Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Failed Promise of Miller Park

It didn’t make Brewers more competitive, yet its price tag keeps rising.

By - Apr 20th, 2017 01:04 pm
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Miller Park. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Miller Park. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Oh, what a lovely investment the Milwaukee Brewers team is. Mark Attanasio paid $223 million for the Brewers in 2005 and the team is now worth $925 million, according to the latest analysis by Forbes magazine.

Pro sports owners almost never lose money. They may have a net loss in a given year or years, but that is far offset by the way sports franchise values rise. The resell value of the franchise is always rising and always guarantees a huge return.

One reason is that a team like the Brewers is basically a monopoly, the only such sports franchise in the metro area. But perhaps a bigger reason is that the company’s major cost of operation, the stadium in which the team plays, is largely paid for by taxpayers. The cost of Miller Park, which could ultimately run anywhere from $524 million to more than a billion in taxes, depending on what costs and subsidies you choose to include, is far more than Bud Selig and his partners invested in the team (including the original purchase price) during the years they owned the Brewers.

And the fact that the taxpayers continue to pay for the stadium, its maintenance and new additions, makes the Brewers a sweet deal for Attanasio. Moreover, he doesn’t just get to a heavily subsidized baseball stadium, but an ever-growing concert venue as well.

As Forbes notes, the Brewers “poor play dinged ballpark attendance 9% last season, but their concert business is picking up. Country superstar Kenny Chesney’s June 2016 concert at Miller Park ranked as the top-grossing concert in that period with gross sales of $4.8 million, according to figures reported in Venues Today. The Brewers signed a deal with Ballpark Music to stage concerts at Miller Park next season. The agreement provides a financial boost to the Brewers because any money earned at the non-baseball events goes directly to the team under the Brewers lease. The Brewers keep the revenue from parking, food and merchandise.”

Yep, yet another gift from the taxpayers of this five-county metro area (which includes Racine county, much to the continuing anger of its residents), who get no cut of the concert revenues in the stadium they built.

Back when Selig was selling taxpayers on the idea of handing him a new stadium, we were repeatedly told a new venue would solve that dreaded small market franchise problem and allow him to spend enough on player payroll to field a competitive team.

In 2000, the year before Miller Park opened, the team had the eighth-lowest payroll at $36.5 million, well below the median payroll of about $56 million and far below the top payroll of $92.5 million for the New York Yankees.

How has Miller Park changed this? Actually the disparity has gotten far worse. The current payroll of the team is $62 million, which is dead last in the league, far below the median payroll of $138.2 million and light years below the top payroll of $244.6 million for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

True, the Brewers have been in a rebuilding mode, but the team’s payroll rank since Miller Park opened has averaged between the 20th and 21st in the league — about the same rank it had in the years before the new stadium was built.

In short, while Miller Park assured Major League Baseball remained in Milwaukee, and has greatly increased the wealth of Selig and Attanasio, it didn’t exactly make the Brewers a powerhouse. The team’s last (and only) World Series appearance was back in 1982, and 16 years after Miller Park opened, it hasn’t gotten the team much closer to another pennant.

As to the cost for taxpayers, that has kept rising. Back in 1995, when the state legislature passed a law creating a new five-county sales tax to pay for Miller Park, the tax was expected to sunset in 14 years, in 2010. But the tax has operated as something of slush fund that can be grabbed to pay for everything from a new scoreboard installed in 2011 and costing $5.9 million to $1.6 million worth of PR spending by the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District.

Milwaukee Magazine’s Matt Hrodey did a 2014 story tabulating a huge list of other stadium improvements financed by taxpayers in recent years, including an LED “ribbon board” encircling the seating bowl ($3.1 million), retractable windows on the Terrace Level ($234,200), a replacement “matrix board” for a billboard facing Interstate 94 ($484,800), and numerous alterations of the stadium’s sound system that cost $370,222.

Meanwhile, interest rates have dropped greatly since the stadium was built and really bottomed out since the Great Recession, meaning there was a great opportunity to refinance the stadium bonds and end the tax at a sooner date. The public stadium authority did refinance in 2005 and probably since then, yet it just keeps collecting our money.

In March the stadium district released a report which predicted the tax “could be retired sometime in either 2019 or 2020,” nearly a quarter century after the tax began in 1996, and the Business Journal duly reported the sunset for the tax “draws nearer.”

But in fact, as I reported last year, the stadium authority board has come up with a plan that assures taxpayers continue to support Miller Park until 2040. To that end, the board has been salting away enough money to pay for annual stadium operating costs and new projected capital costs and repairs through 2040. The total amount of that reserve fund was up to $52 million a year ago and has probably increased since then. (Stadium authority executive director Mike Duckett hasn’t responded to my requests for an update.)

In short, taxpayers will be supporting Miller Park, with money collected earlier for that purpose, until 2040. By then, if not sooner, we will be asked to build a new ballpark. Odds are Attanasio will have long since sold the team for a huge profit, none of which will be shared with his majority partners, the taxpayers.

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41 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Failed Promise of Miller Park”

  1. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    No records show that these things pay off, but in our case Miller Park does, cause of attendance and the 3 million that come it works.
    Money from illinois.

  2. Vincent Hanna says:

    I don’t get the obsessive negativity about Miller Park. First of all, attendance for the Brewers is great, especially when you factor in their market size. Its one of the best in all of baseball. In one recent ESPN poll it ranked as the best stadium in baseball. The team made the playoffs twice in the last 8 seasons, so they’ve had some good years. The home playoff games in 2011 are some of my fondest memories. I went to all of them with my father and those memories are priceless. I can’t imagine Milwaukee without the Brewers. Miller Park is a great stadium, the team has a good owner, and the fanbase here is excellent. This story is short-sighted nonsense.

  3. Matthew says:

    Padres have a lower payroll this year. By far.

  4. Duane Snyder says:

    Great article, doesn’t sugar coat the economic reality of major league sports. The Brewers are just another case of socialism for the rich. (It’s too bad communities are prevented from owning the franchise themselves). I wonder what happens to the team in 3-4 years if the Brewers new “wunderkind” GM isn’t up to the task of building a winner. I doubt Attanasio planned on keeping the team forever.

  5. John says:

    This ripping off of taxpayers goes on all around the country. The saddest part is how they fall hook line and sinker for the deals when they happen. In the end, a few taxpayers — the ones who actually attend the games/events in this park — get some kind of benefit. All the rest just have to pony up for something they never wanted. But hey, we live in a jockocracy where sports rules above all else.

  6. AG says:

    Talking about the costs of Miller Park ignores the entire positive side of the ledger. It’s one of the few stadiums that have undeniably proven to have a positive economic impact. This impact is greater than the sum input of taxpayers contributions by far.

  7. Rich says:

    @Vincent, I don’t think the article was about Bruce Murphy’s love or lack thereof for the team playing inside the stadium. The issues of love for the sport, team, or going to the ballpark and the dislike of the sour (over the long term) deal taxpayers were sold are separable and this article is about the latter. It’s poignant because this city just went through the same with the Bucks Arena and, perhaps to our credit, we learned a few things, like this time there’s a cut of parking and concession (maybe?) revenue for the city.

    @Bruce: Surprising to me was the concert revenue…Thanks for that tidbit.
    As a usage of the building, that should be working to retire stadium debt faster, not supporting the team.

    @WCD, as usual you exaggerate: The Cubs visit four to eight days a year and as such are a paltry portion of the 3mil attendance (which averaged over the stadium’s lifetime is actually on 2.4mil: http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/MIL/attend.shtml). The same stats show that average attendance is higher for Miller Park than it was for County Stadium, so, yes, it attracted more people, but Bruce’s point is “Where does that revenue go?” On the balance sheet of the taxpayer, there are mostly negatives and all the other fantastic recreational spending that’s so often used as a basis for new stadiums has been proven time and again to not actually be that much new money, just redistribution of existing leisure dollars by the same population.

