Earlier this week the Arizona Republic ran a story introducing the Diamondbacks' idea of gaining more control over Chase Field. Even with the context presented in the article, it might be difficult for the average fan to understand why any of this matters, or the potential consequences to significant changes to the current situation.
It's hard to completely model what would, or even could happen, should the Diamondbacks get their way. Part of this is the result of not completely knowing the Diamondbacks' plan. Perhaps the issues I'll present below will never come up because the ultimate plan for the Diamondbacks achieves its ends through other means. Below I'll attempt to explain some of the context to how Chase Field is governed, and what potential changes could mean. `
Chase Field is part of a special arrangement called a "district," which is a quasi-governmental instrument governments will use to fund or control certain projects. In plain English, districts and authorities generally encompass only a particular area, and control a particular action. Port authorities control ports, stadium authorities control stadiums. The advantage that quasi-governmental organizations and public-private arrangements is that the organization can offer the best of both worlds: the coercive power of government combined with the fiscal flexibility of the private sector.
The Maricopa County Stadium District was created specifically to fund and run the baseball stadium that is currently known as Chase Field. The Diamondbacks received a discounted stadium (though they ended up paying for almost a third of the cost, due to an agreement to cover cost overruns), and in return pay the County rent every year. Likewise, the Diamondbacks have to contribute to a fund set aside for capital improvements, though the County can also contribute funds.
The Diamondbacks want to change some parts of this arrangement to better fit their needs. Exactly what that means is not completely known, at least not publicly, but I'm going to attempt to show why the Stadium District is arranged the way it is.
The Stadium District is controlled by a board of directors, and as required by the Arizona Revised Statutes the board consists only of the County Supervisors. The Diamondbacks would like to have more say in the actions of the District, and potentially move the control to the city of Phoenix. The latter would have unknown consequences, but would most likely be a very bad idea.
Here's why the directors should remain elected officials: they're easier to control. Since the role of directorship is tied directly to an elected position, Maricopa resident can, in theory, remove that person through a vote. If the Statutes were modified to allow the D-backs in, or even worse to control, they would have no balance against their power.
That in and of itself is not a bad thing, as the Stadium District only controls Chase Field. The problem is in the quasi-governmental nature of districts. If a district enters into a contract, then there's no going back. The constitution is clear that, no state shall pass a "Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts," so any contract (including loans) would be untouchable once signed. Any grantee of a contract could then sue the state if it tried to void or alter it.
If a group of elected officials create contracts that are bad for the state, then the residents can vote them out. But quasi-governmental organizations can be very different, and this is the danger in allowing a private organization to control a district.
Of course, there's also the state law that prohibits conflicts of interests, and I don't think it would take much effort to show that the D-backs would have a conflict of interest if they were on the Stadium District board and were the main tenant of Chase Field.
The Diamondbacks claim they want more control of how the capital improvements are implemented. I wonder how much of that could be true. I don't think it's a bad thing for the team to want control of its own money to use on improvements, but Chase had gone through tremendous upgrades in the past few years. The massive video board,the new LED ribbons, the new video boards for lineups, the misters out front, the new mural, and the new paint job all suggest that the D-backs don't have much trouble getting improvements done.
The recent article about the D-backs plan also mentions that the team would like to reduce capacity of the stadium, and I think this is the real reason. They'll have a difficult time changing the Arizona State Statutes, and they don't have a problem getting improvements. But they absolutely cannot change the seat count without the Stadium District, and that's their endgame, in my opinion.
There's been a trend towards smaller stadiums in baseball, both because it's easier to sell-out and raise the overall ticket prices with the limited supply, and also because it's difficult to fill a 75, 000 seat stadium for 81 games. Some NFL teams have trouble with that for only 8 games.
Chase Field has a seating capacity of 48, 633, which is good enough to be 6th biggest in the majors. I won't bore you with tales of the D-backs attendance woes in recent years (effectively every year 2004 and on), but it's hard to imagine the team suddenly shooting up the standings for awhile. A reduction in seat count would allow the team to be more competitive from a financial point of view, but it would result in higher average prices for seats for the fan.
Obviously we, as fans, don't want to be gouged, but Chase Field really does have too many seats. It has about 2000 less than Yankee Stadium, which seems wrong to me. Even the Yankees reduced capacity when they went from Old Yankee Stadium to the new ballpark, and the Marlins recently opened a stadium with only 36,000 seats.
It's hard to say completely what the Diamondbacks intend to do. Changing the Stadium District will be difficult and public, so we'll know more if they do go that route. Personally, I think that's a bad idea. But I do think the team needs to look at the capacity of Chase Field, which is probably too high.