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HOW SHE SEES IT Politicians are suckers for stadiums



Published: Wed, January 19, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



By PATT MORRISON

LOS ANGELES TIMES

It's really very sweet, when you think about it: City officials, battle-scarred by the cut-and-thrust of campaigning and dealmaking, sounding as heartbroken and dumbfounded as a 6-year-old kid on Christmas morning when he realizes the shopping-mall Santa didn't come through after all: "But, but -- he promised!"

The same flinty-eyed pols get all starry-eyed at the merest chance of reeling in a sports team. Their conservative fiscal spines go as wobbly as an uncooked Dodger dog, and they sell their Joe Hardy souls, in the coin of tax breaks and bonds, for a shot -- not even a guarantee, just a shot -- at being "home of" a winning team. It's the politician in the suit who does the deal, but it's his inner Little Leaguer who casts the vote. Washington, a city poor in just about everything, just let itself be bullied into a deal that could mean selling a half-billion in muni bonds to build a 41,000-seat stadium for a new baseball team.

The local Santa who didn't come across this Christmas is Arte Moreno, the owner of the Angels, which is the only part of the name everyone now agrees on. Moreno has renamed his team the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, and for at least a few more days, until the mess is back in court, you will kindly refer to them as the L.A. -- not the Anaheim -- Angels.

Say it ain't so, Arte, wails the city of Anaheim, sniffling and wiping its little-tyke snub nose. In language that reads more like Betty Broderick's divorce papers than a business dispute brought to court, Anaheim pleads: What about good faith and fair dealing? What about the $20 million in city money put toward redoing the stadium? The new double-barreled name makes Anaheim a "useless appendage." Why, even millions of dollars couldn't make up for the loss of national publicity for Anaheim (which, before you whip out the hankies, still has Disneyland and a full year of free, slobbery worldwide PR attendant to the park's 50th anniversary).

Anaheim is just the latest California city on the boo-hoo list of the jilted and jerked around. Irwindale got stuck with a $10 million tab for flirting with the Raiders while the team was married to L.A. Then the Raiders gave both cities the brushoff after Oakland relented and offered them the sweet deal they wanted. (In high school we had a name for girls who did things like that.) Pasadena drew up makeover plans for the Rose Bowl only to find that the NFL was canoodling with Carson behind its back.

Lifelong extortion racket

And if not getting a team is a heartbreak, getting one can sink a city in a lifelong extortion racket: Give the gold-digger team what it wants when it wants it or it threatens to find another sugar daddy. Ten years ago, San Diego got to keep the Chargers on its arm -- for $60 million in civic bling.

Roger Noll disagrees with me about why politicians are so quick to swap the civic cow for the magic beans of a sports team. He's a Stanford economist who's the go-to guy on sports economics, and if those aren't credentials enough, he once saw the Angels -- the Los Angeles Angels, as they were then -- play at Wrigley Field at 42nd and Avalon. And they won.

Politicians do it because "it's good politics." Very few people, Noll argues, vote against someone who` spends public money for a sports team, but a lot -- 5 percent or 10 percent -- will vote against the politician who refuses to. "There's a wonderful quote from the mayor of a town in suburban Phoenix. He said, 'We never built a new stadium without asking the citizens. If they tell us they want it, we build it. If they tell us they don't want it, we go ahead and build it anyway.'"

Noll says that although "investments in sports facilities are a waste of money, in the larger scheme of things they're not a large fraction of the budget, so it's sort of costless."

But not cost-beneficial. Paul Tagliabue, the NFL commissioner, campaigned for San Francisco's 1997 stadium bond measure by protesting, "This is not a stadium project -- it's economic development." But as Noll points out, luring sports teams with public money in the expectation of big benefits is a sucker's game. With, say, $200 million -- about two-thirds of what the public put up for Camden Yards in Baltimore -- "you could go out and build an industrial park and generate 10 to 100 times as much taxes and jobs."

I understand the impulse, fellas. Common sense tells me to buy the sensible, low-heeled black pumps, but oh, the glamorous allure of the suede pair with the ice-pick heels! The difference is, I'm not asking the voter next door to pay for them.

X Morrison is a Los Angeles Times columnist and frequent commentator on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition."




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