Baseball stadiums are never only about baseball. Their utility is both more dynamic and more poetic; as writer and critic Paul Goldberger put it in Ballpark: Baseball in the American City, baseball stadiums are the “ultimate American metaphor.” The metaphor works on at least two levels. As spiritually public places containing “a garden” at their heart, ballparks evoke a tension between “the rural and the urban”—the Jeffersonian preference for the pastoral; the Hamiltonian impulse toward the industrial—that has “existed throughout American history.” Done right, they evince what beauty that tension can produce, the creative potential of this American conflict. But so, too, do baseball stadiums—through design quirks, topographical accommodations, structural evocations of local history—represent characteristics particular to the cities and time periods in which they were constructed. They’re expressions, in this way, about nothing less than how we live.
It’s perhaps by virtue of this fact that baseball stadiums also inspire in fans a unique and very personal kind of devotion and pride. We love our stadiums. Fans whose teams play in stadiums that are iconic—Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Dodger Stadium—tend to regard them with an almost religious sort of reverence. Fans whose teams play in stadiums that are not yet so historic, meanwhile, often treat the prospect that they one day might as a reason for hope. This is why all new parks, when they finally open to fans, receive heraldic welcomes. Now this, we say, as we trundle wide-eyed through the pristine silver turnstiles for the first time, is the beginning of something new.
Of course, most new stadiums lose their sheen in due time. They fall out of fashion or out of favor, fail to make an impression or, worse, bore from the start. This can be disconcerting—most stadiums make the news damn near every day when they’re being built, or when politicians and team owners are haggling over whether to build them in the first place—yet it’s generally the rule. In fact, it might fairly be said that only one stadium built in the past 30 years has succeeded in transcending the broader American public’s strike-zone-sized attention span.
That stadium is Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Camden Yards does not earn the ubiquitous adoration that it used to. When it is referenced, it tends to be either for ill-conceived architectural renovations—critics and fans alike have bemoaned the impending amputation of the sign bearing the logo of The Baltimore Sun in center field, as well as the recent decision to move back the left-field wall—or for the internecine corporate squabbles of its tenants, the Angelos family, who could very well serve as stand-ins for the Roys on Succession. When it opened to the public 30 years ago, however, Camden Yards was everywhere, and for uniformly auspicious reasons. In Baltimore it simultaneously became a civic monument, a preeminent public attraction, and a major municipal accomplishment. Its first year, 3.57 million people bought tickets—over a million more than had come to Memorial Stadium the previous season. They weren’t coming for the players. As Jeff Barker, a sports reporter and The Baltimore Sun’s Washington correspondent, told me, “The stadium outshone the players. Camden Yards was the Orioles’ superstar.”
“It was like Disney World when that stadium opened in downtown,” Nestor Aparicio, a radio host, downtown Baltimore resident, diehard O’s fan, and former sportswriter for the Sun, told me earlier this summer. “It was like the Gateway Arch for Baltimore.” Kurt Schmoke, who was mayor of Baltimore in 1992, told me that Camden even seemed to renew his constituents’ faith in the ability of their government. He recalled a story of a fan who yelled out to him one day from somewhere behind Camden’s first-base dugout, during a rehearsal ahead of the park’s opening. “Hey, Mayor,” the man said. “Glad to see a government could do something right!” Schmoke, who had been pleased to see the hotels and restaurants in the surrounding Ridgely’s Delight neighborhood flush with new patrons, replied with an amiable thumb’s-up.
Among writers, meanwhile, Camden Yards was nothing short of a marvel. Peter Richmond, in his biography of the park, Ballpark: Camden Yards and the Building of an American Dream, called the stadium a “national showpiece.” In a celebration of the park published before it even opened, Goldberger wrote that Camden was “capable of wiping out in a single gesture 50 years of wretched stadium design, and of restoring the joyous possibility that a ball park might actually enhance the experience of watching the game of baseball.” George Will, who was once considered a candidate for MLB commissioner, declared in 2014 that Camden’s construction ranked among “the three most important things that have happened in baseball since the Second World War,” right up beside “Jackie Robinson taking the field in Brooklyn in 1947” and “free agency arriving in 1975.” Edward Gunts, a former architecture critic for the Sun, wrote that Camden Yards was sure to be “a seminal building” that would go on to “influence the way major-league sports facilities are designed from now on.” (Such predictions, of course, would prove prescient: In the years since the park’s opening, 21 baseball stadiums—most designed in Camden Yards’ distinct architectural likeness—have been built in or near city centers all across the country.)
