•The patron saint of stadium extortion, Los Angeles Raider owner Al Davis, is either abandoning the L.A. Coliseum and returning to Oakland, whence the Raiders came in 1982, or heading crosstown to a new $200 million stadium at Hollywood Park. For a few dozen skyboxes Davis would pledge to move to Mogadishu.
•The 19-year-old Kingdome is literally falling apart, so Seattle voters will probably be asked in November to approve a hike in the county sales tax of .1 of 1% to underwrite a new stadium, lest the Mariners bolt for greener pastures. Seattle ownership had hoped that a pennant race might sway the electorate to vote yea, but Seattle's cult hero, Ken Griffey Jr., broke his wrist in May, severely disabling the Mariners' chances with the electorate.
•As evidence of how a team's success can provide leverage for a franchise, the AFC champion San Diego Chargers recently cut a $60 million deal with their city for improvements to Jack Murphy Stadium and a new training complex.
What's going on here? Well, in recent years the owners of pro sports franchises have discovered that one way money can most readily be saved and earned is with sweetheart stadium deals. And, witnessing the riches new stadiums like Baltimore's Camden Yards and Cleveland's Jacobs Field have brought their tenants—the Orioles and the Indians, respectively—owners have eagerly embraced the simple formula for getting a new park: threaten to move the team.
Camden Yards was conceived in the '80s when then Oriole owner Edward Bennett Williams refused to sign more than a one-year lease for Memorial Stadium. Many Baltimoreans feared Williams would move the team to Washington, D.C., and in the wake of the NFL Colts' departure in 1984, the city knuckled under and built the new ballyard. Similar threats, real or imagined, led to the construction of Jacobs Field and the Texas Rangers' new stadium. In most cases the public picks up the tab in the form of extra taxes or bond issues.
Much of the motivation for demanding these new stadiums is the desire for luxury boxes, those havens where the haves can wash down a footlong with a glass of Dom Perignon. After installing 36 such boxes at the old Comiskey Park, Chicago White Sox owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn realized the potential of a new stadium with even more skyboxes. At the new Comiskey, which the state of Illinois agreed to build after the Sox threatened to pack their bags for St. Petersburg, Fla., there are 92 luxury suites generating about $7 million a year. Whereas gate revenue usually must be shared with visiting teams, for those owners who own the stadiums in which their teams play or who have generous arrangements governing luxury boxes, this rich source of revenue goes straight into their pockets. This quest for more unshared income is why at least 14 NFL teams are seeking new stadiums, better leases or major renovations, such as the $26 million in publicly financed remodeling set for Candlestick Park.
When a city balks at its team's demands, there's always another suitor waiting, as in the case of the Rams, who will likely become one of the NFL's highest-grossing teams simply because they changed their address to St. Louis last January. That move assures the Rams $20 million annually in stadium revenue, including all earnings from 120 luxury boxes, all the revenue from concessions and 75% of the take from stadium advertising. The deal also includes a new $20 million practice facility and $60 million from personal seat licenses, which require fans to pay as much as $4,500 just to guarantee the right to buy season tickets for another $360.
The irony is that St. Louis tried to prevent the NFL Cardinals from moving to Phoenix in 1987 by offering to build a new stadium for an estimated $111 million. The deal collapsed, and St. Louis may wind up paying six times as much to host the Rams.
But perhaps St. Louis had things right in 1987. Next time you hear your local owner whine about how one of his players failed to honor a long-term contract, check to see when that owner last backed out of a stadium lease for a better one across the country—or threatened do to so, and ended up with a better deal in your town. And if you're in one of those arriviste places where local officials arc touting a sports franchise as a ticket to "major league" status, challenge their claim that there will be an economic boom just because a team comes to town. In his book Playing the Field, Charles C. Euchner, an assistant professor of political science at Holy Cross, argues that money spent at, say, a new restaurant across from a ballpark isn't money that wouldn't be spent otherwise; it's simply money that won't be spent at an established eatery in town. And several economists, including Stanford's Roger Noll and Lake Forest (Ill.) College's Robert Baade, point out that $200 million sunk into a stadium could be spent on an industrial park that would generate many more jobs and much more tax revenue than a new ballpark would.
Unfortunately, when business intersects with sports these days, reason often seems to fly out the window. The upshot is that taxpayers, only a fraction of whom may be avid fans, stand idly by as their elected officials play loose with the public coffers to woo teams and raze stadiums before their time. The fans of teams that skip town stand idly by, too. "We devote years of allegiance to a team like this, and then they tell us they're going to Nashville?" said one disgruntled New Jersey Devil fan last week. "Where the bleep are they going to hang the Stanley Cup banner—in the Grand Ole Opry?"