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Friday, February 15, 2008

My interview with J.C. Bradbury: stadiums, spring training, and the Reds' offseason

Dr. J.C. Bradbury is an Associate Professor at Kennesaw State University, and the author of The Baseball Economist: The Real Game Exposed, which will be out in paperback on February 26th, and will include updated 2007 player values for all MLB players. He also maintains an active blog at sabernomics.com, and is the creator of PrOPS, a diagnostic hitting statistic that I often use here in my player profiles.

In light of some of the recent news surrounding the Reds, I asked Bradbury if he'd participate in a short e-mail interview, and he kindly agreed. Topics addressed include the public financing of baseball stadiums and spring training facilities, and his takes on the Reds' offseason activities.


Question: I've seen reports critiquing the use of public funds for MLB stadium projects. Hamilton county (through a half-cent sales tax increase) has invested an enormous amount of money into revitalizing the Riverfront area, which has included the construction of the Reds' and the Bengals' new stadiums. How do you view these sorts of stadium projects, from the perspective of economic return to the cities or counties that pay for them?

JCB: The economic return is zero. I have not seen a single study that shows a positive impact from such efforts. The state of the research is such that if an economist attempted to publish another economic impact study, that journal editor would reject the study for being redundant. Spending on sports replaces spending that would have happened anyway. The idea that these projects confer financial benefits is a myth. Any positive return to taxpayers is non-monetary.

And you don't need studies to understand this. I go to about five Braves games a year. It's been 10 years since the Braves started playing at Turner Field (which was the 1996 Olympic Stadium). The area surrounding the stadium is a dump. It's the type of place where at night, you run red lights just to get out of the area faster. There are no restaurants, bars, or shops. Those things are inside the stadium. The same is true for many stadiums around the country.

I have no problem with a community reaching a political decision that it will chose to raise taxes because its citizens value having a sports team. But, it really bothers me when people argue that these projects are beneficial. It is time to be honest and say, "if you want to pay $5 more in taxes a year, we can host a team or have a nicer stadium." As long as everyone agrees that this will cost money, not make it, I have no problem with government choosing to fund such projects.


Question: Sarasota county commissioners recently voted to contribute $17.6 million towards a $41 million renovation of their Florida spring training facility, Ed Smith Stadium. However, their delay in making this decision has resulted in the Reds entering an exclusive negotiation agreement with a Cactus League facility, which lasts through mid-April. Signs are that the Reds will be heading west. Again from the perspective of the cities/counties, to what degree do you think the economic benefits of building and maintaining a spring training facility for a team is worth the cost? Does the ability to attract vacationing fans make spring training facilities a more worthwhile investment?

JCB: It's not like Sarasota won't attract outsiders without spring training visitors. Florida is a nice place to be this time of year. I suspect that the hotels and restaurants will do about the same without the team. I can't imagine that the improvements in Sarasota's stadium will generate enough value in one month to justify nearly $18 million in public subsidies.


Question: Why do you think the Cactus league has been so successful in luring teams--even those not from the West Coast like the Indians and Cubs--away from their former Florida spring training homes?

JCB: I haven't looked at this, but my guess is that they have been able to offer newer and nicer facilities. I suspect that Florida residents know that the tourists will come, with or without baseball, which gives Cactus League hosts an advantage. Taxpayers in Arizona may be more willing to support public subsidies, because they aren't as certain as Florida taxpayers that visitors will come anyway.


Question: Switching gears a bit, the Reds' most significant free agent signing in a long time was the 4-year, $42 million deal they gave to Francisco Cordero this winter. What do you think of this signing?

JCB: This is an awful signing. It is a huge mistake to pay a player who plays so little so much money. Plus, it's a little too early for the Reds to be shopping for a closer. I think the club should have devoted Cordero's salary to improving other aspects of the team. I'm never a fan of paying a reliever big money. But, if you do so, you better anticipate that he's going to get the final out of the World Series.


Question: The Reds have also been involved in trade discussions for players like Erik Bedard and Danny Haren this winter. Both of those deals would have required the Reds to give up at least one, if not more of the Reds' Big Four prospects (Bruce, Votto, Bailey, and Cueto), and the Reds apparently opted not to go this route. How would you rate the relative value of top-tier prospects (~zero service time) compared to a established, still-young players like Bedard or Haren (3-4 years in MLB)?

JCB: I'm not sure. Bedard and Haren are both good with service time left, and to get pitchers like them, you have to give up a lot. Both the Mariners and the D-Backs surrendered a lot. Do you make such a deal? It's just so hard to say. If I am the Reds GM, I wait to see how the season is going. If things go well, then maybe I am willing to move some top prospects. Because, if things don't go well, you've paid a high price to acquire a pitcher that you don't need, and the prospects you do need are gone. This strategy is not without risk, but until the Reds show that they are ready to contend, I think it is unwise to give up too much of the future. So, I think the Reds have done the right thing.


Thanks once again to J.C. Bradbury for participating in this interview!