Community Ownership Only Play Left in Playbook
by David Morris
November 4, 1997 – published in St. Paul Pioneer Press
So, here we are sports fans. Fourteen months after Governor Carlson announced the formation of a powerful coalition to lobby for a publicly financed sports stadium for the Minnesota Twins, five months after the legislature resoundingly defeated the idea, one week after a special session again failed to approve the plan, we’re in the bottom of the ninth and it doesn’t look good for the home team.
Nine months ago a handful of seemingly foolhardy Minnesotans took another approach to keeping the Twins here. Led by Julian Empson Loscalzo, the state’s tireless fan advocate, and Representative Phyllis Kahn and Senator Ellen Anderson, with a technical assist and a heavy dose of cheerleading by yours truly, a bill was introduced that called for community ownership of the Twins.
The reaction ranged from indifference to ridicule. I remember testifying with Kahn and Anderson at a joint hearing of the senate and house tax committees. We had about 15 minutes. Those debating slot machines had all day.
KFAN, our all talk sports radio, spent months talking about the stadium and minutes talking about community ownership. The Star Tribune ran over 300 stories on the Twins’ plight, covering every angle of stadium financing. They have yet to run a story on how community ownership might work.
Despite this seeming conspiracy of silence, our intrepid band continued sending in its play from the sideline. And its ranks were immeasurably strengthened by the addition of Kenneth Zapp, professor of economics at Metro State University, who work out the details of community ownership.
And now, suddenly, all other options seem to have failed. There’s only one play in the playbook. Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe has endorsed community ownership. Last week the Senate passed a community ownership bill, 35-30, with bipartisan support. House Speaker Phil Carruthers is supportive. Organized labor is reportedly warming to the idea.
The community ownership plan was laid out in these pages a few days ago by Anderson and Zapp. The state would buy the team from the Pohlads and have a year to sell a majority of the stock to the fans. If the fans won’t invest, the state would put the team back on the market. A private company would manage the team and buy 25 percent of the stock. A private management team is a requirement for approval from the major leagues. The corporation’s bylaws would require a supermajority to approve the sale of the team.
Last week Carl Pohlad announced his willingness to donate the team so long as his accumulated losses, estimated at $85 million, are covered. The late Ewing Kauffman donated the Kansas City Royals to the greater Kansas City Community Foundation, with two provisos. The Foundation had to sell the team to someone who would keep it in Kansas City, and the proceeds from the sale had to go to local charities. On October 7th the Foundation issued a request for bids. The price is expected to be around $75 million. A Minnesota foundation has expressed willingness to play the intermediary role.
Pieces are falling into place. Three questions remain.
First, will the fans invest in the team? Well, the community owned Green Bay Packers are about to issue additional stock to raise $80 million to cover team expenses and an upgrade o their stadium. They are confident of raising this sum from a population much smaller than the Twin Cities.
Second, what about possible operation losses? Zapp has worked out a strategy for this, but that presumes there will be losses. Community ownership increases attendance. Zapp recalls that ten years ago the Packers were one of the league’s worst teams. The Vikings beat them 42-0, yet the Packers continued to fill the stands. The Twins attracted 1.3 million fans this year and predict another decline again next year. But Mike Veeck, owner of the St. Paul Saints, believes the Twins might double attendance, even without a new stadium, “with a different approach”to marketing. Veeck’s phenomenal success with the Saints makes him the ideal person to make this happen. He has expressed interest in being a partner in a Twins buyout. What about partnering with the community, Mike?
Third, would community ownership be coupled to a new stadium? It doesn’t have to. But many fans want outdoor baseball, and a fan-owned stadium could be much cheaper. Zapp notes that without a retractable roof, and with the community gaining the revenue from naming rights and concessions, etc. the price tag of a stadium might be closer to $100 million than the $400 million the legislature has debated.
With the announcement of the Vikings’ possible departure, even though that team is making money, the Governor is calling for a comprehensive approach to major league sports. Community ownership should be the centerpiece of such an approach.
It’s our last at bat. Let’s drive the proposal for community ownership home.
David Morris is vice-president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance