The Arizona Diamondbacks opened their home season last night at Chase Field, one of the flagship venues of the modern stadium era, with its retractable roof and a swimming pool beyond the outfield fence and—oh, wait, I'm sorry, this is last month's script. Let me start again.
The Arizona Diamondbacks opened their home season last night at Chase Field, a crumbling hulk whose best days are far behind it, and which really needs to be replaced sooner than later. Don't believe me? Go read the letter that D-backs CEO Derrick Hall sent to Maricopa County two weeks ago, which repeatedly referred to the 18-year-old ballpark as "aging" (aren't we all?) and in desperate need of $187 million in repairs—though Hall immediately added that even this would "do very little to upgrade the stadium to a 'state-of-the-art facility.'"
Now the Diamondbacks owners are threatening to sue the county and move to a new home, and that phrase right there—"state of the art"—is the key to the whole dust-up. The state-of-the-art battle provides an opportunity for owners whose stadiums have yet to reach legal drinking age to go back to the public trough when they've barely wiped their faces clean from the first visit.
State-of-the-art lease clauses first emerged as a concept in the 1990s, as footloose NFL owners vied to get the best possible terms for new stadiums by playing cities off one another. When the Los Angeles Rams relocated to St. Louis in 1995, part of the sweetheart deal they extracted from the state of Missouri was a clause allowing the team to break their lease and move if the Edward Jones Dome wasn't maintained as a "first-tier" facility, defined as among the top 25 percent of NFL stadiums. (This clause eventually enabled the Rams to move back to L.A. this season, with the Dome still not fully paid off.) Two years later, the Cincinnati Bengals inserted a similar clause in their lease with Hamilton County, with the added exquisite detail that spelled out all the things they'd need to get in their stadium if any 14 other NFL stadiums had them, up to and including a "holographic replay system," if such a thing were ever invented.
Needless to say, having a clause like this in your pocket is a wonderful thing if you're an owner, since it means you can escape any commitment you made to stick around town in order to get your original stadium and begin the shakedown cycle anew. For Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick, whose team agreed to a 30-year lease in 1998 in exchange for $253 million in state taxpayer funds, there was only one problem: he didn't actually have a clause like this. The Diamondbacks' lease—viewable here in full, thanks to Maricopa County—runs 303 pages and doesn't say one word about upgrading the building to be state of the art, though it does say that the county is on the hook for capital repairs "so that it is safe and can readily be made available for the playing of Home Games," something that presumably doesn't require holographic replay.
In the absence of such a clause, team CEO Hall resorted in his letter to this:
Yes, that's a page that consists of nothing but a list of the times that the county used the term "state-of-the-art facility" in its financial reports on the stadium. It's not a lease clause, and it's not legally binding, but as "Ma! You promised!" arguments go, it's no more stupid than any.
OK, so the Diamondbacks don't actually have a state-of-the-art clause, but their owners aren't alone in seeking to extract more money from the taxpaying public. How many other stadium leases have ticking time bombs, just waiting to go off? The answer: Nobody knows, because nobody is keeping track.
Seriously, nobody. I tried asking various sports economists who can usually be counted on to track wonky sports ephemera. I asked the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette, which maintains otherwise useful summaries of leases for MLB and NFL teams. I asked VICE's Aaron Gordon, who's boggled at state-of-the-art clauses before. The best anyone could come up with was a six-year-old paper by a then-third-year law student that mostly focused on the Rams deal, though it also briefly mentioned the Bengals, the Kansas City Chiefs, and the San Diego Chargers as having similar lease language. (The Minnesota Vikings picked up one as well in 2012 for their stadium that will open this fall.)
Undoubtedly, though, there are other teams with lease clauses that a clever lawyer could attempt to ram a half-billion-dollar truck through. The Chicago White Sox's lease on U.S. Cellular Field, for example, requires the state of Illinois to replace "any obsolete component of the stadium with more modern replacements in use in at least 75 percent of stadiums"—less generous than the Rams' 25 percent threshold, but still, we should probably be glad that Jerry Reinsdorf has limited himself to demanding new video boards.
Then there's the agreement that the Atlanta Braves owners struck for the stadium in Cobb County opening next year (though good luck getting across the highway to see games there). The Braves' new lease contains a line that the team is only responsible for paying for upgrades that "exceed industry standards and that are not reasonably necessary to maintain the Stadium as a competitive MLB facility." In sports terms, "competitive" is an even bigger weasel word than "state of the art"—it can and has been interpreted to mean anything up to and including "the guy down the road has a shinier one." If you're looking to lay bets on the first new stadium demand of the 2030s, I'd be putting my money on the Braves (and the Vikings), because they've already set down the required legal framework.
For most team owners, though, the point of state-of-the-art clauses isn't even so much about legal language as it is about shifting the debate around replacing nearly new stadiums from "What the hell are you talking about?" to "I suppose we'll need to address it sooner or later." Looked at that way, the Diamondbacks' letter makes a lot more sense: though the team owners included the requisite threat of legal action ("If permission is not granted [for the team to move if it decides upgrading Chase Field isn't feasible], we will ask the Court for all appropriate relief"), the real goal was to start the conversation about replacing Chase Field at public expense, to ensure there would be no danger of having to play in a stadium that's past its Carrousel age.
In fact, the fallout from state-of-the-art clauses has already begun to shift the goalposts on what's considered old for a sports facility. When I first started researching this subject back in the 1990s, 30 to 40 years was considered the standard shelf life of a stadium or arena. (There was no good reason for that number, either, mind you, beyond custom or perhaps the typical length of bond payments; as New York City's buildings commissioner noted when called in to inspect Yankee Stadium after a hunk of metal fell just before its 75th birthday, the building could have lasted "another 75 years if it's maintained properly.") These days, though, the time scale keeps getting shorter and shorter, to the point where government officials in both Cleveland and Washington, D.C., have in the past few days floated new or renovated buildings for the Cavaliers and the Wizards, even though their existing arenas are 22 and 19 years old, respectively.
It's no coincidence that these conversations are all happening now, roughly 20 years after the first peak of the modern sports stadium construction boom. When Cuyahoga County executive Armond Budish said last week that the Cavs' Quicken Loans Arena would need replacement soon, he couldn't find one nasty thing to say about it as a building, but he did note that "it is one of the oldest arenas in the league"—something that's undeniably true, but only because cities have erected a staggering 18 arenas for a 30-team league in the 19 years since. Using that sort of logic, even relatively new facilities will be comparatively old are old, and so the cycle should begin again, regardless of whether any of these buildings are truly obsolete as places to play and watch sports. A week ago, I would have thought that teams like the Chicago Bulls (whose United Center opened a few months before the Q in 1994) or the Portland Trail Blazers (whose arena opened in 1995) wouldn't be demanding new buildings for decades, but today I'm not so sure.
Fifteen years ago, when the Orlando Magic started demanding a replacement for the Orlando Arena, which was all of 12 years old at the time, I asked economist Rod Fort how long a modern sports venue could be expected to last. "I don't see anything wrong, from an owner's perspective, with the idea of a new stadium every year," he replied, tongue only slightly in cheek. Things may not have gotten quite that absurd just yet but, as the Diamondbacks' missive shows, in the world of sports business gamesmanship there's a fine line between stupid and clever.