  8. Mike Bark says:

    I’m against public financing of stadiums, but the Brewers went through a stretch from 2006 until their collapse in 2015 where they were a pretty competitive team culminating in a team in 2011 that went to the NCLS.

    They have dumped salary in a rebuilding effort modeling what the Astros and Cubs recently went through.

    And the Padres payroll is far less.

  9. tom says:

    This is criminal and should be stopped. I’m sick of funding multi-millionaires and billionaires. How many Milwaukeeans would vote for the tax if they knew it would drag on ten years longer than promised and line the pockets of two multi-millionaires/billionaires?

  10. Bruce Murphy says:

    Just a factual note, the Padres payroll is lower for 25-man payroll but higher than Brewers for total payroll. Brewers are last in MLB in total payroll.

  11. Jason says:

    It is a great article and we are getting fleeced if were paying past 2025. In the end MLB has our “balls”. Do you want Milwaukee to have one of few world professional franchises or are you content with the Milwaukee Wave and the Milwaukee Admirals. Milwaukee ceases to exist without professional sports franchise. Credit the Packers in having the luck to have three of the top twenty quarterbacks of all time and of course who would no where Green Bay is without the NFL.

  12. Benny Nota says:

    Vincent: The negativity is that there’s no good reason that all of us need pay for such a profitable business. Major-league sports make enough money (and, often, its owners are personally wealthy enough) that they could readily afford to pay for their own facilities.

    But they don’t. Because people keep imagining (despite nearly every reputable study denying it) that new stadiums bring in new money to offset the tax costs of public funding.

    And of course, now we’re also on the hook for the Bucks’ gigantic new arena and associated developments…which stupidly include “entertainment” venues (taxpayer-funded)…even though the economic argument for tax-funding such developments is that it leads to such knock-on effects as successful nearby restaurants, bars, hotels, etc. Not if those businesses are already paid for by taxes…giving them an advantage over existing businesses w/o taxpayer support!

  13. Jason says:

    Coming to a theater near you tax funding for the Symphony orchestra’s new venue, the Milwaukee Public Art Museum, Mac Arthur Square, O’Donnell Park, and the Wisconsin Center. I see a downtown Milwaukee tax in our future. Any chance of a stripper tax downtown? Let the fleecing continue.

  14. Jeff M says:

    Interesting story, Bruce. Thanks for filling in for MJSs weak local reporting.

  15. Bob says:

    The stadium was paid 100% by taxpayer supported bond financing, if I remember correctly. However, I believe that the Brewers own 33% of the equity/interest in the stadium itself. Bud cut a good deal. The quid pro quo was a no-move clause. In the end, in both instances of our professional sports franchises, Milwaukee is having to pay up to keep our teams or, as is the case in St. Louis, both the Brewers and Bucks would have been gone long ago. Kudos to Milwaukee + Wisconsin baseball fans for continuing to yield a top-10 attendance figure each year.

  16. Jared Amann says:

    Great article Bruce. Hard to argue with facts.

  17. Milwaukee Native says:

    AG (#6), credible research counters your claim.
    http://archive.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/publicly-funded-sports-arenas-add-little-to-local-economy-report-says-cc9ehcj-201706591.html

    Journalist Neil De Mause has reported how Miller Park has been one of the worst stadium deals EVER. It even inspired his book and blog “Field of Schemes.”

    Despite all the reality checks about public funding of pro-sports, Metro Milwaukee officials just can’t seem to give enough largesse to absentee major-league owners.

    Now people simply justify these awful deals solely for their rah-rah benefits. The payback for us loser taxpayers is that the franchise wins at least some games.

  18. tim haering says:

    DUh, Bruce, didn’t we all know this last century? But sports teams are nukes and WI is scared to unilaterally disarm. Pro sports are a ticket to ride. BUt these are tickets we should be scalping. Arguably, Packers define Green Bay. But there is nothing intrinsically MIlwaukee about the BUcks and Brewers. To soon old und too late smart. Have a great weekend.

