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Getting a pro sports team to come to town is as serious as corralling a big business

By Ruth WalkerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 8, 1985



Phoenix, Ariz.

Baseball season opens this week, but in St. Louis and Phoenix thoughts are on football -- and the prestige and economic benefits of being home to a pro team. Bill Bidwell, owner of the St. Louis football Cardinals, after much wooing by Phoenix, decided last Friday to keep his team in St. Louis, and football fans in the Gateway City breathed a sigh of relief. Phoenix, hungry for a pro team, was left at the altar a third time in recent months.

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Like a spinster who makes a determined lunge to catch the bride's bouquet at every wedding she attends, Phoenix has made no secret of its desire for a big-league team -- either National Football League or a major-league baseball team.

The people of Phoenix and other cities, trying either to woo new teams or hang on to the ones they have, are not in it just for sport. There is a widely prevailing -- but not unanimous -- view that recruiting major-league sports is as important as recruiting industries to a city.

Teams are not only significant employers in themselves, but sports are seen as one of those ``cultural amenities'' like art museums, universities, and festival marketplaces that cities have begun to feel they need to attract ``the right kind of industry.''

``An NFL team is no different from a major industry,'' says Eddie Lynch, the low-key real estate developer who is chairman of the Metropolitan Phoenix Sports Foundation. ``It stimulates the economy, both in the construction phases of a stadium and once things are in operation. The dollars are turned over -- at hotels and restaurants, and so on. A team would enhance the image of the city. There would be news stories with the dateline `Phoenix' around the country.''

As it is, Phoenix, with a metropolitan population of 1.8 million, projected (by local economists) to rise to 2.5 million by the early to mid-1990s, is the largest metro area in the United States without either an NFL or major-league baseball team. (The National Basketball Association, however, is represented by the Phoenix Suns.)

Not that Mr. Lynch and the Sports Foundation, formed expressly to woo major-league teams, haven't tried. Robert Irsay's Baltimore Colts almost became the Phoenix Colts, but they ended up as the Indianapolis Colts instead. ``It was strictly because Indianapolis gave [Mr. Irsay] a much better economic deal,'' Mr. Lynch says. ``I don't blame him.''

He doesn't regret the effort exerted in courting the Colts: ``We didn't feel the entire thrust was lost -- we feel the image of Phoenix as an NFL city was enhanced.''

The Philadelphia Eagles were another team that got away, or more accurately, decided to stay put in Philadelphia.

More recently, attention was focused on the St. Louis Cardinals. Mr. Bidwill had expressed dissatisfaction with Busch Stadium, which seats a mere 51,391 for football. In January he let it be known that he was considering moving the team if he couldn't find a bigger stadium in St. Louis. The football team rents Busch Stadium, which is owned by Anheuser-Busch, the brewing concern, which also owns the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.

St. Louis County officials scrambled to put together a plan for a new stadium, with mostly private funding. At this writing, Busch Stadium was to be given a number of new skyboxes to keep the Cardinals happy, but a new stadium did not appear likely.

The privately owned team is considered to be in good financial condition, partly because its costs are relatively low. On the other hand, the Cardinals averaged only 46,513 fans a game last year, which is not enough to sell out the stadium they do have. That attendance figure is well below the NFL average attendance of 59,811.

And so some skeptics -- in Phoenix, notably -- wondered aloud whether a 70,000-seat stadium was the answer to Bidwill's problems.

Part of the Phoenix strategy for wooing a team is the construction of a domed stadium -- essential for major-league sports in this sunny city. ``It gets rather warm here during the summer,'' observes Mr. Lynch.

But Arizona State University, right next door to Phoenix, in Tempe, has a 70,000-seat stadium that an NFL team could use while waiting for a new one to be built. ``So a team could move here tomorrow,'' a potential fan says.