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A matter of priorities

Should cities build facilities to keep franchises happy?

Posted: Wednesday November 30, 2005 3:22PM; Updated: Wednesday November 30, 2005 10:37PM
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After sharing Dolphins Stadium for the first 13 years of their existence, the Marlins want a baseball-only park of their own.
After sharing Dolphins Stadium for the first 13 years of their existence, the Marlins want a baseball-only park of their own.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
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The question of what a sports franchise owes its city and vice-versa is forever debatable. Usually it revolves around the matter of the stadium or arena. Spectators used to go to games, fairly content just to, well, spectate. But as ticket prices have risen, as going to a game has become more like an event than a drop-in, fans demand ever more comfortable surroundings.

Hey, you just wanna see a game, you can turn on a TV. Paying big money to go out and attend a game demands a full-sensory reward.

Likewise, teams themselves are no longer satisfied with mere capacity. They require significant numbers of luxury boxes, insulating the aristocracy at high prices. Sports are thought of as the people's entertainment, but stadiums and arenas have become more about class. Ironically, nowadays, opera houses are more democratic venues. Ever since the construction of Camden Yards in Baltimore in 1992 -- the single most significant athletic edifice ever built in this country -- baseball fans have become even more discerning.

As a consequence, whereas patrons in all sports now expect rather plush accommodations, baseball fans demand the correct ambience, as well -- everything but candlelight, flowers and a quiet little table in the corner. In places like the two major-league ballparks in Florida, where the stadiums do not approach these standards, people simply will not take themselves out to the ballgame. Now the Marlins have declared that they will be departing for greener pastures, as soon as their lease is up at their cheerless converted football stadium.

Basically, greener pastures is wherever they will build you a proper abode. Miami won't kick in to raise a sunshine facsimile of Camden Yards. And here, of course, always is the crux: Is any metropolis obligated to help build a home for a team that is privately owned? Opponents of public funding for private assistance invariably cite the likes of poverty, education and health as more pressing social concerns ... which, of course, they are. But if every municipality only worked its way down the genuine priorities, we would never have funding for zoos, parks, plazas, symphony halls ... let alone stadiums.

Ultimately, each community must decide. Miami obviously concludes that it does quite well enough in the tourist business, thank you, without need of a baseball park. Los Angeles, our second largest city, hasn't had an NFL franchise for a decade now, but it sees no reason to pay any cost for a new pro football temple -- and life as we know it seems to go on quite well on autumn Sundays in old L.A. But, generally, the less glamorous metropolises feel the need to pay up to be certified as a big-league town. And whatever any commercial payback, sports palaces do reward us emotionally. They are, at the end of the day, about fostering community, and God knows we need that.

And so we get to the current truly painful question: Do the NFL's Saints and the NBA's Hornets have to return to New Orleans whenever the Superdome is restored? Do they owe New Orleans that? How strong is any compact between franchise and city?

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