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Dome is no longer home sweet home


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Dome is no longer home sweet home

Heyday of World Series years long gone as `obsolete' venue's value plummets

Rogers wants to buy stadium, but no one can


The SkyDome, which turns 15 years old in a couple of weeks, has entered middle age as sports stadiums go.

The thrill is mostly gone, even if the thrilling, and still generally unmatched, roof technology remains in good working order. Everything else? Looking old. In some areas starting to get a little rundown.

"Obsolete," is how J.P. Ricciardi describes it as a baseball stadium.

But the Jays would still love to own it. Their chances to do so appeared better recently when Sportsco International LP, which bought the facility out of bankruptcy proceedings begun in late 1998, was shown in city documents to be late paying more than $1.4 million of its 2003 municipal taxes.

Sportsco, now caught up on its taxes, including 2004 interim levies of $2.6 million, is promising a new JumboTron and possibly a new playing surface in the near future. What Sportsco can't promise is what the Jays wish the SkyDome had: Some kind of baseball atmosphere.

The building remains for sale, in the way that anything is for sale provided buyer and seller can agree upon a price. The Blue Jays are the main tenant and, if the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts evacuate the premises by 2006, as threatened, will be the only long-term sports tenant.

"We've made no secret of the fact we would like to own the SkyDome, but at a fair price," Jays president Paul Godfrey said. "We have a significant difference of opinion on the value of the building."

When the Jays were good, when the SkyDome opened in June of 1989, the team's success made the remarkable retractable-roofed SkyDome, with its new-car smell, the place to be seen and, occasionally, heard. Instead of the 40,000 the Jays expected, the crowds consistently topped 50,000 a night. Money poured in — and right back out on players. World Series were won in 1992 and 1993 as the ball team fed on the building and vice-versa. Success bred success.

Now? It's the opposite. Lack of one leads to lack of the other. The retro craze for stadiums arrived. The SkyDome, whose warts were overlooked when the team was good, has little baseball atmosphere. A non-contending ball team is an unhappy tenant in a building that no longer draws either raves or many fans on its own.

The Jays, the only club in the majors that doesn't have an ownership stake in their own yard, wish to buy it and transform it to a more baseball-friendly environment. They could increase revenue streams and bump up spending again, etc. Jays owner Ted Rogers no doubt wishes to own it and name it the Rogers SkyDome, too.

SkyDome people, meanwhile, wish there was a better ball team in the house to start drawing back the customers.

Both the Jays and Sportsco International LP (which stands for limited partners, of which there are as many as 10 in the U.S.), think the other side is costing them money. Both sides are correct.

They sit entrenched, unable to reach a deal on price, losing money in such areas as sponsorships, stadium naming rights and signage.

"No question about it; there are definitely efficiencies that would be gained if the arrangement were different between the two parties in the area of sponsorship," said SkyDome chief operating officer Silvio D'Addario. "We control advertising and signage. The Blue Jays sell team sponsorships. It's not too difficult to see it's easier to be pitching both at the same time."

Sportsco controls luxury box revenues. About one-third of the SkyDome's boxes are rented long-term.

They were fashionably worthwhile assets when the SkyDome opened, their value driven by a popular and successful ball team. But after the Blue Jays became a second-division club, the arrival of first the Raptors and then the Air Canada Centre drained away corporate box dollars.

Sportsco is in the sixth year of a 10-year deal with the Jays to return a portion of luxury box revenue to the ball team. The deal called for zero in the first year, $4 million annually from 2000 through 2002, $8 million annually 2003 through 2005 and $12 million in each of 2006, 2007 and 2008. This year's $8 million is paid in instalments during the season.

In the meantime, 2003 municipal taxes of more than $1.4 million, outstanding in late January, have been settled. D'Addario said the SkyDome negotiated a revised payment plan, including interest, for its 2003 taxes as a SARS-affected business. Plus, D'Addario said Sportsco, whose managing partners are Harvey Walken, based in Chicago, and Floridian Alan Cohen, is working on a deal to sell stadium naming rights (with, contractually, the Blue Jays' approval). But what is the place worth, especially one few fans seem to like much any more?

According to Toronto's current market assessment, the stadium — built at a cost of more than $600 million, three-quarters of that a fleecing of the taxpayers — is worth barely 40 per cent of what it was assessed at even six years ago. Market value, for tax purposes, is $87.8 million, compared to $199 million in 1998. No wonder the two sides can't agree on a fair price.

