Maryland Needs a Better Plan for Its Sporting Life

August 15, 1993|By ARTHUR T. JOHNSON

With the Orioles in pennant contention and Baltimore City in contention for a National Football League expansion team, it's easy to forget that the state's interest in the sports industry doesn't stop with the major leagues, nor is it centered exclusively in Batimore.

State and local governments in Maryland have invested in many types of sports, at different levels. For example, Harry Grove Stadium, home of the highly successful Orioles farm team, the Frederick Keys, came to be as a result of cooperation among state and local governments and the team's owners. The new minor-league stadium in Bowie is based on the Frederick model. Maryland's horse racing industry is assisted enormously by state tax policy and other public policies designed to salvage that troubled business. Tax abatements and other subsidies from local government support the USAir Arena (a.k.a. Capitol Center) in Landover, home of the Bullets and Capitols.

The sports game, once primarily a local government game, is a high-stakes intergovernmental one, played by most states in the 1990s. No city can afford to finance multi-million-dollar stadiums and arenas by itself. Baltimore, like Cleveland, St. Louis, Arlington (Texas), Boston and several other cities that are either building new sports facilities or contemplating doing so, has had to turn to state government for financial support.

Even when less costly showplaces and secondary sports events are at issue, a state's financial presence is crucial to making the deals work. This was the case not only in Frederick and Bowie. It was also true for New Haven's building of its Tennis Center for the Volvo Tennis Tournament; Buffalo's hosting the 1993 World University Games; and a number of cities, from Harrisburg, Pa., to Colorado Springs, Colo., building minor-league baseball stadiums.

The deals that make use of taxpayer dollars to finance sports facilities and to otherwise subsidize sports entrepreneurs are matters of public policy. In every state these tend to be ad hoc arrangements that are driven by the sports entrepreneurs' demands. Such a situation maximizes the importance of sheer political power, creates needless debate and political controversy and places state and local governments in a reactive, instead of a proactive, position.

As a result, decisions about public sports policy often result in missed opportunities due to delayed decision-making and inflated costs that include buying opponents off (for example, with a promise of a convention center downstate in exchange for support of a football stadium in an upstate city). Sports policy decisions are not part of any comprehensive or strategic plan and have no linkage to one another or to other development activities of the state.

If sports is so popular in Maryland, and if it is worth the investment of hundreds of millions of taxpayers' dollars, then public policy decisions affecting sports facilities and events should be better planned so that they advance the economic interests of an entire state.

In Maryland, a first step toward this goal was taken in 1984 by Gov. Harry Hughes with the creation of the Advisory Commission ZTC on Professional Sports and the Economy, which was followed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer's Advisory Commission on Sports. Developing a sports plan was the apparent rationale for commissioning consultant Touche Ross's 1985 study, which "identified strategic action steps for securing and enhancing the professional sports industry in Maryland."

In fact, a small office of sports promotion was established by the state but disbanded in the 1990s because of budget shortages. Although the original concept for the office was sports promotion, its director at the time of its demise was in the early stages of formulating a plan for pursuing sports events, amateur as well as professional.

It is time to reconstitute a similar office in state government, not only to pursue events for the state, but to fashion a strategic plan that will ensure that sport continues to enrich Maryland's quality of life and its coffers.

Any plan should consider the entire state and relate sports activities to regional economic needs and resources. Having the Audi Race Week (yachting) in Solomons, the Thoroughbred Racing Authority and Steeplechase and Hunt Association in Cecil County, the White Water Kayak and Canoeing World Championships in Western Maryland, power boat racing off Kent Island and the women's golf Mazda Open in Bethesda is in many ways just as important as having the Orioles in Baltimore. Discussion persists about a minor-league baseball team for the Eastern Shore. The Rocky Gap Golf Course some day may host a major event on the professional golf tour.

A sports plan should not only identify other opportunities but give priority to regional sports investments. In doing so, it will be clear to Marylanders that sports is an investment that benefits not just Baltimore. In fact, one of the more important findings of the Baltimore City Planning Department's analysis of Camden Yards' economic impact was that a significant number of out-of-town visitors to the stadium stay and spend money in the suburbs.

A strategic sports plan would provide a framework for policy decisions including criteria by which sports opportunities should evaluated. This will not eliminate politics from sports, but it will focus debate and permit citizens to scrutinize legislative debate and decision-making more objectively.

Arthur T. Johnson is professor of political science at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and author of "Minor League Baseball and Local Economic Development" (University of Illinois Press).

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