Stadium District Riding High

A popular notion during construction of the Bank One Ballpark was that Jerry Colangelo and his Diamondbacks were hosing Maricopa County taxpayers for millions of dollars while fattening their bank accounts.

The unpopular quarter-cent sales tax to raise $238 million was approved by three of the five county supervisors who sat as the Maricopa County Stadium District board. It created a vicious backlash. Two supervisors--Ed King and Jim Bruner--were thrashed in subsequent elections, and the third, Mary Rose Wilcox, was shot and wounded by a deranged man who claimed to be upset about the tax.

In retrospect, however, the agreement forged by Maricopa County to build the ballpark now appears to have been a good deal for the county, for a number of reasons including:

* The public has at its disposal a beautiful facility that can be used for many different events.

* The ballpark is paid for, as far as taxpayers are concerned. Unlike many stadium deals across the country, there is no public debt attached to the ballpark. Pittsburgh taxpayers, for example, still owe $41 million on two stadiums they are going to tear down.

While the county faces no debt, the Diamondbacks are saddled with about $100 million in debt associated with the ballpark.

* Operation and maintenance of the ballpark--which costs about $9 million a year--is the Diamondbacks' responsibility.

* The ballpark is generating revenue for the county--albeit relatively small--in the $1 million a year range. Half of the revenue is reserved for stadium improvements and the balance goes into the stadium district's operating budget.

* The county can sell advertising within the stadium, and, even on occasion, cover up some of the permanent signage sold by the Diamondbacks.

* The county doesn't spend a dime of public money to operate the ballpark.
"There are no tax dollars used for this operation," says stadium district director William Scalzo. "Tax dollars were used to build it, obviously. But there are no tax dollars, nor will there be in the future, for anything that deals with the operation for this building. There is no facility I know like that in the United States."

Scalzo, also head of the county's parks and recreation department, is aggressively seeking ways to use the ballpark for civic events. In less than a year, the county has brought seven non-baseball events into the ballpark--all of which generated positive cash flow for the county.

"What makes this so unique is that we control non-baseball events," says Scalzo.

Some of the events barely break even, such as the Roman Catholic confirmation mass last summer and the New Times 10K race, which finished inside the ballpark last fall.

"We want to do some events that are more community, like the 10K race," Scalzo says. "That's not a money maker. We wanted to do that because we know a lot of people participate in the race, this is their facility, and we would like them to see their facility."

The New Year's Eve Black Sabbath concert, which generated $1.6 million in gross ticket sales, and two off-road racing events held recently, fared better financially.

The Black Sabbath concert raised eyebrows and generated predictions from conservative East Valley lawmaker Karen Johnson that massive damage and destruction would ensue. Scalzo says reporters for the Arizona Republic were poised to write about the expected mayhem.

"The Republic was ready to do a story that night about this horrible event that destroyed Bank One Ballpark," Scalzo says. "They thought they would burn the place down, break out all the glass in the building and just violate people."

None of which happened.
"We had less damage to the building than we had in a normal baseball game," he says.

The concert marked an important milestone in the county's relationship with the Diamondbacks because it demonstrated to the team that the district was serious and capable of luring big events that might not appeal to a traditional baseball crowd.

"Those 35,000 people who came to that concert are all taxpayers and citizens, too," Scalzo says. "They had a great time on New Year's Eve."

Not only did the stadium district have the gumption to host a heavy-metal fest, it staged the Fiesta Bowl National Band Championship less than 17 hours after the concert.

Fiesta Bowl officials feared that the musicians would be forced to march through postconcert rubble, Scalzo says.

Instead, the ballpark's rock concert configuration was transformed overnight into a chalked football field, much to the surprise and relief of Fiesta Bowl chairman Richard Stemple.

"I thought that our show would resemble a band contest in a junk yard," Stemple wrote to the district.

Instead, Stemple arrived on New Year's Day to find the fresh football grid, complete with the Fiesta Bowl logo--and not a trace that a rock concert had been held the night before.

Stemple dubbed the ballpark's transformation the "Miracle on Jefferson."
The miracle resulted from magic concocted by Scottsdale promoter Charles Johnston, whose company, Select Artists Associates, has a contract to book and manage non-baseball events in the ballpark for the stadium district.

Scalzo recognized that the county lacked the expertise or manpower to book and manage stadium events. So the district solicited bids from promoters from across the country before selecting Johnston's company.

Johnston brings 33 years promotion experience and has been involved with some of the largest stadium events in the country, including pregame and postgame activities at this year's Super Bowl. Johnston says he's arranged events at 25 different stadiums in the last two years and has reviewed more than 100 stadium contracts.

"The Maricopa County Stadium District negotiated a phenomenal deal," Johnston says. "It is going to generate dollars for the citizens of Maricopa County from day one."

It will generate dollars for Johnston as well. His $100,000-a-year contract includes bonus provisions once more than 200,000 tickets are sold for non-baseball events each year.

Scalzo and Johnston decline to release revenue figures for non-baseball events since the ballpark opened. While acknowledging that the records are public, Scalzo says releasing them would put the stadium district and Johnston at a disadvantage during negotiations with potential entertainers.

Scalzo hinted that the district expects to generate about $1 million in calendar year 1999 and said Johnston is busy booking the ballpark for next fall and winter. The last non-baseball event scheduled before the Diamondbacks first home game this season was held last week, when the U.S. Off-Road Championship Series drew 31,000 fans.

The off-road event turned the playing surface into a series of dirt mogels that launched trucks, motorcycles and modified dune buggies into the air during the three-hour event.

Baseball fans need not worry about the ballpark's grass. Part of the agreement allowing the off-road event required the sponsors to pay for removal and resodding of the entire field. A new field of zoysia grass overseeded with bluegrass is being installed this week--at no expense to the stadium district.

The stadium district not only receives money from non-baseball events, it is collecting annual rent and royalties from the Diamondbacks. For the 1998 season, the team paid the district a $325,000 cut of the ballpark naming rights fees, $250,000 more for intellectual property rights and booking-manager fees, and $777,700 in seat premiums.

Scalzo expects to extract several hundred thousand dollars more from the team once a dispute is settled over how attendance is calculated. The district receives between 50 cents and $1.50 per ticket once the baseball team draws its two millionth fan each year.

"We are not resolved at this point, but I think there has been some movement so that it will be resolved very satisfactorily for us and produce considerably more revenue," Scalzo says.

--John Dougherty

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty