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Looking at the Arizona Diamondbacks lawsuit against Maricopa County

What does it actually say?

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NLCS: Colorado Rockies v Arizona Diamondbacks - Game 1 Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

For their complaint against Maricopa County Stadium District and Denny Barney, Steve Chucri, Andy Kunasek, Clint Hickman, and Steve Gallardo, in their official capacities as members of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and Board of Directors of the Maricopa County Stadium District, Plaintiffs allege as follows:

The 40-page document is not exactly anyone’s idea of light reading. But I plowed through it, so you didn’t have to, and it does shed some light on the badly-fractured relationship which now exists between the team and their landlords. Let’s review some of the sections in the complaint, though please note: I am not a lawyer, and do not play one on TV. The information presented is not legal advice, is not to be acted on as such, may not be current and is subject to change without notice. I may have copy-pasted that last sentence from somewhere. Text from the lawsuit is in italics, everything else is my commentary.

Since at least 2005, the District has correctly acknowledged in its annual Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports the parties’ intent that, to meet the contractual requirement of keeping the ballpark in “good repair” and to be fit for use as a Major League ballpark, Chase Field must be maintained as a state-of-the-art facility.

This “state-of-the-art” phrase has been a key bone of contention from the beginning. I still haven’t seen the original agreement, but the fact the team are quoting annual reports instead, would suggest the term is not to be found anywhere in the actual contract. If so, the question would seem to be whether those reports will be deemed to be part of the legally-enforceable deal between the teams. From a layman’s point of view, that seems a bit dubious.

The District has achieved all of its intended benefits including keeping control over the booking of Chase Field for non-baseball events and revitalizing and strengthening downtown Phoenix as a result of the Diamondbacks’ presence there. The District has also obtained $3.8 billion in economic benefits for the State of Arizona and Maricopa County and received an infusion of $511 million in tax revenues and license fees for the state and county through 2015, as calculated in a recent study conducted by the Seidman Research Institute of the W.P. Carey School of Business, Arizona State University.

I’ve always been suspicious about these kinds of studies. Elsewhere it explains the $511m includes “Sales taxes on the sales of tickets, merchandise, and food and beverage”, etc. But that’s not necessarily NEW revenue being generated - as opposed, say, to being moved from somewhere else. If a family goes from attending Suns games to Chase Field, is it really an “economic benefit” to Phoenix? If I didn’t spend money on baseball, I know I’d just spent it on other things, because it’s disposable leisure income. The presence of the team certainly doesn’t affect on increase the amount I have to spend. It may shovel some from Glendale to downtown, but I’m unconvinced that’s something on which it’s worth spending hundreds of millions of tax-payer dollars.

[In 2011] The Diamondbacks proposed to continue playing their home games at Chase Field, to assume the entire financial responsibilities for Capital Repairs, and to assume the District’s non-baseball event-booking responsibility, which the Diamondbacks believed they could perform much more effectively. In return, the Diamondbacks requested a reduction of their license fees paid to the District (currently $4.3 million per year, which is at least three times greater than what any other major professional sports franchise is paying in Arizona).

This doesn’t seem an inequitable solution in general. Though I can see why their license fees would be three times greater, as D-backs attendance was at least three times greater than another other Arizona sports franchise as well. The park is far bigger than anyone’s bar the Cardinals, and Chase Field hosts ten times as many home games a year as University of Phoenix Stadium. But it does seem the Stadium District have generally done a poor job over the years of filling the stadium’s off-days with other tenants. I’d like to hear more about the reasons behind that.

The Diamondbacks can wait no longer to at least look into alternative arrangements for playing their home games... If Capital Repairs continue to be deferred due to lack of funding and Chase Field becomes unsuitable for use by the Diamondbacks’ team and its fans, the Diamondbacks will have to either build a new stadium or leave Arizona. The construction of a new stadium would require a minimum four or five years of lead time before the stadium would be ready for play, and that assumes a suitable site has been located and is for sale... The Diamondbacks have concluded that it makes no economic sense to invest $135 million for Capital Repairs, plus additional maintenance costs, into an aging ballpark that does not meet today’s design and function requirements.

