Fans could save Twins

Outrage followed Major League Baseball’s announcement to contract two teams, one of which is likely to be the Minnesota Twins. Minnesotans expressed anger and frustration with major league baseball owners’ greed, particularly that of Twins owner Carl Pohlad and commissioner and Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig. Fans denounced the greed of players whose skyrocketing salaries have driven owners to this point. But while many things are wrong with the economics of baseball, if Twins fans want to find the real source of the contraction plans, they need to look in a mirror.

As baseball becomes increasingly expensive to play competitively, organizations in smaller markets are less able to field teams with a real chance of winning. This drives fans away, reinforcing the notion that these markets cannot support a team. Since 1992, the year following a Twins World Series victory, attendance dwindled from more than 30,000 to only 12,000 fans per game in 2000. This year, with a much better team, attendance nearly doubled to more than 22,000 – still 6,000 fans less than the league average.

Some small markets do support teams. With an owner willing to lose money and focused on winning rather than the bottom line, the size of the fan base becomes less relevant. Alternatively if the fans in a city support their team regardless of the team’s success – as is the case in St. Louis – a team can remain profitable and, ultimately, competitive. The Cardinals averaged more than 38,000 fans per game during a year in which they made the playoffs. But St. Louis fans stay devoted when the team isn’t performing as well. The Cardinals lost 89 games in 1997, and still averaged 32,000 fans per game.

Minnesota has neither an owner willing to lose money nor a group of fans large enough to support the team through defeat as well as victory. Minnesotans have also demonstrated their unwillingness to pay for a new stadium that would generate much-needed revenue for the team. St. Paul defeated a 1999 referendum to raise sales tax 0.5 percent to fund a new stadium. During the past several years, polls have indicated that citizens do not want to fund a new stadium with public money. Now many are changing that position, but the apathy toward the Twins could remain even with a new stadium.

Pohlad’s past behavior provides another wrinkle in the stadium-funding plan. The 1999 referendum was defeated, in part, because of public perception that the Twins’ owner had exaggerated the chance of the team moving to North Carolina.

It’s a tough choice: Get bullied into funding a stadium for which they don’t want to pay, or live in a town without baseball. In the end, it’s up to the fans.