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Monday, December 29, 2003
 



SHOULD WE, THE PEOPLE, EVER BUILD A STADIUM FOR THESE MILLIONAIRE OWNERS?


Today's debate started off innocently enough -- as a simple seasonal plea from one of the Brooklynites in the Writers' Bloc, Luke Cyphers: Please, New Jersey Nets, don't come to Brooklyn and cause my favorite local bar, Freddy's, to be torn down. By the time the WB Wildcats were done, it had become a referendum on the wisdom -- or severe lack thereof -- of using taxpayers' dollars to build millionaire owners new arenas/stadia/parks.

For the most part, as you might expect from a group of pointy-headed populists, the WB is pretty strongly opposed to the rich robbing from the poor in the name of civic pride. But, as always, there were more than a few contrarian points of view, including one from our other feisty ex-Brooklynite, Dan Shanoff.

Hey, you, get off of my bar
By Luke Cyphers
ESPN The Magazine

Sit down at the corner of Freddy's Bar, which itself sits on a corner in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, and you immediately know you're in one of the great dives in New York City. Look down the bar, and you see they serve Pabst Blue Ribbon. Look up, and you see a stuffed squirrel wearing a hat at a snappy angle, perched atop a graffiti-covered plastic sculpture of a woman's sternum that exhibits a pronounced case of polythelia. (This is a medical term, a bit organic for the staid Writers' Bloc, but you can find a description of it in Gray's Anatomy or the current issue of Esquire.)

Leonard Cohen and Public Enemy blare from the jukebox, and the crowd is equally diverse -- old neighborhood folks, newly transplanted yuppies and hipsters attracted to Freddy's eclectic live music menu. The bartender, Tim Carey, is funny as hell. "This place was here pre-prohibition," he says. A speakeasy? "Yeah, back in the '70s."

Meet the Bloc
Here's the full Writers' Bloc roster:

From Page 2: Jim Caple, Patrick Hruby, Eric Neel, David Schoenfield, Dan Shanoff, Ralph Wiley.

From ESPN The Magazine: Eric Adelson, Shaun Assael, Luke Cyphers, Alan Grant, Tom Friend, Peter Keating, Tim Keown, Steve Wulf.

Other hired guns: Gerri Hirshey, Chuck Hirshberg, Melanie Jackson, Robert Lipsyte.

It's about then that depression kicks in, even before the PBR does. Because some really rich guy wants to move the New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn, build an arena as part of a mega-development project, and knock down Freddy's for parking. Not to mention displace a bunch of people in a quaint corner of a neighborhood that for decades survived all manner of urban horrors and is now so desirable they can't turn the dead factories into condos fast enough. The developer says it will be just 100 residents; the residents say they've already canvassed 1,000 people who would be forced to move.

The developer, various city fathers and The New York Times all promise this is a good thing. Brooklyn will be big-league, Frank Gehry will design glittery, curvy buildings to sit over some fallow railyards, and there will be jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs. And did we mention the jobs?

Except for people like Tim Carey, who has worked at Freddy's for six years. "Well, I had a baby girl six months ago, and if this happens, my job's gone," he says. "Maybe I can work the concession stand. Sounds like they're looking out for my welfare by putting me on welfare."

Oh, the developers promise housing, too. Housing, housing, housing. Except for people like David Sheetz, who has been there nearly 20 years. "My house will be flattened," he says.

Continental Airlines Area
Maybe the Nets' current home just needs some condos built in the parking lot.

For years, I've covered the false promises of arena and stadium developers who say if you just give us a stadium, or public money, or land, or tax breaks, and all the concession and parking money from events, we'll give you a great team and an "entertainment experience." It will knit the community together, or rebuild a decrepit area, or create employment, or lure businesses, or look really cool on national TV.

What usually happens is a couple of rich guys make a pile of money for themselves by selling naming rights to the arena to a corporation that leaves out the name of the city completely. They then sell the team, or raise ticket prices, or ask for more tax money. There are never more jobs, there's not much growth outside the stadium (really, who wants to live near a stadium parking lot?), and there are awful traffic jams. Just ask the people of Milwaukee, Cincinnati or Houston what a boon their new parks have been.

"We'd rather have them build some parks over the railyards where 100 kids could play ball for free every day than sit and passively watch 12 millionaires play for $65 a ticket," says Roger Paz, who's part of a neighborhood group fighting the project.

That Freddy's is a favored hangout of several people on the ESPN the Magazine staff, and is a four-minute walk from my apartment, has nothing to do with my learned and principled stance against unwise stadium development.

It has everything to do with why I don't want this one. Initially, I thought it might be a good thing. Even the well-respected economist Andrew Zimbalist seems to support the plan. But almost any time you look closely look at these schemes, the local benefits shrivel while the local costs multiply.

