Yesterday, Miami’s major league baseball team, the Florida Marlins, won an extra inning decision in the agreement to obtain significant public moneys to build a new downtown stadium. Nudging the deal terms caused the extra innings– but the outcome was never in doubt. On a sliding scale, the key feature will deliver full profits to the team owners when the Marlins are sold, including the principal asset: the new $500 million stadium financed with public dollars. By a 3-2 vote, city commissioners confirmed the controversial decision. The Marlins are ready to celebrate the moment as a ‘new beginning’ for the team with the lowest annual attendance in Major League Baseball. On the other hand, it might be the beginning of the end.
It is hard to call market tops; but the approval of any sport stadium in the middle of a recession/depression is inviting. The victors resemble their predecessors in ancient Rome: what better time to refurbish the public morale than when poor citizens are focused on distant wars and the weakening dollar. There is no better time for jobs, however temporary, than the middle of a crisis. What better purpose than the field of play, where the pride that goeth before a fall is neatly rounded by four bases in a neat square, not a billion, not a trillion, or more. And, too, this is Miami: the epicenter of the housing boom and the political origin of its collapse, where innumerable condo openings wet imaginations and parties till dawn yielding, now, to foreclosures and fallen condo kings, from platted subdivisions held as the highest achievement of construction, delivering value to consumers measured by the thousand square foot, now half abandoned with swimming pools swollen green with mosquitoes.
So, where do you put your money, if you are an elected public official, looking out to the audience filled with angry citizens and willing campaign contributors from the engineering firms, contractors, and building associations lined up in battle gear, suits, ties, and shiny shoes? Will it be for renaissance and revival, or, contraction and conservation of fiscal resources? There is, playing in the background, GM cutting off Tiger Woods’ endorsement, television ad revenues sharply declining, and sports team owners and gladiators on the field, court, and base paths wondering what shoe falls next, now that Nike just laid off 1,400 people.
The dark question of Marlins baseball games played to crowds measured by hundreds did not rise into perceptible view at yesterday’s meeting in City Hall. On the dais, there was much feinting and darting as mid-court players driving to the hoop, but the outcome was never in doubt. In a tired, beleaguered yet circle-the-last-lap statement to city commissioners, the county manager George Burgess acknowledged that times are hard but waived aside predictions, economics and astrology, saying that no one with whom he had conversed thought this downturn could last longer than four years. It was sort of like Babe Ruth pointing his bat in the direction where his next hit would travel.
Why would the economic recovery not be around the corner? That is where it has always been. The county manager’s ears are filled with bond salesman itching to bonus themselves. City and county government, also, cannot imagine that things will not return to the way things were, exactly.
In the halls of government in cities like Miami, where the jackhammers and cranes and cement trucks have all gone quiet, there is a palpable sense of nostalgia, broken only by hope for a new $500 million stadium or, as Florida Power and Light would have it, two new nuclear reactors costing $18 billion at least. It was so much better and fun when lobbyists buzzed the joint for zoning decisions, permits, favors and the flavor of quid pro quos stretching from ‘yea’ on the dais to the hands of local bankers and builders funding political campaigns, to mortgages in packaged pools sent to Wall Street like brown wrapped bricks of cocaine. The whole purpose of local government, after all, is glue guns, sheet rock, and plywood, cement mixers, pavers and road graders: construction no one wants for financial derivatives everyone needs: a 21st century version of the slave and rum trade.
Take away that currency, and what is left?
There is a sound point of view that lost in this sentimentality. If our economic condition is unprecedented, then it follows that what comes next could very well be unprecedented. If the unthinkable is just over the horizon, what is a $500 million sports stadium good for? But no one is the mood to speculate about a different kind of future, not when the speculators prevail in public forums through the exclusive presentation of rosy forecasts based on the good old flood of in-state migration to Florida. Of course, few people are moving to Florida, or at least urban Miami, and not many can even afford a ticket to a professional baseball game. Miami was one of the nation’s poorest cities even before the Florida Marlins decided to move downtown from its existing location, another nearly empty stadium built at great expense, with great promise, in the flatland suburbs.
In private, top consiglieri of the economy mumble amongst themselves that it could take five to ten years to extract wealth again from this recession/depression. Not exactly confidence inspiring. Then again there is no momentum to dwell on the long term, not when those heavy balls are so used to swinging from the rhythm of Wall Street’s quarterly financial reports.
Certainly, on some level, there is another order of mumbling. This would come from the well-heeled Miami business interests who found their way to cross-pollinate during the housing bubble they helped inflate with cousins in Spain. Today, Spain’s economy is at the front edge of the world-wide recession, having bet the nation’s banks and economy on housing. Its jobless rate is 13.9 percent, the highest in the EU. The government of Spain forecasts that it will approach 16 percent by year’s end.
And more to the point: Spain’s top professional football (soccer) league is facing disarray. At least six teams, including such names as Real Sociedad, Celta Vigo and Levante, are already in bankruptcy protection and more could soon follow. Valencia, one of the top clubs, has $731 million in total debt. In the US, the business model for professional sports is different. Or is it?
“I think what we’re seeing right now is an adjustment,” sports economist Skip Sauer told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer recently, as if searching for the right mild word that would keep him in the game. “If we get through the next two quarters and then things start turning back, the leagues will be fine. This is just an opportunity for them to look at the bottom line and prepare for the storm if it gets worse. It might not, but you have to be prudent.” Checked, swing.
“If it does get worse, then you’ve got the next wave.” That would be, mothballing: the next professional sport.
The banks JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America lent $200 million to the National Basketball Association. It would snow in Miami before the banks extend the same terms to for the Florida Marlins’ new stadium plan.
But in Miami, defying wisdom when it comes to decisions about development is even more sacred than baseball.
ALAN FARAGO, who writes on the environment and politics from Coral Gables, Florida, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org