In recent years numerous state and local governments have bent over backward to attract or keep pro sports franchises, mainly through promising to build them new playing facilities. That trend took a 180 last week when stadium-funding proposals in Texas and Tampa hit roadblocks. The setback to Tampa's stadium-building efforts has more immediate ramifications—for both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who two years ago had their bags packed before they reached an agreement with local government to build a new stadium for the 1998 season, and the NFL. which has chosen the Tampa stadium as the site of the 2001 Super Bowl. But the situation in Texas could be a bellwether for how governments will deal with pushy franchises.
In Tampa, Circuit Court Judge Sam Pendino invalidated the deal between the Bucs and Tampa, which would float $204.5 million in municipal construction bonds, because of a lease provision that allows the Bucs to keep the first $2 million in yearly revenue from parking and concessions from non-Buccaneers events. The opposition, headed by former Tampa mayor Bill Poe, argued that using public money to enrich Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer was unconstitutional; Pendino agreed.
In Texas, where there are eight pro franchises (including the NFL Oilers, who will play in Nashville by '98), teams in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio have sought a collective $1 billion either in tax breaks or in public funds to build new homes or renovate their current ones. Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, a Democrat, has crusaded against teams turning to government for handouts; he would prefer they sell shares to the public as a way of raising funds. Bullock has taken to describing the subsidizing of franchises as "corporate welfare" and is unconcerned by threats that learns will move if they don't get what they want. "Tell you the truth," says Bullock. "I haven't lost a single night's sleep over the prospect of a sports team leaving Texas." Bullock, who has weathered four divorces, a well-publicized bout with alcoholism and a drunken-driving arrest, without losing an election, is not alone in believing that teams should pay their own freight. He recently received support from Governor George Bush, a part owner of the Texas Rangers, who said teams "ought to consider Bullock's option."
Poe, who as mayor was instrumental in getting the Bucs expansion franchise for Tampa in the mid-1970s, might now be instrumental in driving it away. "If he's going to continue with this," said Tampa Bay general manager Rich McKay, "he'll probably effectively kill the deal."
And if government officials continue standing up to franchise owners' gimme-gimme attitude, that attitude may soon be dead too.
Whither the Whalers?
Eulogizing a franchise like the Hartford Whalers, who announced last week that they will relocate (to points unknown) at the end of the season, is like eulogizing the crazy uncle who lived in the attic. The only things to talk about are the eccentricities. The Whalers are the sole major league franchise to play its home games in a mall. This is the only NHL team for whom legends Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull skated together; alas, they were a combined 93 years old at the time. This is a club that had a downtown parade thrown for it in 1986—for advancing to the second round of the playoffs, still its furthest postseason progression. And then there was the night in "78 when the roof of the Hartford Civic Center collapsed. The fact that nobody was hurt might qualify as the Whalers' epochal victory.
No, Hartford hasn't been a rich franchise (owners say they have lost $33 million in two years). And the Whalers certainly haven't been successful on the ice; they've struggled through four straight playoffless seasons and, with a 29-36-10 record at week's end, may be on their way to a fifth. But like that crazy uncle, they've been an interesting companion, good for a few laughs, and Hartford won't be as colorful without them.
New Record, My Bass