Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
When suburbs pay massive subsidies for professional ballparks, everyone suffers.
The Texas Rangers are off to a decent start. They’re over .500, second in the American League West, 11-12 on the road (meh), and they employ the best boxer in baseball. Oh, and the team is up to receive $450 million from the suckers who live in Arlington, Texas.
The city of Arlington wants to build the Texas Rangers a new ballpark—a $900 million ballpark—and is pledging to pay half. This announcement, first reported by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, comes only 22 years after the city of Arlington built the team its latest modern ballpark. And just six years ago, the facility underwent extensive renovations. Arlington voters will decide whether to finance the ballpark by extending the half-cent sales tax that they approved to build still another venue—AT&T Stadium, better known as Jerry World.
If you thought Rougned Odor destroying Jose Bautista’s face was ugly, wait ‘til you watch Arlington voters do it to themselves.
Mark Lamster, architecture critic for The Dallas Morning News, appeared on the paper’s “Ballzy” podcast to discuss all the reasons Arlington is all wrong for the Rangers. The city has no viable public transportation. Suburban ballparks kill walk-up sales. Eighty-one games a year means 81 missed opportunities to activate an urban area (Arlington lacks anything near that category of density or walkability). The Ballzy team wants to see the Rangers move to downtown Dallas. That’s the right thing to do—many, many, many years from now, when the team’s current ballpark outlives its usefulness.
This solution is every bit as clear to the residents of Arlington and the owners of the Texas Rangers. Which is why the latter can habitually exploit the former in order to chase trends in sports architecture or reshape a stadium to flex its ticket prices. Twenty years ago, seemingly every team in baseball hired Populous to design a retro ballpark. Now that that movement is over, Major League teams are ready to move on to the next thing.
It’s not just suckers in Arlington (no offense, Arlington): Increasingly, suburbs are being price-gouged for the pleasure of hosting games 81 days per year—or even fewer. It’s bad for the suburbs, and bad for the teams.
Consider the next home of the Atlanta Braves, SunTrust Park, which is being built about as far from downtown Atlanta as the Braves are games out from the Washington Nationals. (Fine, fine: SunTrust Park is going up in Cobb County, just outside the Perimeter, northwest of Atlanta.) The new location is a planning nightmare, with nowhere near the transit capacity necessary to host a professional sports team. In fact, the Braves are planning to build—honest to goodness—a giant, arching, pedestrian bridge over all-umpteen lanes of I-285 to connect the facility with a mall. As Curbed Atlanta explains, the Atlanta Braves are concocting a trafficpocalypse:
Even with the bridge it looks like the stadium has serious traffic, parking and pedestrian concerns to work through. SunTrust Park will seat 41,500 people and has just 6,000 dedicated parking spaces. While there is 17 percent less seating compared to Turner Field, there is also 30 percent less dedicated parking, and no car-less options to reach the stadium.
That’s one parking space for every seven fans at a sold-out game (which is, admittedly, quite unlikely). For this, the Braves get a slimmer park. Fewer seats means better ticket prices for Braves fans who are able to stick out the traffic that will arrest I-75 for each and every single home game. If the stadium is anyone’s problem, it’s Cobb County voters’ problem, since they are paying $397 million for the pleasure of hosting this delightfully messy team.
And Cobb County voters will pay that $400 million again—and again—any time the Braves’ owners decide to call the ticket up, because the only thing worse than professional sports teams moving to the suburbs is a professional sports teams leaving a particular suburb. This is how they get you: Teams promise illusory economic gains in exchange for public subsidies, then threaten to take what few benefits they deliver if those subsidies are not renewed on an increasingly accelerated schedule.
FedExField hasn’t been open 20 years and Washington football team owner Dan Snyder is already shopping around for a new NFL stadium, this one designed by Bjarke Ingels; Snyder will go with whichever municipal leaders in Maryland, Virginia, or Washington, D.C., will pony up the highest subsidy. As recently as Wednesday, Los Angeles has served as the bluff in stadium negotiations between football teams and their host cities, which have awarded them massive public subsidies to keep them. Minneapolis voters paid $500 million toward a $1 billion stadium to keep the Vikes. Indianapolis paid far more dearly ($620 million) for the Colts.
Oh, yes: Major League Baseball merely adopted the dark; professional football was born in, molded by it. But while football stadiums are bad for absolutely everyone—they go unused more than 350 days of the year in the best of circumstances—baseball stadiums bring some appreciable benefits. Also a lot of traffic.
Parking baseball parks in places that can only be reached by cars diminishes those benefits and enhances the drawbacks (namely traffic). Building baseball parks through public subsidies diminishes the resources that a suburb might put toward a public-transit program or walkability initiative—the kind of infrastructure that might help a typical metro suburb develop into a suitably urban host for a sports team. The benefits that a team brings to a suburb aren’t nearly enough to offset the subsidy.
Sports and the suburbs were not built for each other. The only way this vicious cycle ends is when leaders (or voters) band together and tell owners: My offer is this—nothing. Until then, everyone but the owners suffers.