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Editorial: Brewers deal raises questions

Wisconsin plays Stanford during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in 2022 at American Family Field. Gov. Tony Evers wants to hand the Milwaukee Brewers nearly $300 million from Wisconsin’s budget surplus to enact repairs and renovations on American Family Field. (AP File Photo/Morry Gash)

Baseball returned last weekend and Brewers fans were cheered by a Cactus League win over the Los Angeles Dodgers in their spring opener in Phoenix.

It’s an exciting year for Major League Baseball with a bunch of rule changes – banning infield shifts, pitch counts and limited throws to first base – all intended to speed up the game.

Yes, we’ll cheer on the Brew Crew and we’re anxious to see how our team adapts to those rule changes.

But while our eyes will be on the field, Gov. Tony Evers and Brewers primary owner Mark Attanasio will be swinging for the wallets of Wisconsin taxpayers.

In his state budget proposal, Gov. Evers proposed taking $290 million from the state’s $7 billion surplus to give to the Brewers for stadium repairs and upgrades – a one-time cash payment. In return, according to the governor’s office and the Brewers, the baseball team would agree to extend its lease on American Family Field by 13 years – taking it to 2043.

The deal, which would need support from Republicans who control the state Legislature, is sure to rekindle debate over whether privately owned sports teams deserve taxpayer support to continue operating – particularly when the value of sports franchises are going through the ceiling.

It’s likely to spark thoughts of the contentious debate in the Legislature and then Gov. Tommy Thompson’s arm-twisting that caused Republican state Sen. George Petak to switch his vote in favor of stadium construction and the five-county sales tax leveled on Milwaukee, Racine, Ozaukee, Waukesha and Washington counties for 26 years. The tax raised $605 million before it expired in 2020.

Racine taxpayers never bought the argument that the county would see economic benefits from the ballpark’s construction and operation and were so rankled they recalled Petak and tossed him from office. We take some solace from the words of Rick Schlesinger, the Brewers president of business operations, who said the Brewers opposed the return of the five-county sales tax. That’s true. Instead it will be a lump sum payment from the budget surplus – which essentially means the funding will come from taxpayers across the state.

We will concede that the Brewers contribute to the Wisconsin economy. Schlesinger said the stadium has a $2.5 billion impact on the state’s economy since it opened in 2001. But most of that impact has been on Milwaukee County.

We’re aware, too, that Attanasio and a team of investors bought the Brewers for $223 million in 2005. Forbes last year put the worth of the franchise at $1.22 billion – that’s a tidy 438% return on investment. Maybe the owners could get a line of credit to keep the ballpark spiffy.

Our main worry about this “purchased” lease extension is how it works out as we get nearer to 2043. By then American Family Field will be 42 years old. The old Milwaukee County Stadium lasted 47 years. But though teams typically sign a 30-year lease, a Stanford University professor who has studied public policy and sports economics, said four years ago sports franchises are pushing for modern facilities sooner than in the past.

“Usually at around 20 years teams start threatening to move if they don’t get a new stadium,” said Roger Noll, “By the time a new one gets built it’s usually more like 25 years, but nobody ever stays in the same stadium for the term of their lease anymore.”

Our guess is that Attanasio and friends – or whoever the owners are as the year 2043 approaches – will be rattling the tin cup for taxpayer support to build a new stadium. By that time, Wisconsin’s $7 billion surplus will be long gone. Wisconsin has already lost one MLB franchise when the Braves left for Atlanta in 1966 and that left a bitter taste in the mouths of Wisconsin baseball fans for years.

We’re great Brewer fans, but we don’t like the implied blackmail of sports franchises threatening to move if they don’t get tax support. Those are the concerns Gov. Evers, the GOP Legislature and the Brewers need to keep in mind as they address a lease extension.

— Kenosha News

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