Power to the fans

February 03, 1997|By Neal R. Peirce

THE FAN-OWNED Green Bay Packers, born as a sandlot team in 1919, spirit and soul of their hometown, win the Super Bowl, and a nation talks admiringly of unparalleled town-team loyalty.

The owners of baseball's Minnesota Twins suddenly make their state government an offer of a 49 percent share in the team.

Owner Peter O'Malley announces he wants to sell the Los Angeles Dodgers; the Los Angeles City Council initiates a campaign for some form of public ownership.

Fans disguised as investors turn out to be significant shareholders of the Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics in basketball, the Florida Panthers and Denver Avalanche in hockey.

In minor-league baseball, Mayor Stephen Reed, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, convinces his city council to buy the Senators of the Eastern League for $6.7 million, averting a move out of town.

In Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons, bought by Scranton and Lackawanna County to assure adequate revenue from a $25 million stadium, have drawn 3.5 million fans in seven seasons.

Governing magazine pinpoints the trend in an article headed: ''Memo to Cities: If you can't bribe the owner, maybe you can buy the team.''

Indeed, why not? As professional-team owners turn up the pressure on state and local governments to finance their increasingly palatial stadiums, the question of public ownership is destined for sharply increased debate.

Since 1984, when Robert Irsay -- literally in the dead of night -- moved his Colts from Baltimore to Indianapolis, five National Football League teams have left their hometowns for other cities.

Owners routinely hold a gun to mayors' heads, saying: Build me a posh new stadium with your dollars. Dedicate all the revenue to me. Refuse and I'm outta here.

Even brand-new teams now expect the same turnkey gifts. Applicants from eight cities last month pleaded with the National Hockey League for an expansion franchise. Each local government promised to finance and build the arena, turn it over to the team owner, and not ask a bit of revenue back.

Polls, however, reveal an increasingly restive public, already cutting back its pro-football viewing, angry at all wealthy owners, anti-subsidy by margins of up to 80 percent.

The Packers, by contrast, couldn't leave town because the town (technically 1,898 shareholders) owns them. And have since 1923. The team's a community-controlled, nonprofit, public-benefit corporation. Even its concessions are parceled out local service organizations and charities. They raise almost $400,000 a year by pouring beer and cooking bratwurst for the fans on Sunday afternoons.

Except for the Packers, who've been ''grandfathered in,'' the big baseball and football leagues now require single controlling owners. But Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad and his sons Bob and Jim, claiming ''staggering losses which must be fixed,'' have offered Minnesota a fascinating proposition: Help us pay for a $354 million retractable roof stadium, they say, and we'll give Minnesota 49 percent ownership of our team -- and guarantee to give you first rights of refusal if we ever sell our share.

By the numbers

What's more, say the Pohlads, we'll invest $82.5 million in cash and direct another $25.5 million in new stadium revenues to the project.

The state's cost? Up to $232 million, which Gov. Arne Carlson wants to finance with an extra 10-cents-per-pack tax on hapless cigarette smokers.

One would think Minnesotans would jump at this opportunity -- a way to keep a beloved team, and a much better deal than team owners are offering communities anywhere else. Not so. The latest Minnesota Poll, released by the Star-Tribune last weekend, shows an overwhelming 69 percent of state residents opposed to the Pohlads' deal and only 21 percent in favor. Eighty percent said professional-sports teams should sink or swim without any help from any government, and 61 percent said it was inappropriate for a state government to own a part of a sports team in any event.

One has to wonder, however, if this level of opposition -- colored by months of debate in which it seemed the Pohlads were talking about pure public subsidy -- will stick.

Philosophically, most Americans are opposed to public dollars going to affluent team owners. From public education to crime prevention, transportation to the arts, there are a lot more worthy uses of tax dollars. (The Minnesota Poll showed residents in favor of spending tax money on all those purposes before a new baseball stadium.)

But if voters could be persuaded that the deals including public ownership of stadiums were honest ones, that the public could expect to get its money back and a fair return on its investment, the tenor could change.

For the image of hometown ownership, the Green Bay Packers' victory comes at an ideal moment.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 2/03/97

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