Municipalize the Cardinals

The Cardinals are a successful and beloved baseball club, and in reading and writing about them we are always eager for new narratives and feel-good turns of phrase: the Cardinal Way, Baseball Heaven, the Best Fans in Baseball. Occasionally, these flights of lyrical enthusiasm will flirt—even if only unconsciously—with the idea that the team and its fanbase are not just closely bonded but one and the same, two components of an indivisible whole. The Cardinals, you might hear someone say, are an integral part of St. Louis. A great asset for the city. A civic trust.

This is always meant metaphorically. That should change. It’s time to municipalize the Cardinals.

In a recent post, I surveyed the history of Bill DeWitt’s ownership of the club, which—while having delivered no small measure of on-field success—has also seen DeWitt and his investment group reap an enormous financial windfall at the public’s expense. The Cardinals, acquired for peanuts and now worth nearly two billion dollars, have consistently ranked among the most profitable clubs in Major League Baseball even as they’ve received hundreds of millions in subsidies and tax breaks, cut workers’ pay and benefits, and under-delivered on development promises.

As I tried to make clear, the problem lies not necessarily in DeWitt’s particular qualities as an owner or as a person, but in the ownership model itself. As long as private individuals continue to own our favorite sports teams, those individuals will be incentivized to extract vast sums of money from us via the stadium hustle and other means, and face minimal accountability for doing so.

The fact that we’ve gotten so used to this being the way we do things doesn’t mean there can’t be another, better way. If the Cardinals are going to be of St. Louis and for St. Louis, why shouldn’t they also be owned by St. Louis?

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One obvious model for a municipally-owned Cardinals team can be found in another of the region’s most cherished cultural institutions: the Metropolitan Zoological Park and Museum District (ZMD), the public entity that oversees the St. Louis Zoo, St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis Science Center, Missouri Botanical Garden, and Missouri History Museum. The Zoo, in particular, is often rated one of the best in the world, and it alone rivals the Cardinals in attendance with over three million visitors annually. Collectively, the ZMD’s five subdistricts are roughly comparable to the Cardinals in the size of their financial footprint, with an annual operating budget of about $180 million and net assets totaling just under $1 billion.

It’s imperative that any public entity created to oversee the Cardinals encompasses a wider geographic area than the ZMD, which has been increasingly challenged by a free rider problem as residents of surrounding counties enjoy its benefits without contributing their fair share of tax revenue. At a minimum, then, the new Cardinals governing district would need to include St. Charles and Jefferson counties. Perhaps the existing ZMD could even be amended, with the addition of the Cardinals as its sixth subdistrict serving as the catalyst for neighboring counties’ long-awaited participation.

The ZMD and other such tax districts must be authorized by the state of Missouri. While a new Cardinals-centric entity or reconstituted ZMD would ideally include counties in the Metro East—as does Bi-State Development, the agency that oversees Metro Transit—the additional complexities that lie in the authorization and administration of such an interstate compact mean it may not be worth the trouble. And although it may give short shrift to Cardinals fans in southern Illinois and elsewhere, making municipalization strictly a Missourian endeavor might help it win support among state officials and legislators.

As for actually bringing about the transfer of the Cardinals’ assets to the public, there are basically two options. The vastly more desirable of the two would be to simply enter into good-faith negotiations with Bill DeWitt and his ownership group and reach an agreement for the sale of the club at a fair price. Perhaps DeWitt would jump at the opportunity to become a civic hero, a transformative figure in sports history, and pocket a greater sum of money than anyone could ever hope to spend in a lifetime for his trouble. Perhaps he could be persuaded to do so only by a sustained campaign of public pressure—advocacy, activism, collective action, and the like.

In the unfortunate event that such an effort isn’t enough to get Cardinals ownership to the table or agree to a reasonable price, the team will have to be seized. While its use would undoubtedly be controversial, the mechanism for doing so is pretty straightforward: eminent domain. Maryland famously attempted to use it to keep the Colts in Baltimore in 1984, and they weren’t the first—the city of Oakland had attempted it four years earlier to prevent the Raiders from fleeing to Los Angeles. It didn’t work, but the resulting litigation ultimately prompted the California Supreme Court to hold that “providing access to recreation to its residents in the form of spectator sports is an appropriate function of city government,” and that the state legislature could accordingly authorize the use of eminent domain to carry out that function. Courts in New Jersey and Pennsylvania have ruled similarly.

Regardless of how a sale is facilitated, of course, quite a bit of money will need to be raised; Forbes estimates the Cardinals’ value at $1.6 billion and rising. While that’s a larger sum than any local government has ever raised to fund the construction of a stadium, the process would be similar—just with a fully publicly-owned sports franchise at the end of it, instead of a massive handout to a billionaire. Ideally, a small but significant portion of the acquisition cost would be covered by the state of Missouri, with the rest raised primarily by the issuance of municipal bonds by the governing district’s constituent counties.

In return, the people of St. Louis would finally have a baseball team that is truly theirs. A small body of elected or appointed commissioners would replace the team’s current ownership at the very top of the organizational chart, and the rest of the club would continue operating in the same way it does today. Fans would get full transparency with regard to revenues, player salaries, employee wages and benefits, community initiatives, charitable giving, and more. Any surplus operating income—like the combined $133 million DeWitt and company cleared in 2014 and 2015, according to Forbes estimates—could be reinvested in the team and the community however fans saw fit. And when the time came that that meant upgrading or replacing Busch Stadium III, the people of St. Louis wouldn’t have to worry about getting fleeced.

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If you’ve been waiting patiently for me to say it, fine: this plan is insane. Even to get it to approach a funhouse-mirror version of plausible requires a great deal of hand-waving and heavy lifting. The resources and willpower required to even initiate such a process are better spent elsewhere; it would face opposition at every level and too many legal challenges to count. Even if, by some series of miracles, it passed muster in the legislature, courts, local governments, and with voters, there’s the matter of Major League Baseball’s bylaws, which prohibit public ownership.

Ultimately, though, most of these obstacles aren’t material but metaphysical. They’re the product of conventional wisdom, long-held opinions, calcified judgments—stories we’ve told ourselves so often over the years that we’ve stopped asking if they might not be a little insane, too. And somewhere along the line, the idea that in order for St. Louis to enjoy good baseball a Cincinnati billionaire must make a personal profit of tens of millions of dollars per year became one of those stories.

There are other, more reasonable solutions in the middle ground between outright municipalization and the current broken, exploitative model of private ownership. Rather than fully integrate team operations into the machinery of local government, it could simply be placed in a public trust, much like Joan Kroc tried to do with the San Diego Padres in 1990.

Best of all, perhaps, is an alternative model that has already proven viable in a major American sport. The Green Bay Packers have operated as a community-owned nonprofit for almost a century; the team’s 360,000 shareholders, none of whom are allowed to own more than 4% of outstanding shares, elect a board of directors, who in turn elect a seven-member executive committee that acts in the same capacity that an owner would. Half a dozen minor-league baseball teams, including Triple-A affiliates like the Syracuse Chiefs and Rochester Red Wings, have a similar corporate structure. Overseas, public ownership is even more common; the two most valuable and beloved soccer clubs in the world, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, are member-owned, as are nearly all of the top clubs in Germany.

Getting Major League Baseball to end its prohibition on publicly-owned teams would be no small feat, but it can be done—most plausibly through federal legislation like the Give Fans A Chance Act, which has been introduced by Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon several times over the years and would end the federal antitrust exemption for leagues that refuse to allow public ownership. Team owners aren’t going to stop doing everything they can to make a buck at our expense. Maybe it’s time to start telling ourselves some new stories.