minded
programs actually improves lives. Therefore, diverting money for "frivolous"
causes (sports, entertainment) is seen as taking away from worthy pursuits.
Most observers mentioned "sports fatigue" as a major factor
in Minnesota's reluctance to build a new ballpark. The Metrodome's opening
in 1982 is still fresh in many minds. The notion that it was obsolete when
it opened -- the last of a generation of 1960s baseball-football venues
-- fails to resonate with most Minnesotans. Moreover, the state has been
whipsawed by the North Stars' move to Dallas, the Timberwolves' almost-move
to New Orleans, the Target Center bailout, a flirtation with the Winnipeg
Jets, who chose Phoenix instead, and now the requests by the Vikings and
Twins for new stadiums.
"Minnesota is in the forefront of a growing disenchantment,"
said Tom Horner, whose Himle Horner public relations firm worked in favor
of a new Twins ballpark. "Sports has lost its emotional hold on people
and seems more and more like just another entertainment option."
Stadium opponents suggest that Minnesota is on the leading edge of a
"just say no" movement that will force a reversal of professional
sports' reliance on public subsidy.
But no such movement is yet evident, except in San Francisco. There,
after four rejections by voters, the Giants and the city cobbled together
enough corporate will to privately finance a 306 million ballpark
"There remains an intense national trend of treating sports facilities
as critical components of public infrastructure," said Rick Horrow,
a professor of sports law at Harvard Law School and consultant to the NFL.
"The notion is that these facilities are no different than zoos, parks,
libraries, roads and other critical components of a region's infrastructure."
Said Paul Much, of the Chicago-based Houlihan Lokey investment banking
firm: "With a growing pressure to watch taxpayer dollars, the trend
is for civic officials to go to the legislature or to the voters directly
to discover what people want."Each city will answer depending on its
needs and characteristics, he said, adding: "The question is whether
or not a city enjoys sports and wants sports." Distributed by Scripps
Howard News Service.