No thanks. I know a bunch of people who will lie down in front of Freddy's to stop bulldozers. (They've been known to lie down in front of Freddy's for far less.)

Yeah, it's just a little corner bar, but for decades it's knit the community far better than any team could, and it's a far nobler institution than any you're likely to find in pro sports.


Dan Shanoff
To: Luke Cyphers
Subject: Take off the trucker hat, come into the 21st century

Luke, as a Brooklyn loyalist (and longtime resident) myself, I appreciate your tear-(it-down)-jerker. You would have had me convinced -- if you'd picked on one of the nation's more plastic burgs.

But you picked the one town where a pro sports team set down smack in the middle of a downtown neighborhood would actually do some good.

Ebbets Field
Brooklyn just hasn't been the same since the Dodgers left the borough without a pro sports team.

The quirky, neighborhoody feel of a borough that just happens to have a couple million people is precisely the place where a big-league sports franchise would be a tremendous boost for the spirit of a town that is infinitely more than its popular image of hipster-wannabes who live near Prospect Park or in Williamsburg.

(In fact, bandwagon Brooklynites flooding the borough and driving up rents have done more to rend the fabric of the community than a stadium project ever could.)

Have your PBR-drinking friends (do they wear trucker hats, too?) expand their four-minute radius and head southeast on the Q train to Coney Island to KeySpan Park, where the minor-league baseball Brooklyn Cyclones didn't necessarily revitalize CI (far from it). However, the sellout crowds for every home game will tell you that the team has given them a point of pride that they just can't get from "New York" sports teams of the Bronx (Yankees), Queens (Mets), Manhattan (Knicks) and (New Jersey) Jets/Giants.

Do I feel for your bar owner and the hundreds of authentic Brooklynites who will be displaced by the Nets' arrival? Totally.

But this is not some stadium financed solely by taxpayer money dumped out in the middle of nowhere. Given the opportunities uniquely suited for Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue, this is downtown revitalization -- restoration of a larger cultural optimism that will bring Brooklyn back to its glory days of the Dodgers.

Ultimately doing much more good than harm, "Go Nets!" should be a borough-wide cheer, not a threat from self-interested protesters.


Luke Cyphers
To: Dan Shanoff
Subject: We've got spirit ... and it's being abused

Dan, yes, yuppie gentrifiers are scum, but while sticks and stones may break my trucker's hat, "town spirit" is the last refuge of people misusing government for their own gain. Eminent domain -- a government power to take private property, which is what would kill Freddy's -- is being misused all over the country, and this looks like another example of it. I'd like the project a lot more if the developer hadn't already whiffed twice on huge buildings in the neighborhood, a ghastly skyscraper and a ghastlier mall, and if it didn't require goverment force to take land from one private interest and give it to another, richer one.

Why is it that all across America, big government is bad, welfare is bad, and redistribution of wealth is bad ... except when it's redistributed to sports teams? Then it's somehow "spiritual."


Patrick Hruby
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: They care about your wallet, not you

A best-selling inspirational book -- probably the Bible; possibly Mitch Albom's "The Five People You Meet in Heaven?" -- notes that pride goeth before a fall. In the case of publicly funded ballparks and stadiums, it's more like pride goeth before a $350-million overbudget boondoggle.

Whenever politicians and the wealthy hands that feed them decide to squeeze taxpayers for a shiny-new 45,000-seat ATM, they roll out the same old canard: civic pride. As in, said arena/multipurpose dome/space-age monorail will give the community a team it can rally around, putting our town on an equal footing with those sneering no-goodniks in Shelbyville.

To borrow from Bill Walton: How very, very sad.

A professional sports franchise should act as a source of amusement, diversion, escape. But to function as a wellspring of genuine municipal self-regard? Grow up, already.

Unlike the squads from your local high school -- literally made up of your sons and daughters -- pro clubs feature high-priced Hessians, many of whom legally reside in tax-free Florida. When they win and lose, it has exceedingly little to do with you, and even less to do with your lucky team slippers. Sure, a successful franchise can bring people together, but only for traffic-clogging, productivity-killing victory parades and/or post-championship riots. And like the nearby Wal-Mart, your beloved pro team remains a civic jewel only so long as you're willing to pay for it.

So why get your ego all tangled up in Dodger blue -- or Jaguars teal, as the case might be?

Besides, community-supported stadium projects invariably siphon funds from the things that ought to be points of public self-esteem: police, schools, roads that don't sport 347 potholes per city block. Oh, and if a team can generate civic chest-puffing, it can also produce shame: Witness the Arizona Cardinals.

Look, it's nice to spend a night at the game. Just as it's nice to go to the movies. But if the good folks behind your upcoming neighborhood megaplex asked you to help pay for the theater -- all while appealing to your civic self-worth -- you'd laugh them out of City Hall. And not simply because they plan to show "Paycheck" on 12 screens.