Nobody, however, celebrated Camden Yards quite as conspicuously as Major League Baseball, which rather loudly incorporated the stadium into the mythic tale that it tells the world about itself. Bud Selig, the acting MLB commissioner at the time, remarked that “Camden Yards … changed everything. It really did. I’m not sure people grasp the significance of it.” The Orioles, meanwhile, began referring to Camden Yards using a trademarked honorific: “The Ballpark That Forever Changed Baseball.”
Three decades after the stadium opened, the Orioles still reference their home park in this way. Upon further investigation, however, their interpretation of exactly how Camden Yards “forever changed baseball” proves somewhat incomplete. Camden changed not only baseball but, arguably, all of professional sports. And not in ways altogether for the better.
The tale that both Major League Baseball and the Baltimore Orioles tell about Camden Yards goes something like this. Many years ago, in the first decades of the 20th century, baseball stadiums were not just useful poetic devices or pilgrimage sites for fans but crucial components of American civic life. This was particularly true of what Goldberger refers to as the “Golden Age” of American ballparks, which begins roughly with the opening, in 1912, of Redland Field in Cincinnati—and, several days later, of Navin Field (now Tiger Stadium) in Detroit and Fenway Park in Boston—and ends somewhere around World War II. The stadiums built during this period were nestled snugly into the urban neighborhoods they embellished, typically within walking distance of train stations and streetcar lines, and often set shoulder-to-brick-laden-shoulder with bars, businesses, and homes. They tended to be privately owned, but they nevertheless offered a relatively accessible public benefit. Imperfect but inimitable, self-contained yet communally useful, they constituted “a defining element,” as Goldberger writes, “of the civic realm.”
As metaphors, every baseball stadium ever built reflects certain elemental truths about our notions of the purpose and potential of public space. The ballparks of this golden period reflected, among other things, what was then our genuine commitment to life in the American city; they burnished the city, as did city parks and good bars. The stadiums that cities and states began building after World War II, however, symbolized the opposite. These were not inimitable urban gardens nestled in their neighborhoods’ bustling hearts but spiritless downed spaceships carpeted with AstroTurf, designed to host two sports, and plunked unceremoniously beside highways and parking lots far out in the suburbs. What these stadiums represented was an American ideal that despised cities, and a generation of Americans who wanted to escape them.
But then came Camden, which spearheaded an effort to, as Goldberger writes, “get our cities back.” This is where Major League Baseball resumes the tale—and proceeds to take some liberties with it. Whereas historians like Goldberger make no attempt to evaluate the efficacy of the urban renewal efforts that both Camden Yards and the stadiums it inspired contributed to—in part because economic analyses of those efforts has shown that in many cases they were not all that successful—in baseball’s interpretation, Camden is the poster child of an effort that has proved irrefutably effective. As Major League Baseball suggested in a press release commemorating the 30th anniversary of the opening of Camden Yards this spring, the park reoriented not only America’s relationship with baseball, but the cities that last century were abandoned. “No longer,” the authors write, “would communities across America build stadiums devoid of character.” Instead, they “would build them to flow seamlessly in existing and historic neighborhoods, playing key roles in the revitalization of urban America.”
The grandeur is not surprising. Baseball has a thing for self-mythology. Allegory—in the form of called shots, cursed teams, cleared cornfields—is one way that baseball articulates its significance. What the sport lacks in violence or speed, memeability or star power, it tries to make up for with legends and landmarks, poetic sensibilities and historical relevance. Camden Yards—which sits just blocks from the birthplace of Babe Ruth—checks each of those boxes.
The sentiment is not totally misplaced, either. With its hand-laid red brick facade, cast-iron gates, steel trusses, downtown location, and numerous asymmetric idiosyncrasies—such as the park’s accommodation of Baltimore’s historic B&O Railroad Warehouse—Camden Yards is equal parts beautiful, important, and enjoyable. I’d much rather watch baseball in a stadium like Camden than, say, RingCentral Coliseum—which, as a lifelong A’s fan, is not something I offer lightly. For nearly all my life, I’ve looked upon Camden Yards with a kind of unplaceable envy. On TV it looked so idyllic as to seem alien, the way my rich friends’ Christmas trees looked when I visited their homes over the holidays. Returning back to the upper deck of the Oakland Coliseum, I considered the prospect of one day calling a ballpark like Camden Yards my own veritably priceless.
