Brown KOs Marge in stadium race

The Cincinnati Enquirer

If there is one team the Cincinnati Bengals always beat, it is the Cincinnati Reds.

Mike Brown is to Marge Schott what Robert E. Lee was to George McClellan, what Colonel Hogan was to Sergeant Schultz, what the Road Runner is to Wile E. Coyote. He could outflank her in a phone booth.

For all their annoying clumsiness on the football field, the Bengals move pretty adroitly at the bargaining table. They have gained the initiative in the Great Stadium Race while the Reds fumble around in flat-footed confusion.

Again and again, Mike deals while Marge dithers. He acts and she atrophies. He has beaten her to the punch so many times he must think himself Mike Tyson.

Less than six months after Hamilton County voters approved a half-cent sales tax for the construction of new ballparks, Brown has already negotiated lucrative lease terms, site approval and even the greater share of naming rights revenues for his faulty football team.

The Reds, meanwhile, are picking dandelions in left field. Both Reds Managing Executive John Allen and Hamilton County Administrator Dave Krings say they don't want to negotiate in the press, but they need to start some serious bargaining soon. Otherwise the projected opening of the new Reds ballpark, which has already been pushed back from 1999 to 2000, may be delayed another year.

Schott inertia alarming

The main obstacle in these matters is Schott, who retains authority over stadium issues during her quasi-suspension, and whose business sense is at best baffling. One of Schott's baseball associates sincerely wonders whether she might take her team to Northern Kentucky on the condition that she be allowed to smoke at her seat.

Three baseball sources told The Enquirer Wednesday that the National League is concerned by the Reds' lack of progress on the stadium front. National League President Len Coleman could not be reached for comment.

''They are hysterical about this stadium,'' said one source, characterizing National League executives. ''When they figure out what's happening, they may seize it (authority) from her.''

The time for dawdling is done. By making his deal now, Brown has secured a head start in the sale of luxury boxes and premium seating, and has positioned his team for construction priority. Because the Bengals are assured of a new stadium for the start of the 2000 season, Hamilton County will be hard-pressed to build a baseball park first and still meet Brown's deadline.

Perhaps the two ballparks could be built simultaneously, but that would likely eliminate Riverfront - Cinergy Field as a potential site, and thereby raise land acquisition costs by many millions of dollars.

Brown building leverage

Because of their long history and larger economic impact on downtown, the Reds probably deserve the first choice of stadium sites. But because of Mike Brown's maneuvering, they may be relegated to leftovers. Having settled the financial terms of his lease, Brown can now insist on the riverfront parcel immediately west of the Suspension Bridge - the same site the Reds covet.

If Brown doesn't get his way, he can always bolt. If the Reds don't get their way, they still have a lease through 2010.

There is a big danger in being left behind. When Cleveland built Jacobs Field for the Indians and Gund Arena for the Cavaliers, Browns owner Art Modell watched as his luxury box tenants at Cleveland Stadium began to desert him for fancier digs. He would later use this as an excuse for moving his team to Baltimore.

A similar choice could confront Marge Schott. If she doesn't cut a deal with the county pretty quickly, the Bengals will have already banged on the doors of all the corporate customers the Reds will want to woo.

The Cincinnati sports dollar only stretches so far, and Mike Brown has a pretty good grip on it. Marge Schott needs to come to grips with it, and soon.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Sept. 12, 1996.