Tim Keown
To: Dan Shanoff
Subject: Don't be so naive, Dan

Building ballparks for the civic good is an argument that has been discredited by example in so many cities it's amazing someone (Dan?) is still attempting to pawn it off as viable.

George Bush
Of course, new stadiums mean taxpayers have to scrape up more money for a good seat.

In most cases, taxpayers fund ballparks after owners blackmail the communities by threatening to move their team, which politicians suddenly trumpet as a great civic treasure. The jobs lost by a team's move, or created by a team's arrival, are almost uniformly low-paying and temporary. Numerous studies have concluded that economic impact is negligible; it seems the money folks pay for entertainment is a near-constant. If they weren't paying it for the NBA team in Luke's neighborhood, they'd be paying it somewhere else, perhaps Freddy's.

The next time you're tempting to make the argument for digging into your own pocket to help pay for a wealthy man's toy, ask yourself a question: When's the last time an owner took a loss on the sale of his franchise?


Tom Friend
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: Wait a minute! I'll pay!

You want your local narcissistic owner to pay for your stadium? That won't work, either!

They'll name it after themselves, and -- guess what? -- it'll be a cheap piece of trash.

I give you D.C. as an example. Jack Kent Cooke played hardball with the D.C. city council, and then said, Screw it, I'll build it myself in the suburbs. Great. He even named the suburb Raljon after his sons, Ralph and John, and then, when no one was looking, he put up an atrocity of a stadium.

He rushed the damn thing. He built it cheap and fast and turned it into an oversized eyesore with obstructed seats, horrible parking and no subway access. Of course, he didn't live to see it open, which is why one of the sons named the thing Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, as if that was a tribute. Well, here it is, seven years later, and the place is already outdated.

My point? I would've doled out tax money, PSLs, anything, to have a stadium like the Ravens have -- smack downtown, cozy and gorgeous.

You get what you pay for, and in this case, Redskin fans got ... nada.


Jim Caple
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States

Ballpark at Arlington
It's a beautiful place to watch a last-place team.
Tim's absolutely right. Does anyone remember that Dubya invested $600,000 in the Rangers, helped cajole the citizens into building a new stadium and then sold his share at a profit of about $14 million. As for the fans ... well, the team has finished last four seasons in a row, their best player wants out and their owner says he has to cut payroll. Oh, and the tickets are more expensive.

But it's a nice park.


Chuck Hirshberg
To: My fellow Americans
Subject: Beating around Bush

I disagree, Jim. It is NOT a nice park.

Sure, The Ballpark in Arlington (clever name, huh?) might be pretty, and it might be comfy, but whenever I look at it, all I see is a 49,000-seat, $191-million open-air monument to the Suckers of Texas. Do you hear me, all of you Arlingtonians who raised your own taxes to buy a stadium for millionaires? Can y'all hear me, or are your 10-gallon hats a-slippin' down over your ears, on account o' yer shot-glass brains? (Note to Arlington suckers: A shot glass is much SMALLER than 10 gallons; therefore, this is an insult.)

Or are you one of those bid'nessmen who profitted from Bush's Arlington shakedown? Well, then, you're no sucker, are you? No, you're a bottom-feeding hustler, just like your stablemates over at Enron.

(Let me pause a moment, because this is the truth: I love Texas. I grew up in the Southwest, and, all my life, I have loved the Lone Star State to itty-bitty bits. To me, Texas has always meant great food, great camping trips and great herds of cattle with great big rumps. Texas gave us boxing great Jack Johnson, presidential great Lyndon Johnson, and more musical greats than you can shake a rattlesnake at, from Scott Joplin to Janis Joplin. I also realize that many, many Arlingtonians were neither suckers, nor hustlers in the stadium scam. They said to themselves: "I love baseball, but this is just stupid. Let's save our money, watch the Braves on TBS and drive down to Round Rock on weekends to see a Texas League game. Hell, the Texas League was good enough for Bob Wills and Ernest Tubb; it oughta be good enough for me." See? I love Texas. And now that I've innoculated myself, let me get back to the business at hand: Texan-bashing.)

The stadium deal took place 10 years ago, so the details surrounding it have grown dim in the minds of many Americans. This is understandable. We're all sick of Presidents who use cigars to tickle giggling interns, instead of using them for their intended purpose, which is to destroy the human lung. But as we turn the corner on an election year, certain -- how can I put this politely? -- detestable lies have been circulated about it, which I'd like to briefly demolish in this public forum.

Lie No. 1: Oh, don't be a silly-pants. Dubya Bush never threatened to move the Rangers out of Arlington.

Truth: He pointedly promised to keep the team "in the Metroplex," which meant he reserved the right to move it to Dallas. As a result, in 1989, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram took the unusual step of writing an open letter to his father, the first President Bush. "Your son ... has promised to keep the team in the Metroplex. With all due respect, that sounds a little political. Please help us and advise him to be more specific and urge him to keep the team in Tarrant County. Sir, if urging won't work, just take a baseball bat and knock some sense in him."

