Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Long overdue? Or a smokescreen?

I am a professional baseball fan who does not share the thoughts of those individuals who rant and rage about governments spending their scarce dollars to build the stadiums used by their city’s teams.

Stadium changed, why not the lease?

It doesn’t bother me to have the city, county or state in the role of landlord. I can see where a ball club (even though technically a privately-owned enterprise) provides to the public image of a municipality, and that a city-owned stadium is the city’s official support.

I ONLY WISH that governments would act much tougher in their role as landlords, particularly when negotiating the lease. The same kind of tough talk that government officials will make about tax deadbeats? Why can’t we see the same approach used toward the local ball club – which needs the stadium to play in as much as the city wants the team.

So it is in that context that I read the reports from Crain’s Chicago Business that say the state (specifically, the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority) is looking to renegotiate the lease it has with the Chicago White Sox to play their games at U.S. Cellular Field.

Former state Senate President Emil Jones, who now chairs the sports authority, told Crain’s that, “the Sox pay the lowest rent of all the facilities.” Are the White Sox going to have to share a larger percentage of their gross receipts in order to continue to be the team that plays at 35th and Shields/Bill Veeck Drive?

I’m not sure how accurate Jones’ statement is. There may be a very specific context in which it is true. But I am aware there are some other teams that get away with paying no rent, whereas the White Sox do wind up paying something just about every single season.

MY OWN PERSONAL “favorite” stadium lease story involves the two-time American League champion Texas Rangers, who when they moved into their current stadium in the mid-1990s paid rent for five seasons before being given title to the building.

The ball club then sold the building back to the state. In essence, Texas paid the team money to play there, and continues to maintain it on their behalf.

For all I know, stories like that will make White Sox team Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf rant about how he’s already paying too much. But it is not unreasonable to expect Illinois state government to get something in return for its investment in the building – which opened in 1991 and underwent a major overhaul in the mid-2000s.

So just as the building has physically changed, perhaps the lease agreement should change as well – particularly since the White Sox boasted earlier this week how they want to open a sports attire store in the stadium that would be open year-round.

NOT JUST ON game days.

If they’re going to make some money, perhaps the building owner should get a cut – and not just the current rent that provides the state with $1-2 million a year, based on how well the White Sox draw.

Now I know some Cubs fans like to whine about the White Sox and those clauses that allow them to get away without paying any rent for a season. But that is if the attendance drops to low levels (1.4 million or fewer tickets sold).

For most of the 21 seasons that the White Sox have played in the building located across the street from the real Comiskey Park (now leveled to a parking lot), the team has met that standard.

THAT SHORT STRETCH at the end of the 1990s truly was an aberration for Chicago baseball, and not just because of Sammy Sosa’s freakish home runs (the real Sammy who played for the White Sox struck out too much, couldn’t hit squat and complained that the ballpark was inhibiting his greatness).

So if there are sufficient (if not record-setting) numbers of people visiting U.S. Cellular Field every season, it would be nice to think that the state could get a share of it.

Even though I’m realistic enough to know that a higher rent from the White Sox won’t even come close to resolving state government’s overall financial problems.

Besides, it’s not the first time the lease has been renegotiated. So no one can claim this to be an iron-clad lease that must be left intact in all its 1991 glory.

IT’S NOT LIKE the state is obligated to buy a certain number of tickets any more to ensure that the White Sox reach that minimal 1.4 million attendance standard. That was given up on over a decade ago (in exchange for the fact that state government is no longer entitled to a tiny percentage of the White Sox’ share of national broadcast revenue negotiated by Major League Baseball).

Let’s see what our state officials can get now, although they’re in the position of already having a signed lease and can’t really impose any terms.

At the very least, such money would help the state a bit – even those individuals who live across Illinois whose baseball sense is misguided enough that they root for the St. Louis Cardinals or the (Ugh!) Chicago Cubs.


No comments: