The Rising Cost of Spring Training

Here’s my latest for Stay Thirsty, the quarterly e-zine put out by the publisher of my Rick Crane Noir novels.

“I want all the spring training teams to be back here,” said Rick Scott.

He isn’t some rabid Cleveland Indians or Los Angeles Dodgers fan, sad that his team has left Florida for Arizona to hold their annual Spring Training workouts. He’s the newly elected Republican governor of Florida who has vowed to win a bidding war for these teams, and he’s going to use taxpayer money to do it.

Never mind that there’s hardly a better definition of economic insanity than stadium subsidies. This is especially true for Spring Training, where rich teams – Forbes recently estimated the net worth of an average Major League Baseball team at $1.2 billion – often pit small communities against one another to get the best stadium deals. Case in point: In 2010 the Boston Red Sox, estimated net worth $2.1 billion, struck a deal with Lee County, Florida, to sell $81 million in bonds to finance a new stadium. Making matters worse, Lee County still had $17 million in outstanding debt on the old $51.5 million stadium it had built for the Red Sox in 1993.

Lee County’s deal is not nearly as bad as the one struck by Winter Haven, Florida, and the Cleveland Indians, No. 25 on the Forbes list at $825 million. Baseball’s wandering Tribe trained there from 1993 to 2008, but Winter Haven built the team a stadium, didn’t charge them rent, and let the Indians keep the bulk of revenue from ticket sales, concessions, parking and advertising. According to Michael Stavres, Winter Haven’s director of community services, annual upkeep of the stadium for one month of baseball and whatever tourism it brought in cost the city $800,000 a year.

When the Indians left Winter Haven for a new Spring Training facility in Goodyear, Arizona, the small Florida community only saw a drop in sales tax revenue of $133,000. Do the math and the revenue from the baseball team was about 16% of the annual subsidy.

And why did the Indians go to Goodyear? Because the small community on the western edge of Phoenix built them an 8,000-seat, $108 million stadium.

These sweetheart stadium deals aren’t an anomaly, they’re the norm. And by almost any measure, they’re a horrible use of taxpayer dollars.

USA Today did an analysis of the economics of Arizona’s Cactus League, which in the late 1990s hosted just a handful of Major League teams each spring but now is home to 15 of MLB’s 30 teams. In most instances, the subsidies far outweighed the returns.

For example, Maryvale Baseball Park, where the Milwaukee Brewers train, brings in an estimated $630,000 in revenue each March. The city’s subsidy? $1.2 million.

And as these teams hopscotch from city to city to get the best deal, they often leave their old hosts stuck with huge debt and no team. The best example of this is the Los Angeles Dodgers, valued at $2.4 billion, who now play in a brand new facility in Glendale, Arizona. In 2009, they left Vero Beach, Florida, where they’d trained since they were the Brooklyn Dodgers. The city was left with $15 million of debt on an empty stadium that won’t be paid off until 2031, according to a recent Florida Legislature report on sports subsidies. The same is true, according to the report, for the Toronto Blue Jays, net worth $870 million, whose lease expires on their Florida facility in 2016, but the debt – more than $41,000 a month – won’t be retired until 2023.

Even long-established Spring Training clubs are cashing in. The Chicago Cubs, who haven’t won a World Series in more than a century but have been in Arizona’s Cactus League since the 1950s, recently moved into a new stadium in Mesa, Arizona, thanks to $100 million in taxpayer subsidies.

What makes this all the worse is that while the municipalities are sticking it to the taxpayers, the teams are sticking it to the fans.

If you haven’t been to Spring Training lately, it has come a long way from the quaint affair it was just a few decades ago. The star players don’t sign autographs the way they used to; in fact, most of the starters, with the exception of pitchers, only play a few innings each game.

Fans hoping to see the World Series Champion San Francisco Giants, estimated net worth $2 billion, this year had to pony up $100 for good seats at Scottsdale Stadium, which receives some $800,000 in annual subsidies, but only brings in an estimated $500,000 in tourism dollars.