  19. Andrew says:

    What is the average taxpayer cost? Wasn’t it figured a few years ago to be $40 a year? Heck double it and I’m still getting benefits from out of town fans traveling here and spending money on restaurants and hotels and gas more that my tax cost for the simple reason there is a retractable roof so visiting fans know the day the schedule is released that those games can be rained out. It was said above too that the team had a competitive window and they are about to enter another one very soon.

  20. Andrew says:

    Benny- so the rich abuse the non rich? I don’t think drawing a line in the sand on sports teams is the best instance for that fight. Bucks and brewers could have left Milwaukee… then what is there to do for us and out of town visitors? That equals less visitors and less out of state money being spent here.

  21. DTY says:

    I’m not saying the overall public financing deal is the greatest, but there is little doubt that Miller Park is one of the best facilities that Milwaukee has to draw out-of-state visitors to Wisconsin. Just look at all the red around the ballpark this weekend while the Cardinals are in town. With Miller Park having multiple series each year for STL, Chicago (both teams) and Minnesota, it’s almost the equivalent of having six or seven large conventions coming to town.

    Regarding Racine County paying the sales tax, I personally think it’s Ozaukee County that has the biggest gripe – and Kenosha and Walworth Counties are getting a free ride. Kenosha, Racine and Walworth counties are on the routes driven by CHI and STL fans (and Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, KC, etc) and thus have a better opportunity for spending on food, lodging, gas and tailgate supplies. I’m sure Mars Cheese Castle (Kenosha County) knows when the Brewers are playing the Cubs.
    Who spends money in Ozaukee County while going to a game – Sheboyganites?

  22. Fried Cheese says:

    Wasn’t the Lambeau/Brown County tax also passed in 1995? I think that was retired early, the last addition was self-funded, and now the team is developing TitileTown. Makes you feel kinda crummy.

  23. Gary says:

    A better deal than the trolley.

  24. AG says:

    Milwaukee Native, that study is looked at what is the norm for most Stadiums but failed to look directly at Miller Park’s impact from out of town visitors directly. While it’s true most Stadiums are shown to not statistically improve an areas median income or job prospects by itself, tell me what single entitiy does? If Johnson Controls left, there would be a big hit to Milwaukee… but I doubt it would show up as a statistically significant drag on median incomes in the metro area.

    That being said, when you look at direct dollars from JUST out of town visitors (thus negating the effect of redirecting local money that would be spend on entertainment anyway) we see that Miller Park brings in far more money to the local economy than tax payers spend.
    http://archive.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/new-study-distant-brewers-fans-have-263-million-annual-economic-impact-vm94jgd-197535861.html

    Look at that one and only metric already shows a great positive impact without taking all other positive effects into account.

  25. david says:

    This is an absolutely garbage article. I wish there was a way for people like this to choose not to pay the vary small additional taxes and then never allowed near Miller Park for baseball, concerts or whatever else is held there. It is very short sighted to look at the extra small tax to pay for the stadium and upgrades and not realize how much money a professional sports team brings to a city.

  26. Vincent Hanna says:

    “But there is nothing intrinsically MIlwaukee about the BUcks and Brewers.”

    This is so wrong I don’t even know where to begin. I tailgated opening day and for the millionth time I heard people (in this case from Missouri and attending their first Brewers game) marvel at all the people at the stadium three hours before game time. This is a baseball town. The attendance figures prove that. That comment denies reality and is maddeningly stupid.

  27. Al Lindro says:

    Boy, who knew it was such a “slow news day” as to dredge up this tripe? The city loves their baseball and their team, as does the whole state of Wisconsin. Seldom does a public investment bring so much benefit (joy, socialization, entertainment, publicity, tourist revenue, etc) to so many.

    When you are Milwaukee, with a deep baseball tradition and stellar fan support, you do what you gotta do to have a team. And it’s nice to get a really quality person as owner in the process.

    Miller Park funding is one of the least important “issues” we have on our plate, if an issue at all. How many people of all classes, races, ages, and locations will get any benefit from the ring-around-the-rosy streetcar boondoggle? I live and own property right smack-dab on the streetcar route, so you might think I’d support the idea. But no, I support things that make sense for the public good of those in the city or area, not foolish things with little value.

