COVER

PLAY BALL!

THE SKYDOME’S FINAL BIRTH PANGS HAD ALL THE TENSION OF A PENNANT RACE

MALCOLM GRAY June 12 1989
COVER

PLAY BALL!

THE SKYDOME’S FINAL BIRTH PANGS HAD ALL THE TENSION OF A PENNANT RACE

MALCOLM GRAY June 12 1989

In the final, frantic week before Saturday's opening date, the drive to ensure that the world's first multipurpose domed stadium with a fully retractable roof would meet municipal safety standards had all the tension of a major-league pennant race. Only three days before an inaugural spectacular for 55,000 spectators hosted by television star Alan Thicke, Toronto city inspectors and council members swallowed hard and made their decision: a stadium with a missing seal that allowed the roof to leak during rainstorms and some rooms that had not been equipped with emergency telephones was safe enough to open. At the centre of the drama was the SkyDome, a $500-million complex flexible enough to host events from football and baseball games to trade conventions and rock concerts. But it is primarily a sports stadium, the new home of the Toronto Blue Jays and the Canadian Football League (CFL) Argonauts. And the size of the structure alone—with its roof shut, the SkyDome could enclose a 31-storey building or Rome’s Coliseum—emphasized the moneymaking magnetism of professional sport. Said Buck Martinez, a former Blue Jays catcher who is now a television commentator on The Sports Network (TSN): “Baseball is big business these days, and domed stadiums make the sport more efficient.”

Attract: As a ball-player-turned-broadcaster, the 40-year-old Martinez has been well placed to observe the forces that have combined to make professional sports a multi-million-dollar industry. He spent 18 years playing for three major-league teams before switching to a pay TV-network broadcast booth with Toronto-based TSN in 1987. During that span, fans of hockey, football, basketball and baseball began turning to newspapers’ business sections as well as the sport pages for information about their favorite teams. Sometimes, they discovered that the local favorites had decamped. In the National Football League (NFL) alone, the Raiders left Oakland, Calif., for the larger Los Angeles market in 1982, the Colts abandoned Baltimore for Indianapolis in 1984, the Cardinals forsook St. Louis for Phoenix last year—and New York City’s Jets and Giants both use Giants Stadium in New Jersey. As a result, cities from Vancouver to St. Petersburg, Fla., have built new stadiums, some with roofs, to attract—or retain—a popular civic status symbol: a major-league sports franchise (page 46).

The postwar boom in professional sport franchises has been particularly beneficial for major-league baseball and the NFL. And while the CFL has shrunk to eight teams since Montreal withdrew in 1986 and remains financially shaky, early sales of more than 26,000 season tickets have led Argos owner Harry Ornest to predict a good season’s business under the dome. In baseball, continued high fan interest during the 1960s and 1970s resulted in the expansion to 26 teams—from 22 in 1962—among them, the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays.

Profitable: In 1977, eight years after the National League Montreal Expos first took the field at ramshackle Jarry Park, the Blue Jays opened the season at a similarly makeshift ball yard carved out of the gridiron at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium. There, and at other stadiums, television’s partnership with major-league sports has proved to be mutually profitable for broadcasters and team owners alike, as advertisers lined up to promote their products—beer and automobiles in particular—to stay-at-home fans. As a result, NBC TV charged up to $650,000 for a 30-second commercial during last January’s broadcast of Super Bowl XXIII. There, in Miami, the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals in an NFL championship game that attracted a worldwide audience of 750 million viewers.

When Martinez began his second season behind home plate in 1970 for the Kansas City Royals, he earned $10,800 at a time when a factory worker in Canada made $6,197 yearly. Since then, the average industrial wage has risen to $29,445—a 4.75-fold increase. But the average baseball salary is now 18 times higher than it was in 1970, soaring to $701,018 from $38,118. Indeed, statistics compiled by the Major League Baseball Players Association show that 120 of 680 players who began the season on the big-league rosters this year have contracts that are worth more than $1 million (U.S.).

Threat: Among them is Mark Langston, a hard-throwing pitcher whom the Montreal Expos recently acquired from the Mariners. The talented Langston has predicted that he will sign a three-year contract next season for at least $9 million. One reason for such confident expectations: like their counterparts in professional football and hockey, baseball players have used the courts and the threat of strikes to win the limited right to sell their services to the highest bidder once their contracts expire.