The Giants are one of the teams who apply so-called dynamic pricing to Spring Training games, in which they charge more for games against key rivals. So bleacher seats for a March 26 game against the Oakland Athletics were $49; those same seats for a game against their inter-division rivals, the Dodgers, a few days later were $61.

Despite the dire economics of stadium subsidies and the high price of tickets, fans keep coming to watch games that mean absolutely nothing, played mostly by guys they’ll never hear from again unless they follow the AAA farm club. In the final weeks of Spring Training in Arizona, games against key regular-season rivals such as the Giants and Dodgers and what Chicagoans call their Crosstown Rivalry, the White Sox at the Cubs, were sold out.

Unfortunately, what the vast majority of tourists who are here for something other than baseball don’t realize is that regardless of whether or not they go to the game they’re paying for it in the form of higher sales taxes on hotels, rental cars and food. Money that politicians frequently tell taxpayers will cover the cost of a stadium, but rarely does.

Where’s the Next Generation of Volunteer Firefighters?

Here’s my latest for Stay Thirsty, the quarterly magazine from the publisher of my Rick Crane Noir novels.

By Mark Yost

If you want to see one of the most vexing problems facing America today, go to Coatesville, Pennsylvania. The small community about an hour west of Philadelphia is short of volunteer firefighters. And it’s not alone.

A lack of volunteers is a nagging issue for small fire departments in little towns, villages and rural hamlets from New York to California.

The reasons are many.

Coatesville Deputy Fire Chief Steve Dobson told the local paper that in the past, volunteers who worked in town were allowed to leave their jobs to respond to calls. Now, fewer employers are willing to do that.

Battalion Chief Craig Patton said increased training standards for volunteers – up to 200 hours depending on state standards before they can respond to a fire – have also cut down on volunteering. Further exacerbating the problem is the fact that today volunteer fire departments do more than just put out fires. Emergency medical calls account for some 90% of fire department calls today, at both volunteer and full-time career departments. Because of this, most fire departments require their members to be at least EMTs; some require volunteers to be paramedics, another certification that takes thousands of hours. Many residents not only don’t have the desire to volunteer, they don’t have the time.

“Hard schedules, people don’t have time, people get disconnected from the community – you know folks are gone during the day,” said Mark Riedl of the Albany, Wisconsin, fire department. “We’re always welcoming volunteers, we’re always welcoming people that can put in more time, or put in whatever time they have.”

Volunteer Firefighters
Volunteer Firefighters
(credit: Courtesy of Don Champley)

But at a recent drill, only about six firefighters showed up.

“We got guys who we haven’t seen in two years,” Riedl said.

“You just can’t find the young men and women you need to join,” said Albany Chief Danny Mueller.

Out in Smith Valley, Montana, Chief D.C. Haas has only eight volunteers; he could use 20. In places like Fonda, N.Y., near Syracuse, the volunteer fire department closed after more than 100 years of service to the tiny Upstate New York community. Fire service was taken over by a nearby paid department.

A recent FEMA study summed up the problem nicely, noting a “lack of time, apathy, and excessive requirements,” for the estimated 15% drop in volunteer firefighters nationwide.

“The emergency services are the most demanding of volunteer activities today. The physical and time demands associated with training; responding to incidents; maintaining facilities, apparatus, and equipment; fundraising; and administering a nonprofit corporation are grueling if not managed properly.”

But mostly, these small fire departments are plagued by a drop off in volunteers. People like the Kluchka family.

Jerry Kluchka, 59, and his three sons – Tim, 29, Matt, 24, and Russell, 22 – are volunteers at the Lake Bluff Fire Department, the last all-volunteer fire department on Chicago’s suburban North Shore. The Kluchkas are also symbolic of the multi-generational families that used to fill the ranks of volunteer fire departments across the country. Today, they’re a dying breed. What’s more, it’s a tradition that’s not being passed on to future generations like it once was.

“When I was growing up, we’d always have the radio test that would go out every night,” said Tim, the oldest brother. “That’s what first sparked my interest in the fire department.”

