City sits on sideline in NBA competition


July 06, 2008|By DAVID STEELE

The two news items from early and late Wednesday weren't exactly related, but they were more than coincidental. In the morning: a front-page story in The Sun about how The Relic on Howard Street (aka 1st Mariner Arena) still makes a decent profit. At night: a settlement that allows the NBA's SuperSonics to move from Seattle to Oklahoma City.

Two items, both bad news for Baltimore. At least for those of us here who feel the NBA void, now at 35 years and counting. Or who, if nothing else, wonder whether we'll ever see a halfway-decent arena of any size here in our lifetime.

Hearing that arena operators are still making money off that dump can't help but send panic through everybody who attends the events there, because there's no alternative. Is this all they think we deserve? Are they satisfied with this, and does that mean we're supposed to be, too?

It's plain depressing, meanwhile, to see an NBA franchise instantly find a home in a smaller, more remote media market (Oklahoma City is No. 45 in the Nielsens; Baltimore is No. 24, now the fifth-largest without an NBA team) in the heart of football country, solely because it had slapped together a top-notch facility on blind faith.

It's just as depressing to think that if the whens and wheres of a new Baltimore building were decided on today - and, to overfeed the fantasy, if it were built to NBA capacity and standards - Baltimore would still be behind Seattle, which is all but assured of getting the next free-agent franchise, assuming that city upgrades its arena or builds a new one. Either one almost definitely will happen before Baltimore does anything.

The City That Reads? More like The City That Waits.

Plans for replacing 1st Mariner are behind schedule - by about three decades. Specifically, in November, when downtown development officials announced seven bids to build the proposed arena, they spoke of a possible decision by the spring of this year. Now, in July, a decision is expected soon.

Delays like this are hardly unusual, but, as with watching the Orioles go through 10 straight losing seasons, every time arena plans fall short, the agony increases, as do the doubts that things will ever change.

What will it take, one wonders, to get a shovel stuck in the ground anywhere in the city? Even for a building too small to house a major league franchise?

Even as Frank Remesch, general manager of the arena for venue management company SMG, was proudly proclaiming the record year and another record projection in The Sun, he was acknowledging the obvious: If we can do this in an arena this deficient, we can do it a whole lot better in "a brand-new shiny building."

It's worth reminding all that even though the (also overdue) report in May 2007 - the one that sagely declared 1st Mariner "obsolete" - recommended a capacity of 15,000 to 16,000, too small for the NBA or NHL, several development bids left open the possibility of building a big league-size arena.

Downtown Partnership President J. Kirby Fowler reasserted in Wednesday's article that the arena's size "is still up for discussion." Fowler has said in the past that Baltimore deserves better than to think small-time, that it should "shoot for the stars."

What's sad about the otherwise positive news of the old arena's ability to attract business is the thought of what business isn't coming here because of the wretched conditions. Even if you put aside the NBA, you have events and acts that compromise to get Baltimore on their schedules - the Virgin Festival at almost-as-obsolete Pimlico Race Course, for example - or that bypass the city.

The same goes for all of the sporting events mentioned in this space and elsewhere, including regional and national Amateur Athletic Union basketball tournaments and NCAA regionals. The longer the arena plans drag on, the wider the gulf grows between the state-of-the-art allure of M&T Bank Stadium and Camden Yards and the decrepitude of 1st Mariner.

And the more names such as "Oklahoma City" and "Brooklyn" (when the Nets eventually move from New Jersey) appear in the NBA standings, the more we'll be reminded that Baltimore might never be home to all three major sports, as it once was.

So, for the fine folks of Oklahoma City and the operators of The Relic, enjoy the good news. Seattle, your day will come again.

Long before Baltimore's, that's for sure.

Listen to David Steele on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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