    Nobody I know in the area of my home and property even talks about the streetcar, except to note that people are working own it, And that the work is a pain if the hind quarters. Makes an old guy want to just go relax at the ball park and turn off all the extraneous and noisy nonsense.

  28. Al Lindro says:

    Who knew it was such a “slow news day” as to trot out this tripe? The city loves their baseball and their team, as does the whole state of Wisconsin. Seldom does a public investment bring so much benefit (joy, socialization, entertainment, publicity, tourist revenue, etc) to so many.

    When you are Milwaukee, with a deep baseball tradition and stellar fan support, you do what you gotta do to have a team. And it’s nice to get a really quality person as owner in the process.

    Miller Park funding is one of the least important “issues” we have on our plate, if an issue at all. How many people of all classes, races, ages, and locations will get any benefit from the ring-around-the-rosy streetcar boondoggle? I live and own property right smack-dab on the streetcar route, so you might think I’d support the idea. But no, I support things that make sense for the public good of those in the city or area, not foolish things with little value.

    Nobody I know in the area of my home and property even talks about the streetcar, except to note that people are working own it, And that the work is a pain if the hind quarters. Makes an old guy want to just go relax at the ball park and turn off all the extraneous and noisy nonsense.

  29. Milwaukee Native says:

    AG, that rah-rah article ignores the “substitution effect.” http://fox6now.com/2016/01/13/its-bigger-than-basketball-but-do-benefits-of-new-bucks-arena-come-at-expense-of-other-businesses/

    The biggest difference between pro sports and all the other amenities, businesses and events that attract residents and tourists is the disproportionate amount of public funding they are given, as this article lays out.

    Having sports venues does not need to be an all-or-nothing, fear-driven deal (AKA extortion), but that’s how it’s always sold. And Milwaukee officials are HORRIBLE at negotiating deals that would serve the public interest, not just the team owners. So Milwaukee’s quality of life continues to slip because pro sports teams are only part of what sells a city but little is left over to publicly fund other things. Billionaires rule–and rig the game!

    https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/milwaukee-is-keeping-the-bucks-but-would-it-have-been-better-off-without-them

  30. Big Al says:

    @ AG – keep in mind that the study you’re citing was commissioned by Major League Baseball. Pretty sure they have a vested interest in promoting the idea that publicly-financed stadiums more than pay for themselves…

  31. A different Jason says:

    @David. “realize how much money a professional sports team brings to a city.” And its owners. Why should taxpayers continue to pay a stadium tax that was supposed to be retired by now? The Brewers owners get richer on the backs of taxpayers who continue to fund stadium costs. Why are we still paying for this? How can you defend that?

  32. AG says:

    Milwaukee Native, the reiterate my point, the article does the exact opposite of ignoring the substitution effect. The entire point of it is that out of town visitors are exempt from that and thus you can fully count their spending in the local economy.

    Big Al, whats your point? It was commissioned by MLB and conducted by UWM. The “Study” Milwaukee Native cites was commissioned by someone who vehemently opposes public funding for stadiums and is extremely biased. What’s your point? Look at the facts of both. They’re both correct on their assertions and do not negate one another.

  33. Bob edelman says:

    We owe Bruce a debt of gratitude for reporting hard facts about this which would otherwise remain buried. Bravo

  34. john thomas says:

    I guess Mr. Murphy, the 2.5 million fans who have attended the Brewers games/year have thoroughly appreciated knowing that a scheduled game or occasional event will be played. Miller Park has and will continue to make Milwaukee a destination for baseball fans from Iowa, Illinois and from every city throughout Wisconsin. We should be thankful.

  35. mbradleyc says:

    The Packers sales tax was 0.5%. The Brewers tax is 0.1%. That’s why it’s taking so long to end.
    They are both worth it.

  36. Thomas says:

    0.1% from Milwaukee and surrounding counties is much greater revenue that 0.5% from Brown County. The issue here is that there appears to be no intention to sunset the 0.1%.

