One day in June, sewage spewed out of a hole in a cast-iron drainage pipe. Workers told Mark Gorris, vice president of business operations for the Royals, that the pipe looked like the inside of a Butterfinger candy bar. "It was just flaky and disintegrated," Gorris says.
The club was on the road when the pipe burst. Royals fans, the baseball gods must have figured, had seen enough crap this year.
Gorris mentions the pipe to illustrate that Kauffman Stadium is feeling its age, though it may not be evident to ticket buyers. "In that whole category of renovating a 32-year-old stadium, there are a lot of issues that fans won't feel or see, because it's just things that are wearing out."
Parts may be wearing out, but the designs of Kauffman Stadium and its neighbor, Arrowhead, have stood the test of time. Jackson County bucked a trend in 1967 when voters approved a plan to build separate stadiums for football and baseball. Philadelphia, St. Louis and other cities erected facilities that could accommodate both spectacles.
Though cheaper, the "concrete doughnuts," as the multipurpose stadiums became known, inspired little love or loyalty. Most have been demolished.
Kansas City's forward-thinking stadiums, meanwhile, remain popular. Arrowhead sells out year after year. An ESPN.com writer who toured all 30 major-league parks last year rated his day at Kauffman above 24 others.
A ruptured drainpipe notwithstanding, the structures at the Truman Sports Complex are sound.
What they lack is earning power.
A second bistate tax -- the first saved Union Station -- looms on the horizon. If voters in Jackson, Johnson and Clay counties say yes in November, half of a quarter-percent sales tax will provide $360 million for improvements to Arrowhead and Kauffman, which team officials have declared "functionally inadequate." (The other half of the tax will fund the arts.)
Between now and November, voters will be told that improvements will make the stadiums more "fan friendly." The changes, however, are designed primarily to generate money for the Chiefs and the Royals.
Voters will be told that the teams need the money to compete. The owners of the teams, though, will be selective with the financial information they share.
Voters will be told that their leaders fought hard for a good deal. The evidence says otherwise.
Voters will be told dazzling stories about the economic development the teams bring to the area. Multiple studies argue that such promises are illusory.
Finally, supporters of a downtown baseball stadium will be told that they cling to a fantasy. In fact, with a little imagination, the idea might have worked.
Kansas City voters, prepare for the season of greed.
Bistate II is not the worst stadium deal ever put before voters.
But it sure as sewage could have been a lot better.
The Toronto SkyDome ushered in the era of the extravagant sports stadium. Built in 1989 with taxpayer-supported bonds, SkyDome features a hotel, restaurants and a retractable roof. Crowds came to behold the edifice from far and near. In 1990, the Blue Jays were the first team in baseball history to draw 4 million fans.
The SkyDome concept was refined a few years later in Baltimore. The designers of Oriole Park at Camden Yards rejected the mold of the concrete doughnut and used brick and steel to unite the ballpark with an old warehouse beyond right field. The configuration was retro, but the luxury suites and other amenities were thoroughly modern.
A bit of SkyDome and Camden Yards lives in all the stadiums and arenas that have come after them. Not every design hits a home run -- Cincinnati's Great American Ballpark affords views of a shallow, muddy river and the dim lights of northern Kentucky -- but all succeed in minting new coin for the owner of the occupying team. New stadiums invariably come equipped with an array of moneymaking opportunities: luxury boxes, club seats, concession stands.
The improvements planned for Kauffman and Arrowhead stadiums will make them more like the mallparks of today. The average fan will derive some benefit from the changes. Each stadium is scheduled to receive a new outer shell, allowing the concourses to expand significantly. Expanded concourses mean shorter lines for beer and toilets.
Mainly, though, the proposed changes will bring smiles to the faces of the team owners.
The Royals want to build a restaurant beyond right field. Cost to taxpayers: $4 million.
The Chiefs hope to transform the narrow, open-air concourse behind the club seats into a luxurious sports bar.
Both teams want new suites -- 15 for the Chiefs, between 40 and 50 for the Royals. If the Royals rent the suites annually for $100,000 each (about what suites in other towns go for), team owner David Glass can expect to gross an additional $4 million to $5 million a year.
