If You Build It...

ONCE there was an unwritten rule in professional sports. Fans stayed loyal to teams. Teams stayed loyal to fans. Free agency, multimillion-dollar player contracts, and TV revenues were not allowed to besmirch the game's purity.

That's the myth, anyway. It began to fall apart in the 1950s, when Brooklyn fans saw their beloved Dodgers go to Los Angeles. The New York Giants moved to San Francisco. The Boston Braves left for Milwaukee, then Atlanta. Washington lost two Senators teams. Other examples abound.

It's hard to think of more-devout fans than those of the old Baltimore Colts football team, but that didn't stop owners from galloping off to Indianapolis in the middle of the night. This year Los Angeles lost both its pro football teams: The Raiders cruised back to Oakland, which they had abandoned only 13 seasons before; while the Rams ran off to St. Louis, whose Cardinals inexplicably flew to Phoenix a few years back.

In hockey, what can justify the Quebec Nordiques skating off to Denver (Ici on ne parle pas francais)?

What makes this review more than just a nostalgia trip is the demand teams frequently make these days for cities and states to build them new facilities. Seattle voters narrowly turned down a new stadium for the Mariners baseball team. But the Boston Red Sox, the Detroit Tigers, and the New York Yankees are all angling for new stadiums at public expense.

If building a stadium meant increased team loyalty to a city, that would be one thing. But it doesn't work that way. Professional sports are driven by economics. If the fan base and the TV revenues look bigger elsewhere, experience shows that teams will move and the public can fly a kite. Michigan pitched in several years ago to build the Silverdome in Pontiac for the Detroit Lions football team. Twenty years later, the Lions are growling about a new local stadium. The Houston Oilers may spill out of th e Astrodome and flow to Nashville.

There's been talk in Boston about the state financing a new stadium for the New England (formerly Boston) Patriots. We love our teams too, but our advice to lawmakers: Forget it.

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