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Milwaukee built ballpark, Brewers can't build winning seasons
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New ballparks are supposed to help teams raise the money to keep their young stars. But when Milwaukee All Star Richie Sexson was heading for a big payday at the end of the 2004 season, the Brewers traded him to Arizona. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has said small-market teams like the Minnesota Twins and the Milwaukee Brewers require state-of-the-art ballparks in order to compete. Selig owned and ran the Brewers before he was commissioner and led the push for public financing of Milwaukee's new stadium, Miller Park. Nevertheless, the Brewers have failed to stop their slide of 11 straight seasons below .500 ball. Observers there say Minnesotans should be aware that in the current economics of baseball, sometimes a new stadium just isn't enough.

Milwaukee, Wisc. — During much of the baseball season at the old Milwaukee County stadium, a group of veterans would sit up on a hill overlooking the park, watching the game on nice days. They'd amble over from the nearby veterans home and hospital, set up their lawnchairs, and watch the Braves and later the Brewers through a gap in right field.

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Image The guys from Racine

After the Brewers erected a new scoreboard, the vets lost their view of the game. But they've never lost their opinions about the game, especially about their new neighbor -- Miller Park. "They can't sell the seats, they don't have a team, nobody's going to go to the ballpark just to see the ballpark and that seems what they were thinking. It's the taxpayers that really took it in the shorts," one man says.

Another vet who walks up wearing a Cubs cap adds, "build your ball team and worry about the park later. If you get a winning ball team, you're going to have money for a park."

Baseball owners have advocated just the opposite. They say a new stadium jump starts a cycle of prosperity. It attracts more fans. More fans mean more revenue. More revenue means the team can buy better players. Better players mean a winning team. A winning team brings in more fans.

But that hasn't happened in Milwaukee. After the first season at Miller Park in 2001, Brewer attendance started to slide and now it's off by 40 percent from its inaugural year.

Andrew Zimbalist from Smith College is a national expert on the economics of baseball. He says the only way to make a stadium pay off is to put a good product on the field and fill the seats.

"What the team really needs to do is to have a strategy -- 'We'll build the team to a competitive level to coincide with the opening of the new stadium,'" Zimbalist says. "If you don't do that, then the positive effects of the new stadium wear off very quickly. People become disgruntled, and it can hurt the team in the long run."

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Image Nothing to cheer about

Some fans tailgating an hour before a recent weeknight game caution Minnesotans that just because a community builds a stadium doesn't mean the team will invest that extra revenue wisely. Three men who wanted to be known as "three guys from Racine" say they supported the increased sales tax and the new ballpark, but are critical of the Brewer owners.

"The Seligs didn't put the money back into the ball club to buy players and stuff," said one. "Like he said, they didn't put the money back in like they promised. They didn't live up to their end of the bargain on the whole stadium deal," added another.

Under the agreement struck by the Brewers and state officials, there were no specifics on how the Seligs were supposed to spend the extra revenue that came as a result of the new park's first year's attendance.

Wisconsin State Rep. Bob Ziegelbauer, a Democrat, says Minnesota should learn from Wisconsin that if it agrees to build a stadium it needs to hold team owners and state officials accountable.

"Create a mechanism for the ability to follow up, and enforce an agreement and be disciplined about it," Ziegelbauer says. "And if the agreement isn't followed, certain things will or won't happen. And finally, have collateral to back up the agreement."

The Brewers have angered fans by slashing payroll to about $28 million. By contract, the Yankees top the payroll list at $183 million. The Twins are spending about $54 million this year.

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Image Retractable roof opens at Miller Park

Milwaukee fans are also upset the team traded popular players like All-Star home-run slugger Richie Sexson. On one night at Miller Park, when the announcer was reading the opposing team's line-up, fans cheered when he read the former Brewer's name.

The Brewers acknowledge that the fans question how the team has spent its money, and has agreed to undergo two limited audits -- one conducted by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, and the other by the Legislative Audit Bureau. Both are expected to be completed within a month.

"I think it will bear out what has always been maintained -- that baseball is not an easy business, that the Brewers do operate in a smaller market," says Laurel Prieb, head of the Brewers' corporate affairs. "But having said all that, our confidence is indeed high that this report will clarify a number of things we look forward to -- a good future on the field, good things ahead for Brewer fans."

The Brewers, like the Twins, are a small market team and as a result can take advantage of revenue-sharing from the more affluent ball teams. The Brewers reportedly reaped about $20 million in revenue sharing. But that's a pittance, says Speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly, Republican John Gard.

"The Yankees have a shortstop that's getting that this year. And you look at Arizona, Red Sox, Yankees, the Twins in the long term can't sustain that kind of spending," says Gard. "If this was allowed to be the case in other sports, nobody could compete. But Major League Baseball for some reason has got an identity crisis, and refuses to analyze the problems with the game."

For Milwaukee, the idea of keeping the team was important to the city's image, ability to retain and attract companies, and as a positive attribute to the quality of life. But even the head of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, Tim Sheehy, acknowledges that building a new stadium does not guarantee a winning team.

"A new ballpark guarantees a community that you have the ability to compete," says Sheehy. "Only Major League Baseball is going to be able to fix the problem that our chances of competing go up substantially from where they are today."

Sheehy maintains the most important element for Milwaukee was to keep the Brewers from leaving town, and it has. But while some argue that unless the Twins get a new stadium, they could leave for another market, former Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent disagrees.

"Where are they going to move to? What market is better? There are no good markets. The critical element in baseball is television. It's not a new ballpark, although a new ballpark helps, but the TV market is so important," says Vincent. "Some of those markets like Cincinnati, Milwaukee and I think like Minneapolis-St Paul, the market is very small ... The local television revenues are small and it's just very hard to compete."

The Seligs have now put the Brewers up for sale, angering some critics who say the team is worth much more now with Miller Park. The Wisconsin Legislature tried to pass a 5-percent tax on capital gains the Seligs would receive if they sell the team. That legislation was unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, it's unclear who actually would buy the team. The Brewers signed a 30-year lease to play at Miller Park. During this weeknight game, the Brewers drew only 11,000 fans.

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