The New Progressive Field Improvements: Who’s Paying, How Much and How Does It Compare?

For a brand that has seen a sea of change in recent history, one thing is sure to remain the same for at least another decade and a half.

Cleveland City and Cuyahoga County councils both voted last week in favor of extending the Cleveland Guardians’ lease of Progressive Field through 2036 with an option for a 10-year extension through 2046. On top of the lease’s approval, both government bodies, along with the State of Ohio have agreed to a payment plan for $435 million in improvements to the ballpark’s facilities that will be executed over the course of the 2020s.

This agreement came together as a progression that picked up over the course of the past summer and appeared to be complete in principle in August 2021. Previous statements had been made earlier in the year about negotiations not having been complete, at the time leaving a slight question as to baseball’s future on the shores of Lake Erie. The current lease had been slated to run out after the 2023 season.

Any such concerns are entirely answered now with the official codifying of this extension. Additionally, the team has laid out plans for its next steps. Over the first half of this year, they will look to hire both architect and construction firms to implement the renovations as well as sequence the order of their proposed projects. The first actual changes to the ballpark are to come after the 2022 season.

While fans may rest assured that Major League Baseball will remain in Cleveland for many years to come, the team itself can also rest assured that the ballpark that they play in with continue to bring the top of the line amenities for its patrons as well as much needed upgrades to its baseball operations facilities.

Among the ballpark experience changes to come are an overhaul of what is currently the Terrace Club restaurant along the left-field line, a “re-imagining” of the upper deck concourse and a larger fan space behind home plate that is more conducive to social interactions.

And while the customer-facing renovations are certainly of importance, from a baseball perspective, improvements to the baseball facility itself feel chiefly critical. Jacobs Field was a crown jewel of a facility both for players and fans alike when it was opened in 1994. Veteran players like Orel Hershiser cited that at least part of the reason why they wanted to come to Cleveland in free agency was because of the brand new facility that had been built. Very little has changed about the baseball operations facility since its establishment in the 90s. In the meantime, baseball has seen a technological boom. Innovations such as digital video, pitch f/x, virtual reality, Trackman and bio tracking all didn’t exist in 1994. This goes without mentioning the growing sizes of coaching staffs and front offices to go with the increased data. While I am certain the Guardians organization has pursued these innovations despite their current facility, a remodel would certainly make them easier to execute. In short, for people who want to see the Guardians field a competitive team (I imagine, all of us?), these upgrades are a worthy idea.

But while the upgrades may be deserved, who exactly is going to be paying for them and how much of them will they be paying? Luckily, the information for the project’s payment plan is public. Every year, a combined $17 million will come from the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County while an additional $2 million will come from the State of Ohio. Yet another $10 million will be privately funded by the team itself. That’s a total of $29 million in payments a year. That process will continue for fifteen years until the entire $435 million project is paid off.

Yes, 65% (nearly 2/3) of this project will be bankrolled by taxpayers, but this will be the case without any new or increased tax burdens. The same taxes related to the Gateway facility will merely remain intact.

Unfortunately for the public, government funding of professional sports facilities remains a fact of life. Some deals are fairer to the public than others and that got me wondering just how this particular deal compares to other recent stadium builds or renovations. However, if you need any more evidence that local-based journalism is dying, look no further than the lack of information related to these types of public financing projects. You would think that they would be published and heavily detailed in newspapers, but generalities and vagueness abounds.

Our own Cleveland.com actually has an article published by Cameron Fields this past August that is the most comprehensive I can find in culling together all the recent ballpark payment plans into one house. Still, even this article has a lot of instances where no financier is named. In other cases, when one is named the amount they are contributing is simplified in such was as being stated as “a bulk of” or “a little more than half.” Anyway, this information at least directed me on where to dig a little deeper. It was a great guide and I feel a little bad utilizing it without credit, so a link to the work will be down below as a reference.

After some more digging and having to make some inferences about what some of the above vagueness would mean (Mr. Fields didn’t lack details for any fault of his own, sometimes details of the deals really were reported intentionally vague), I think we were able to get a decent picture of how the current Guardians deal compares to other recent ballpark builds and renovations. This won’t be perfect, but it should get it in the ballpark (double-entendre).

Out of the 21 separate projects that were listed and measured, the Guardians having 65% of funds coming from the public is the 7th highest percentage, placing the deal in the top third in terms of which proportion is paid by taxpayers. In terms of raw dollar amounts dedicated by the public taxpayer, the Guardians deal ranks 9th most expensive of 18 projects that named their total expense (in three cases I could only find what proportion of the deal was publicly funded but not the total expense). In terms of total funds, the Guardians deal is the 9th most expensive of the same 18 deals. To summarize, compared to its contemporaries, the Guardians deal is slightly more burdensome in how much of the pie is being paid for by the public. However, the total dollars paid by the public is very much in the middle of the road.

Among other notes, only one deal that was larger than the Guardians deal was entirely funded by the team privately. That was the Cubs renovation of Wrigley Field in 2013. Both common sense and the evidence I have pulled suggest that teams are willing to pay for their renovations, as long as the costs are on the smaller end of the spectrum. The average cost of a completely privately funded deal was about $154 million.

The largest taxpayer burden of all went to the Yankee Stadium rebuild in 2009 where almost $1.2 billion in public money was dedicated, although it only covered 52% of the total bill. And lastly, two deals I was able to find we fully bankrolled by the taxpayers, one being the woefully bad deal signed between the Chicago White Sox and their local governments and the other one being related to Coors Field in Colorado. In neither case was I able to find the total dollar commitments made by the government.

To conclude, baseball is a business. That’s something we are reminded of far too often these days. We are living through a work-stoppage right now that will begin to beat us over the head with this fact every day as we progress towards spring. These stadium deals are just yet another example.

But until better laws or regulations are created to address this issue we are left as fans needing to find a compromise. The requests of this particular Guardians deal are sound but we are indeed paying the majority of the price. To the Guardians credit, I was at least able to find exact details of where the money was coming from, and how much, and even how often. That simple courtesy should be a given, but it all too often is not. They shouldn’t get credit for such transparency, but compared to their peers, perhaps they deserve it.

Whether or not all these details ultimately excuse the financial burden is ultimately up to you.

 

Reference: Cameron Fields article at Cleveland.com

Feature Image: FourSquare

Twitter: @DJLJR26

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