But here we get to the crux: Camden Yards is not categorically salvific. In the 30 years since it opened, in the spring of 1992, Camden Yards has proved, beyond just beautiful or influential, illustrative of the more ignominious side of the political ecosystem that undergirds professional sports. The proof is in the funding. One of the worst-kept secrets in pro sports is that the people who run teams and leagues are sanctioned by the U.S. government to do so the same way kingpins run drug cartels: that is, as monopolies. Thanks to antitrust exemptions and the corollary ability to control the number of teams in competition, team owners and league bosses are able to artificially control the supply of their product. Especially for owners operating in mid-sized cities—which are likely to have a harder time competing for teams—this affords a powerful amount of leverage. Team owners have long exercised this leverage—often by threatening to move their team somewhere else—to scare politicians into succumbing to their demands, which typically include the forfeiture of public money for team owners to transform into private profit … usually, but not only, via the construction of new stadiums.
It was through an at-the-time relatively novel execution of this mode of municipal extortion that Camden Yards, which ultimately cost taxpayers in Maryland $450 million to build, came to be. And it’s in this way—as Matt Welch, the editor of Reason, put it in 2015—that Camden Yards proves to be not just the Ballpark That Forever Changed Baseball but “the prototype for showering tax dollars on millionaire sports owners.”
Another way to contextualize Camden Yards is as the manifestation of a great political fear. This fear took root in 1984. That was the year when Robert Irsay, the owner of the NFL’s Baltimore Colts, spirited his team away from Baltimore in the middle of the night to make a new home for them in Indianapolis. Like the Orioles, the Colts had played an important civic and cultural role in Baltimore—a city that, like other waning mid-sized cities of the postindustrial era, nursed a nasty inferiority complex. In his book, Peter Richmond interviews the famed late sportswriter and Baltimore native Frank Deford, and in their conversation Deford describes how he perceived Baltimore to be “a second-class place. We were looked down on.” This lent the Colts and Orioles outsize utility; they were vehicles through which the city could lay at least occasional claim to first-class relevance. So, too, did it lend the Colts’ departure outsize gravity; it created panic. As the state senator Thomas Bromwell articulated in a legislative session arranged, years later, to debate how far Maryland should go to keep the Orioles from following in the Colts’ footsteps, “With no baseball or football, we’ll be on a line with cities like Roanoke and Butte. Mayberry is what we’ll be.”
This fear was not new, exactly, but neither had the owners of baseball and football teams always proved so eminently capable of stoking it. In the early 1900s—the beginning of the “Golden Age” of stadium design—owners owned their team’s facilities outright, and went about making money the old-fashioned way: by exploiting their employees for profit, rather than taxpayers. Even in the years after World War II, when cities and states began building stadiums of their own, team owners had a hard time bending politicians to their will. As Princeton urban planner Judith Grant Long put it to Neil deMause and Joanna Cagan in their book, Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit, the leases that governments signed with team owners in the ’60s and ’70s “were favorable to the public sector.” This was because they were “traditional leases where the teams had very little control over their revenues.” In addition to rent, team owners paid “a substantial amount of the share of concessions, they didn’t get revenues from non-major-league events, there were no luxury suites, and there were no naming rights.”
The first totally subsidized stadium built with the express purpose of either enticing or appeasing the owner of a professional sports team was Milwaukee County Stadium, in 1953, which succeeded in luring to the Boston Braves to Milwaukee. That same year, Baltimore completed a multimillion-dollar renovation of Memorial Stadium, which had first been constructed using public funds in the 1920s. The goal of the renovation was to lure major league teams. Here, too, Baltimore was successful, capturing the Colts in 1953, and MLB’s Browns—who would go on to become the Orioles—from St. Louis the year after.
