Sun-Times Whiffs on Sox Stadium Lease

The enterprising Sun-Times found the happy story but not the whole story about the spinning turnstiles at the Sox’ new ballpark.

“Illinois will earn more than $3.5 million this year from a Comiskey Park lease that critics had charged was a giveaway from the state to the White Sox,” began a recent page-one story by Fran Spielman. She’d called Peter Bynoe, executive director of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority. He gave her the good news and commented, “There were a number of people who never thought there would be any rent payments. They’ve been proven wrong.”

A day later the editorial page rejoiced: “Keeping the White Sox in Chicago is paying off. The new Comiskey Park is a winner with fans and a revenue source for the State of Illinois. So much for all those dire predictions of three years ago that no one would come to the field of dreams.”

The trouble with good news is that it usually means somebody’s overlooking something. To begin with, the Sun-Times was overlooking what serious critics of the stadium deal were actually saying three years ago. God knows they weren’t saying that in the very first year of the new park’s existence, even if the Sox found themselves in a scorching pennant race, no one would come. What concerned them was the way the deal was structured.

As Spielman’s article explained, it’s structured like this: The Sox begin returning to the sports authority $2.50 a ticket once attendance reaches 1.2 million. When attendance passes the two-million mark, the authority’s cut drops to $1.50 a ticket.

In addition, the authority gets 35 percent of broadcasting and advertising revenues over $10 million. Which in 1991 would be 35 percent of $900,000.

In a year when the Sox are battling for first and attendance is projected at 2.8 million, it would be dumbfounding if the authority didn’t get back a fair chunk of change. What critics of the stadium deal still wonder is why the Sox get to keep all the revenues from the first 1.2 million tickets sold plus the first $10 million in broadcasting and ad revenues–and also every first and last penny from parking, concessions, and sky boxes.

Bynoe told Spielman, “Once the halo fades, the pressure will be on the White Sox to remain competitive, or attendance may fall off.”

Stadium-deal critic Paul Botts jumped on that observation. In a letter to the Sun-Times he exclaimed, “That’s precisely the point: under this lease, there IS no economic pressure on the owners of the team to field a competitive team to sell tickets. If the team stinks, their revenue drops off–but their rent costs disappear altogether! No gain, no pain.”

The other thing the Sun-Times overlooked was the part of the deal that has the city of Chicago and state of Illinois each pledging the authority $5 million a year, year in and year out.

“No one here has made the assertion that on a dollar-in, dollar-out basis, the state is coming out ahead,” we were told by Tim Romani, who’s Bynoe’s deputy director. Yet the Sun-Times called the new park a “revenue source” for the state!

We asked Romani to walk us through the numbers.

Sports authority revenues this year begin with that $10 million gift from the city and state. The city’s new hotel-motel tax is expected to bring in another $12 million, and then there’s the $3.5 million-plus expected from the White Sox.

Total 1991 income–about $25.5 million.

The authority’s biggest annual expense is $14.65 million a year in debt servicing. In addition, $2 million is set aside each year for maintenance and $1 million for capital repairs and improvements. Add in the authority’s own overhead, and total outgo reaches about $18.65 million.

Subtracting expenses from revenues, Romani told us that the authority is projecting an “excess” this year of $6.85 million, which will be turned back to the city and state. So Illinois antes up $5 million for ’91 and gets back a little over $3.4 million. Ditto with Chicago. That’s a loss in anyone’s books.

Romani told us that deficits had been expected for the first few years, before the deal was made profitable for the city and state by burgeoning hotel-motel tax revenues. “This deal made sense–as confirmed by the [state] auditor general–with or without the White Sox paying rent.” The rent, he said, is “gravy.”

But if it’s only gravy, it proves nothing. The stadium was built on the backs of Chicago’s innkeepers, and only time will tell if they can carry it. “Comiskey a winner for state, exec says” was the headline over Spielman’s story, despite the state’s cool $1.6 million in red ink.

