Commissioner advocates for American Family Field upkeep funding

May 26th, 2023

MILWAUKEE -- Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred added his voice to the American Family Field funding debate during a visit on Thursday, expressing confidence that Wisconsin legislators would agree to fund future obligations under terms of the original stadium lease agreement between the Brewers and the state.

“This ballpark is an asset,” Manfred said. “The Brewers are interested in a long-term relationship, an extension of the lease that keeps them here. Major League Baseball provides great economic activity in all of its markets, especially a market where you draw like this market does. So it’s not just an expense item, it’s an investment in keeping Milwaukee a Major League city.”

Opened in 2001 as Miller Park and renamed American Family Field in 2021, the stadium is owned and operated by the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District, a state-created agency that effectively is the Brewers’ landlord. The district is responsible for maintaining the facility and is obligated, per the lease, to keep American Family Field up to the evolving standard of other MLB ballparks.

The Brewers’ current lease runs through 2030, followed by a series of five two-year club options through 2040. This spring, discussions about future funding took on added urgency when Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers proposed $290 million in the next state budget for the stadium district as part of a plan that would require the Brewers to extend the base term of the lease through 2043 – with the Brewers agreeing to their own additional spending to fund discretionary projects.

Republican legislators voiced opposition to Evers’ initial budget proposal, and since then state and local officials and the Brewers have been discussing alternatives.

“I think that it is important to keep the issue of funding in some perspective,” Manfred said. “This is a gem of a ballpark. It’s really important that the existing obligation under the lease be funded so that this great ballpark is maintained on a regular basis. It needs to be done in a timely way.

“But there’s been a great relationship between ownership here and the governmental bodies, and I’m confident that the governmental bodies will come up with a plan to fund what’s just an existing obligation under the lease.”

Commissioner Rob Manfred met with reporters before Thursday's Giants-Brewers game at American Family Field.

Asked what would happen if that funding does not come, Manfred said, “Look, it’s an obligation and I just don’t believe that’s going to happen. I really believe that everyone understands that there’s a funding obligation that needs to be met, that this is a community asset, and they’re not going to let that community asset fall into decay because the fans love this place. …

“This is not something that’s being written on a clean slate. When the ballpark was built, the district took on certain obligations, including this maintenance obligation. The only issue that is on the table is trying to figure out how they are going to fund that obligation.”

Brewers officials have warned of a shortfall for several years, even as the original five-county tax that originally funded stadium construction and upkeep sunsetted in 2020. That was right around the time the Brewers and the Milwaukee Metropolitan Association of Commerce touted a third-party study contending the ballpark generated $2.5 billion in net economic output in its first two decades.

Evers’ $290 million budget proposal followed two independent studies of the cost for the stadium district to meet its lease obligations for another two decades. The team and the Evers administration settled on a $448 million, 20-year schedule of upkeep and renovations that would have been funded by the $290 million from the state’s $7 billion budget surplus, plus the more than $70 million already in the stadium district’s coffers, plus interest accrued on that upfront investment over the years. Leaders of Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature have been working on their own proposal.

An example of a district-funded project came Thursday, when stadium district members voted 5-1 to approve $6.5 million for a new center field scoreboard at American Family Field, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The existing video board, installed prior to the 2010 season, is already beyond its 10-year expected life.

“It is the reality in a market like this where your media opportunity is limited, you have to be A-plus with respect to your live product,” Manfred said. “In order to be A-plus, you have to meet fans’ expectations for what the ballpark should be like. I also think it’s good business. Once the community has made an investment in an asset like this, it just doesn’t make sense to not maintain it properly. It’s just the basics. It’s completely foreseeable. That’s why it’s in the lease.”

Earlier in the day, Manfred and former Brewers pitcher CC Sabathia, who now works for the Commissioner's Office, met with small groups of players from the Brewers and Giants, part of Manfred’s regular tour of the league.

Among the topics they discussed were MLB’s rules changes, most notably the implementation of the pitch timer.

“The reaction we have got from our fans has been extremely positive. I went out of my way with the players to thank them,” Manfred said. “A big part of the positive reaction to the rule changes has been a) their ability to adjust to what are really significant changes, and b) how positive they have been about those changes.”