Other stadiums were built using similarly purposed public subsidies in the decades that followed, such as the Oakland Coliseum Complex, in East Oakland, and the Superdome, in New Orleans. The team owners who tenanted these facilities all angled to secure subsidies and abatements from their landlords, including by threatening to relocate, and subsidies were occasionally won, as some teams made good on their threats of municipal abandonment. But still, team owners didn’t inspire as much fear nor influence policy to the same degree they do today. Before the Colts’ departure in ’84, for example, city and state politicians in Baltimore had showcased a relative willingness to defy the owners of its major league teams. Irsay had conspired to move the Colts because Baltimore had rejected his demands to construct his team a new stadium. The city had rejected similar demands made by Jerold Hoffberger, whose family owned the Orioles until 1979, and Edward Bennett Williams, the leonine lawyer and entrepreneur from Washington, D.C., who bought the Orioles from Hoffberger that year. Both pestered politicians for a new publicly funded stadium—and suggested that they’d relocate their team in the absence of one. Williams made a point of refusing to sign a long-term lease in Baltimore until a new publicly funded, baseball-only stadium was built for him. “The Orioles will remain in Baltimore,” Williams was fond of cryptically saying, “so long as the city supports the team.” But Baltimore didn’t budge; William Schaefer, the mayor at the time, even said, “Unless private enterprise builds it, we won’t build it.”
That began to change after the Colts left Baltimore. As deMause and Cagan write in Field of Schemes, “The Colts’ move, clearly, was something new and frightening: a team leaving its home of three decades not for lack of public support … but solely for the lure of greater profits.” They quote New York Times columnist Dave Anderson: “If the Colts can be moved that way … any other franchise area in any sport can wake up some morning to find itself without a team.” This new reality transformed Baltimore politics. Schaefer, for his part, executed a prompt about-face, organizing secret meetings and creating a large state agency (the Maryland Stadium Authority) designed to find a way to build the privately owned Baltimore Orioles a publicly funded new stadium. Reliably, on March 26, 1987, the state Senate voted to fund the construction of not one but two stadiums. One would eventually house the NFL Ravens; the other would be Camden. (In a subsequent vote, the Senate confirmed their funding mechanism: a new state lottery.)
The stadium subsidy alone, however, was not all the state would agree to give to Williams to convince him to sign a long-term lease. To retain the Orioles, the state agreed to finance all the stadium’s maintenance costs and to spend $200,000 annually on improvements. It granted the Orioles the rights to a generous amount of the revenues generated by the stadium, including 50 percent of all parking revenue, 75 percent of all advertising revenue, and more than 90 percent of concession revenue. It gave the Orioles something called “design concurrence,” which the team could exercise at any time during the stadium’s construction and which meant, as Goldberger writes in Ballpark, “that while the stadium authority would hire the architect, pay design fees, and would technically be the architect’s client, the team would effectively control the design by having veto power over any element that it disapproved of.” (The lease also included a “parity clause” entitling the Orioles to all the same perks that were eventually offered to whatever expansion football team the city eventually managed to lure to the football stadium it was planning to build after Camden. As it would happen, this resulted, years later, in both the Orioles and the Ravens—whom Baltimore lured from Cleveland in 1995—playing in publicly funded stadiums rent free.)
Some in Maryland called this what it was. “The city was blackmailed into building a new stadium,” said state Senator Jack Lapides, after the state Senate voted to fund Camden’s construction. “It is simply unconscionable that cities are forced to succumb to blackmail by pro football and baseball. You should not capitulate to blackmailers. … You don’t deal with terrorists. I put these teams in the same category.” Others, however, believed it a necessary evil. As House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell put it, “If you want to save the Orioles, you have to give them this kind of lease.”
Mitchell’s view won out, and a newly persuasive and predictably unwieldy political logic was consecrated. On the other side of the country, in Oakland, the same political leaders who’d refused to subsidize Al Davis when he’d demanded a new stadium for his Raiders in 1982 turned around and offered Davis a subsidy of more than $200 million (that after interest cost Oakland $350 million), to entice him to move the franchise back to Oakland, in the ’90s. In Houston, Mayor Bob Lanier, who for years had refused to build the Oilers a new publicly funded stadium, agreed, after the Oilers had decamped for Nashville in 1997, to build the Houston Astros a $250 million ballpark with a retractable roof and 63 luxury suites. The new stadium opened in 2000. The public would ultimately pick up three-quarters of the tab, with funding derived from rental car, parking, sales, and liquor taxes. “If people want professional sports in this city, the reality is their presence requires certain public participation,” Lanier later explained.
