SBJ/October 3 - 9, 2005/Facilities

Making success a tradition

Working in a city steeped in baseball tradition, Mark Lamping has a rather unromantic notion of the St. Louis Cardinals’ forthcoming stadium, a new Busch Stadium set to open next year adjacent to the current facility with the same name.

Lamping, the club’s president, thinks of the $346 million stadium as a new factory, supremely designed to improve the output of one of baseball’s leading makers of wins and fans.

“A good way to look at us is that we’re a very successful manufacturer that produces a great product, even though we’re working out of a terribly inefficient plant,” Lamping said. “We didn’t have a fan problem or a team problem. We had a factory problem, and now we’re curing our inefficiencies and are poised to grow in our new facility.”

Not the sepia-toned stuff of Ken Burns or Doris Kearns Goodwin, to be certain, but it highlights the uniqueness of the new stadium and the enviable position in which the Cardinals find themselves.

Marking a true rarity in the current generation of baseball stadium development, the Cardinals do not claim to need a new stadium to become competitive in today’s high-dollar times for MLB or to keep up with ever-strengthening divisional rivals. Five NL Central titles in the last six years, including a runaway crown this season, make that a difficult sell. Nor was the new ballpark used in an age-old ploy to keep the Cardinals from leaving town.

Rather, this is a straightforward case of the strong becoming stronger, a situation perhaps trumped by only the New York Yankees, who plan to move into a new stadium in 2009 while already enjoying the sport’s highest attendance and revenue.

SNAPSHOTS: Busch Stadium
Current New
1966 First game 2006
50,345 Capacity Approximately 45,000
$9-$55 Ticket price range $12-$55
68 Luxury suites 70, plus 40 party rooms
260 Club seats 5,000
50% Pct. of seats in upper deck 20%
10,277 Field-level seats 16,586
2,235 Bleacher seats 3,682
11 feet-30 feet Concourse widths (range) 30 feet-97 feet
48 Restrooms 58
0 Escalators 7
2 Public elevators 8
Source: St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals’ local revenue is projected to rise 15 percent to 20 percent next year in the new stadium and should pass $150 million, industry sources said. Luxury seating is mushrooming from 260 club seats and 68 suites to 5,000 club seats, 70 suites, 40 party rooms and 600 highly coveted field-level club seats behind home plate. Attendance, already reaching a franchise record of more than 3.5 million in 2005, should find a fairly steady perch at that lofty height. Operating profits, which for the 2004 season did not arrive until the postseason, arrived during the regular season this year, Lamping said, and are poised to continue in the new Busch Stadium.

And a partnership with Baltimore’s The Cordish Co. to build Ballpark Village, a $450 million mixed-use development targeted for just north of the new stadium, makes the club a 50 percent equity partner in the rebuilding of a prime, eight-acre parcel of downtown land.

“We’re out to make a great franchise into a greatly stable franchise,” Lamping said. “Our debt on the stadium was rated at investment grade, which is somewhat unheard of in baseball, and we think that speaks to the solid situation we’ve built here, and the tremendous support of our fans. We’re having such a great year that the [economic] effects have sort of come early, but this stadium makes us a much stronger franchise, no doubt about it.”

Flexing muscles

Despite all that, Lamping, who’s run the team for 11 years, insists the Cardinals are not a big-market club and don’t behave like one. The club features superstars such as Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen, and holds a player payroll this year of $92 million, sixth highest in baseball and set to rise toward $100 million in 2006. The Cardinals, however, are typically not market-setters regarding individual salaries and are usually not high-profile chasers of free-agent talent.

“We’re not L.A., Chicago or New York, and that’s OK. We don’t set out to be a power franchise,” Lamping said. “We’re still the seventh smallest media market in baseball.”

But ever so quietly, the Cardinals have flexed their economic and operational muscles in the last year. That new, more aggressive Cardinals philosophy was perhaps most visible in the team’s August decision to end a 52-year relationship with KMOX radio. Starting next season, the club will be heard on KTRS, news that shocked many of the team’s faithful legion of fans.

Rather than just construct a standard rights-fee deal, the Cardinals purchased 50 percent of station equity to supplement the annual rights payments. The club also plans to move the station’s studios to Ballpark Village and is looking to bulk up its Cardinals radio programming as well as the roster of affiliate stations.

“They’ve been such a progressive organization of late, I think this was the next logical step for them: gaining the equity interest. There’s a lot of depth and breadth to this deal,” said KTRS general manager Tim Dorsey. “I know one thing: It’s made me a very popular person. There are just a ton of Cardinals fans out there.”

The same thinking was applied to the club’s 2004 purchase of the Class AA El Paso (Texas) Diablos, pegged at $9.8 million. The Cardinals promptly moved the team to Springfield, Mo., a stronghold of Cardinals fandom located 200 miles southwest of St. Louis, and eliminated the need to fund a player development agreement since it owned the club.

“Tickets are always going to be our bread-and-butter, like any club, but we’re trying to maximize every revenue source that we can that’s not tied to our fans,” Lamping said. “That certainly will continue.”

That’s an oft-repeated refrain from team executives, but in the Cardinals’ case, there is some validity to the claim. The new stadium, perhaps surprisingly, will not arrive with a massive jump in raw ticket prices.

Not counting the exclusive home-plate club seats, which will range from $150 to $170 per seat per game, the ticket-price spread in the new stadium will be $12 to $55, almost identical to the $9 to $55 spread in the current stadium. The team’s projected increase in ticket revenue will come largely from a greater number of seats being located in the lower deck and, as a result, qualifying for higher price points.

