It's as simple as the price tag on Minnie Pearl's hat. For the
right offer the New Jersey Devils might pack up their pitchforks
this summer and move to Nashville. Imagine that: the Devils in the
buckle of the Bible Belt. If the team relocates, it will become --
assuming also that these New Jersey/Nashville Devils defeat the
Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference finals and then win
the Stanley Cup -- the first to win its championship as the
representative of one place and defend it in another. ``We're not
sure what's going on with Nashville,'' says Devil right wing Bill
Guerin, ``but you hear guys in the locker room saying, `Who's
going to buy a horse farm? Who's going to hang out with Dolly
Parton?' All you can do is have fun with it.''
Well, heeee haaaaw! Fans of the Devils and those of at least 38
other franchises across North America are the latest victims of a
recurring scam in sports, by which purportedly strapped owners of
big league teams, using everything from subtle implications to
outright threats, wheedle or blackmail communities into meeting
their demands -- or else (chart, page 80).
What do the plutocratic extortioners get? Everything from free
rent to a new practice facility to full control of that pot of
latter-day sporting gold, luxury-box revenue.
It hardly matters whether the Devils are seriously considering a
move to Music City, U.S.A., or whether it's a bluff; some
governmental or quasi-government public entity -- either in New
Jersey or Nashville -- is going to shell out millions in civic
resources that would better be spent on schools, cops or real job
creation. Never mind that in a few years the team may well be
headed somewhere else, for a better deal still.
If the Devils relocate, it will be their fourth move in barely
two decades. The franchise was born in 1974 as the Kansas City
Scouts, evolved into the Colorado Rockies two seasons later and
moved to New Jersey in time for the '82-83 season. A
carpetbagging bunch like this naturally caught the eye of
Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen, a politician looking to bring
some major league cachet to his community. Nashville is offering
the Devils a $20 million relocation bonus and a sweetheart lease
if they'll become the first tenants in the new Nashville Arena
under construction. The offer couldn't come at a better time for
Devil ownership; the team is in a lease dispute with the New
Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, owner of the Devils'
current home, 19-year-old Byrne Meadowlands Arena, where they
have a contract to play until at least 2002.
But Nashville is hardly the only home wrecker -- and the state of
New Jersey is far from the only cuckold -- in pro sports. A few
other examples of reckless love:
-- The woeful Cincinnati Bengals want a new home or significant
improvements made to 25-year-old Riverfront Stadium. The Bengals
have a year-to-year lease and have openly spoken to the Maryland
Stadium Authority about moving to Baltimore. The Bengals also have
been mentioned at recent NFL meetings as a possible replacement
for the Rams in Los Angeles. ``People in Cincinnati have come to
realize what's at stake,'' says Bengal president Mike Brown, who
contends his team needs more revenue to survive. ``We are running
out of time, and I have an obligation to the business and the
people that own it.''
-- By the 1998-99 season the Miami Heat likely will be gone
from Miami Arena, which is the NBA's second-smallest facility
and contains only 18 luxury boxes. To the Heat's owners this
makes the arena all but obsolete -- at the tender age of seven.
-- After seeing the pathetic Minnesota Timberwolves blessed
with an $80 million public takeover of the Target Center, their
basketball arena, the Minnesota Twins began a campaign this year
for a new baseball stadium even though they pay no rent to play
in the Metrodome, age 13.
-- George Steinbrenner hasn't ruled out the possibility of
moving his New York Yankees to northern New Jersey (the Bayonne
Bombers?). The Boss gripes about the traffic, parking and
ambience around Yankee Stadium but is less eager to discuss his
team's $486 million, 12-year TV deal or the $73.5 million
stadium renovation completed by New York City in 1976.
-- Canadians like to play Can You Top This? too. Perhaps taking
their cue from Edmonton Oiler owner Peter Pocklington, who sold
off Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier and threatened to move the
Oilers until the city agreed to sugar up his lease at Northlands
Coliseum last year, the Quebec Nordiques have broken for the
border, and the Winnipeg Jets recently threatened to do
likewise. The Nordiques were sold after they didn't get a new
arena in Quebec and will share a new arena in Denver with the
NBA's Nuggets. The Jets, having used a threat to move to
Minnesota as blackmail, have struck a tentative stadium deal to
remain in Winnipeg, financed in part by $94 million in public
funds. And remember: Canada is home to Montreal's Olympic
Stadium, a publicly financed boondoggle of such red-ink
proportions that it came to be known as the Big Owe.
-- The patron saint of stadium extortion, Los Angeles Raider
owner Al Davis, is either abandoning the L.A. Coliseum and
returning to Oakland, whence the Raiders came in 1982, or
heading crosstown to a new $200 million stadium at Hollywood
Park. For a few dozen skyboxes Davis would pledge to move to
-- The 19-year-old Kingdome is literally falling apart, so
Seattle voters will probably be asked in November to approve a
hike in the county sales tax of .1 of 1% to underwrite a new
stadium, lest the Mariners bolt for greener pastures. Seattle
ownership had hoped that a pennant race might sway the
electorate to vote yea, but Seattle's cult hero, Ken Griffey
Jr., broke his wrist in May, severely disabling the Mariners'
chances with the electorate.
