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Bank on Target Field, but Only So Much

Apr 11, 2010 – 8:00 PM
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John Hickey

John Hickey %BloggerTitle%

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Twins step into their future Monday when they inaugurate their new home, Target Field, with the help of the Boston Red Sox.

Consigned to history are the cold, unfeeling walls and roof of the climate-controlled Metrodome. And while there were some fears that real cold, real Minnesota cold that could chill even Garrison Keillor up the road apiece in Lake Wobegon, could be a factor in the Twins returning to outdoor baseball this week, the weather for the debut of this $500 million baseball palace is supposed to be mostly spring-like.

The Twins are the 22nd Major League team since 1989 to get a new stadium, and like the other 21 teams who have walked this path in the last two-plus decades, Minnesota is looking forward to the new sources of revenue that a new stadium brings -- there are 60 private suites and there is the inevitable local buzz that should see the place run at near capacity.

Two years ago, banking on the increased revenue streams, the Twins signed two of their best players, first baseman Justin Morneau (six years, $80 million) and currently disabled closer Joe Nathan (four years, $47 million). Just this spring the Twins went a step beyond with an eight-year, $184 million package for catcher Joe Mauer.

But if there is one thing that most of the other 21 teams have learned from reliance on new stadiums, it's that swanky homes aren't enough to ensure future success.

Of the 22 new facilities put in play since the SkyDome (now renamed Rogers Centre) opened in Toronto in 1989, six have had their best year of attendance in their first year -- Turner Field in Atlanta, Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, PNC Park in Pittsburgh, AT&T Park in San Francisco, Chase Field in Phoenix and Petco Park in San Diego.

Seventeen of the 22 have been open at least five years. Of those, only four have had their peak attendance late in life -- once the early glitz, glamour and sheer newness of the facility has worn off. Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, opened in 2004, had its best attendance last year. Miller Park in Milwaukee, opened in 2001, and Comerica Park in Detroit, opened in 2000, both had their peak attendance in 2008. And U.S. Cellular Field, opened in 1991 as new Comiskey Park, topped out its crowds in 2006.

So it's a cautionary tale.

"There's always a bump you get when you first open,'' Seattle Mariners president Chuck Armstrong told FanHouse. "But after that, there's usually a dropoff. I look at the park in Pittsburgh, which has to be one of the prettiest settings in baseball. But they had a drop off [after the first year].''

"There's always a bump you get when you first open [a new ballpark], but after that, there's usually a dropoff [in attendance]."
-- Mariners president Chuck Armstrong
The Mariners opened Safeco Field in the middle of the 1999 season, won 116 games in 2001 and peaked in attendance in 2002. A series of mostly losing teams since then has seen attendance fall by over 1.3 million from then to last year's 2.19 million.

In Milwaukee, where Miller Park is a year away from celebrating its first decade, a series of winning teams has seen the Brewers have the first two seasons of 3 million-plus attendance the last two years.

Keeping that team together to keep the fans involved can be a struggle, however. Just this week the club signed pitcher Yovani Gallardo to a five-year, $30.1 million deal. Outfielder Ryan Braun is in the early stages of an eight-year, $45 million deal and the club is working on getting first baseman Prince Fielder's name on a long-term contract.

As a result, the Brewers' payroll has jumped from $57 million in 2006 to what principal owner Mark Attanasio says could be $90 million before 2010 is over. And, Attanasio said, the club can't count on Miller Park as a cash cow any more. Even though he's hoping for a third consecutive attendance of over 3 million this year, the club's budget is based on a fan count of 2.7 million.

And Milwaukee is poised to lose money even as the team is considered a strong contender for the National League Central title.

"We've budgeted on a break-even basis for a number of years,'' Attanasio told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this week. "This year, we budgeted for a loss. It didn't create consternation, but it raised questions among our ownership group because, fundamentally, when you think of a business, you think you budget to a profit, right? Now we budget to a loss.

"We've made a little money in the last few years, but you need to look at profit and loss on a rolling basis.''

The Twins figure to make money in the early years of Target Field, but they are going to have to continue to be competitive -- Minnesota has finished first or second in the AL Central eight times in the last 10 years -- to keep Target Field's 39,504 seats mostly full.

Twins fans enter Target Field

One difficulty in that regard for the Twins will be the weather. The Minnesota franchise is probably most closely related to Seattle among the other 29 teams. The two areas have roughly the same core population, both draw from a wide region and both deal with weather issues.

During the design phase leading up to the building of Target Field, the Twins made several trips to Seattle to consult with the Mariners about having what Safeco Field has -- a free-standing roof.

In the end, the financing just wasn't there. And the lack of a roof could be a problem down the road even if the weather this first week is made to order.

"I send my kudos to [Twins president] Jerry Bell and the Pohlad family (the principal owners) for staying the course,'' the Mariners' Armstrong said. "I do have some concerns that they don't have a roof. I know they tried really hard to get one. We know what that can be like. We have had the roof closed for baseball 22 percent of the time since we opened.''

The roof issue is significant because the Twins draw fans from such a wide region. Armstrong said studies have shown that if there is a chance of rain or inclement weather, fans coming from a greater distance are more likely to just stay home.

But for now, it's probably best for the Twins to just sit back and enjoy being outside again for the first time since the team played in Bloomington, Minn. back in 1981. (Curiously enough, that space now is almost completely roofed in. It's the Mall of America these days, which has more enclosed shopping area than any mall in the country).

It was back in 2001, right at the time Miller Park and others were opening that the Twins were one of two teams (the Montreal Expos were the other) targeted by Major League Baseball for contraction -- elimination of those two franchises would have trimmed baseball to two leagues of 14 teams each instead of the current 14-team American League and 16-team National League.

What a difference a decade has made. For all the obstacles ahead, baseball's future in Minneapolis seems solid.
Filed under: Sports
Tagged: Target Field