Lie No. 2: OK, so Bush made a financial killing at public expense. But his aide Karen Hughes explained all of this years ago: "When he and his partners bought the team in 1989, Governor Bush never dreamed that this would be so successful."

Truth: According to the Dallas Morning News, Bush's partnership agreement specifically spelled out that he was to get extra payouts should the team be sold for substantial profit.

Lie No. 3: You can't blame Bush for baseball's nefarious business structure. He didn't create MLB's antitrust exemption.

Truth: He didn't create it. But in 1993, bi-partisan bills to repeal the exemption were presented to both houses of congress. Bush called on other owners to launch "an offensive" against the measure, on the grounds that -- get this -- "it'll ruin minor-league baseball." (AP Washington Dateline, 3/4/93)

Lie No. 4: "Bush's conduct as a baseball owner has nothing to do with his conduct as President."

Truth: Before the Iraq war, the Bush administration repeatedly told the American people that Iraq would be rebuilt primarily with its own oil revenues. After the war, Bush handed the bill to the American people. You might say we've become a nation of Texas Rangers fans.


Shaun Assael
To: The Writers' Bloc
Subject: Maybe this issue is black and white

I hate to say it, but how much of this is really about race, which, as Rasheed Wallace will tell you, is the big elephant sitting at halfcourt in the NBA? The reason we're talking about Brooklyn is that the Yankee-Nets, which turned out to be a bickering bunch of millionaires, abandoned Newark after it became clear they couldn't get a free ride, and would have to put up roughly $140 million of their own dough.

So now we're talking about a deal in Brooklyn, which is decidedly whiter, and apparently more NBA friendly. Bruce Ratner, the proposed developer and high bidder in the ongoing auction of Nets, says that his project will add 2.1 million square feet of office space, and up to 4,500 apartments. As for the stadium, architect Frank Gehry says it will "be sheathed in glass, allowing patrons a view of Brooklyn nightlife."

Nice. But one can only wonder what he might do for Newark, a city usually preceded by the word "blighted." The idea that Gehry might do for Newark what he did for Bilbau, Spain, with his Guggenheim Museum, boggles the mind. It could be an example of using sports for real social engineering, not gentrification in a borough that has an economic engine in good working order.

Also imagine the goodwill the NBA could get ... not just from their fans, but their players.

Yeah, imagine. Because we'll never know. New Jersey's governor, James McGreevy, says he doesn't have the money to spend on a stadium there. Instead, he's proposing spending $150 million on a rail line from New York to the Meadowlands, a complex that has been targeted for a multi-billion-dollar facelift so it can be turned into a shopping mall in the middle of nowhere.

If Freddy's gets torn down, the people who should be upset aren't the ones in Luke's neighborhood. They're the folks in Newark, who understand what Rasheed Wallace was saying, loud and clear.


Jim Caple
To: The Writers' Bloc
Subject: That giant sucking sound ...

It might be nice for Newark to have a Frank Gehry structure in town but it wouldn't do a damn thing for the economy, especially if the city has to fund it. The average department store brings more revenue into a town than an arena. What revitalizes an area is jobs, jobs, jobs, not a basketball team playing 41 nights a year.


Patrick Hruby
To: The Writers' Bloc
Subject: Let's call it even

If and when the Nets generously allow Brooklyn to help fund their new arena, let's hope the team has the common courtesy to offer something of value in return.

Like, say, magic beans.


David Schoenfield
To: The Writers' Bloc
Subject: It's all Fargo's gain

Oh, boy. I can see it now, peering 30 years into the future, a decade after the Brooklyn Nets transplanted to Fargo, after that city ponied up $500 million for a new basketball arena to improve the city's image and revitalize a downtown decimated by the wheat strikes of 2024.

Dan Shanoff pens his memoirs, "The Boys of Winter," a nostalgic look back at the 2005-2015 Nets, who kept losing in the NBA Finals to the San Antonio Spurs. He interviews fellow residents of Brooklyn, who report the property values on their once-hip condos have declined ever since New Jersey taxpayers shelled out $1 billion for a new Yankee Stadium and everyone fled the city to live closer to the ballpark.

He tracks down Jason Kidd, tending bar in California at his restaurant, "The Brooklyn Net," and Kidd relives the memories of him and Kenyon Martin playing ball in the streets with the kids of Brooklyn on Saturday afternoons.

He interviews the owner of the "Sports Shop" on Atlantic Avenue -- one of the few stores not boarded up -- who points out that the Brian Scalabrine retro jersey is still one of his biggest sellers.

Yes, those were the good ol' days. But at least the good people of Fargo will have something to spend their money on.