Teams Tag Cities With Taxes for New Stadiums

Seattle votes today to build, or bid adieu to Mariners

IT has become a refrain - even threat - familiar in cities across the country: Build a new stadium or we will leave. In Seattle, the exit notice is being delivered by owners of the Mariners baseball team. They argue they can't afford to stay without a new stadium. Yet even if voters approve the new ballpark in a primary election today, they probably won't have heard the last of such cleat-hard bargaining: The Seattle Seahawks football team could be the next to argue it can't survive in the aging Kingdome. The plight of people here - torn between their love of sports and weariness of taxes - reflects a pattern in cities across America. Teams are pushing for new digs from the Big Apple to Anaheim, Calif., reflecting a growing tension between profits, civic pride, and the fickle economics of athletics. For instance: * George Steinbrenner is talking about moving his Yankees to New Jersey unless parking and traffic problems are solved at the New York City baseball park. * In Cincinnati, both baseball's Reds and football's Bengals want new stadiums. So do the Milwaukee Brewers (baseball) and Detroit Lions (football). Even Boston's historic Fenway Park, and its renowned Green Monster wall in left field, may be replaced. * Meanwhile, some teams are moving when they don't get what they want. Especially in football, where two teams recently abandoned Los Angeles. The Raiders went to Oakland, their former home, while the Rams are now in St. Louis, filling a void left by the Cardinals, who moved to Phoenix. Got all this on your scorecard? ''It's musical chairs in favor of the teams,'' says Ken Shropshire, author of a new book, ''The Sports Franchise Game'' (University of Pennsylvania Press). New ballparks, big bucks These days, a new stadium means big bucks from expanded luxury seating and concessions. The city gets to keep the team, but pays for it by subsidizing the new park. And in the current market, there are cities willing to woo all teams that want new stadiums. ''A sports franchise is a wonderful thing to have,'' adding to a city's prestige and cultural vibrancy, says Mr. Shropshire, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. ''It's absolutely unbelievable the number of cities that are in the throws of stadium debates,'' adds Robert Baade, an economist at Lake Forest College near Chicago. The current wave of activity has gathered momentum as teams point to peers that have gotten new stadiums. ''It appears to be the middle of the [stadium-building] cycle,'' says Sean Brenner, associate editor of the Team Marketing Report, a sports business monthly published in Chicago. In the last few years, new ballparks have bolstered revenues for the Cleveland Indians and Baltimore Orioles, making them the envy of team owners in other cities. Those stadiums also have helped revitalize surrounding neighborhoods, Mr. Brenner says. In general, however, experts say sports franchises have only minimal economic benefit to a region. ''It's ... more properly debated as a psychological issue than in the economic arena,'' says Mr. Baade, who has researched economic impacts of sports franchises. Here in King County, Wash., which encompasses Seattle and some neighboring communities, the psychological tension has been running high. The Mariners, with a long history of losing, are finally winning, locked in a tight race for a ''wild card'' playoff slot. And they have superstar Ken Griffey Jr., one of the game's hottest players. Many locals say they would be more likely to go to games in an outdoor park, rather than the drab, concrete Kingdome. ''One of my fondest memories is going down on a Friday evening to watch the Tigers play the Yankees in a twilight double-header,'' says Dave Mushen, a Seattle resident who plans to vote for the stadium. On a sunny summer day, he asks, ''who wants to sit inside a gray dome?'' Yet others are worried about how the new stadium will look. ''It's an ugly design,'' says another local, Vince Martinez, commenting on the team's plans for a modern park with a retractable roof. (Though Seattle summers are relatively rain-free, Mariner owners insist on a retractable roof to give fans confidence to attend games.) Mr. Martinez says he would rather see a smaller, classic brick stadium. But he will probably vote for the plan just to keep the Mariners from leaving town. The Mariners are owned by a group of local business leaders who bought the team in 1992 to keep it from moving to Florida. Now, after several years of heavy losses, they say they could be forced to sell the team. If you build it, we will stay If the stadium is built, the owners say they will remain in Seattle for at least 20 years. The team would pay $45 million - the cost of the roof - toward a $285 million stadium. King County taxpayers would pick up the rest of the cost through a 0.1 percent sales tax hike. The total cost sounds staggering, but supporters say the typical resident would pay only about $7.50 in extra taxes each year. The package also covers some improvements to the Kingdome, which could help keep the Seahawks in town. But polls suggest voters are reluctant to raise taxes, and many baseball fans soured on the game during the players strike that ended last year's season without a World Series. The labor strife is widely perceived as a squabble between rich players and richer owners. Attendance is down sharply in many baseball stadiums this year, including Seattle. ''It's becoming more difficult to get these referenda passed,'' says Dean Baim, an economist at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. One reason is that, more than ever, the subsidy seems targeted very narrowly. In the past, stadiums were often touted as multipurpose arenas. The Kingdome is used for boat shows and rock concerts as well as football and baseball. But those facilities, many built just two or three decades ago in another construction boom, are seen by teams as outmoded. The new kind of park is optimized for one sport only, and is typically managed by a team, even if publicly owned. Mr. Baim suggests regional governments should drive harder bargains with teams. The Mariners have agreed to share an undisclosed percentage of any future profits with King County, following a recent trend toward public-private partnerships.

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