There was a time not long ago when smart people who spend their days writing and thinking about the economics of professional sports thought the sway of this logic might be waning. 2022 has proved, rather conclusively, that it remains firmly entrenched. In March, lawmakers in New York state approved borrowing more than $1.13 billion in taxpayer funding to help Kim and Terry Pegula—the billionaire owners of the Buffalo Bills—build a brand-new football stadium for their locally beloved NFL franchise. The subsidy was the largest afforded any team owner in the history of American professional sports. In June, however, it was reported that public officials in Tennessee were preparing to spend $1.5 billion in public funds on a new stadium for the Tennessee Titans. Both the Pegulas and Amy Adams Strunk, the owner of the Titans, had suggested they’d be open to relocating to another city if large public subsidies were not forthcoming. Such suggestions were subtle, sure—but, then again, so were those issued by Williams, the owner of the Orioles, when the plans for Camden Yards were first drawn up 30 years prior.
It is not only fear that has rendered the logic reinforced in Baltimore so frustratingly intractable, though. Fear only inspired Camden Yards’ construction. Something else inspired the gold rush that came after: the fact that Camden appeared so economically and politically successful.
Of course, Camden Yards was a success for the owners of the Orioles, who by some accounts turned a $28 million profit the year Camden opened, and saw the value of their club double from what it was the season prior. Importantly, though, it also seemed a success for Baltimore. As politicians like Schmoke, the former Baltimore mayor, point out, the restaurants and bars around Camden Yards very much seemed to fill up on game days—a perception that was burnished both by optimistic economic impact reports commissioned by the Orioles and the Maryland Stadium Authority as well as by the effusive writing of pundits, corporate spokespersons, and national sportswriters who were persuaded that Camden represented nothing less than a modern “urban renewal success story.”
Never mind that economic impact reports commissioned by proponents of subsidized stadium projects are anything but reliable, and that the effectiveness of urban renewal efforts centered on the subsidized construction of large-scale entertainment centers—such as Baltimore’s urban renewal efforts, which include Harborplace and the National Aquarium in addition to Camden Yards—were even in the ’90s being called into question. No, what mattered was the perception, which conveyed, among other things, an intoxicating sense that Baltimore was a “second-class” city no more. The leaders of other mid-sized, temperamentally Rust Belt–like cities took notice, and under the panting encouragement of oleaginous team owners, they began to buy in. In time a new political status quo was born. “It [was] that kind of thing like, ‘This is what you need in order to be successful as a team, as a city, as everything, you need the next Camden Yards,’” deMause told the Sun in 2017. “Camden Yards definitely set the stage to where teams in other cities could say, ‘Well, this is just standard business practice, of course you’re gonna pay for it.’”
In the 30 years since Camden opened, more than a hundred new stadiums have been built, and most have followed this “standard business practice”—having been set in city centers and funded, in most cases substantially, by taxpayers. According to J.C. Bradbury, an economist who teaches in Kennesaw State University’s sport management program, the cost of the normalization of this practice has been great, with local governments having spent around $19 billion to fund sports stadium construction nationwide. As deMause told me in an email, however, the true figure is likely much higher, because subsidies for new stadium construction are not the only mechanism for transforming public money into private profit, and it’s impossible to tally “the true value of the tax breaks, discounted land sales, [and] forgone shares of things like naming rights” that cities and states so often grant team owners in lease agreements such as the one Maryland signed with Williams, the owner of the Orioles.
According to Peter Angelos, the man who bought the team from Williams’s successor in 1993, all this is an important part of Camden’s legacy. “The real impact of Camden Yards,” he told writer Thom Loverro, “is that other cities have … looked at and watched the Orioles franchise in operation and have gone back to their communities to put the same plan in place there. … Camden Yards has pointed the way.”
