The ability for professional sports franchises to develop new stadia has created an ever increasing struggle between owners and sports leagues, and the municipalities that host them. In nearly every case, some form of taxpayer subsidy is involved, with the majority of the funding falling on the public, not the team.
According to a study by the nonpartisan research arm of the 362,000-member National Taxpayers Union (NTU), average stadium construction costs have skyrocketed nearly 60 percent in inflation-adjusted terms from 1990 to 2004. The average stadium built from 1990 to 1992 cost $240.6 million in 2006 dollars, compared to $383.64 million for those built from 2002 to 2004. Subsidy percentages increased 19 percent from 1996 to 1998 -- a relatively low point in average stadium costs -- to 2002 to 2004. During the same period, total subsidy amounts increased more than 41 percent.
The examples in Major League Baseball are easy to find: $611 million for the new Nationals Ballpark. As of July, public subsidy for New Yankee Stadium was at $500 million, and in October added $225 million in triple tax-exempt bonds (up from an earlier proposed amount of $190 million) to pay for parking structures. The Minnesota Twins got a sales tax increase passed last year, ending a 10 year battle to get public funding to get their new stadium built, the Marlins are 10 years in a fight for funds, and counting, and the Tampa Bay Rays announced plans this week for a new stadium that will require $60 million in public funding.
Against this background stands Lou Weisbach CEO of Stadium Capital Financing Group, a company that is working toward funding solutions for stadium efforts. Morgan Stanley Principal Investments purchased a majority interest Stadium Capital Financing in June of 2007, giving the company deep pockets from which to work from.
Weisbach and Stadium Capital have come up with a model to assist teams in raising capital without incurring debt or diluting ownership or governing control. The program can be implemented in conjunction with other existing seating packages, such as season seat and ticket mini-packages. According to Stadium Capital, the process would provide the fan long-term protection from escalating season ticket prices, while guaranteeing long term access to premium tickets. Teams could receive upfront proceeds ranging from $50 million to $500 million, which can be used to repay debt, build or renovate stadiums, build an endowment for a university, or provide liquidity for team owners that could be used in a variety of ways including buying out minority partners. (see more at http://www.seatrights.com/).
The question is, will MLB, and other sports leagues, look to new methods that remove some of the onus on the public, or will the culture continue?
To answer some questions about stadia funding, and the Equity Seats Rights model, we offer this interview with Lou Weisbach. Topics include how the model was conceived, the difference between a Personal Seat License (or Charter Seat License) and an ESR, whether MLB or MLB clubs have been engaged in using ESRs, how the Marlins, or other teams currently searching for stadium funding could benefit from Stadium Capital, and thoughts on whether there will need to be a philosophical shift in how MLB does business, before the idea of using this model will be received. – Maury Brown
(Select Read More to see the interview with Lou Weisbach)
Maury Brown for the Business of Sports Network: When did the concept for Stadium Capital first come to fruition?
Lou Weisbach: The original concept came out of my work, in 2003 and 2004, with the mayor of Las Vegas, to bring professional sports to that city. At the time, the Montreal Expos were leaving Montreal, and Las Vegas hoped to land the team. Las Vegas wound up being the 'runner-up', with the team eventually, of course, going to Washington, D.C.
My business partners and I had worked to identify a potential funding source for a stadium in Las Vegas. In the process, we developed a “seed” of an idea, which became the Equity Seat Right concept. We realized that our idea had broader applications; it became the foundation of our sports financing business, Stadium Capital Financing Group.
Bizball: What is the primary difference between the Personal Seat License model, and the model that Stadium Capital has come up with?
Weisbach: A Personal Seat License does not provide the fan with any new rights that they did not have previously – the team merely charges the fan more for the same rights they had the year before. The fan still has to purchase the season ticket each year at a yet-to-be-determined price. In many cases, the team makes only a limited commitment to the fan (3-10 years) to even offer the fan the right to purchase the tickets. The only thing that is certain is that the season tickets will continuously go up in price each year. Transferability rights are sometimes available, but typically very restricted. The ESR provides fixed pricing, full transferability, and free tickets after a period of time. Effectively, it is the difference between “renting” and “buying” your home. The ESR allows the fan to build equity.
Bizball: What MLB teams have contacted you about this model?
Weisbach: We have spoken to many MLB teams, but due to confidentiality agreements, we are not at liberty to disclose the specific teams.
Bizball: Has MLB itself approached you?
Weisbach: While we have not had any conversations with the Commissioner, we have had various conversations with people connected with the league. We expect to speak to the league directly in the near future when a team owner is committed to implementing the process. Four months ago we completed a transaction with Morgan Stanley Principal Investments, which became a majority owner of the business. They bring deep resources and credibility to our business. The leagues (and teams) typically deal with investment banking firms for major financings. In the last few months we have begun to go into the marketplace with Morgan Stanley. While there will undoubtedly be issues to address with MLB, we believe that the ESR process is in the best interest of the league because it can:
1) Shore up financially strapped clubs (paying off debt, etc.).
2) Assist in the building and renovation of stadiums.
3) Provide stability for teams and their home cities (it's not normally in the best interest of the league to have teams switching cities frequently).
4) Unearth the “true” and higher market value of teams (heretofore, a team's value is typically not realized until the ultimate sale of the franchise).
Bizball: Can you give me your thoughts on the Marlins stadium situation, and how Stadium Capital's model would fit in?
Weisbach: The state of Florida has struggled for a number of years with getting the proper legislative support to fund a new stadium. There is political pressure in many states not to use so many public tax dollars for an “entertainment” facility, given the financial needs in other areas – education, health care, etc. Stadium Capital eliminates the financial burden on the state by allowing fans who want to “own” a piece of the team (figuratively, not legally) to fund part, or all, of the development.
(Editors Note: See renderings of a proposed Marlins design)
Bizball: Has there been more interest at the collegiate or professional level for Stadium Capital's services?
Weisbach: There is significant interest at both the college and professional levels, especially with international soccer.
Bizball: You recently opened offices in London to expand Stadium Capital's reach. How long did you research expanding into Europe and what are the goals of the European effort?
Weisbach: Our partnership with Morgan Stanley Principal Investments has opened the door to European and South American sports opportunities. We feel that, given the incredible level of fan support for sport in Europe, there's a tremendous opportunity for implementing ESRs there.
Europe is also ripe for the implementation of ESRs given the age of most facilities there. Many European stadiums not only need to be renovated for safety reasons, but also because facilities were not originally designed with the amenities needed to attract corporations and families. Implementing ESRs will enable European team owners to create a seismic shift in a franchise’s revenue performance.
We're currently in discussions with various European and South American football clubs.
Bizball: On a philosophical and political level, does Stadium Capital have to work to overcome some of the dependencies that some professional sports leagues have toward the use of public financing models over private methods?
Weisbach: Each situation is unique and we do not expect that the Equity Seat Right model will be the answer to all situations. On the other hand, the trend in many municipalities is for there to be resistance to public funding as the primary source for facility construction. The ESR concept is good for a municipality, good for team owners, and beneficial for fans.
Interview conducted by Maury Brown