That certainly sounds very much like a team that is threatening to go somewhere else. Not necessarily out of Arizona, but as many have noted already, the smart money is likely on reservation land, perhaps out by Salt River Fields. But would the tribes be able to find the far greater cost? SRF was only $100 million. SunTrust Park, the new Braves’ facility, currently is scheduled to cost $672 million, and that’s without the retractable roof presumably needed for Kendrick Park (or whatever it’s called). A cost of a billion dollars likely isn’t far off, with that included. Can it be funded without tax-payer contribution? I’d like to see how.

The Diamondbacks’ existing ownership group has not taken out any money for a return on its investment. (A recent distribution was made to satisfy certain of the owners’ tax liabilities.) All net revenues earned under current ownership have been reinvested to maintain and improve Chase Field, to enhance the quality of the product on the field, and to support local charities.

Not really much to add, but that’s interesting to note. The estimates from Forbes have had the team running modestly in the black of late: over the past five seasons, the average has been about a $9 million profit per year.

The ballpark must be maintained as a “state-of-the-art” facility in order to compete for consumers’ entertainment dollars.

Perhaps the same “state-of-the-art” requirement needs to be applied to the team? Because I’ve certainly heard far more complaints from “consumers” about Shelby Miller not working, than the out of town scoreboard at Chase Field not working - the latter being something specifically mentioned in the team’s complaint. I think you’ll also find Wrigley Field and Fenway Park have no apparent trouble “competing for entertainment dollars”, despite falling far short of being “state-of-the-art.” But even below that level, there is grounds for concern, according to the team.

The 2013 Facility Assessment Report commissioned by the District identifies $185 million in repairs and maintenance that are necessary or will become necessary before the Agreements terminate on January 1, 2028. Of these, more than $135 million are Capital Repairs as defined in the Agreements. Without such repairs, Chase Field will soon cease to be safe, suitable for its intended uses, in “good repair,” and up to MLB standards, let alone “state-of- the-art.”

I’m a good deal more inclined to sympathize with the team in the areas of safety and good repair, rather than when they start demanding shiny new toys, which seems like the rich in pursuit of further handouts. We’ve seen the leaking roof, for example, and the lawsuit goes into detailed discussion of the causes and related issues “behind the curtain”. Most of these I’d heard before - crumbling concrete, new sound system, etc. But what follows is something new, at least to me:

In 2015, MLB assessed the lighting at Chase Field and ranked it dead last among all of the ballparks in MLB in terms of brightness, color, and evenness. The worst part of the lighting covered the infield, which was measured at 15% below minimum MLB requirements. The Diamondbacks, at their own expense, made some improvements to the infield lighting so that it now meets the minimum standard, albeit only barely. The lighting at Chase Field still ranks among the worst in MLB and is overdue for replacement to a full LED (light-emitting diode) system, which provides more even and consistent light and is much more energy efficient than a traditional system... The Diamondbacks (and MLB) believe this should be done immediately.

It’s interesting, because I’ve rarely, if ever, heard anything but good things from batters - presumably, those who would be most likely to be affected by poor lighting - about hitting at Chase Field. For instance, Edwin Encarnacion, when here in July: "I see the ball really well here and I feel confident in this ballpark, so it works out. Maybe it's the hitter's eye, it's really big, the green wall. Maybe it's that, I don't know." Or Jean Segura in April: “Even when I was a visitor I loved to play here.” Maybe by some lumen count, it’s last, but hey - someone has to be, and it doesn’t appear to be affecting production. Over the last two seasons, Chase Field has been third in the majors for batting average and OPS, behind just Fenway and Coors.

Or maybe that was just our “state-of-the-art” pitching staff...

Anyway, it’s another shot across the bows, in a story which has the potential to develop into one of the biggest of 2017. It’s certainly one on which we will continue to keep an eye at the SnakePit.

[Link to lawsuit, PDF format]