Of course, it still does. In Oakland, for example, Dave Kaval, the president of the Athletics—who, alongside A’s owner John Fisher, is vying to build the A’s a new, partially publicly funded stadium, and has for more than a year been threatening to move the A’s to Las Vegas if they’re denied the chance to do so—regularly cites Camden as an inspiration for the kind of stadium he believes his team needs in order to succeed in Oakland. “All the modern stadiums since the ’90s and Camden Yards have really been built in these downtown urban corridors and been really successful,” Kaval told KNBR last summer. “That is really the model that we’re looking for in success in baseball.” Kaval makes clear in such discussions that by “success” he means not only success for the A’s but for Oakland, too. “Seven billion dollars in economic impact. Six thousand permanent and mostly union jobs. Three thousand construction jobs,” he told me last year, citing numbers that match those published in a report by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute. “This is about more than just baseball.”
But what to make of such assertions? Has the Camden model actually succeeded in creating this sort of holistically beneficial impact in cities and states where it’s been replicated—enough benefit, presumably, to offset the costs studied by the likes of Bradbury and deMause?
Prevailing sentiment is that it has not. According to Greg LeRoy, founder and executive director of Good Jobs First, a national policy resource center with a focus on promoting corporate and government accountability, such subsidies “are simply not economic generators.” There are several reasons why. It’s fairly common for local governments to offer private companies various subsidies, abatements, and inducements as a means of encouraging them to build plants, factories, or headquarters within their city or state lines. The hope is those plants and factories will create enough economic value to justify the investment. A subsidized auto plant or complex manufacturing facility, for example, might create “upstream ripple effects” in the way it incentivizes parts suppliers to set up their own shop close to the manufacturing facility—and to in turn create jobs—or it might create “downstream ripple effects,” by way of the “jobs created by the buying power of the people that work at the facility.”
Subsidized stadiums, LeRoy said, create tiny ripple effects. The team owners who benefit most from them tend not to reinvest their earnings into the local economy, at least not the way the owners or employees of small businesses do. In fact, what economic activity that subsidizing team owners does encourage tends to occur at the expense of other businesses in the region. This happens through what economists call the “substitution effect,” or the cannibalization by stadiums of spending that was occurring elsewhere in a city before a new stadium arrived. According to a report written by Bradbury, the economist from Kennesaw State University, one recent example of this is Truist Park in Atlanta, the new home of the Braves. Neither Truist Park nor the accompanying Battery Atlanta development that surrounds it—which in total cost Cobb County taxpayers some $300 million—have increased local property values, at least not at a rate faster than property values have gone up over the same period in other parts of Atlanta. Nor have they generated near enough revenue to cover the cost of the county’s subsidy; according to Bradbury, “Debt payments and other expenses were almost $15 million per year more than the growth in revenues.” And consumer spending at the development, Bradbury found, has “come at the expense of existing businesses.” LeRoy, of Good Jobs First, said that this should have been expected. “Leisure activity, whether it’s tourism, sports, [or] entertainment, is not a high-impact thing to subsidize,” he said.
Baltimore is another example. Though Camden Yards has not been nearly as costly for Maryland as stadiums have been for other state and local governments, it has still lost the state a fair amount of money. According to economists Bruce Hamilton and Peter Kahn, authors of a 1997 case study on Camden Yards that appears in Sports, Jobs, and Taxes: The Economic Impact of Sports Teams and Stadiums, even in the halcyon period after Camden first opened, when the Orioles were selling out every game, Camden Yards never broke even. In 1997, the Maryland Stadium Authority recovered “approximately $6 million in rent” from the Orioles “and another $5 million in admissions tax revenue,” as it was entitled to by the Orioles’ lease, but the annual cost to the state of operating the stadium was much more than that—about $20 million. As years passed, meanwhile, auxiliary development did not pop up at scale. “You don’t have to look far to see [Camden] hasn’t translated into an influx of development even within a mile or quarter-mile of the ballpark,” Louis Miserendino, a visiting fellow with the Maryland Public Policy Institute, told the Sun in 2017. According to Hamilton and Kahn, the verdict is clear. “Public expenditure on [Camden Yards] cannot be justified,” they write, “on the grounds of local economic development.”