Conceptual estimates call for $24 million worth of new scoreboards at the stadiums. Scoreboards that will leave plenty of room for car and bank ads.
The teams say they need the revenue that modern stadiums produce to keep up with other teams. Royals VP Gorris says the club has an obligation to increase corporate involvement. "We have teams that are three, four, six times higher than us in their corporate spending in terms of signage and suites and club seats and so forth," he says. "That's an area where we think we can make up a lot of money. We hope we can. It's vital that we do."
Even the Chiefs, returning from a 13-3 regular season, see dark clouds gathering. "Having a winning or competitive team takes a huge investment, and we're just trying to keep up with all our competitors, who are replacing their stadiums," says Tom Steadman, son of Jack Steadman, the team's longtime chairman of the board.
And that's where the taxpayer lends an oversized hand.
On May 17, Chiefs and Royals officials appeared before the Jackson County Legislature and pleaded poverty.
Legislators were considering lease extensions that would bind the teams to the county-owned sports complex. But the extensions, which run until 2030, hinge on the passage of a bistate sales tax.
Chiefs and Royals officials sat at the same table and explained their need for the $360 million. Tom Steadman told legislators that 24 of the National Football League's 32 teams play in stadiums built or renovated since 1987. Gorris said Kansas City was baseball's smallest television market.
Bar graphs projected on a screen in the chamber drove home the message: The Chiefs and Royals were sisters of the poor.
Jack Steadman left the PowerPointing to his son and spoke instead of history. The elder Steadman, who has worked with Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt for 45 years, recalled a time when professional football in Kansas City wasn't a sure thing. The Chiefs played their first game at Municipal Stadium in 1963 before a crowd of 6,200.
But 4 years later, voters passed a bond issue that built the Truman Sports Complex. "Because Jackson County stepped up to the plate, Kansas City became a major-league city," Steadman said. Steadman called the politicians who led the effort to build the stadium complex "giants."
The current legislators did not come up small. They voted to approve the leases by an 8-0 vote.
But the teams omitted a number of details.
The Chiefs, for instance, declined to reveal their revenues or profits. Hunt got into a very good business when the Chiefs joined the National Football League in 1966. Forbes magazine reported in 2003 that the team was worth $601 million, with operating profits of $31.4 million (about league average). Forbes characterized the NFL as "a growing, monopolistic industry where costs [because of a salary cap on players] are largely fixed."
Growing. Monopolistic. Fixed costs. These are pleasant words to business owners.
Even with the salary cap and the multibillion-dollar national TV deal that teams share equally, Steadman and son told the Jackson County Legislature that the Chiefs needed a fancier stadium to stay competitive. As an example, they cited the Washington Redskins' stadium, which opened in 1997 and grosses $57 million annually from suite and club-seat sales. The Redskins have offered big cash signing bonuses to players in recent years.
The Steadmans said the Chiefs make $14 million from suites and club seats. "The only way we can generate the cash that we need to keep our top players, to keep the team competitive, is with a stadium that produces the revenue in order for you to do that," the elder Steadman said, naming Tony Gonzalez, Priest Holmes and Trent Green as the kind of players whose presence in Kansas City was jeopardized by an inadequate stadium.
The Steadmans, though, neglected to mention that the Redskins' owners paid for most of that team's stadium. Taxpayers provided $70 million in infrastructure improvements, but the team assumed the greatest share of the costs, contributing $189 million to the project. (The Super Bowl champion New England Patriots play in a 2-year-old stadium, also built mostly with private money.)
The Royals were similarly remiss with important facts.
It's true that a small TV market challenges the Royals. The New York Yankees use money earned from broadcasting their games to millions of metropolitan New Yorkers to sign and trade for players like Alex Rodriguez.
But Gorris did not say how little it cost David Glass to join the exclusive club of Major League Baseball owners. Glass paid $96 million for the team in 2000. The same year, the division rival Cleveland Indians traded hands for $323 million. If Glass had wanted a team with better earning potential, he would have had to pay for it.
