The Outstater

October 15, 2021

The Stadium Game Plays Out

IN ANY DISCUSSION of economic development the success of our publicly financed baseball stadium is invariably trumpeted. It is surrounded by similarly financed masses of concrete and rebar, e.g., a convention center, apartment complexes, parking garages and now an abandoned factory transformed into a mixed-use district “of innovation, energy and culture.”

All very exciting, but the eco-devo vision doesn’t work without the thought — the myth, actually — of thousands of baseball fans pouring new money into an otherwise humdrum downtown.

But what if no baseball team will play here? For the team, please know, is a contract tenant with a sweetheart deal. The stadium’s debt load is backed by taxpayer dollars. What if the team owners decide to locate elsewhere, just walk away? What if there is a grander facility somewhere else with a more attractive incentive package? 

That, for sure, would leave a big hole in the center of downtown, baseball stadiums being highly specialized pieces of architecture not easily converted to anything else. Happily, the romance of the “American pastime” would seem to argue against that depressing thought. Another team would simply walk in, the good times could roll on.

But wait, there is an even more troubling prospect. What if the courts knock down the house of cards that is professional baseball? Specifically, what if baseball loses the card that says it is exempt from antitrust law?

That exemption is on shaky legal ground. Justice Neil Gorsuch suggested in a recent majority opinion that it may soon be vulnerable to challenge: “Whether an antitrust violation exists necessarily depends on a careful analysis of market realities. . . . If those market realities change, so may the legal analysis.”

The executive director of Advocates for Minor Leaguers interprets those words as signaling that the Court is inviting litigation.

Matt Welch, writing in the current issue of Reason Magazine, quotes Sen. Mike Lee (R–Utah) arguing that professional baseball “has used its judicially fabricated antitrust immunity to suppress wages and divide up markets for decades — conduct that is plainly illegal, and sometimes criminal, in any other industry.”

If that happens, if the court lifts the exemption, it is unlikely that the typical city council will be able to keep up with the twists and turns as market forces reshape how baseball teams choose where to play.

It would be another costly lesson of the disaster tempted when politicians use your money to play real estate developer. — tcl


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