Last fall the Jackson County Sports Complex Authority agreed to terms that would keep the football and baseball teams in Kansas City until 2029. The agreements, which hinge on voters passing a new bistate sales tax, commit $354 million of public money to stadium improvements. The teams, in return, pledged to spend up to $65 million.
But as the agreements are written, not a dime of the clubs' current revenues is threatened. The leases, negotiated by County Executive Katheryn Shields, grant the teams authority to sell naming rights to the stadiums. This is no small privilege. Bank of America, for example, recently agreed to pay $140 million over twenty years to put its name on the facility where the NFL's Carolina Panthers play.
In parting with the naming rights, the county invites corporate brands to nudge aside the trusted names Arrowhead and Kauffman. Twenty-year-old Royals phenom Zack Greinke could end up pitching his best years at "Sprint Field." The county also handed the franchises the means to pay for their share of improvements -- and more.
The Royals, for instance, are obliged to pay no more than $15 million of the $192 million in planned improvements at Kauffman Stadium. But with the naming rights in his pocket, team owner David Glass is sure to make out well in the end. Coca-Cola is paying $170 million over 28 years to call the Houston Astros' home Minute Maid Park.
County spokesman Ken Evans says the agreements benefit taxpayers by putting "hard and fast" dollar caps on stadium improvements. The current leases, negotiated in 1989, require the county to make various renovations at the stadiums without regard for cost.
As the Pitch reported this past winter ("Dropping the Ball" by Kendrick Blackwood, December 23, 2003), the leases have challenged the county. Resembling monster "honey do" lists, the leases dictate the improvement and replacement schedules for everything from the press boxes to the toilet-tissue dispensers. In order to meet a deadline calling for new seats at Arrowhead, the county issued bonds costing $3.5 million a year.
"The county had been under extreme financial pressure for years because of these open-ended leases," Evans says.
The Pitch reported in December that the county has fallen so far behind on improvements that it may default on the leases in 2007, in which case the teams would be free to leave town.
The passage of Bistate II, though, would likely remove the fear of Mayflower trucks chugging out of the complex with shoulder pads and fungo bats in boxes. A quarter-cent sales tax in metro counties, including Johnson County, Kansas, would collect about $1.25 billion over 25 years. Half of that money would be spent paying off bonds for stadium work. Glass and Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt would be fools to leave.
(Jack Holland, Jackson County financial adviser and expert on the leases, did not return the Pitch's phone calls. Neither did Chiefs or Royals officers.)
With taxpayers making such a large commitment, Shields' inclusion of naming rights in the deal seems excessive to some. "There is some value to be gained by naming rights," says Overland Park Mayor Ed Eilert.
Eilert met recently with other area mayors who think Bistate II is a money grab. Eilert raised the issue of the naming rights at the summit, only to learn that they had been negotiated away already.
Victor Callahan, the outgoing chairman of the Jackson County Legislature, objected to the county ceding the naming rights in December 2002, when Shields announced that she had reached agreements with the Chiefs and the Royals. "That was a pretty good plum to give away," says Callahan, now a Missouri state senator.
"For most of those negotiations, actually, the county executive did not include the Legislature," Callahan says. "Most of those negotiations were entirely by her with the teams."
County spokesman Evans says Shields did not exceed her authority. "There were members of the Legislature, including Victor Callahan, who were kept apprised of each step in the process," he says.
Shields would not be the first public official to offer gift upon gift to a sports-team owner. Neil deMause, coauthor of Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit, says naming-rights fees typically count as the teams' contribution, even when the public owns the building from which the corporate logos hang. That the practice is common makes it no less ridiculous, deMause says. "I'd like to be able to put up a big billboard on my landlord's roof and use it to pay my rent, too, but somehow I don't think he'd go for that."
To court voters, stadium improvements will be marketed as "fan-friendly." Certainly, more restrooms for women and better seating for the disabled qualify as fan-friendly efforts. But plusher luxury suites and larger concession stands are plenty owner-friendly, too.
Besides, many feel that Kauffman Stadium is already plenty fan-friendly. Many new ballparks, deMause says, are "designed more for generating revenue than for providing a great place to watch a game." Indeed, in an ESPN.com survey conducted last summer of all thirty Major League Baseball parks, Kauffman Stadium finished sixth -- ahead of ten baseball-only venuess that opened after 1990.