The 2014 Major League Baseball All-Star Game will be Tuesday at Target Field in Minneapolis. It follows the recent pattern of the MLB rewarding club owners who build new ballparks or renovate old ones. A national TV audience will get a chance to see the 5-year-old facility, which offers a lesson for local baseball fans and, quite possibly, taxpayers.
Target Field emblematizes the fantasy of the owner and some fans of the Tampa Bay Rays: moving out of a dome into a new, outdoor, downtown ballpark. The reality, however, doesn't always produce the imagined results.
The host team, the Minnesota Twins, played for years in Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, an indoor stadium that opened in 1982 and was reviled by both home and opposing players. The late pitcher Dan Quisenberry once said of it, “I don't think there are any good uses for nuclear weapons, but then, this may be one.” Torii Hunter, an outfielder who played there for 10 full seasons, said, “If they need any kind of help blowing it up, I will definitely be there. I will push the plunger.”
You think Tropicana Field has some quirks? The Metrodome, built primarily for football, had many more, including losing balls in the glare of its Teflon-coated fiberglass roof, balls hitting speakers that would be judged fair or foul by where they landed on the field, and a field so hard that pop singles would become ground-rule doubles. The Trop has its “catwalk rules,” but it can't come close to the ones invented for the Metrodome.
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Target Field is a typical modern ballpark, with dozens of food and beverage options, sky boxes, large concourses with plenty of activities to keep children entertained, and two giant Jumbotrons for replays, “kiss cams,” and advertising — the typical revenue streams modern stadiums provide and what owners claim they need to stay competitive in the modern baseball era. I haven't been there, but from what I've seen it kind of resembles Progressive Field in Cleveland, where I attended a game the first year it opened.
Although Target Field is a huge upgrade from the Metrodome (what wouldn't be?), it has not improved the fortunes of the Twins on the field. The team has finished below .500 the past three seasons there. Additionally, attendance there has gone down every year since it first opened.
Then again, this pattern has been repeated in other ballparks that have opened this century. It's part of what urbandictionary.com calls “new car syndrome,” where you want to wash your new vehicle every day. Once the new-car smell fades, however, not so much.
According to MLB attendance figures going into this past weekend, Target Field ranks 18th, but some other new ballparks are doing worse: the Mets' Citi Field (20th), the Padres' Petco Park (21st), the Diamondbacks' Chase Field (22nd), the Mariners' Safeco Field (24th), the Astros' Minute Maid Park (25th), and the Miami Marlins' new park (27th). The Rays, in case you didn't know, are dead last at 30th.
Recent trends in the business of baseball show that a local cable TV deal may be more important to a franchise's profit than a new ballpark. Forbes magazine estimates that with the new, richer deals signed by many teams, local television revenue could exceed $1.5 billion in 2015.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, playing in the second oldest park in the National League, had their value soar by hundreds of millions because of a 25-year deal the team signed with Time Warner Cable that will pay an estimated $6 billion. It also allowed them to have the league's highest payroll.
The Rays' deal with SunSports, which pays the team $20 million a year, expires in 2016. Ratings have been some of the best in baseball the last three years, which bodes well for them when they negotiate a new contract. In this age of DVRs, networks are hungry for live, DVR-proof programming. I don't know when the Rays will get a new ballpark, but I can almost guarantee my cable bill will go up in a few years.
To their credit, the Rays have proven that the most important things needed to produce a winner are a good manager, a smart front office, scouts with an eye for talent, and players who put out their best efforts. A beautiful new ballpark doesn't hurt and almost always make fans and players happier, not to mention increasing the value of the franchise. But check the standings in today's sports section and you'll see it doesn't always generate more wins.
Would Rays attendance improve with a new ballpark? Maybe, but what has happened in other cities proves it would likely be short-lived. To paraphrase the famous quote from the movie Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will come — for a while.