Leave it to Mike Brown to find the woe in a windfall. The president, general manager and chief worrywart of the Cincinnati Bengals never met a gift horse he wouldn't send out for dental work.
We refer here to the National Football League's latest bonanza, the new round of television contracts which will bring the league at least $17.6 billion over the next eight years. This works out to a little more than $586 million per franchise.
''I do have a concern that by driving such a hard bargain, somewhere out in the future our (broadcast) partners may be less inclined to help us when we need them,'' Brown said Wednesday afternoon at Spinney Field. ''There's too much money in our business for our own good.''
Brown's charm is that he can convince himself the sky is falling, even when it's raining dollars. Lately, it's been a torrential rain.
Though his team experienced another losing season in 1997, Brown's net gains were extraordinary. He negotiated a sweetheart stadium deal with Hamilton County, overturned a $40 million estate tax bill from the Internal Revenue Service, and saw the value of his stock in Cincinnati Financial Corporation grow by 117 percent. (Brown owned 60,116 shares according to the company's most recent proxy statement. Market value: $7,942,826.50.)
Yet the man still drives a Chevy Lumina when his resources say Rolls Royce. He wonders if the NFL might be better off, too, by living beneath its means.
A vicious cycle
He believes soaring rights fees have contributed to an inflationary spiral that is not conducive to his game's long-term growth. As revenues have risen, so have player costs, and so has the tendency of teams to extort profits from taxpayers.
Brown has played the leverage game brilliantly in Cincinnati, but there is a part of him that finds the process distasteful and dangerous. Much as he has been enriched by the economics of modern sports, Brown often expresses a yearning for the pro football he knew before free agency and luxury boxes.
The man who would build a stadium for George Jetson would much prefer Mr. Peabody's Wayback Machine.
While some parties view the stadium project as a monument to Brown's ego and power, he has always painted it as an economic necessity. He has described it, consistently, as the only means by which he could keep the family business in Cincinnati and in his family's control under the NFL's existing structure.
Still hard to compete
Brown's darkest projections are no longer plausible in light of the new TV contracts. With the networks contributing an average of $73 million per team per season, the Bengals could probably be profitable if they played in a parking lot. Those who would torpedo the stadium sales tax might see the TV deal as fresh ammunition.
The trouble is that it is not simply a question of profitability. The network money might protect the Bengals' bottom line, but it will not enable them to contend for the top so long as other teams can generate many more millions in local revenue. Neither does it provide them an incentive to stay when there might be more lucrative places to go.
Despite the hardball tactics of John Shirey, the Bengals may well be in position to bolt if the city does not turn over the land it had promised by Brown's deadline at the end of the month. A new stadium rises on the banks of Lake Erie, and the NFL is committed to restoring a franchise to Cleveland for the 1999 season.
Because they are reluctant to slice their television pie into any more pieces, the owners would prefer to move an existing team to Cleveland rather than create an expansion team. Some owners see the Bengals as the simplest solution and the best fit.
Mike Brown is not one of them. He says he wants to make it work in Cincinnati, and he has held that line too long to be doubted. He tends to be a little gloomy, but he is consistently sincere.