Marlins Park a Perfect Example of How Not to Build a Publicly-Funded Stadium

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Marlins Park a Perfect Example of How Not to Build a Publicly-Funded Stadium

It would be lovely if every stadium could be privately financed, a la San Francisco's AT&T Park, but that's a pipe dream. Taxpayers are going to have to pay for new stadiums way more often than not.

But while more publicly funded stadiums are sure to continue popping up, enough time has passed and enough gory details have come out for us to at least know this: There should never be another Marlins Park. 

Oh, sure, it looks nice. Marlins Park comes across as a space station from the outside, and is a colorful wonderland on the inside. In terms of engineering and aesthetics, it's a beauty.

Behind the pretty face, however, lies what is essentially a leech, the likes of which should never be seen again in any other city.

Thankfully, there are a few things politicians can consider that can keep them from making the same mistake that was made when the city of Miami allowed Marlins Park to be spawned. 

 

Consider the Cost

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Pinning down an exact cost for Marlins Park can be difficult. Sometimes, a $500 million figure is tossed around. Other time, it's more like $600 million.

In reality, it's both. According to The New York Times, it cost $515 million to build Marlins Park itself, but the total project with parking and the like cost north of $630 million.

On a surface level, that's not so bad. After all, USA Today says that the new Yankee Stadium and Citi Field cost $2.3 billion combined, with $1.5 billion of that being for Yankee Stadium alone.

But here's the thing: According to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel (via Deadspin), Marlins Park will eventually cost $2.4 billion, and that's all on the public. 

Such things happen when the public is tasked with picking up 70 percent of the cost for a new stadium, particularly during hard economic times. Miami-Dade county officials sold $500 million worth of public bonds to get Marlins Park built, and these bonds were financed in poor market conditions.

When that happens, you get very high interest rates that will first impact mom and dad, and later son and daughter.

Case in point, the Miami Herald (also via Deadspin) broke down a particularly tricky set of bonds worth $91 million that will eventually cost over a billion dollars to pay back. Payments on that loan won't begin until 2026, but the cost of these payments will start escalating very quickly.

The rising costs have to do with a penalty the county has to pay for the delayed repayment plan. According to the Herald, Miami-Dade could have waited on construction of Marlins Park, which began in 2009, until it had the funds to do a traditional straight-line payback.

But that would have been problematic for two reasons. 

One: Construction costs have a tendency to go up over time, which means more time spent saving money can actually mean less money saved in the end.

Two: The money had to be borrowed when it was because officials had already voted to fund Marlins Park and construction had actually already begun. Money was needed for the project quick, and the county went and found money as promptly as it could.

The county does not have the option of repaying the bonds early, so Miami-Dade will not be finding itself in the same boat as Hennepin County in Minnesota. As the Star Tribune reported in December, the county's financing plan on Target Field, home of the Twins, is exceeding expectations thanks to early excess payments. The end result should be over $50 million in interest expenses saved.

The bottom line: Marlins Park was hastily put together, and officials who should have been thinking level-headedly about the eventual cost of the ballpark for the taxpayers instead acted aggressively to get the thing built.

The very birth of the stadium was ill-conceived. 

As was it's birthplace. 

 

Consider the Location

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The idea of placing Marlins Park in Little Havana was to turn the area into a baseball mecca, but there were high hopes for the community as well.

As summed up by Peter Richmond for ESPN the Magazine: "Placing [Marlins Park] in East Little Havana gives the stadium the imprimatur of Latin legitimacy; the hope is that Miami's 65 percent Hispanic population will produce a large fan base that spends its dollars in the neighborhood, which then itself will rise."

Not a bad idea on the surface, but this is exactly the same rhetoric that's thrown around whenever a new stadium is discussed: "Sure it will cost a lot, but in the end it will create jobs and boost the local economy!"

Unfortunately, studies have shown that new stadiums are rarely the boon to local economies that everyone says they will be. This reality is playing out in regard to Marlins Park as well, as the Miami New Times noted in October that exactly one new business has arisen in the area: a bar called the "Batting Cage."

