Build up Baltimore, then build an arena

February 29, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

The state of Maryland has built two crown-jewel sports facilities in Baltimore within the past decade. Much as local sports fans would love an NBA or NHL franchise, it would be inappropriate to ask for a new arena so soon.

Patience is required, especially with more important concerns facing the city. But eventually, Mayor Martin O'Malley must deal with the fact that Baltimore Arena is an embarrassment, and needs to be replaced with or without the NBA and NHL.

O'Malley's priorities are in the right place, and he would lose credibility if he advocated a sports project so early in his tenure. Still, a city of Baltimore's size should have a new arena in its long-term plans.

Baltimore Arena is the oldest indoor facility in the nation's 40 largest sports markets. It fails to attract major concerts, alienates families who wish to attend children's shows and diminishes the appeal of minor sports franchises like the Blast and BayRunners.

Other than that, it's just grand.

New Orleans, St. Louis, Nashville, Tenn., San Jose, Calif., and Tampa, Fla., are among the cities with new arenas. Even Wilkes-Barre, Pa., can boast of a new 10,800-seat facility that is home to an American Hockey League team. But Baltimore needs to sacrifice somewhere after opening two stadiums at a cost of more than $500 million.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening is right to balk at an arena that could cost $200 million. O'Malley is right not to press the issue. The city has lived with the arena this long. And there's no easy solution to the problem.

At the very least, the city and state should consider building a 12,000-seat facility to replace the Arena. But such a building would virtually eliminate any chance of the city ever landing an NBA or NHL franchise.

An expandable arena? It's a terrific concept in theory, but not in economic reality. A 12,000-seat arena can be expanded to 15,000 seats by adding a second level, but the cost of going beyond that would be prohibitive, according to one executive with a leading sports architecture firm who asked not to be identified.

"The breakpoint is 15,000," the executive said. "To go to 19,000 or 20,000 seats -- the size of an NBA facility -- would require three tiers. To build three tiers in phase construction is really not economical."

Of course, building a $200 million arena and then luring an NBA or NHL franchise with a sweetheart deal is really not economical, either -- not for the state, and not for the fans.

Who knows if Baltimore could even support the NBA or NHL? The hunger for those leagues doesn't match the hunger that existed for the NFL. And the sports dollar already is stretched thin by the Orioles and Ravens.

"My own personal opinion is that we're not ready yet," Bruce Hoffman, the outgoing executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said yesterday.

"To make an arena really work, you need a lot of corporate support. I think we've tapped them hard between the two stadiums. And people don't realize how expensive it is to go to a basketball game."

Hoffman is right -- with an average ticket price of $48.37, attending an NBA game is the single-most expensive proposition in sports. At $45.70, the NHL ranks a not-so-distant second.

The Orioles are an easier buy -- they've got tradition, Cal Ripken and Camden Yards, and their average ticket price is $19.82. The Ravens charge for permanent seat licenses, but season-ticket holders pay for only 10 games at an average price of $42.75.

With those two teams in place, how many fans could afford an average NBA or NHL season ticket of nearly $2,000? How many would even want one, considering the insufferable length of each league's regular season?

A number of corporations likely would step forward, but with 550 private suites and more than 30,000 club seats, the Baltimore- Washington area already features the highest concentration of luxury seating in the country.

All things being equal, a new arena probably would have been a better investment than a new NFL stadium. But all things weren't equal in Baltimore, where the loss of the Colts provided the impetus for the two-stadium project.

The state built Oriole Park to keep the Orioles from following the Colts out of town. It included the football stadium in the same legislation to attract a new NFL team, and that mission was accomplished with the arrival of the Cleveland Browns.

No such urgency exists for an NBA or NHL team. The Bullets left Baltimore 27 years ago, but the emotional scars weren't the same as when the Colts departed a decade later. The hockey fan base has dwindled with the city's failure to support minor-league teams, and most potential fans live in the suburbs.

It's not as simple as, "If you build it, they will come." But at some point, the arena question needs to be addressed. Whether a new facility would spur economic development on the west side is debatable. But as with the football stadium, it's a quality-of-life issue, a matter of civic pride.

Baltimore Arena must go.

If not sooner, then later.

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