Letter from seattle: Mariners' costly Xanadu

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The Independent Online
LAST THURSDAY, the Seattle Mariners opened a new baseball stadium worthy of Xanadu. The 44,000-strong crowd that piled into Safeco Field for the inaugural game against the San Diego Padres were treated to stunning sunset views of the city skyline and mountains, a demonstration of the fancy retractable roof, a firework display and a rousing concert by the Seattle Symphony.

The Mariners lost the game 3-2 - but that, as it turns out, was the least of anybody's worries.

The real problem is the stadium. Sitting directly behind the Mariners' old home, the dingy indoor Kingdome, Safeco certainly looks very nice with its elegant brickwork, its heatable grass surface in place of the Astroturf next door, and that 11,000-ton rolling roof to counter Seattle's plentiful rain. But it has ended up costing a whopping $517 million (pounds 340m), more than twice the original estimate when plans were hatched four years ago and a full $100m over the worst-case budget drawn up when the stadium was nearing completion.

It is the most expensive sports stadium in the United States, and now somebody is going to have to pay for it. The team and the city are barely on speaking terms, each blaming the other for the fiasco. Washington state officials who first argued for the stadium now act like it doesn't exist. Even the Safeco insurance company, which paid $40m for the name, must be pondering the wisdom of its investment.

The bottom line is ominous. Either Seattle taxpayers, already stung for $372m they neither expected nor voted for, will have to shell out for most of the balance, or else the Mariners will go so heavily into debt that it will have no funds left for its players.

The Mariners' two stars, slugger Ken Griffey and short-stop Alex Rodriguez, have contracts worth several hundred million dollars up for renewal and already the word is out that the team might lose them. It's like being ushered into your spanking new dream house, only to be told the furniture is impounded and the electricity about to be cut off.

That's not the end of the bad news. Safeco is 11,000 seats smaller than the loss-making Kingdome, but the Mariners had hoped the new venue would boost revenues by attracting capacity crowds and selling several hundred prestige "Charter Club" season tickets at anything up to $23,000 a pop.

It hasn't happened. More than a third of the Charter Club seats remain unsold, and season ticket subscriptions as a whole have barely exceeded the Kingdome's 22,000 average.

How did Seattle end up in such a pickle? The answer lies with a trend begun five years ago in Cleveland, where the construction of a state-of- the-art stadium for the Indians became an overnight sensation, contributing to the economic revival of the gritty post-industrial city and guaranteeing an unbroken record of full houses for every baseball game since.

Baltimore and Denver quickly followed in Cleveland's footsteps, with similarly successful results. Aside from Seattle, four other cities are due to unveil new stadiums in the next year, including Houston whose Astrodome pioneered the art of air-conditioned indoor baseball but is now considered every bit as dingy as the Kingdome and is being replaced by an outdoor field.

Where Seattle went wrong was in letting its hubris get the better of rational judgement. The retractable roof on its own was a folly costing anywhere between $70m and $90m, depending who you believe, and hardly justifiable in practical terms. "Eastern cities with far more baseball- season rain than Seattle do perfectly well in unroofed ballparks," observed architectural critic John Pastier.

Then there was the haste with which the authorities insisted on finishing before Seattle's West Coast rival, San Francisco, could complete its own new baseball arena. Workers were put on the job 10 hours a day, six days a week for 17 months, pushing overtime pay through the stratosphere and incurring costly mistakes.

Seattle's woes may not be the one-off they seem, but rather a symptom of the hidden costs of ploughing quite so much public energy into new sports arenas. A number of recent economic studies suggest the Cleveland experience - a classic Keynsian public works scheme to shake off a recession - is the exception, and that no amount of initial enthusiasm about a new stadium can offset the long-term debt repayments incurred. After all, the Kingdome and the Astrodome were considered architectural wonders when they were built in the 1970s but have become superannuated in less time than an average American family takes to pay off a mortgage.

City pride and sporting enthusiasm will always make every new stadium seem like a bright hope for the future. But the fans may end up paying for the extravagance twice over - first at the ticket office and then, when the lustre fades, in years and years worth of tax bills.