On July 1, 2009, Major League Baseball’s Florida Marlins were cruising toward a second-place finish in the National League’s East division. The same day, county commissioners in Miami-Dade County finally approved a package that would give the team public funding for a new stadium — $409 million in public bonds, to be precise — ending a struggle that had lasted nearly five years.
On April 4, 2012, Marlins Park opened, and the franchise that had won two World Series titles but hadn’t fielded a playoff team since 2003 was starting over. They were now the Miami Marlins, replete with a new stadium, new uniforms, and a host of new faces. Owner Jeff Loria, banking on big revenues from his shiny new stadium digs, had spent big, bringing in All-Stars like Jose Reyes and Mark Buerhle to give his fans a contender.
Last night, after the once-promising Marlins failed to contend for the East Division title and finished in last place, the team traded its best players — Reyes, Buerhle, and star pitcher Josh Johnson — to the Toronto Blue Jays in a lopsided deal that, combined with earlier trades of star third baseman Hanley Ramirez and closer Heath Bell, will almost assuredly keep the Marlins in the National League basement next year.
It turns out the promises Loria made to fans — that he’d spend the money it took to turn the Marlins into a contender — in order to secure a stadium deal were emptier than Marlins Park was all season.
From the start, Marlins Park has been a disaster. Negotiations between the Marlins, Miami, and Florida’s state government repeatedly broke down between 2004, when a new stadium was first proposed, and 2009, when a project was finally approved. A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit that attempted to put the funding plan to a popular vote, and once a deal was approved, the initial bond sale fell far short of expectations on Wall Street.
In the end, the cost of the stadium rose to $634 million. All told, the cost of repaying the bonds will be an estimated $2.4 billion over the next 40 years. The stadium deal, and leaks of official documents detailing franchise profits that indicated a higher value than the team had let on during negotiations (and that owners had pocketed revenue-sharing money), led to an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Throughout the process, voters in Miami and Dade County made it clear they opposed the stadium. In 2009, stadium opponent Tomas Regalado won a landslide victory in the city’s mayoral election over a Marlins-endorsed stadium supporter. In 2011, Miami-Dade County voters recalled and defeated county Mayor Carlos Alvarez and County Commissioner Natacha Seijas, both vocal proponents of the stadium deal. They later replaced Alvarez with Carlos Gimenez, a stadium critic.
Despite the deception, despite the opposition, Marlins Park stands. The entire episode is a lesson in the corporate cronyism that is the public financing of stadiums, the $4 billion bill American taxpayers have been stuck with while wealthy owners like Loria laugh all the way to the bank. In cities across the country, taxpayers are being asked to finance stadium costs, even though mounting evidence suggests that stadiums and arenas almost always cost more than originally planned and almost never bring about the revenues or economic development that is promised (many of them, according to some studies, actually slow down economic growth).
Cincinnati, Ohio sold a public hospital to pay its stadium debts; Glendale, Arizona nearly sold public buildings to make up its costs. In Kansas City, the MLB franchise used public funds to pay its taxes. Atlanta’s National Football League team wants taxpayers to replace its 20-year-old stadium even though the city is slashing its public education budget. The list goes on.
And now, instead of having a bad baseball team, Miami residents have a comically bad baseball team and a debt-ridden stadium they never wanted. It’s a lesson in the corporate welfare that has taken over sports, leaving cities, states, and their residents with a bill that they were promised would pay itself. South Florida’s Major League Baseball experiment, experts are saying, is over. What that means isn’t entirely clear — the Marlins aren’t going anywhere now that they have their stadium. But no matter what happens with that experiment, no matter what happens with Miami’s baseball team, Marlins Park and its $2.4-billion tab will be there, a constant reminder that stadium deals gone wrong aren’t the exception, they’re the rule.