Of course, “economically” is not the only way politicians or the public justify subsidizing pro sports. They also hold that subsidizing sports teams is warranted for incalculable social, psychological, and cultural reasons. Which: valid. Many people love their teams the way they love members of their own family and they don’t believe investments in them need to return a profit. And even for people who don’t closely follow their local teams, the presence of those teams can still provide valuable, intangible benefits. Like investments in parks or libraries, investments in something like a stadium can contribute to the general public good by, say, cultivating community, inspiring pride, alchemizing a newly tangible civic identity, or by simply giving strangers something to talk about at bars or in line at the grocery store. “If the real reason for extensive subsidization of major league team sports is public consumption,” Roger Noll, a Stanford economist and the editor of Sports, Jobs, and Taxes, has written, “the validity of economic impact studies is not very important.” As Schmoke, the former mayor of Baltimore told me, “We didn’t go into it thinking that this was going to be a major moneymaker for the city. We thought that it was an important amenity, like museums, things that bring people together. And our sports team had always brought people together.”
And—and!—some subsidies can, in fact, turn out to be moneymakers. Several stadiums of the post-Camden era, like those built in San Francisco, Columbus, and Sacramento, have bolstered the economies of their home cities by importing economic benefits from areas outside the city limits and by galvanizing other kinds of development in areas around the stadium. This raises property values and encourages economic activity even on days when there are no games being played or events being held: key markers of stadium subsidy success.
Such success, however, is rare. As Mark Rosentraub, professor of sport management at the University of Michigan, told me, it’s only obtainable under specific political criteria, including, importantly, high amounts of private investment to complement and effectively offset the public investment. In Sacramento, the Kings paid for more than half of their new arena. In San Francisco, the Giants paid closer to the entirety of the tab. (San Francisco paid for infrastructure and site acquisition.)
In most cases, investments in the already-rich owners of sports teams can come with great, injurious, and unequal social costs. Part of the injury stems from the damage inherent to diverting hundreds of millions of dollars away from investments in long-term public health generators, such as infrastructure or schools, on which the working class heavily relies, and into something like a stadium, which mostly wealthier people tangibly enjoy. This constitutes a wildly regressive form of income redistribution: effectively, stealing from the poor and giving to the rich. And this is especially true when the subsidy in question is derived from sources such as “sin taxes’’—taxes on goods including alcohol and tobacco, which were used to fund the construction of Jacobs Field in Cleveland—or state lotteries, which funded Camden Yards. Lottery tickets are purchased primarily by poor people; as the senator Jack Lapides relayed to Richmond in Ballpark, the very poor in Baltimore city and Prince George’s County—which he estimated represented about 25 percent of the state’s population at the time—“spend about 63 percent of the lottery.” They also, by virtue of how expensive tickets to most major league sporting events are, spend comparatively little attending baseball games. “It’s a very sad dream we have foisted upon the poor,” Lapides said.
This is one reason that opponents of corporate welfare in pro sports fight so ardently against it. As Charles Khan, organizing director at the Strong Economy for All Coalition—which advocates for economic equality and corporate accountability in New York state, and which has spoken out against the deal the Pegula family signed with New York Governor Kathy Hochul—told me earlier this year, “You look at things like education. You look at things like childcare. Those things, dollar for dollar, lead to much better outcomes than opening up a Macy’s or a Kohl’s or a sports stadium.” In the end, however, it was the stadium that Buffalo invested in. In the eyes of Jessica Luther and Kavitha A. Davidson—authors of Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back: Dilemmas of the Modern Fan—the regularity with which local leaders make such decisions represents the victory of “one of the greatest American hustles … how a populace taught that we’re built on the ideals of freedom, democracy, and capitalism manages to willingly forego those ideals in the name of sports.”
Camden Yards did not invent this hustle. But its story evinces how it functions. And one effect of its influence arguably has been to further ingrain it into our cultural psyche. This can be seen in the front offices of Camden Yards itself. In April, the Maryland General Assembly quietly passed House Bill 896, which approved borrowing $1.2 billion in additional Maryland taxpayer funding to spend, in part, on upgrades to Camden Yards—to be paid back, once again, through proceeds from a state lottery. As John Angelos, the Orioles CEO and co-heir—who, following his predecessor’s model, had refused to sign a long-term lease at Camden in the absence of such an incentive—helpfully pointed out in a statement he released on social media that same morning, the subsidy marked “the second-largest public commitment of funding” to a team in Major League Baseball history.
As the size of the subsidies that cities and states offer team owners increase, so too does the political hazard; as the novelist Ben Fountain once wrote, “More money, more lies, is that politics’ iron rule?”