In response, baseball-team owners in particular have sporadically taken collective action to contain their employees’ ballooning salary demands. To that end, they banded together and refused to sign any so-called free agents whose old teams still wanted their services during the 1986 and 1987 seasons. But arbitrators have since ruled that, in doing so, the owners had colluded to deprive the free agents of their true market value. Released from such collegial restraints, several owners—the New York Yankees’ flamboyant principal owner, George Steinbrenner, among them—have shown that they are ready to tap guaranteed revenues from the sale of TV broadcast rights and offer contracts to rival players.

Indeed, for a limited package of baseball coverage that includes exclusive rights to the World Series, the CBS TV network alone will pay $1.4 billion for a four-year contract that begins in 1990. That amount will provide each of the 26 teams in the National and American leagues with a $12-million payment each year. In addition, each club can still reach a separate agreement for local broadcasts of 81 regular-season home games. And with a team that plays in one of the most densely populated areas in the United States, Steinbrenner recently signed a 12-year cable TV contract that is worth $602 million.

Baseball’s two Canadian entries enjoy relatively good broadcast revenues. For one thing, the Expos currently have a five-year, $30-million marketing agreement with the Labatt Brewing Co. Ltd. The 1986 agreement allowed the London, Ont.-based brewery—whose parent company owns 45 per cent of the Toronto Blue Jays—to become a prime television sponsor of the Expos. Still, Steinbrenner’s huge local TV contract has sparked concern that teams in such rich media markets as Los Angeles and New York City will eventually dominate franchises in such smaller cities as Milwaukee and Kansas City. Andy Hawkins, a journeyman pitcher who entered the 1989 season with a modest record of 60 wins and 58 losses, was one of three free agents who have already profited from Steinbrenner’s bid to buy on-field success: he has signed a three-year contract for $4.3 million.

Lure: At the same time, many cities across the United States and Canada seek the continent-wide publicity that a major-league team provides for its home city simply through regular TV coverage and media reports on its scheduled games. Covered stadiums, with their guarantee of good playing conditions, enhance the image promotion. At Toronto’s SkyDome, the stands will be air-conditioned in warm weather and heated on cool days.

Last year, St. Petersburg almost managed to lure the Chicago White Sox from their 79-year-old Comiskey Park to a $132-million domed stadium that the Florida city is building—and financing with the sale of city-and county-backed bonds. But the White Sox have wrung a promise of a new stadium from Illinois state legislators, and the Florida Suncoast Dome is nearing completion without a big-league tenant.

In Canada, at a staggering cost, Montreal gained a stadium—though without its planned roof—for the 1976 Olympic Games. Thirteen years later—with the cost of the stadium now totalling $850 million—Quebec government officials say that the Expos’ home park could finally have a functioning retractable roof in operation sometime this month. In any event, the British Columbia government won the race to build the first fully enclosed stadium in the country in 1983 when it opened Vancouver’s B.C. Place, a $126-million structure that was topped off by a permanent fabric cover.

Crucial: One year after that event, politicians and businessmen in Toronto were in the early stages of a partnership that would eventually see the SkyDome rise on a downtown site leased from CN Rail. And as dome advocates canvassed Blue Jays players for their views, it was Martinez who first suggested that the dome’s design should combine the best features of indoor and outdoor ball parks—by means of a retractable roof.

Another crucial issue was how the stadium would be paid for. North America’s 10 other covered stadiums have all been financed largely through such means as direct government grants, state-backed bonds and special sales taxes. But then-Premier William Davis of Ontario wanted private enterprise to match the province’s and Metro Toronto’s $30-million contributions to SkyDome financing. Trevor Eyton—the president of Brascan Ltd. and a well-connected executive in an empire of more than 150 companies controlled by Edward and Peter Bronfman—responded to that challenge. Encountering Davis at a party in Toronto’s Royal York Hotel in 1984, Eyton said that he “could not imagine not being able to get $5 million from each of eight or 10 major Canadian companies” to raise a domed stadium.

During the past five years, in fact, SkyDome’s projected final costs have risen to about $500 million because of extras, which include a 350-room hotel, a health club and five restaurants—and overtime pay for construction workers. But Eyton has raised a total of $140 million by persuading each of 28 corporations to invest $5 million toward the building of the stadium. (Besides its $30-million grant, the province also guaranteed $150 million in bank loans, a pledge that could result in further government subsidies if the SkyDome does not turn a profit.) Ten-year leases on so-called SkyClub seats—5,800 upholstered seats—generated another $20 million. Rental income from 10-year leases on 161 private luxury boxes that cost between $100,000 and $225,000 in yearly fees have produced another $40 million.

