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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

(Phoenix boosters also like to point out that the ASU team regularly draws crowds of 65,000-plus. ``And that's college ball!'')

In their efforts to woo the Colts, the people of Indianapolis took a great leap to faith -- they built a domed stadium in anticipation of a team. But in Phoenix, ``No dirt will be turned without a commitment from a team,'' says Michael Gallagher, chairman of the Phoenix Professional Sports Advisory Committee. ``They'll have a `dome on the shelf,' '' says Michael Hallmark, an architect in the local office of the architectural and engineering firm Howard Needles Tammen & Bergendoff, which is designing the structure.

The stadium is expected to cost around $100 million and be built mostly with private money -- corporate grants in exchange for prestige ``suites'' and box seats. The idea is to have blueprints and a financing plan all thought through and ready to carry out as soon as a team gives the nod.

Phoenix may have one of the highest profiles among cities questing for teams, but the concept of sport-as-desirable-industry has spread across the country.

Leonard Simon, assistant executive director of the US Conference of Mayors, suggests thinking of a major-league team ``as an extremely large factory'' responsible for hundreds of jobs. He acknowledges that it's hard to get hard numbers on what a team means to a city. But he says he could ``easily see'' a ballpark figure (so to speak) of $35 million a year for the direct jobs created in a local economy by a major-league team.

``During the [two-month] baseball strike of 1981, every major-league city wrote letters saying, `This strike is costing us $11 million.' The strike ended right after we made that pitch. I hope we had something to do with it.''

Are government officials who knock themselves out to hang on to a local team guilty of misplaced priorities?

``I don't think so,'' he says. He cites the case of a Baltimore sausagemaker that let it be known a few months back that it was considering pulling out of its aging plant and moving south or west.

Local government officials swung into action and were finally able to persuade the sausagemaker to stay put. ``Cities do this kind of thing all the time. It's just that they get more publicity when it's a team, because football players and baseball players are more famous than sausagemakers.''

The Senate Commerce Committee last week approved a bill sponsored by Missouri's two senators, John Danforth (R) and Thomas Eagleton (D), which would give the leagues more control over team owners who want to move. Three other ``sports stabilization'' bills have been introduced into the Senate as well, including one by Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, presumably still worried about the Eagles.

Mr. Simon, noting that no House members have come forth with bills, wonders whether such legislation will pass.

And not every mayor in the country subscribes to the sports-as-pot-of-gold theory of economic development. Anne Rudin, mayor of Sacramento, Calif., told the Monitor last week, ``I'm very pleased, I'm delighted'' with the just-announced decision of the Kansas City Kings basketball team to move to her city. (The move must still get final approval from the NBA, but this is expected.)

``But this is a private business venture . . . and we have other growth strategies for our city.''

The main industry in Sacramento is government -- this is the capital of California, and there is a heavy federal presence as well. Sacramento is aiming to diversify this base, capitalizing on its proximity to Silicon Valley and its relatively lower housing and utility costs.

Referring to a plan by private developers to build a football stadium near the planned Kings arena, Mayor Rudin adds, ``I don't feel we would give the search for a football team as high a priority as a search for a new high-tech company.

``I would like to see an impartial study of the economic impact of this [basketball] team. I haven't yet. And I've seen so much movement by teams. How long will they stay? Two years? Six years?''

Indeed, the Kings have already moved twice before.

``And I've seen cities that have had to offer bribes, to put it bluntly, and blackmail to get teams to stay.''

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