And since Glass bought the club, baseball has tried to help him out. Rich clubs now share money with poor ones more than they did in the past. The Royals took about $35.7 million from the revenue-sharing pool in 2002 and 2003, according to figures leaked to the Associated Press. Still, the club says it lost $30 million during the same period.
Playing in a small market hurts the Royals, but teams in similar straits have managed to thrive, at least on the field. The Oakland A's and the Minnesota Twins have fielded consistent winners in recent years. Their secret? Smart team executives. (Michael Lewis' best-selling Moneyball was written about Oakland's front office.) But Jackson County legislators heard nothing about their success.
Not that the eight legislators pressed Gorris and the Steadmans for comparisons to other major-league markets. Vice Chairman Henry Rizzo only halfheartedly raised the notion of ticket prices. Legislator Ronald E. Finley was onto something when he asked how it was possible for the Chiefs to lose ground to other teams when a salary cap is in place. Jack Steadman responded by artfully overstating the competitive imbalance that exists in the NFL because some teams earn more from their stadiums than others. Steadman made the situation seem dire. Yet during the off-season, the Indianapolis Colts, who play in the dumpy RCA Dome, offered quarterback Peyton Manning the largest signing bonus in NFL history.
Jackson County Executive Katheryn Shields is the elected official most responsible for the leases with the teams and for the shape of bistate. Her spokesman, Ken Evans, insists that she battled for a good deal for the taxpayers.
"Believe me, these negotiations were not easy by any stretch of the imagination," Evans says. "There were many times the negotiations just ended. Neither side was willing to back down. Neither side was willing to compromise."
What good came out of the deal? Evans notes that two stadiums are being renovated for less than what a new one would likely cost.
But based on stadium deals in other cities, Shields didn't drive a very hard bargain. Bistate II asks Kansas City-area residents to pay a larger share of construction costs than is typical of such arrangements.
As the leases are written, the Chiefs will contribute no less than $50 million toward the renovation of Arrowhead. The Royals have pledged $15 million for the work at Kauffman. Both teams take responsibility for cost overruns.
So if Bistate II passes, releasing $360 million for work at the sports complex, Kansas City-area residents will pay almost 85 percent of the total cost.
But in examining the deals that built 17 football and baseball stadiums between 1994 and 2001, Jordan Rappaport and Chad Wilkerson, economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, determined that the average public contribution was 66 percent of the total cost. University of Maryland economists who looked at new stadium and arena construction from 1998 to 2003 arrived at a public-contribution figure of 65 percent.
Jack Holland, Jackson County's financial advisor, defends the 85-15 split. He tells the Pitch that the Chiefs will likely spend $75 million, which would lower the public's burden to 80 percent.
Still, 80 percent is a heavier share of the load than taxpayers paid in Detroit, Seattle, Houston and Philadelphia, where new football stadiums were built in recent years. Even the wretched Arizona Cardinals, the NFL franchise ranked by Forbes as the least valuable, are paying about a third of the cost of the $395 stadium rising in suburban Phoenix.
Holland worked with Kansas City, Missouri, to determine the appropriate means of financing a new arena. That deal was also criticized for putting too much on the shoulders of taxpayers. Holland said Kansas City's relatively small size demands a higher level of public participation.
Yet in tiny Green Bay, Wisconsin, historic Lambeau Field was renovated with a public contribution of 57 percent. A sales-tax increase in Brown County (population 234,000) backed $160 million in bonds; the state of Wisconsin chipped in $9 million. The Packers paid the rest, raising $126 million from cash, a one-time charge to season-ticket holders and the sale of stock.
Bistate proponents note that Green Bay is unique because the Packers are run as a nonprofit. But socialistic cheeseheads are not the only ones who have kept their wits when a sports team asked for public money. Another town convinced a private businessman to pay 100 percent of stadium costs.
That businessman was Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt.
Hunt owns two Major League Soccer franchises: the Kansas City Wizards and the Columbus, Ohio, Crew. Hunt wanted a soccer-specific stadium for the Crew, which played its first games in the football stadium at Ohio State University. But voters in Franklin County rejected a measure in 1997 that would have built a $72-million soccer stadium and a $110-million arena.
