Bullets, Capitals at Camden Yards?

December 09, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

We're averaging a new team a day, so here's an idea someone is bound to consider:

USAir Arena at Camden Yards.

It's not as crazy as it sounds.

If Jack Kent Cooke builds a Redskins stadium in Laurel, then Baltimore can't get a football team. And if Baltimore can't get a football team, then an enterprising Abe Pollin might inquire about getting a new arena built at Camden Yards.

Such a proposal would require new legislation redirecting the funds set aside for a football stadium to a new home for the Bullets and Capitals. A bitter political fight would ensue, but given Governor Schaefer's fervor for bringing pro sports to downtown Baltimore, who's to say how it would turn out?

The Bullets and Capitals would amount to a stunning consolation prize and an economic bonanza. Remember, an NFL team plays only eight home games a year, plus two exhibitions. An arena would be good for more than 80 NBA and NHL home dates, plus concerts, monster-truck shows, whatever.

Think about it:

The Redskins in Laurel, the Orioles, Bullets and Capitals in Baltimore.

Washington would be a ghost town.

Surely, Pollin is unhappy at the USAir Arena, where attendance and luxury-box revenue fall below NBA and NHL standards. The facility not only is ugly, but it's also in the worst possible location to serve the emerging Baltimore-Washington market.

Baltimore fans don't want that long a drive, and Washington fans can't even get there by subway. Frankly, the best way to celebrate the arena's 20th anniversary is to blow it up. That would be the obvious solution, if Pollin hadn't built the place himself.

Here's Pollin, with a team in the world's hottest league and another in a fast-rising sport, and he's only a limited success. In both cases, his product is subpar, but that's only part of the story. If Pollin asks himself, "Can I do better elsewhere?" the answer clearly is yes -- assuming he'd be willing to abandon the USAir Arena.

That elsewhere could be Baltimore. It could be Laurel. It could be a city seeking to lure NBA and NHL teams. The Orioles keep setting attendance records at Camden Yards. Cooke is aiming for the same market dominance in Laurel. Pollin is getting left behind, and he knows it.

The question is, why should the state build him an arena when he's already operating his own privately financed facility in Maryland? The only possible answer would be revenue, and with an initial outlay of at least $100 million, it would be an awfully tough sell.

Politicians in the counties closest to Washington wouldn't want jobs disappearing to Baltimore or Laurel. And even politicians in the counties that would benefit might prefer the football money be used for something more useful -- say, improving education or fighting crime.

Ironically, new financing would be required only because Pollin urged that the original Camden Yards legislation prohibit the construction of an arena. Back then, Pollin didn't want the competition. He never imagined that the site might one day suit his own purposes.

The USAir Arena is Pollin's pride and joy, but the Orioles are proof that Washington-area fans will travel to Baltimore for a sporting event off I-95.

The Bullets draw only 12 percent of their fans from Baltimore, the Capitals about half that. Pollin could tap both markets in Baltimore or Laurel.

Indeed, if Pollin is smart, he'll start the blackmail dance immediately: Build me an arena, or I'm gone.

In the economic boom of the '80s, such threats usually produced a reaction (see Camden Yards). Money is tighter now, but the state already has earmarked $160 million for stadium construction.

Yes, it's reserved for the NFL.

But why not the NBA and NHL?

When the Prince George's County politicians protest, tell them that no one in Maryland would gain if the Bullets and Capitals left for another state. When everyone else screams about the inappropriate use of public funds, just point to the economic windfall from Camden Yards.

The construction of a new arena means jobs and revenue -- be it at a "Meadowlands South" complex in Laurel or at Camden Yards.

Right now, the problems facing our state are so significant, the whole thing might be impossible to justify. But Schaefer is looking to save face, and Pollin is looking for a way out.

Someone get those two together.

The William Donald Schaefer Arena is waiting.

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