Sportsco bought it for a widely reported $110 million, then sold off the hotel for $34 million. (Walken did not respond to multiple phone calls; his representative directed calls to D'Addario, who said he knows nothing of Sportsco finances, the identity of limited partners, or whether there had been a recent cash call. He said details of such items are kept confidential.).

Assessed value also reflects the advancing age of the venue, given the 30- to 35-year lifespan of many North American stadiums built in the 1960s and 1970s (the latest guide we have to go by). Fifteen years from now, the SkyDome's replacement will be on someone's books.

The Jays' weak attendance naturally knocks down property values, as do the luxury boxes, which used to be jammed but are a ghost town most nights. Value isn't strictly based on bricks and mortar.

D'Addario, who has been in place about three years, said the stadium will be used, counting set-up and take-down time, for an estimated 300 days in 2004. But there surely aren't 300 events; more like 130, of which 81 are ball games. A new, theatre-type setting, seating small gatherings (3,000 and up) for music and such has been introduced into a competitive atmosphere. (Two years ago, the spiffy Ricoh Coliseum, which can take smaller musical events, existed only as a smelly old horse palace.)

Meantime, D'Addario promised there will be an announcement regarding a new JumboTron within a month. He agreed the JumboTron, which cost $18 million new, could be replaced for a fraction of that cost, given advances in technology. "We are looking at replacing the board, regardless of whatever contractual provisions may exist," he said. "We are looking at what's out there."

As well, the last AstroTurf playing surface in the major leagues is showing its age and undesirability. D'Addario said Sportsco is reviewing its options there, too. The sooner the better on all fronts, the Jays think.

"It's like watching an antiquated game, on this," said Ricciardi, toeing the carpet. "It may have been state of the art 15 years ago, but it's old now."

"The baseball turf could last a number of years, probably quite easily into 2008 or 2009, as far as lifespan is concerned," D'Addario said. "We are actively looking at our options. (But) when we talk about turf we have to keep in mind that SkyDome is more than just a sports stadium. It's an entertainment facility, whether it's trade shows or monster truck shows or our new theatre configuration. Whatever system we use has to be compatible with those other uses."

Outdated AstroTurf is one reason the National Football League now passes on staging exhibition games at the SkyDome, as it has done twice before. The field no longer is up to standards for the NFL, according to Godfrey, a proponent of the NFL in Toronto. Good news is that Jays players say it hasn't deteriorated to the danger point.

"I don't mind it at all. I'm used to it," said centre fielder Vernon Wells. "It's been about the same the three years I've been here."

"It's not that bad. It's a little bouncy, but you get used to it," said Carlos Delgado, the longest-serving Blue Jay. "There's a little wear and tear, but that's about all. As far as the SkyDome, the facilities are great for us."

The SkyDome will experiment with installing a portable grass field for two big-time soccer exhibitions, July 30 and 31, matching Liverpool and FC Porto, plus Glasgow Celtic and AS Roma. Sportsco is eagerly awaiting the results.

The matter of the Argonauts leaving, taking their nine of 10 annual dates with them, means fewer drops in Sportsco's bucket, but D'Addario said the financial hit of losing them will be "unfortunately negligible."

"If the Argos choose to leave the facility ... it's not going to have any adverse impact on the facility financially," he said.

Ricciardi, meanwhile, notes the lack of baseball feeling.

"All these seats," he says, gesturing to the massive and empty upper deck. "It's too big for baseball now. It's hard to get a baseball atmosphere, although I've seen it done in other places, like St. Louis," where part of the upper deck was transformed into a display honouring great Cardinals of the past.

"If the dome's open and it's a nice night, it's doable, but that's about it," Ricciardi said, scant endorsement for a place that used to thrive on calling itself "The World's Greatest Entertainment Centre."

"We had a change in management structure," D'Addario said. "We're now starting the second year of a three-year plan (that) involves the introduction of our theatre/concert hall, bring events to SkyDome which in turn will draw other avenues of business, such as advertising, sponsorship, luxury boxes and luxury suites.

"To a large extent we're dependent on the success of the baseball team. The better the team does, the better SkyDome does," he said.

All true. But it's a baseball joint, first and foremost. If the Jays and their fans aren't happy, in the long run the place won't be worth anything.

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