We wanted a team -- remember?

November 12, 1995|By Barry Rascovar

MORALISTS HAD A field day this week heaping abuse on the deal to bring a National Football League team to Baltimore. Those who vehemently opposed the construction of Oriole Park chimed in, too. How quickly they forget.

Eleven years ago, when the Colts were hustled out of town, a stunned community begged: Do anything, whatever it takes, to get the team back. Later, that community plea was changed to bring us an expansion team -- or some team up for sale.

State leaders heeded these pleas, passing legislation not only to save the Orioles from taking flight, but to capture an NFL club. Commentators cheered. But suddenly those same cheerleaders are throwing raspberries, questioning a public policy that has been widely publicized for eight years.

Where were these moralists back then? The same terms Browns owner Art Modell accepted had been offered to numerous clubs as far back as 1987. The Orioles' lucrative lease at Camden Yards isn't much different, either.

Sure, this is a sweet deal. You don't gain an expansion club or an existing club by standing on the high ground and refusing to use public funds for a stadium.

Idealists say we shouldn't be snatching a team from another city, especially Cleveland with its proud football history. Agreed. But how does Baltimore then acquire an NFL club? Commissioner Paul Tagliabue made sure this town wouldn't get an expansion club. Either forget about Baltimore in the NFL or recognize the reality of modern-day sports.

Those who decry the avarice of sports owners want to romanticize what is now a big business. Once upon a time, football players worked for a pittance and team owners made a few bucks. But this was before the Colts' sudden-death championship game ignited a gold rush of TV football games and vast riches for sports owners.

Baltimore captured the Browns because it belatedly recognized the shifting market forces -- and Cleveland didn't. Baltimore also retained the Orioles by following that same course. With soaring costs from free-agent player salaries, teams need a new stream of revenue, i.e., stadium skyboxes and club seats. If cities fail to respond to these market demands, teams move elsewhere. Smart cities (and states) compete to offer the best deal -- to keep the teams they have and attract new ones.

Oakland refused to improve its stadium and lost the Raiders to Los Angeles.

Off to Indianapolis

Maryland legislators refused to replace Memorial Stadium and lost the Colts to Indianapolis' new domed stadium. St. Louis refused to give the Cardinals a new facility and saw them fly west to Phoenix.

Los Angeles failed to improve its coliseum and lost its Rams to St. Louis -- which had wised up and built a $260 million domed stadium and a $15 million practice field.

Oakland wised up, too, by promising $225 million in stadium modernizations (including skyboxes) and won back the Raiders.

A half-dozen other clubs are about to move. What was Baltimore supposed to do? Ignore these realities?

The answer is yes, if our collective judgment is to turn a blind eye toward the benefits of professional sports for our economy and for our community's psyche. Just as the vast sums spent to build Oriole Park made economic sense -- the city and state have reaped huge benefits -- so does the formula for a football stadium.

Look at it this way: A conservative analysis by the state shows a new football team will mean $123 million a year for the economy and $17 million a year in taxes. Over the 30-year term of the Browns' lease, this projects to a $3.7 billion economic impact and a half-billion dollars in total taxes. Based on the Orioles' experience, the ripple effect could be far larger.

A new generation

There's another reason for welcoming the Browns. It has to do with what a sports team means to a community and to a family. My father and I, for instance, attended Colts games together for over two decades. It was a time for bonding and for sharing the thrills and agonies of rooting for a hometown team. These moments are burnished in my memory.

As the Colts vividly showed, a town identifies with the local team. We do this today with the Orioles. Starting next year, we will learn to do so with the Browns. A new generation of fathers and sons will cheer for the Browns together. The Baltimore community will hold its collective breath on Sundays in the fall at kickoff time.

Like it or not, a pro sports team enriches a city, improves its quality of life and injects a new vitality into many of its citizens. If you don't believe this, watch what happens at Memorial Stadium next September.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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