Exclusive: Still, that infusion of private money has become one of the most controversial aspects of the new stadium’s financing. For their $5-million entry fee, the corporations—including three breweries that will share so-called pouring rights at different events—received such returns as four free slots in the stadium’s minuscule 575-space underground parking lot as well as free use of a luxury box for 97 years.

More importantly, 25 firms, among them Imperial Oil Ltd. and McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada Ltd., gained the exclusive right to supply the stadium with such products as soft drinks, fast food—and even toilet paper. Indeed, representatives of the Stadium Corp. of Ontario Ltd. (Stadco), the provincially created body that will run the dome, estimate that McDonald’s four restaurants and 20 snack stands within the SkyDome will take in gross sales of $408 million during the stadium’s first 10 years of operation.

Profits: Critics, including former Olympic runner Bruce Kidd, say that the $5-million entry from consortium members—who will share most of the profits from a the stadium—is “a bargain basement price.” In response, Glenn McKee, operations manager for McDonald’s at the SkyDome, maintains that the fast-food giant will pay a high rent to Stadco. In return for the right to sell hotdogs, peanuts and Big Mac hamburgers at the SkyDome, the chain will remit 38 per cent of the stadium outlets’ gross sales. And Eyton added that many corporations paid their $5 million at a time when there was no clear indication of what they would get in return for their money. Said Toronto Sun publisher Paul Godfrey, who, as Metropolitan Toronto chairman during the early 1980s, heavily backed the SkyDome project: “They could get a better return if they left their money in the bank.”

Certainly, the two men who combined their talents to win the design competition for the new stadium have a high personal stake in the SkyDome. Architect Roderick Robbie mortgaged his Toronto home to pay for what ultimately became the contest-winning design, and he estimates that he and structural engineer Michael Allen have spent $700,000 of their own money revising their concept. The partners say that they hope to recoup that investment by selling the patented design of the stadium and its retractable roof to other prospective dome builders.

Telescoping: The two men spent much of 1984 revising ideas for a movable roof, often sketching potential designs on restaurant napkins and scrap pieces of paper. Early in 1985, as he was taking a flight from Toronto to Ottawa, Allen came up with the rough outlines of the SkyDome’s outstanding feature: a telescoping roof whose parts fit snugly together and do not cast a shadow on the playing field and most of the stands when the cover is retracted. His elegantly simple solution: dividing the roof into four panels, one of which is permanently fixed over the north end of the stadium. The other three sections that are stacked above it when the roof is open are all mounted on wheeled mechanisms, including a section that rotates along reinforced steel tracks to the south end of the circular stadium. Then the remaining two arched panels slide forward on rails to cover the centre of the stadium.

The design works: only one week before the scheduled opening ceremonies, workers successfully tested an electrically powered structure that weighs 6,995 tons and is designed to slide into place in approximately 20 minutes. Indeed, Robbie and Allen say that they spent as much time working on a seating plan suitable for both a baseball diamond and a rectangular football field. The answer, which they adapted from a similar design in Houston’s Astrodome: two movable sections holding 17,418 chairs, which can put spectators on the sidelines of both games.

Meanwhile, the future of Exhibition Stadium will remain in doubt until Toronto’s bid for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games is decided in 1990. Until then, stadium officials are considering such potential attractions as stock-car races and exhibition cricket matches to replace the Argos and Blue Jays.

Resilient: The Jays’ new home contains such technological wonders as an electronic scoreboard that is 33 feet high and 110 feet wide and a pitcher’s mound that will sink below the surface of the playing field when not in use. Still, despite a campaign in the local press to have the playing field covered with natural grass, SkyDome officials said that real grass was too fragile for a multipurpose stadium. Instead, they chose a synthetic surface consisting of an improved, more resilient type of Astroturf. This week, former batting coach Cito Gaston will lead a team of highly paid athletes onto the SkyDome carpeting. But the Jays’ newly appointed manager will not know if its confines will favor hitters or pitchers. That is because only a few adventuresome construction workers have hit baseballs within a structure that is a new source of civic pride—and a site dedicated to the business of sport.