Marlins are winning their biggest game vs. local taxpayers
By Michael Lewis
The Florida Marlins are still building a team for next season, but off the field, they're already playing far better ball.
Moreover, the game they're playing today is more important than baseball to owners. Summer games count in standings, but the winter game is pitched directly to the Marlins' pocketbook.
Team owners have been playing slickly to get a stadium at public expense. The target isn't added capacity. The Marlins want just 38,000 seats, far fewer than at their Pro Player Stadium home, which seats 42,531 for baseball.
But when H. Wayne Huizenga sold the Marlins, he made a deal to keep most revenues from corporate skyboxes, advertising, naming rights, concessions and parking. The Marlins want taxpayers to give them the revenue streams they didn't buy from Mr. Huizenga.
A $420 million stadium next to the City of Miami's Orange Bowl would move the Marlins out of $115 million Pro Player, offer a retractable roof to keep rain from dampening revenue and flow vastly more funds to owners.
Last year, the Marlins played it nonchalantly. This year, they're playing hardball.
They've given government at least five or-else deadlines. Though they never defined "or else," implicit was a threat to leave Miami-Dade County. But the Montreal team's move to Washington, DC, leaves no likely site for the Marlins, so the threat is empty. Though government missed all five deadlines, expect at least one more.
But while the Marlins haven't won their biggest game ever - the stadium game - they have, to mix metaphors, advanced the ball.
After rejecting a spot near the Orange Bowl as totally unsuitable, the team agreed to take it if the city would evict residents, level dwellings and hand the site to the Marlins. A US Supreme Court case next year should clarify whether taking housing by eminent domain for a stadium is legal.
Late in the Legislature's last session, the Marlins tried too late to seek a massive tax break. This year, long before the session, they've lined up key support.
They needed help. Last session, the Marlins disastrously tried their own lobbying. Now they've hired professionals.
So far, the Marlins have nailed down $120 million from the county and $28 million from the city.
The plan depends on bonding $162 million in Marlins rent payments and $30 million that is to come in part or whole from a ticket surcharge - no capital from the owners. But the Marlins have couched that as a $192 million team contribution and, incredibly, have gotten away with it.
This all totals $340 million, $80 million short of estimated costs. Those who have watched government "develop" a $200 million performing-arts center that will really cost a half-billion can take that estimate with a large shaker of salt.
Even if the state kicks in $30 million, funding will be about $50 million under estimate. Expect the Marlins to ask government for the difference - and don't expect the team to ever pull a dollar out of its own wallet for capital costs.
A ballpark adds to the public burden of a $2.9 billion bond plan passed Nov. 2 for infrastructure that pointedly did not include either the Performing Arts Center or a baseball stadium.
Local government has yet to learn that arenas and stadiums are one of the worst investments if they aim to create an economic multiplier, to add jobs, to lure visitors or to enhance community image. Stadiums and arenas also go out of date fast, not due to obsolescence but because team owners always want something better.
Pro Player, the Marlins privately owned home, is just 17 years old. Miami Arena, which the city is about to sell at half its cost to help finance a baseball stadium, is newer still. The county has taken a bath on American Airlines Arena, which the Miami Heat's billionaire owners control.
As Miami seeks to take housing by eminent domain to build a baseball stadium, how many added acres will it need to match the 14,970 parking spaces for cars and 254 for buses at Pro Player, and how much more will that cost taxpayers?
Then, how much will the city and county spend altering roads to get up to 38,000 fans plus stadium workers into the ultra-tight residential area around the Orange Bowl?
With all this, the Marlins still have managed to line up the city, the county and probably the state to pour funds into another losing proposition to benefit team owners.
The Marlins truly are playing far better ball than they did in the past. They're beating the stuffing out of the taxpayers.