The seemingly next logical step would be for the Cardinals to start their own regional sports network and seek the local TV rights of the NHL Blues to go with it. Lamping said the notion has been discussed but is not a front-burner priority. The club is the midst of a multiyear deal with FSN Midwest.

“We have a great partnership with FSN, no doubt helped by the fact we outperform our [media] market size [No. 21] in terms of local ratings and attendance,” Lamping said. “But if there’s anyone who could go that route alone, without a winter sports team, it would be us.”

New-look franchise

It wasn’t always fat city for the Cardinals, a team perhaps as well known in recent years for its red ink as its red uniforms.

Owner William DeWitt Jr. led a partnership in 1995 that paid $150 million for the club. For five of the next eight seasons, the club posted fiscal losses, despite owning one of the most passionate and multigenerational fan bases in the sport.

Talk of a new Cardinals stadium began five years ago in the typical places: a need to improve team economic competitiveness, and a desire to have the public sector contribute significantly to the project. Three years later, the Missouri state Senate approved a $210 million funding package for a new Cardinals stadium.

Cards business exec Bill DeWitt III says the club will give fans a free peek at games.
The effort died soon thereafter, though, when the state House of Representatives declined to move on the legislation, setting the team off in pursuit of private funding.

In retrospect, the Cardinals never really enjoyed a true groundswell of support for public stadium funding, nor mounted a full-throttle campaign for it, even as a move to the Illinois suburbs was briefly considered. Local politicians showed great affinity for the current Busch Stadium, and still do.

The team also relies on strong season-ticket sales from local fans and on a sizable group of regional fans willing to travel hundreds of miles to town for games — two constituencies easily turned off by a heavy-handed push for public stadium dollars.

The final financing deal calls for roughly a $90 million equity payment from the team, $200 million in bonds that also will be paid for by the club, and a $45 million loan from St. Louis County. Aiding the effort are more than $30 million in state tax credits and $12.3 million in state transportation money.

Critical to the financing, and more specifically to the strong rating given to the Cardinals’ bond debt, were long-term business deals with key sponsors such as Anheuser-Busch Cos., which again holds naming rights for the team’s home, similarly lengthy deals with Sportservice for concessions and FSN Midwest for TV, and a personal seat-license program netting more than $40 million.

“Any sponsor is going to want to be associated with teams and properties that have a high-quality perception, and in baseball that’s driven largely by competitiveness,” said Tony Ponturo, Anheuser-Busch vice president of global media and sports marketing. “Clearly, there’s a water-level rise happening with the Cardinals, and that’s good for them and obviously good for their sponsors.”

But as the current Busch Stadium enters its final days of use, some fans are still wondering about the need for a new stadium, even as the rest of its generation of doughnut-shaped multipurpose stadiums die out. Clearly, there are no issues with competitiveness, and team officials have steadily invested in facility improvements, removing the last vestiges of the stadium’s use by the NFL Cardinals, switching to a natural-grass playing surface and installing several baseball-friendly elements such as a hand-operated scoreboard.

The response from the team and its partners is straightforward: After nearly four decades of steady use, the current stadium simply has reached the end of its life cycle and no longer presents the level of amenities now commonplace in baseball.

Said Jon Cordish of developer The Cordish Co., “We think [the new stadium] is going to be one of the great experiences in baseball, and in our opinion, one of the more dynamic urban entertainment districts in the country.”

Tradition highlighted

In Washington, much of the stadium talk for the Nationals’ new ballpark is on innovation and the urge to create something modern and altogether unlike the rush of throwback ballparks started by the HOK-designed Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

In St. Louis, there was no need to be trendsetters. This is a city much more grounded and rooted, with families often staying intact and in town for multiple generations. As such, well-honed, traditional touches are replete through the new stadium, which is about 60 percent complete.

The new Busch Stadium’s closest cousin in design is probably Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park, which like the St. Louis project is an HOK creation. Red brick forms the exterior of both parks, and both are quick to show the influences of such storied stadiums as Ebbets Field and Shibe Park.

The Cardinals, however, have a few distinguishing elements planned for their ballpark. The site on which the ballpark sits has a 40-foot elevation change from home plate in the southwest corner toward the north end beyond center field, an element that should aid fan views of the downtown skyline and Gateway Arch. The exposed steel is painted charcoal black, veering sharply from the green seen at many throwback ballparks and giving the facility a more rough-hewn appearance.

Luxury suites at the new ballpark are confined to between first and third bases, avoiding situations like that at Cleveland’s Jacobs Field, where luxury seating is placed out in the far reaches of the facility.

Also planned as a key link to the neighboring Ballpark Village will be a rebuilt Clark Street. The thoroughfare will be somewhat similar to Baltimore’s Eutaw Street in that it will serve as a meeting spot for fans and a center of dining and retail options. Unlike Eutaw Street, Clark Street will remain open to the public during games, providing fans with free, albeit limited, views of the game action.

“We’re still working out the details, but it may very well end up being like the knotholes in San Francisco, where we’ll have some viewing platforms in that area and are rotating fans every half inning,” said Bill DeWitt III, Cardinals senior vice president of business development.

Buttressing the stadium itself will be the Ballpark Village development, with its combination of retail, office space, KTRS studios and residential property.

“This has never really been done before on this scale and with as much planning and forethought,” said Cordish of the Village, “and we’re confident it’s going to set a new standard in the industry.”

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