Sunday, January 12, 1997
Fans shell out to keep Bengals

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The checks are in the mail. They may be written with resignation or resentment, but they keep on coming. Luxury suite deposits. Charter Ownership Agreement payments. Blood money for the Cincinnati Bengals.

Everyone complains about extortion in professional sports, but the prevailing attitude is that it is one of those offers you can't refuse. To keep a major-league team in your town, you have to pay a price. Then you have to pay another price. Then your tax dollars are diverted to build a new palace for the football pashas.

You whine about it for a while, and then you shrug, sigh and say, ''Where do I sign?''

The Bengals announced Saturday they have obtained commitments for 60 of the 104 private suites to be built in their new stadium. This followed Wednesday's cheery progress report on COA sales. The last loophole that would allow Mike Brown to take his team to Cleveland is slowly being shut.

With 110 shopping days left before the April 30 deadline, the significant sales quotas on which stadium construction is contingent seem entirely attainable. Cincinnati's affection for pro football evidently runs deeper than its aversion to threats.

This much was clear from the 61 percent approval rating the stadium sales tax referendum received in March. What was unclear at that time was whether the same people who felt no compunction in raising the sales tax on football fans and footballphobes alike would be willing to bear a larger burden to underwrite the Bengals.

Best seats sold

The answer thus far is a qualified yes. Less than a month into the sales campaign, the best seats in the house have been sold. Troy Blackburn, the Bengals director of stadium operations, said Saturday all 10 of the highest-priced luxury boxes ($134,000 annually) are already taken.

''I wouldn't have guessed we'd be at 60 this quickly,'' Blackburn said. ''But the response has been very positive and I think that indicates there's a lot of natural demand out there for a product of this nature.''

Bengals officials believed from the beginning that luxury suites could be sold. They figured if they could raise $1 million in corporate contributions for the sales tax campaign, they would later be able to sell the same executives on the advantages of climate-controlled comfort and catered shrimp.

The Bengals were - and are - less confident of their ability to appeal to John Q. Jungle. The team's Memorandum of Understanding requires Hamilton County to sell at least $20 million in seat licenses (COAs). That works out to about $450 for each of the franchise's 45,000 season tickets - a taller order than painting the Sears Tower.

''We have to get the support of our season ticket holders,'' Mike Brown said Saturday. ''We're counting on them to be part of this because they're the ones who get the benefit. Taxpayers are anteing up whether they go to the stadium or not.''

$4.5M committed

Tri-State Sports' Don Schumacher, whose company is responsible for the COA sales, said $4.5 million had been committed as of Friday's audit.

''I believe we'll hit the $20-million target sometime in February,'' Schumacher said. ''We're feeling better all the time.''

His optimism is based in part on the demand for prime seats, and in part on the Jan. 31 deadline by which season ticket holders must order to retain seating priority. Schumacher said he expected the $1,500 seat licenses for ''Zone A'' - the lower level of the stadium between the 35-yard lines - to be oversubscribed.

''Monday's receipts were $135,000,'' he said. ''Tuesday, we had $255,000. Maybe we'll hit a lull, but we have assumed that starting Jan. 15 we'd see a steady increase. There are three 100-plus (seat) groups meeting this weekend.''

The sad truth is a football team can't raise enough cash for a new stadium without exploiting its most loyal customers. The sadder truth is if the Bengals meet their targets, they will wonder if their prices were too low.