    Bud Selig recently said that he was going to be working on his speech on his induction into the baseball hall of fame. I recommend that he thank the people of WI for the good faith and financial support they have provided him over the years; furthermore, that he thanks us with a good faith gesture: a vow to sunset the 0.1% tax on 1/1/2020 – and that he takes care of any ensuing shortfall out of his own pocket.

    Bud deserves credit for bringing baseball back to Milwaukee and for keeping it here. He does not, however, get a pass on promoting a mechanism that requires all taxpayers in 5 counties to pay excess taxes in perpetuity for a stadium that he once suggested he would pay for if we paid for roads and infrastructure around it ( but I do not want to dwell on that 400+ million dollar misunderstanding here) Spread out over a couple million people, 400 million isn’t really big money. It could be compared to the hundred dollar floor mats that a new car buyer had to pay for after assurance that the cost of the car would not exceed x dollars.

  37. Roger says:

    Thank God I moved out of Wi ! Could not keep paying there taxes ! Lived and worked there all my my life but they drove me out !!

  38. Milwaukee Native says:

    AG, Thanks for your feedback, but which study do you consider “extremely biased”?

    Neil DeMause is a respected independent journalist who reports on funding of sports venues for several mainstream publications and his Field of Schemes blog (and sounds like a pretty big sports fan).

    Studies cited were by independent economists. The city’s Legislative Reference Bureau did one study that summarized a range of research, at the request of the Common Council’s then-president.

    BTW, I have loved baseball since childhood, when I began attending games at County Stadium. Many sports fans also care about the public’s interests and major budgetary restraints (at all levels). Just because we enjoy being able to root-root-root for the home team does not mean we must be willing to keep giving away the public’s store. As Thomas noted, it’s behooves Bud Selig to do the right thing and use his considerable negotiating skills to get this tax sunsetted.

    There are other enormous–and more deserving–needs that require public funding. Let’s stop treating sports like a religion and its owners like gods. It’s not sustainable or economically smart.

  39. Al Lindro says:

    Milwaukee Native: You say, ” And Milwaukee officials are HORRIBLE at negotiating deals that would serve the public interest, not just the team owners.” And I should get worked up about ONE of them?

    No dispute from me regarding that opinion. In fact, we could expand that to say: “Milwaukee officials are HORRIBLE at managing the finances of City government.” Perhaps that’s just what happens when one political party has a monopoly control and doesn’t need to be particularly
    accountable in order to stay in control. The taxes in this city are choking people, and because of that several of my downtown-living former neighbors (property owners) have bailed out in recent years moving to lower tax and better climate locales — Florida especially (five couples we know), but also the Carolinas, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and elsewhere. The cost to the public of Miller Park is a pittance compared to property taxes here. Not worth fretting about.

    Is there any single entity other than Brewers and Miller Park that by shutting down or relocating would have as great a negative impact on the psyche and leisure lifestyles of Milwaukee’s citizens?
    Beyond that, I’ll just add that I counted up the number of MLB stadia (past and present) I’ve been to. The number is 30. Haven’t made it to several of the newer ones, and may not be able to in my lifetime due to age and health.

    I can say without reservations, Miller Park is an absolute gem of a venue. Everyone from everywhere who’s ever been to it is of that same opinion. And for a solid taste of “Real Wisconsin”, tailgate before/after a game.

  40. Vincent Hanna says:

    What about civic pride and quality of life issues? Many studies have pointed out that those are real and hard to measure.

  41. Milwaukee Native says:

    Al, the latest Bucks giveaways were about as bipartisan as it ever gets. Pols from both parties were falling over themselves to see who could give the billionaire owners more public assets and bennies.

    Vincent, yes, quality of life issues are important. But why does Milwaukee tend to only spend big bucks on QOL amenities when it involves a pro sports team? Parks, which are just as important, get peanuts and are going down the tubes.Transit’s mediocre at best. Time for a bigger picture on the QOL front if we want to really be a Big League city.

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