Two of Everything

March 12, 1994|By DANIEL BERGER

The sports industry has it cushy in the Washington-Baltimore Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area. It gets away with pretending this is one market.

There has been one baseball team since the Senators left D.C., one football team since the Colts fled Baltimore in the night, one basketball team, one major-league hockey team, one major indoor-soccer team.

And what good franchises they can be, the Redskins for decades and the Orioles recently. When they are not, such as the Bullets lately, that's not the region's fault.

But is Washington-Baltimore one sports market? It is not one newspaper market, one housing market, one employment market, one radio market or -- more to the point -- one television market.

The beauty of having the thing sewn up for a baseball or football monopoly is that the owners get two television markets for the price (in athlete's salaries, etc.) of one.

That's what moving the Orioles to the top of the Baltimore-Washington expressways was about, to make it less likely that a National League franchise would move to the other end.

It's what shuttling the basketball Bullets between their Washington suburban arena and former Baltimore home is about.

And what the plan to move the Redskins to Laurel is about.

But the owners are not entitled. The National Football League was right when it had teams in Washington and Baltimore. Major-league baseball was right to have teams both places (and Washington's potential has improved since then).

Indoor sports like basketball can thrive in much smaller markets than either Baltimore or Washington, so to pretend that the Bullets need both is ridiculous.

Of course there is a precedent for the Laurel initiative. It is the Meadowlands, by which New Jersey hijacked much of New York's professional sports, including two New Jersey football teams that still call themselves N.Y.

The original proposal to put a Meadowlands in the Laurel area called for the Redskins and Colts and Orioles to use it, since when the Orioles got their own stadium and the Colts absconded.

If Washington and Baltimore are two markets, each is major-league in all respects, capable of supporting one of everything. Metropolitan Washington has about 4 million people and metropolitan Baltimore 2.4 million.

But if they are one market, it is gigantic (fourth in the nation, assuming no more mega-markets are designated). Washington-Baltimore can support two of everything, as Los Angeles or San Francisco- Oakland can.

Counting either way, Baltimore deserves NFL football and Washington should have major-league baseball. Everyone in Baltimore should support major-league baseball for Washington, preferably National League. Then maybe we could get tickets to the O's.

Jack Kent Cooke deserves the cooperation from the state he has been promised if he persists in building a stadium in Laurel. Then the Canadian Football League could steal the Washington market out from under him by moving in to RFK Stadium, as it is stealing the Baltimore market from a snoozing NFL.

That's something for Mr. Cooke to think about.

Baltimore certainly deserves an NBA basketball franchise all its own. Its high schools are sending streams of players to top university teams and the NBA. Its smaller colleges are making the NCAA tournament. The town is basketball-crazy, which it was not when the Bullets were here, before the downtown renaissance.

In other words, Baltimore needs a major new arena even more than it needs a football stadium. And it needs an NBA franchise move or expansion team, not the Bullets, because Washington still deserves its NBA team, too.

Whether Baltimore could support NHL hockey is more doubtful. If this winter is the dawn of global cooling, ice culture will set in and hockey will seem more reasonable. But so far, most locals think it is lacrosse on blades.

If CFL Colts advance ticket sales are to be believed, Baltimore is going to punish the NFL for spurning its affections and is going to put the CFL on the United States map as Sacramento, Shreveport and Las Vegas never could (well, Las Vegas might).

One way to look at all the deal-making is that Governor Schaefer faked Mr. Cooke out of position, which could leave Washington as wide open as Baltimore.

F: Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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