“Trade the Saints to Minneapolis for the Timberwolves”

John Spry, an economist with St. Thomas University in the Twin Cities, has written an opinion piece that appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.  In it, he takes issue with proposals to build a new stadium for the St. Paul Saints (an independent league baseball team) and to renovate the Target Center, the arena for the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves.

Minnesota has some of the very best sports facilities in the nation in Target Field and the Xcel Energy Center. So why are we planning to spend more than $200 million to build a second professional baseball stadium and remodel Target Center?

Gov. Dayton wants to spend $150 million to update Target Center for the Timberwolves, $54 million to build a new ballpark for the St. Paul Saints in Lowertown and $54 million to support other sports facilities in St. Paul, such as Xcel Energy Center.

Apparently, the idea is to have both new ballparks and state-of-the-art indoor sports arenas at each end of the new Central Corridor light-rail line. This wasteful duplication shows a lack of respect for taxpayers’ dollars.

John recommends using existing facilities in the Twin Cities rather than building new ones.

A better idea would be to trade the St. Paul Saints to Minneapolis in exchange for the eventual move of the NBA’s Timberwolves to the beautiful Xcel Energy Center. The Saints’ baseball team could play in Target Field when the Twins are on road trips, and the Wild and Wolves could share the Xcel Energy Center.

John Notes that the Los Angeles Kings of the NHL and the NBA’s Lakers and Clippers all call the Staples Center home.  I’d also add that the NFL’s Giants and Jets have been playing in the same stadium for years and multipurpose stadiums used to dot the sports landscape in the states.  So why not try it in Minnesota?  John gives three possible objections to his proposal.

First, parochial interests may object to cooperation between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Each city’s political establishment tends to fight for its own narrow interests instead of the more general interest of Minnesota citizens. Respect for Minnesotans’ tax dollars should trump parochial special interests.

To be fair, the local politicians are just that: local.  Their political careers (and livelihoods) depend upon getting elected.  Those of us outside the Twin Cities area cannot vote for them, so why should they care about us?

Secondly, Target Field has more seats than the minor-league Saints could expect to sell. The Saints could use only the approximately 12,000 lower-level seats between first base and third base that offer the best views.

The ambience at Saints games at Target Field wouldn’t be very good.  Having a 3/4ths empty ballpark would eventually erode interest in the club, at least to some extent.  The Saints could try to cover some of the seats with tarps,but that would be costly and the fact would remain that they’d be playing minor league ball in a major league-sized ballpark.

In addition, having multiple teams playing in the same park in overlapping seasons creates scheduling issues.  Then there is also the problem of divvying up revenue generated by other events at the facilities (such as concerts).  Obviously these problems can be overcome, but they are problems and therefore reasons why there would be some resistance by the teams.

John’s third point is one the staff here at TSE have made many times.

Finally, politicians erroneously claim that construction spending for these sports facilities will create jobs for Minnesotans. These claims ignore the basic economic concept of opportunity cost. Instead of building duplicative facilities, we could have either more productive public spending, such as improved courts or roads, or reduced taxes on private-sector investments.

I made this same basic point in my Principles of Microeconomics courses yesterday while discussing Bastiat’s Broken Windows Fallacy.  John makes the point well enough, so I won’t comment further.

However, I find John’s final paragraph troubling.

When we subsidize the owners of these professional sports teams, we redistribute income from everyone to a handful of wealthy individuals. This redistribution to the rich should trouble both principled liberals and conservatives.

This redistribution from everyone to a few wealthy individuals is what would happen, and I get John’s rhetorical use of “rich.”  But the argument for public support for sports should not depend on the wealth of the individuals receiving it as much as the value of the public goods nature of what is being subsidized.