So Hunt paid for the soccer stadium himself. He spent $28 million on a no-frills, 22,500-seat facility.
Crew Stadium's elegant utilitarianism was later recognized with an honor award from the American Institute of Architects. In addition to the Crew, the stadium has hosted World Cup qualifying matches, big high school football games and an 'N Sync concert.
Even team officials believed that things worked out well in the end. Standing on the stadium's freshly laid turf in 1999, the Crew's president called the defeat of the tax proposal "a blessing in disguise," according to The Columbus Dispatch. (An arena was built in Columbus with private financing as well.)
Hunt will pay more for a renovated Arrowhead, of course, but the soccer stadium was a much riskier investment. Bleeding $350 million in red ink since 1996, Major League Soccer faces an uncertain future. The ultrapopular NFL, in contrast, could survive a nuclear winter.
Reaching equitable stadium deals and lease agreements with professional teams is not easy. Major League Baseball and the NFL are essentially cartels. Kept to a small number, teams hold the threat of leaving town or, in the case of baseball, vanishing altogether. (Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig raised the notion of contraction in 2002. Not coincidentally, owners were negotiating a new collective-bargaining agreement with the players at the time.)
Judging by Shields' statements over the years, she has long feared the flight of Kansas City's big-league teams. "Whatever works to help us keep the Chiefs and Royals here is what I want," she told The Kansas City Star in 2002, sounding hardly like the bare-knuckle negotiator that her spokesman describes.
In fairness to Shields, she was hampered by existing lease agreements. In effect since 1990, the leases call for the Jackson County Sports Authority to make a series of improvements to the stadiums, such as sprucing up the fountains at Kauffman and renovating the administrative offices at Arrowhead. The to-do list has overwhelmed the authority. Yearly contributions from Jackson County ($3.5 million), the city of Kansas City, Missouri ($2 million), and the state of Missouri ($3 million) have not kept pace with expenses, which were not capped in the agreements. (The authority also pays the teams "management fees.")
In 2007, when the substantial work is to be completed, the county may default on the leases, freeing the teams to leave ("Dropping the Ball," by Kendrick Blackwood, December 27, 2003).
The leases that Shields negotiated, Evans says, close the gap between the work that is required and the money that is available. "That just could not continue," he says. "The county could not afford to continue funding an open-ended lease. That was the primary goal, and we were able to achieve that goal."
When politicians in Johnson County looked at Shields' work, though, they saw room for improvement. A $20 million fund for capital improvements at both stadiums was removed from a later bistate draft. Also, the teams and the sports authority will now share the proceeds from any sale of naming rights to the stadiums. Originally, Shields allowed the teams to keep all of the money ("What's in a Name," March 11, 2004).
Overland Park Mayor Ed Eilert continues to question the deal that was struck. "My own personal feeling is that there should have been larger contributions from the clubs or from the economic activity generated at the facilities," he says. He suggests a tax on goods and concessions sold.
"I think they missed a good opportunity," Eilert says.
Bistate II must pass in Jackson, Johnson and Clay counties to become effective. Wyandotte and Platte counties may also field the proposal.
To get on the ballots, bistate proponents have taken to the road. The proposal was discussed at a recent meeting of the Clay County Commission. Carol McCaslin, the presiding commissioner, tells the Pitch that voters may be wary of a new tax that benefits team owners or is seen as a bailout for Jackson County. "The sports [half of bistate] seemed to be a real hot button because of the amount of money involved," she says.
Also, resentment from the first bistate tax may linger. Union Station was handsomely renovated, but its featured attraction has been a bust, causing huge deficits. "There isn't a lot of confidence in the way the Bistate Commission handled Science City," McCaslin says.
A brochure prepared by Chiefs executive Tom Steadman claims that the Chiefs and the Royals contribute $300 million to the local economy and support 4,400 jobs.
But experts in sports economics don't buy it.
"Move the decimal point one place to the left and you are probably far closer to the truth," says Robert Baade, who teaches economics at Lake Forest College in Chicago.
Baade has studied the economic impact of sports teams and found them negligible. Other economists have reached the same conclusion.
"There are very few fields of economic research that produce unanimous agreement," Smith College professor Andrew Zimbalist writes in his recent book May the Best Team Win: Baseball Economics and Public Policy. "Yet every independent economic analysis on the impact of stadiums has found no predictable positive effect on output or employment."
Zimbalist's book cites three main reasons why professional sports do not promote economic development. First is "the substitution effect," which is a fancy way of saying that money spent at ballparks would be spent at bowling alleys, live-music clubs and golf courses if the teams were to disappear. Beer drinking, after all, does not cease in the months between football and baseball seasons.
Second, much of the revenue captured by sports teams leaks out of their local economies. For instance, how much of Royals slugger Mike Sweeney's $11 million annual salary stays in Kansas City? Federal taxes take a bite. Investments take another. Then, once the season ends, Sweeney and his checkbook move to Lake Tahoe, where he keeps his permanent residence.
Third, even with wage earners like Sweeney around, sports teams cannot be counted on to augment tax collections. The 2001 study by the Kansas City Federal Reserve determined that NFL and MLB teams provided an annual job and tax benefit of $2.9 million (about $3.2 million in 2004 dollars). But Kansas City and Jackson County already give each team $2.75 million a year through the sports authority, subsidies that will continue even with the passage of Bistate II.
"Kansas City and Denver and some other fairly isolated locales do invite in greater numbers of fans from outside the metropolis, [but] the numbers are not appreciable enough to argue for substantial sports subsidies as an economic-development engine," Baade says.
"There are all kinds of better ways to spend money, and sports is a rather poor way for creating jobs," he adds.
All the benefits of major-league sports teams cannot be measured easily, of course. What's the price on a blimp shot of the city on Monday Night Football? Or "KC" on the score crawl on ESPN? Or a pennant chase?
"I think intuitively most people believe that the fact the Royals and the Chiefs are in Kansas City is a huge difference between not having the Chiefs and the Royals here," says lawyer Jack Craft, who heads the bistate campaign effort on behalf of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.
But in addition to the quality-of-life argument, residents can expect to hear dubious information about the teams' quantitative value between now and November. Rodney Fort, a professor at Washington State University, has written that stadiums are sold as panaceas "using estimations of economic impact that would make Rosy Scenario blush."
Steadman says he got his information from the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. The Pitch asked the chamber for the study. Four weeks later, no document has been supplied.
Earlier this year, the sports architects at Heinlein Schrock Stearns came up with a cool idea. They drafted a design for a baseball park that could be squeezed into two midtown blocks and not cost much more than the $195 million being considered for Kauffman Stadium.
To fit such tight physical and financial parameters, the stadium would have to be small -- 25,000 to 28,000 fans only. Venerable Fenway Park in Boston, the smallest in baseball, seats about 33,000.
Most new ballparks accommodate more than 40,000 spectators. But as Brad Schrock, a principal at Heinlein Schrock Stearns (which merged recently with CDFM2 to become 360 Architecture), told the Pitch in May, not long after the idea first appeared in The Kansas City Star, a lot of the seats in those stadiums go unused after opening day. "We just know from what we do that a half-empty or half-full stadium, it's a drain," he said. "It's almost negative energy in a half-full stadium."
A boutique park, in contrast, would be crowded every night.
Schrock thinks renovating Kauffman is folly. (As for Arrowhead, football stadiums are too large and too little-used to be discarded easily.) "We need that asset, that $200 million, to be put here versus out in the middle of a parking lot somewhere," Schrock says.
But what about opening day and other big games? Capacity could be added creatively, Schrock says. The street bordering right field, for instance, could be closed to traffic, allowing portable bleachers to sidle up to the fence. Neighboring buildings might also provide a vantage point, as they do near Wrigley Field in Chicago. "There are lots of ways you can let that facility expand for the big events and then retract it and have it still feel intimate," Schrock says.
For the Royals, a more intimate park makes some sense, provided that it doesn't skimp too much on suites and club seats. At the All-Star break, the team had drawn an average of 22,735 fans a game, which is below the major-league average. Crowds are especially thin for weeknight games. A park between the downtown loop and Crown Center might appeal to office workers discouraged by the drive to Kauffman and the $8 charge for parking.
