Tuesday, April 8, 1997
It's not our hearts
- it's only money

The Cincinnati Enquirer

My most enthusiastic critic, Marty, made his customary late-night call to set me right about the current state of negotiations between the Bengals and the rest of us:

''Those stories you did about Mike Brown weren't as dumb as your usual dumb stuff,'' Marty said. (Goodness, I believe he's beginning to fall in love.)

''But we are stuck with paying for Mike's stadium. And that's that.''

Well, Marty, it's true. Voters are not going to be given a chance to renege. So, what if we just tell Mr. Brown that he can still have his stadium? He just can't have it to himself.

''What is this nonsense?'' we might say respectfully, ''about spending a couple hundred million dollars for something that will be used only eight or 10 times a year? And where we put the baseball stadium is none of your beeswax.''

Stadium for all seasons

Why don't we tell him that we appreciate his input, but that we're going to put a dome on the Bengals stadium and as many cheeks in the seats as we can during the other 355 days of the year?

The team and the county have promised to hire a promoter to book non-football events into the stadium. As it happens, we already have such a promoter, one with a very good track record. It's called a convention and visitors bureau, which markets Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky as a destination for conventioneers who bring wads of money to spend at hotels and restaurants and department stores.

They've been losing business to lesser cities with greater convention space. In February, for instance, Cincinnati lost 12,000 sports vehicle dealers to the Indianapolis Convention Center and RCA Dome. After meeting here for 24 years, the group needed more space.

The economic loss was estimated to be about $10 million.

Why can't we use the football stadium?

''Does Cincinnati want to keep the Bengals as a perennial poverty case?'' Jack Brennan, the Bengals' public relations director, asks. ''Does it want the club to forever rank at the very bottom in gross income and to struggle every season to put a competitive team on the field?''

Well, of course not. Cincinnati not only wants everything. We want the best of everything.

Show us the money

''If Cincinnati would be a better place without NFL football, if the citizens truly feel their quality of life would improve without the high-priced world of major pro sports, Mike could accept that. He could move and not worry that he was breaking the hearts of a million people. But he does worry about that. It's a big reason he's trying so hard to stay.''

Breaking the hearts of a million people? Our hearts? Breaking? Since when?

This is not a morality play. It is a struggle to stay alive, to be a big-league city in ways that have nothing to do with sports. Schools. Safety. Jobs.

We could have built the Bengals a palace in a cornfield near an interstate. So, some of us wondered why a football stadium should have been planned for prime riverfront land. But we were under the impression that it was a plan that included the Reds and a mega-sports venue along the river. Prosperity for all.

Now, the Reds are between a wedge and a hard place. Debates rage over whether we should allow the Reds to improve the fortunes of the riverfront or Over-the-Rhine. Whose fortunes will the Bengals improve? It's not Mike Brown's fault, but professional football really isn't much of a money-maker, unless you own a team.

Owners have a pretty sweet deal. They don't have to bankroll a farm team system. They get to use this country's colleges and universities to bring along the talent. Then they also get to decide there will be a shortage of their product. This enables them to pit cities like Cincinnati and Cleveland and Baltimore and Memphis and St. Louis against each other.

Mr. Brennan says his boss is trying to afford to stay here. And the city wants to wind up with something besides a big expensive empty building. It's just business. And if we can't afford each other, I believe our hearts will withstand the shock.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.