-- As evidence of how a team's success can provide leverage for
a franchise, the AFC champion San Diego Chargers recently cut a
$60 million deal with their city for improvements to Jack Murphy
Stadium and a new training complex.
What's going on here? Well, in recent years the owners of pro
sports franchises have discovered that one way mon ey can most
readily be saved and earned is with sweetheart stadium deals. And,
witnessing the riches new stadiums like Baltimore's Camden Yards
and Cleveland's Jacobs Field have brought their tenants -- the
Orioles and the Indians, respectively -- owners have eagerly
embraced the simple formula for getting a new park: threaten to
move the team.
Camden Yards was conceived in the '80s when then Oriole owner
Edward Bennett Williams refused to sign more than a one-year
lease for Memorial Stadium. Many Baltimoreans feared Williams
would move the team to Washington, D.C., and in the wake of the
NFL Colts' departure in 1984, the city knuckled under and built
the new ballyard. Similar threats, real or imagined, led to the
construction of Jacobs Field and the Texas Rangers' new stadium.
In most cases the public picks up the tab in the form of extra
taxes or bond issues.
Much of the motivation for demanding these new stadiums is the
desire for luxury boxes, those havens where the haves can wash
down a footlong with a glass of Dom Perignon. After installing 36
such boxes at the old Comiskey Park, Chicago White Sox owners
Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn realized the potential of a new
stadium with even more skyboxes. At the new Comiskey, which the
state of Illinois agreed to build after the Sox threatened to pack
their bags for St. Petersburg, Fla., there are 92 luxury suites
generating about $7 million a year. Whereas gate revenue usually
must be shared with visiting teams, for those owners who own the
stadiums in which their teams play or who have generous
arrangements governing luxury boxes, this rich source of revenue
goes straight into their pockets. This quest for more unshared
income is why at least 14 NFL teams are seeking new stadiums,
better leases or major renovations, such as the $26 million in
publicly financed remodeling set for Candlestick Park.
When a city balks at its team's demands, there's always another
suitor waiting, as in the case of the Rams, who will likely become
one of the NFL's highest-grossing teams simply because they
changed their address to St. Louis last January. That move assures
the Rams $20 million annually in stadium revenue, including all
earnings from 120 luxury boxes, all the revenue from concessions
and 75% of the take from stadium advertising. The deal also
includes a new $20 million practice facility and $60 million from
personal seat licenses, which require fans to pay as much as
$4,500 just to guarantee the right to buy season tickets for
The irony is that St. Louis tried to prevent the NFL Cardinals
from moving to Phoenix in 1987 by offering to build a new stadium
for an estimated $111 million. The deal collapsed, and St. Louis
may wind up paying six times as much to host the Rams.
But perhaps St. Louis had things right in 1987. Next time you hear
your local owner whine about how one of his players failed to
honor a long-term contract, check to see when that owner last
backed out of a stadium lease for a better one across the country
-- or threatened do to so, and ended up with a better deal in your
town. And if you're in one of those arriviste places where local
officials are touting a sports franchise as a ticket to ``major
league'' status, challenge their claim that there will be an
economic boom just because a team comes to town. In his book
Playing the Field, Charles C. Euchner, an assistant professor of
political science at Holy Cross, argues that money spent at, say,
a new restaurant across from a ballpark isn't money that wouldn't
be spent otherwise; it's simply money that won't be spent at an
established eatery in town. And several economists, includ ing
Stanford's Roger Noll and Lake Forest (Ill.) College's Robert
Baade, point out that $200 million sunk into a stadium could be
spent on an industrial park that would generate many more jobs and
much more tax revenue than a new ballpark would.
Unfortunately, when business intersects with sports these days,
reason often seems to fly out the window. The upshot is that
taxpayers, only a fraction of whom may be avid fans, stand idly by
as their elected officials play loose with the public coffers to
woo teams and raze stadiums before their time. The fans of teams
that skip town stand idly by, too. ``We devote years of allegiance
to a team like this, and then they tell us they're going to
Nashville?'' said one disgruntled New Jersey Devil fan last week.
``Where the bleep are they going to hang the Stanley Cup banner --
in the Grand Ole Opry?''
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY RUSSELL O. JONES [man in suit smoking cigar shaking money out of pockets of man wearing "MAYOR" sash as athletes from various sports forlornly look on]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY RUSSELL O. JONES [baseball diamond in the Taj Mahal]
COLOR CHART [Chart not available: Chart showing NHL, NBA, NFL and major league baseball teams that want better arrangements, current homes and year each opened]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY RUSSELL O. JONES Steinbrenner's latest tantrums are designed to get government to do his bidding. [caricature of George Steinbrenner sitting in high chair and crying as he points to shiny stadium across the water]
If you don't build it (with luxury suites), they will go. That's
the state of sports, in which 39 of the 109 major league
franchises are considering a move unless they get a new arena or
stadium -- even if their current venue is relatively young -- or
a more favorable deal from the government that owns their
building. Here's a list of teams angling for a better
arrangement, or else.
Team Home Year Opened
[text not available]