A minipark would distinguish Kansas City. Since Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened to acclaim in 1992, several cities have tried to replicate it, brick by exposed brick. Philip Bess, a ballpark buff who runs the graduate studies program at the University of Notre Dame's school of architecture, says that post-Camden stadiums show an appreciation for subtlety, unlike the concrete doughnut. "But it's primarily a marketing thing," he says.
Bess prefers what he calls "neighborhood ballparks," aging beauties such as Wrigley and Fenway, which were built into existing grids and did not need to manufacture idiosyncrasy. The Heinlein Schrock Stearns idea would continue in that tradition.
But it won't happen. Voters in November can choose to fix Kauffman, or they can choose to do nothing.
Jack Holland says a downtown park was never feasible because no one identified how to fund a new stadium that might cost $400 million, the going rate for mallparks. "You got a $200 million gap no one wants to address," he says.
"Nobody is a bigger downtown supporter than Katheryn Shields is," Shields spokesman Evans says. "What it finally comes down to, though, is can you make the financing work? Do you have a plan? The downtown boosters just simply do not have a plan."
Jack Craft says any idea of a downtown ballpark is based on "Tinkerbell economics." He says he was once called to a meeting of downtown ballpark supporters. "They had three or four sources of revenue, all of which were horseshit," Craft says.
One horseshit idea was to obtain assistance from the state of Missouri. Craft says lawmakers in Jefferson City, who have helped St. Louis build new stadiums, showed no inclination to do the same for Kansas City. "We couldn't have gotten it out of committee," he says.
Also horseshit, in Craft's estimation: Expecting David Glass to triple or quadruple his contribution, meager as it is.
A creative idea, such as the boutique park, would have alleviated some of the financial concerns. But there are political considerations as well. Craft says he has polled bistate proposals for 10 years, and a new attraction for downtown Kansas City "never works."
"The reason is, the southern Johnson County people do not believe that's a part of their mandate," Craft explains. "They do believe it's a part of their mandate to provide metropolitan resources to metropolitan assets."
Kauffman Stadium is a metropolitan asset. But until a sufficient number of area residents believe that Kauffman is beyond repair, a downtown park remains a fantasy, Craft says.
Yet people still dream about a downtown ballpark. "It's an idea that won't go away, because it's been the right idea in so many other cities," says WHB 810 host Kevin Keitzman, who continues to discuss the notion, as do other sports-talk personalities.
Keitzman says he lies awake at night thinking about the opportunity lost if Kauffman is renovated and not replaced. "Ballparks do not save downtowns but are one element that adds life to a neighborhood or a city," says Kevin Klinkenberg, a principal at 180 Design Studio, an architecture and urban-design firm in Kansas City.
Klinkenberg finds it sad and strange that a downtown ballpark has seemed so tangential to the conversation. He questions the process that ends with a proposal to spend $360 million at the sports complex, which for 30 years has enlivened a parking lot and a couple of gas stations. "The discussions happen in venues where maybe they don't listen to different groups of people."
The discussion was driven by narrow interests. From the beginning, the teams wanted a stadium subsidy that served their needs, which are not necessarily the community's needs. As Royals VP Gorris told the Star in 2001, "Our principal agenda is not redevelopment, whether it's downtown, around Kauffman or around the Truman Sports Complex. Our key agenda is how do we derive enough revenue to bring a constantly competitive team to our good fans."
Gorris says today that the Royals did not push for a new ballpark, out of a sense of propriety. "We don't think it would be appropriate to drive the design of bistate," he tells the Pitch.
If bistate passes, the teams will get their millions. Politicians will say they kept the Royals and the Chiefs in Kansas City. Fans and taxpayers, though, may be left to wonder if they could have gotten more for less.
"The bistate proposal is, in the end, an example of the best at war with the possible," Craft says. "I think this proposal, with all of its warts and difficulties, is possible."
Klinkenberg, for one, is willing to wait for a better pitch to swing at. "We shouldn't be afraid to reject a bad deal, because we can always try for a better deal," he says.