Commentary: Saying `Enough!' To Big League Demands

Soon after the Minnesota Legislature nixed public funding for a new $356 million Major League Baseball stadium, the citizenry stormed the capitol to pressure lawmakers into changing their minds. Well, actually, it was just a bundled-up army of two, and their "vigil" lasted, oh, about 18 hours. Then police shooed them away for not having the proper permits.

"There doesn't seem to be a lot of hope," said Joe Marble, a bone-chilled Minnesota Twins superfan, as he and a pal packed up their tent and went home. That is so, Joe. For the first time in 25 years, a big-league baseball team is on the verge of moving. And there's not much grief in Mudville.

Minnesota--which voted for Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale, which could turn a snow-removal referendum into a class-warfare debate, and which generally loves its sports--sent a loud message to the big leagues last month: "We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore."

More specifically, the people of Minnesota decided to let the Twins, winner of two World Series in the past decade, take a walk. And if baseball owners agree, the club will trek all the way to North Carolina, where there's an eager group of investors waiting.

WHO'S RIGHT? A baffled Bud Selig, the acting commissioner, says baseball has no choice but to set the Twins free from the $10 million-a-year operating losses at the Metrodome. "I guess the thing that puzzles me is: Is everybody else wrong?" asks Selig. Citing Baltimore, Denver, Cleveland, and Arlington, Tex., where new taxpayer-financed ballparks have revived baseball and owners' bottom lines, Selig adds: "I don't think so."

Well, think again, Bud. More than 30 stadiums and arenas, paid for mostly with public money, have been built since 1989. But public financing for pro sports facilities is no longer a slam-dunk. Last spring, voters in San Francisco and Seattle barely approved financing for new football and baseball stadiums. Voters in Columbus, Ohio, rejected a tax hike to build a new arena for an NHL expansion team. And in November, voters in Minneapolis limited sports facility spending to no more than $10 million, and voters in Pittsburgh overwhelmingly rejected a financing package to build new stadiums for the Pirates and Steelers.

Next year, the electorates in Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio will face public-financing initiatives to replace functional facilities. In Miami, where the five-year-old Marlins just won the World Series with one of the highest payrolls in baseball, South Floridians are being asked to shell out for a new ballpark. And in Greensboro/Winston-Salem, voters will decide whether they want to impose a restaurant tax to help build a new stadium for the relocated Twins.

University of Chicago sports economist Allen R. Sanderson says that a better-informed public has become skeptical of sports investments. It used to be that owners could release, virtually unchallenged, glowing economic impact studies that promised thousands of new jobs and millions in new spending to justify stadium subsidies. "The fact is, there's little impact," Sanderson says. "Sports do not create very many jobs, and there's no evidence that they help attract new industry."

Twin Cities residents learned that lesson four years ago when the NHL North Stars left town. Life and business went on as usual. That helped the locals ignore economic and "quality of life" arguments made by the Twins. Their "definition of `quality of life' is government paying for things rich people like to do," said one legislator, in a jab at billionaire banker Carl Pohlad, who owns the Twins.

As the dust settles in Minneapolis, a frustrated Twins President Jerry Bell is left asking: "What is the message?" Simple. Pro sports owners who bury themselves financially by allowing salaries to skyrocket blithely expect taxpayers to dig them out. Communities have long paid dearly to support their teams, but the costs have reached unconscionable levels. The economics of pro sports is spinning out of control, and perhaps the only thing that can rein it in is the voice of the people in places like Columbus, Pittsburgh, and Minnesota. Voices that won't take it anymore.

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