The Kluchkas grew up a block away from the Lake Bluff firehouse and they’d ride their bikes to the station and watch the fire trucks go out on a call. As soon as they were old enough – or were allowed – they started hanging out there.

“I was in sixth grade,” Tim said. “I’d go to the firehouse on drill nights and help wash the trucks or whatever they’d let me do.”

He’d also hang out after training and watch the guys play horseshoes out back.

“That’s where I learned about the camaraderie that’s unique to the fire service,” Tim said. “That special bond was what got me going.”

His first fire was a basement fire, one of the most dangerous kind because firefighters have to fight their way down to get to the seed of the fire to extinguish it.

“I’d been training with the department for awhile,” he said. “I packed up and just went in. And I got into a little bit of trouble because I was only 16.”

Most state laws don’t allow young firefighters to go into real fires until their 18.

For all its history and tradition – like the Fourth of July parade that’s been happening for more than 100 years, led by the fire department – Lake Bluff isn’t any different than other volunteer departments struggling to recruit volunteers.

“When I started on the department, we had an active staff of at least 20 guys out of a roster of 45. We still have a roster of 45, but at the same time the core group you can count on to go on calls is maybe seven to 10 guys. That’s about all there is.”

Part of the reason in the decline in volunteers is changing demographics, Kluchka said. Lake Bluff is a bucolic little town, nestled on Lake Michigan, and is often compared with a New England fishing village. That charm and small-town feel has attracted more city-dwellers over the years.

“Ours was the last house that sold for under $100,000 in Lake Bluff,” he said. “Now the average house in Lake Bluff is $500,000.”

That has brought in white-collar residents who are either too busy or don’t have the blue-collar skills needed to be a firefighter.

“Because of the economy, some guys are working so hard to keep what they have and spend time with their families that they can’t volunteer.”

But for many, Kluchka said, “people’s heart and soul just isn’t into it anymore.”

The lack of volunteers has caused many fire departments that used to be all volunteers to go to part-time paid staffs. That’s what happened at Knollwood, another longtime volunteer department that’s next to Lake Bluff. Today, Knollwood has paid staff on duty for at least part of every day. The same thing happened in Antioch, another nearby department where Don Champley started in 1987.

Like Tim Kluchka, Champley used to ride his bike to the firehouse as a kid and watch the volunteers go out on calls. When he became old enough, he joined the department.

“Back then, we had about 60 active members,” Champley said. “The majority either lived in the village and were business owners or worked for businesses that allowed them to go on calls during work. The rest were public works employees, who were also allowed to go on calls.”

Because of that attitude, “we always had ample people to respond to calls.”

Then some of the volunteers moved away, got jobs outside of town, and local employers stopped letting their workers leave in the middle of the day to respond to calls.

“As the number of calls went up, employers just basically stopped letting people go on calls. That was the downfall of a lot of volunteer departments.”

As a result, Antioch has had to go to a paid-on-call staff, mostly full-time firefighters who work there on their days off. Today, Antioch has at least 8 staffers on duty to respond to both fire and EMS calls, although volunteers – most of whom are paid a small stipend – come in for fires and other incidents that require more manpower.

Champley also notes another problem that is roiling departments across the country: volunteer fire departments have been a stepping-stone to full-time jobs. That’s what happened to Champley, who eventually got hired at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. It’s also what happened to the Kluchkas.

While the Kluchka brothers still respond to calls in Lake Bluff, they sometimes can’t because they’re all full-time firefighters/paramedics on the North Shore: Tim in North Chicago, Matt in Lake Forest, and Russell in Highwood.

And even those departments that pay part-time wages to volunteers struggle with basic economics.

“Our pay is on the lower end of what some other part-time or paid-on-premise departments are paying,” Champley said. “We’ve lost some people to other departments because for some of the guys it’s all about the money. It’s not supposed to be that way, it’s supposed to be about community service.”

Indeed, Champley, the Kluchkas and others said that today, if people are going to give up their time, they want to be compensated for it.

“That wasn’t the attitude in the late 1980s,” said Champley. “If there was a fire, 30 people would show up. Now, we get maybe enough guys to staff a reserve engine.”