So how, then, should the ballpark that “forever changed” professional sports be remembered on its 30th anniversary? Should it be commemorated or condemned, celebrated or scrutinized? Major League Baseball, for its part, is going with the former, by throwing a party to be held on Saturday. It’s to include a “30th Anniversary Exhibit” featuring “highlights from the returning players responsible for many of the ‘Magic Moments’ in the history of The Ballpark That Forever Changed Baseball™,” as well as a postgame concert with appearances by Sisqó and Smash Mouth.
On the one hand, a party is appropriate. Fans would be shortchanging themselves if they didn’t celebrate what about Camden Yards merits celebration. For all the fear and political extortion that incited the park’s conception, Camden Yards is the product of an inspiring kind of architectural courage, exhibited by the likes of Larry Lucchino, a former Orioles president, and Janet Marie Smith, an Orioles VP, who both had held firm to the team’s vision of a baseball-only ballpark set downtown even when the architecture firm hired by the state—the ubiquitous HOK—wanted to build something typically featureless and far-flung. (Eric Moss, meanwhile, a young designer at the time, is largely to thank for protecting the B&O Warehouse from being turned into a parking lot.)
This is not for nothing. Baseball stadiums are like book stores—charismatic, novel, enchanting, bespoke—and Camden helped deliver sports fans from an era when this feature was almost forgotten, and every baseball stadium looked and felt basically like a Barnes & Noble.
The sports world is better for it. Stadiums that are beautiful, unique, amenable to modernity but of a piece with history—that allow a view of the skyline and the comfort of a luxury box—serve to not only facilitate the experience of watching pro sports but to enhance it. They do so, in part, by making easier the suspension of adult self-consciousness that is integral to the experience of getting childishly swept up in a close game. The late Roger Angell called this the “life-giving naïveté,” or “the ability to find beauty and involvement in artificial commercial constructions.” Camden comes close to automating that ability. One feels the effect almost as soon as they walk through the gates: There’s the reliable olfactory magic of grilled meat and cut grass hanging in the air, but so too is there that mystical American melding of the urban and pastoral that Goldberger rhapsodized about, the historical and the modern. “I may be biased,” says my friend Ben, a lifelong O’s fan who now lives in San Diego. “But experience-wise, Camden can’t be topped. Kicks Citizen Bank’s ass. Blows Petco out of the water, too.”
But architecture can do only so much. “Naïveté,” as Angell wrote, “is not gullibility.” At a certain point—stretched too far, tested by too many unignorable, ignominious costs—the hypnosis becomes untenable, and losing yourself earnestly in a game, a season, or in the longer-tail travails of your favorite team becomes impossible, no matter how beautiful or beloved your surroundings. You find yourself thinking, instead, about how much the person sitting in the owner’s box behind home plate or above the 50-yard line has profited from the one-sided partnership that you, as a taxpayer and fan, have unwittingly borne the economic brunt of.
It’s to the detriment of the fan experience when one is made overly aware of the politics that power professional sports from behind the scenes. But better understanding those politics can help fans fight back against them. And this is why, as fans, we do ourselves no favors glossing over the less romantic elements of Camden’s genesis or influence, either—the costs of its conception, what as a metaphor it illustrates and as a model it accelerated—because much helpful context can be gleaned from those things. I know that such context has helped me, even just in researching this retrospective, make better logical sense of all that’s at stake for Oakland in deciding whether to help build the A’s a partially publicly funded stadium downtown. As a fan, I used to think that the A’s building a Camden of their own would be worth any cost. Now I know that’s not exactly true.
It must also be noted, meanwhile, that this sort of exercise is in fact not only useful but, increasingly, urgent. Economists chart eras of stadium construction in waves. These tend to pass—that is, old stadiums tend to be replaced with new ones—in 30-year increments. The beginning of the third wave of American stadium construction can be tracked roughly to the opening of Camden Yards, in 1992. That means, as Bradbury, the economist from Kennesaw State, put it to me recently, “a new stadium construction wave is imminent.”
A billionaire team owner is likely, in other words, to be asking politicians in your city for their own version of Camden Yards sometime soon. It’ll pay to understand what, exactly, they’re asking for when they do.