Baseball may seem like a digression from local politics, but not when it comes to the weird relationship between franchises the cities they play in.
Today the Norwich Navigators announced plans to stay in Norwich through 2009, ending speculation that Connecticut was about to lose its second Eastern League team in as many years (the New Haven Ravens left Yale Field last year for Manchester, New Hampshire, where they are faring ever so slightly better in terms of attendance).
The Navigators had reason to leave. Attendance has been falling since the newness of the team wore off (168,559 last year, down from 281,473 in 1995) and the stadium is out in the middle of a big patch of nothing that bills itself as an industrial park. Access to the stadium from the highway is confusing and frustrating, and the stadium itself (assuming you can find it) is a pretty typical cookie-cutter suburban stadium. I attended a number of games there during the 1990s, and wasn't particularly impressed. New Haven at least had Yale Field, and New Britain had the decency to paint the seats green.
So if the Navs were going to stay... Norwich was going to have to pay up.
As part of the deal to keep the franchise, the city agreed to lower the rent on the stadium from $175,000 to $140,000 and pick up the cost of police coverage. (AP)
Police guide cars all the way from the highway to the stadium, so that's no small cost. But Norwich counts itself lucky that the Navs are staying at all. Professional sports matter to communities (ask Hartford about the Whalers sometime), and sports franchises know it. Actually, a lot of the team's problems weren't the fault of the city, such as the fact that the Navs haven't done a decent job of marketing. The owners even admit this:
"We need to do a few of the basic things right," [limited partner Glenn] Carberry said. "This market is large enough to generate a successful franchise. We've done it before, and we can do it again." (AP)
But because cities desperately want to hang on to their teams, the management can dig themselves into a huge hole financially, beg the city to bail them out, and generally have the city do just that. Gladly. No politician wants to bear the stigma of losing the city's sports teams (although it doesn't seem to have hurt John DeStefano, who oversaw the departure of two hockey teams, a basketball team and the Ravens from New Haven).
So Norwich will continue to have baseball, at a price. All in all, they got off pretty easy. The Navigators could have asked for a new downtown ballpark. In New London.
"Navigators To Get New Name, But Will Remain In Connecticut." Associated Press 23 June 2005.