Baltimore eyeing NBA prospects

Proposed city arena could attract Spurs, Rockets or Kings

June 09, 1999|By Jon Morgan and Tom Pelton | Jon Morgan and Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Baltimore representatives who are trying to build support for a new downtown arena say they are encouraged by preliminary talks with National Basketball Association teams that might be enticed to move here.

"We've talked to a lot of teams. Some are interested, some are moderately interested, and each has a different time frame and set of needs," said Len Perna, managing director of the Goal Group, a Chicago-based sports consulting firm hired to search for tenants for the proposed arena.

"But we're just out of the gate and have not yet made it around the first turn," he said.

He declined to identify the teams Baltimore has approached. Other sources familiar with the effort said the prospects include the San Antonio Spurs, Sacramento Kings and Houston Rockets.

One of the teams has spent thousands of dollars over the past six months to study Baltimore as a sports market and to evaluate transportation routes into a new stadium near the 36-year-old Baltimore Arena.

City officials acknowledge that the teams might be flirting with Baltimore, using the city's desire for an NBA franchise as leverage to force their host cities to cough up money to build them better arenas.

The city faces formidable obstacles to luring a team: lack of money, opposition to additional public spending for sports, a market newly saturated with sports facilities and an influential NBA owner in Washington who is unlikely to support a competitor so near.

And some cities that already have arenas are seeking tenants.

"If you are shopping for a venue and you have the Baltimore-Washington market with a lot of luxury seating and Abe Pollin who is going to fight you tooth and nail, you've got to wonder if it's worth the time and effort," said John Moag, head of the sports industry group of Legg Mason. Moag is the former head of the Maryland Stadium Authority who lured the Ravens to Baltimore.

Attractive winter market

But Baltimore is the nation's largest city without one of the two major winter sports, the NBA and National Hockey League. And the city has made construction of an arena, which could cost $200 million, a priority, in part to support west side redevelopment plans.

"We are very excited about the prospect of getting a professional basketball team, and some have expressed interest," said Clinton Coleman, a spokesman for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Neither Coleman nor Charles Graves, the city's director of planning, would identify the targeted franchises.

Leo Gomez, vice president of public affairs for the Spurs, who have won a berth in the NBA finals, declined to confirm or deny the team's interest in relocation.

"Through the years we've always tried to explore our options," Gomez said. "But right now, we are focused on basketball."

The team plays in the Alamodome, a rambling multipurpose facility built in 1993 with football in mind. The team has said a new arena is a must if the Spurs are to stay in San Antonio.

Troy Hanson, a spokesman for the Kings, denied any talks with Baltimore or dissatisfaction with its team-owned venue, the Arco Arena, which opened in 1988.

"There's no truth to that at all," Hanson said of suggestions the team might relocate. "I think somebody is trying to throw things out there, and the Kings should not be included."

Angela Blakeney, manager of business communications for the Houston Rockets, said the team is unhappy with its arena but has limited its replacement efforts to the Houston area. The team has had no contact with Baltimore, she said.

Possible arena sites

Even if Baltimore fails to attract a basketball team, the city might build a 12,000-seat replacement for the Baltimore Arena, said Graves. The facility is the oldest indoor arena in the nation's 40 largest sports markets.

The most likely site for a new arena would be immediately north of the current one on Howard Street, he said. Other sites under consideration are on property owned by Allied Signal at the end of South Caroline Street at the Inner Harbor or south of PSINet Stadium.

Funding priorities

If the city succeeds in attracting an NBA team, it would hope to split the $200 million cost of a new arena between the team's owner, the state and the city -- with most of the money coming from the private sector.

"Our charge from the mayor has been that there needs to be significant contributions from the owner of the new arena and that there would be no impact on the city's general fund," Graves said.

Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., chairman of the city's budget and appropriations committee, said a budget deficit makes city contributions to the construction of a new stadium impossible.

"There is a zero chance of city funding," D'Adamo said.

City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, a candidate for mayor, said that he would make building an arena for an NBA team a top priority if he were elected.

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