Young and Old, Black and White

Editor Dennis Britton called us back too late to appear in last week’s Hot Type item on Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper. But he had some interesting things to say on the most controversial column Roeper’s written, the one in July called “When the changing neighborhood is yours.” Roeper wrote about being hassled by blacks on the streets he’d grown up on. It was a fine piece of work that ended:

“In that moment, you finally understood what members of the previous generation were talking about when they told you that the South Side places where they grew up are still on the map but no longer exist. And now you are afraid that it’s going to be that way for you, too. And the truth is, you resent the hell out of that.”

“I personally had a lot of problems with that column,” Britton told us, “but it’s a voice that needs to be heard. I think most of us go around walking on eggs when it comes to expressing racial feelings. This particular racial feeling–gosh, how long has it been here? Twenty or 30 years?

“I thought it was a very courageous column idea. I think the execution could have been somewhat smoother, but I think it showed his maturing, and I’m not displeased he had the courage to do that.”

On the other hand, Britton didn’t want Roeper to have the last word. “This is one of the issues we need to stimulate debate on,” Britton said. “Where I feel the media in Chicago has failed is by not having an articulate black voice to counter this kind of thing in a regular way. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been looking for someone and I have not been successful. But I think it’s necessary to stimulate discussion–not for controversy’s sake. If we don’t discuss these kinds of things, they just fester.”

We asked Britton if he considered Vernon Jarrett such a voice. Britton thought for some time.

“No, I don’t,” he said. “Vernon Jarrett is a respected black voice who serves a part of the community very well. When Vernon writes about historic issues, I think he has no peer. However, he is too often a knee-jerk black columnist. I think there is a place for that, and I think his views should be represented. But I think we need another kind of voice. We need a–”

A younger voice? we asked him.

“Great!” said Britton. “I was going to say a more moderate voice, but I don’t mean that.”

We called Jarrett. We told him Britton wished he’d had a young black columnist to take on Roeper. Jarrett said a young black columnist wouldn’t have known enough to respond.

“He’s disturbed because someone looked at him funny,” said Jarrett of Roeper. “I remember when they were setting fires, trying to kill distinguished black persons such as Dr. Percy Julian. I’m accustomed to them throwing bombs in your house and a mob of three or four hundred gathering in front of your door. Those are the types of instances I covered.”

Jarrett called Roeper’s column “an arrogant little piece of literature.” But he hasn’t joined the argument.

“I’ll get around to it one day,” Jarrett told us. “There are stories you don’t bother to write because you’re writing about the important shit.”

Bob Page Updated

An update on Bob Page. We told you two months ago that he’s being sued twice–by his old partners at the Sun-Times, who say he violated a buy-out agreement by walking off with confidential economic documents that would make him look good to his new partners on the coast; and by those new partners, who say he mismanaged the media properties he was running for them under the aegis of Page Group Publishing, Inc.

Page has counterattacked on each front. In a cross complaint he’s accusing his former California associates of fraud and racketeering. And here in Chicago he’s just sued the Sun-Times Company and its attorney, Lawrence Levin, for libel.

Page cites a June article on his travails in Editor & Publisher. In it, Levin labored to explain how the documents Page allegedly misused may have damaged Levin’s client. “There have been a number of news stories where we think selective information was used that did not give an accurate picture about the Sun-Times that may have resulted from action by Bob Page,” said Levin. “Moreover, certain actions taken by the Tribune . . . may have resulted from information leaks.”

False and libelous, says Page.

Page is doing as he’s done to. For out on the coast, former Page Group partner Elliott “Skip” Stein had filed yet another suit in this mishegass–this one accusing Page and one of his attorneys of libel.

Stein’s beef is that Page and the attorney spoke poorly of him to another investor, calling him unethical and discrediting him in the investor’s eyes.

Good thing the judges of America have loads of time on their hands and enjoy nothing more than a good cat fight.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.