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Welcome to the end of the publicly funded stadium

10/3/2008

We're always trying to make sports stand for something bigger, or to explain its escapist qualities, or otherwise relate it to the world at large. Most of the time, the world outside sports is what we ignore to enjoy the game.

But what if it can't be ignored? What if the real events of the world -- for instance, a world financial crisis -- threaten to intrude on the unreality of our games?

It's inevitable that the credit/real estate crisis will have an impact on sports, as it will or has on every business. In fact, for the foreseeable future it might have a huge impact -- and not an entirely negative one, either.

I'm thinking about the age-old game franchise owners have played to get what they want. You know the drill: Court a different city to give you the palace you want in order to extort it from your current home. Get the politicians to run interference by tossing out the term "civic treasure" at the right intervals and you're pretty much assured to be drowning in tax dollars and sipping the good stuff in a suite safely removed from the folks who paid the bill.

But now what? The events of the real world are threatening to put a big dent in the blackmail game.

Take the example of the Oakland A's, a team that is understandably underwhelmed by its current stadium. Managing general partner Lew Wolff has tossed out some old-school threats in the past few weeks. He wants to move his team to Fremont, that Barcelona of the East Bay, as part of a deal that mostly involves real estate and partly involves baseball. The stadium site makes little sense from a new-school transportation standpoint; it's away from the population centers and not convenient to mass transit.

It's just kind of … Fremont. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not what you'd call a destination. Wolff, a real-estate magnate who thinks a few thousand houses and a strategically placed Target can cure all ills, thinks he can make it work in Fremont. With luxury boxes, of course.

When Wolff was asked at an A's booster luncheon whether his team could thrive in Fremont without a BART (mass transit) station, he said, "If we can, we will. If we can't, we won't. Of course, then we wouldn't be in California anymore."

Ah, the great threat. He's gonna move, so we have to step up and build him what he wants, regardless of cost. Otherwise he's going to move to Las Vegas -- it'll surely give him what he wants -- and we'll all have to watch the Giants.

It's the oldest trick in the book; the owner's equivalent of turning over the locker room spread after a bad game. The problem is, it's lost a little of its power over the past 10 years, ever since the Giants built their ballpark without public funds. (They built theirs on credit, which is another story entirely right now.) Still, as you can tell by Lew Wolff, hope springs eternal.

But maybe no more. Maybe one of the positive outcomes of the current financial crisis -- someone has to be positive, right? -- could be the unlikely awakening of the taxpayer when it comes to subsidizing the mega-wealthy who own professional sports franchises. (Of course, an eventual government bailout of irresponsible financial institutions would be another version of public money morphing into private profit, but we can only fight one battle at a time here on Page 2.)

I can't imagine a tougher sell in a community right now than a sports palace. The most recent numbers indicate New York taxpayers will end up being charged between $550 and $850 million for the new Yankee Stadium. A report issued by New York assemblyman Richard Brodsky contends the city of New York toyed with the assessed value of the stadium to provide the Yankees with further tax breaks. The Yankees, as a thank-you, have raised ticket prices significantly for next season.

In Washington, D.C., the taxpayers have to pick up more than $1 million in security costs for the stadium. Wouldn't it be great to own a business where you didn't have to pay for the building or the security to police that building?

In Indianapolis, construction of Lucas Oil Stadium, new home of the Colts, went far beyond its original estimates, forcing the city to funnel more tax dollars toward the project. And then, after completion, it was revealed that it will cost the city $20 million a year -- twice the original estimate -- just to operate the damned thing. The Colts have been good, we'll grant you that, but are they worth a $700 million stadium and $20 million a year for roughly 10 annual dates?

Taxpayer-funded sports palaces have never made sense. If you can't make money owning a team in the NFL or Major League Baseball or the NBA, with all the income tributaries, you have more problems than a new stadium can solve.

And now, the real world has decided to intervene. Crisis to the rescue. Any city that accedes to the blackmail at this stage better plan on spending some of those tax dollars to quell the mutiny on the streets. And the owners of the Yankees and Colts and Mets and Oklahoma City Thunder can make a theatrical wipe of the brow and give thanks. They got in just under the wire.

Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Sound off to Tim here.