Worse, appealing to the locals was a doomed cause from the start thanks to the parking situation at Marlins Park. The Palm Beach Post noted that there was only going to be room for about 6,000 vehicles, and that many of those were going to be reserved for season-ticket holders.

In addition, the very placement of the stadium nixed a fair amount of residential parking spaces for residents living in the area around Marlins Park, according to NBC Miami.

For non-locals, parking isn't the only problem one encounters when going to Marlins Park. It's not the easiest place to get to, and traffic is going to be a problem whenever the Marlins have a full house on weeknights.

But that, unfortunately, is not likely to happen all that often.

 

Consider the Fanbase

Sarah Glenn/Getty Images

The good news is that the Marlins drew considerably more fans in 2012 than they did in 2011. Per Baseball-Reference.com, the team drew close to 8,700 more fans per game than it drew in 2011. In all, the club drew over two million fans for only the third time in franchise history.

The bad news is that the Marlins were expecting to do a lot better.

According to the Miami Herald, the Marlins sold out only two games in 2012, one of which was the very first regular-season game played in the stadium. That means that one of the next 81 games the Marlins played at home in 2012 was played in front of a capacity crowd.

There are rational explanations for the poor attendance figures. Marlins Park is out of the way for many, and the club did little in 2012 to prove it was worth paying to watch. They were flying a white flag by August and September after trading away Hanley Ramirez and other key players in July.

Then there's the other rational explanation that should have been a huge red flag when funding for Marlins Park was being put together: the Marlins never had a big fanbase to begin with.

Poor attendance figures have been a fact of life for the Marlins for close to 20 years now. Per BallparksofBaseball.com, the Marlins drew over three million fans in their inaugural season in 1993, but have drawn under two million fans in nearly every season since.

The team certainly has its diehards, as every team does. What it has always lacked is casual fans, and winning such fans over is not as easy as it sounds. It takes time, and it also takes more than a fun ballpark. The team that occupies the ballpark has to be fun too.

It's up to the owners to make the product on the field fun. The Marlins, alas, are run by a man whose priorities lie elsewhere.

 

Consider the Owners

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

In Jeffrey Loria's first year of owning the Marlins in 2002, they had a payroll of just under $42 million on Opening Day (via Cot's Baseball Contracts). The club's payroll rose the following year, and the Marlins won the World Series.

By 2006, the Marlins had a payroll under $15 million, and it went back down again in 2008 after rising in 2007.

The writing was on the wall that Loria is a businessman above all else when he was trying to get a new stadium built. He clearly has no reservations whatsoever about angering customers to protect his wallet. At the first sign of trouble, Loria is going to cut his expenses to avoid losing money.

This is not the kind of guy you want to build a new stadium for. When they did choose to invest in a new stadium for Loria, county officials had no guarantee that he would return the favor by continually investing in the product out on the field.

To be sure, Loria did make an effort to build an exciting team. He spent a couple hundred million dollars last offseason to bring in Jose Reyes, Heath Bell and Mark Buehrle, who joined a roster that already had a fair amount of talent. 

But investing once and continually investing are two different things. Loria proved last offseason that he was willing to give spending a shot, but we know now that he was never sure of his experiment. If he had been, he would have put actual no-trade clauses in his new players' contracts.

Sure enough, the Marlins didn't contend and Loria stuck to his guns. At the first sign of trouble, he blew his club up with a series of detonations that culminated in the November blockbuster with the Toronto Blue Jays.

The Marlins may have a new ballpark, but it's clear that they're going to be the same old Marlins as long as Loria is in charge. There's just no changing some people.

This is to say nothing of Loria's hobbies. As revealed by Deadspin in 2010, one of those is pocketing millions of dollars. Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports noted that Loria had more money lying around to spend on a new stadium than he claimed to have. He could have saved taxpayers a lot of money in the long run had he chosen to open up his own pockets rather than theirs.

Yet, due to ignorance and misguided ideas, the county chose to trust Loria. That was the first in a series of mistakes that led to the 37,000-seat mistake that now sits in the heart of Little Havana.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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