Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Omaha Royals: Rosenblatt is the least of your problems

In today's "State of the City" address, Mayor Mike Fahey announced that the Omaha Royals are working on a financing plan to build a new baseball stadium in "North Downtown" west of the Qwest Center. Since nothing has been disclosed about the plan, it's difficult to comment as to whether this is a good deal for Omaha or not.

Judging from the Royals past comments on the stadium, I get the impression that the Royals were expecting the taxpayers to pay for most of this stadium. That idea simply won't fly; they'll need to better explain the benefits of this stadium to justify a major taxpayer investment.

Many stadium backers point to the Qwest Center as an example of the benefit that could occur. Problem is, unlike the Qwest Center, we already have a wonderful baseball stadium. ESPN spends nearly 2 weeks a year fawning over Rosenblatt Stadium. Before the Qwest Center, the Civic Auditorium was booked solid and Omaha was missing out on major events. The need for a new arena was there; without the Qwest Center, Omaha stood zero chance of hosting U2, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, or the NCAA basketball, wrestling, and volleyball tournaments.

The question for the Royals is: what is the benefit to Omaha for the new stadium? Except for anchoring new development downtown, that hasn't been explained.

The Royals talk about how Rosenblatt is too big for the Royals, but fail to explain why a smaller stadium downtown would help them, except to cut down on the number of empty seats. Rosenblatt didn't suddenly outgrow the Royals; in fact, the opposite has happened. Under the mismanagement of the Minker family, the Omaha Royals have alienated fans and discouraged people from attending games.

I've talked to several people who are knowledgable about the Royals situation, and they agree that a new stadium isn't going to help the Royals at all. And depending on how the new stadium operates, it might hurt them even more than it helps.

Rosenblatt Stadium gives the Royals three distinct advantages:
  • free parking
  • close proximity to Omaha's biggest tourist attraction: the Henry Doorly Zoo
  • a $500,000 a year subsidy from the city of Omaha

Relocating to North Downtown would eliminate at least 2 of those advantages. The Royals talk about the difficulty in convincing fans to pay $8 for a ticket. That difficulty increases when suddenly you add a $6 parking fee in a downtown lot/parking garage on top of that $8.

The proble with the Royals isn't the stadium, it's the product. They are the top minor league affiliate of one of the worst-managed major league baseball team: the Kansas City Royals. In the 70's and 80's, Kansas City used to have their best minor leaguers in Omaha. Now, Kansas City trades away their best players before their salaries skyrocket, and then call up their prospects straight from class AA Wichita straight to the major leagues, bypassing Omaha.

And the Minker family has been mostly incompetent in promoting baseball in Omaha. Except for radio ads promoting yet-another-fireworks-night, the Royals don't give the average family a reason to attend their games. Periodically, you hear stories of families being harassed at the gate.

A new ballpark will encourage folks to come down and check the new place out. But if they don't give fans a reason to come back (or worse, continue to give folks reasons to stay away), the attendance gains from a new stadium will be extremely short-lived.

If the Royals want to pay for a new stadium themselves, or can come up with a plan using private funds, more power to them. But don't expect the taxpayers to bail them out of the mess they created.


Anonymous said...

My wife and I have been from Spokane, WA to Macon, GA, to Burlington, VT, to Tucson, AZ attending minor league baseball games, and trust me the stadium is not the problem. We've attended A level games where the stadiums were not nearly as nice, the seating was uncomfortable, and the field looked like something from sandlot baseball, but more people were in attendance because of the entertainment value.

One problem is the staff at the stadium. The city owns the stadium, so the city does the hiring, and compared to many other ushers, janitors, etc. the staff at Rosenblatt come off as they are sentenced to work there to complete their court mandated probation.

The other problem as I see it is that the between inning entertainment is adequate at best. I wrote a letter to the management, informing them of what other parks do, in smaller towns, to get larger crowds than the O Royals. What I received back was a P.C. letter, that avoided the points I addressed.

My wife and I got to a game early in Cedar Rapids, IA and were getting autographs when I had the oppurtunity to sit with a front office manager of the Clinton, IA team. He shared that the biggest thing for drawing a crowd was to have something for "them to talk about at the water cooler". He wasn't talking about the game itself, he was talking about entertainment value. Irregardless of if your team won or lost, you should have had a good time at the game.

So as I see it, the city of Omaha and the O Royals are equally to blame for the poor attendance at the Blatt. I'd say the city needs to hire ushers that want to be there, and the Royals to start showing they care about providing a quality product.

Husker Mike said...

That is not an uncommon story. I've heard variations about it for years, though I think it really started when the Minkers took over.