Wednesday, January 28, 1997
Good or bad, stadium deal
must be done

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The special session of city council was stopped before the first declarative sentence. Efforts to shed light on Cincinnati's excruciating stadium negotiations ended in dismaying darkness.

Hamilton County commissioners Bob Bedinghaus and Tom Neyer appeared in council chambers Tuesday afternoon just long enough to learn they weren't welcome. The special session called by Todd Portune and Jeanette Cissell to review stadium negotiations was immediately adjourned by a majority inclined to stay mute.

Football season is over, and political football season is upon us. It is not a pretty sight.

Three days before Mike Brown's latest intractable deadline, the prospects for a new Bengals stadium remain uncertain. Reason says the city and county will eventually resolve their differences because of their common interests in developing the riverfront and preserving pro football for their constituents.

Yet cynicism tells you the deal could still crumble because of brinkmanship negotiating, political bickering and the rampant mistrust among the three most interested parties. Council's reluctance to discuss the deal Tuesday may have been tactically wise, but it was also unsettling.

''I think that the deal is as close as it has ever been to being consummated,'' Portune said Tuesday afternoon. ''And, at the same time, to falling apart.''

The best alternative

Portune has not always been an advocate for this project. Like a lot of Cincinnatians, he has expressed concerns about the costs and the commitments made to the Bengals. Legitimate concerns.

But as push approaches shove this week, Portune is on board. Distasteful as some parts of the deal might be, he finds the alternative harder to swallow. Some of Portune's council colleagues believe public hearings on the stadium issue undermine the negotiating power of City Manager John Shirey. Portune says he is still not convinced there is a consensus on council to get a deal done.

''I know we're at a point in time,'' Portune said, ''where whether you think it's the best deal in the world or not - it's going to go forward or collapse.''

Did Bedinghaus make too many concessions to the Bengals? Almost certainly. When a politician campaigns for a stadium tax, and must then play landlord upon its passing, his conflict of interests is considerable. It's difficult to play hardball with an owner when you've spent months playing footsies with him.

But in Bedinghaus' defense, a bad deal is about as much as any local government can expect when bargaining with the National Football League. The popularity of the product and the artificial scarcity of franchises allows every team enormous leverage. Only the threat of anti-trust hearings restrains NFL owners from operating like OPEC.

The NFL's stadium strategy is a variation of musical chairs, in which one place to land is always left open. Right now, it is the Bengals' turn to exploit stadium construction in Cleveland to play on the fears of their fans and those fans' elected officials.

More for the few

So long as there are cities salivating for pro football, NFL leases will never be negotiated on a level playing field. So long as the NFL commands $2 billion a year in television rights, there will always be more demand for pro football than supply.

If NFL owners had any interest in expanding to Cleveland instead of moving an existing club there, it probably evaporated with the new television contracts. For the NFL to cut its $17.6 billion TV pie in 32 pieces instead of 30 would cost each team roughly $36 million in revenue over the next eight years.

If Cincinnati should lose pro football, it won't be back for a long while.

Ultimately, this is the choice the politicians must make. There are continuing concerns about control of the riverfront, but the basic issue behind all the blather is whether Cincinnati wants the Bengals badly enough to accept an imperfect deal.

If not, so be it. If so, let's get it done.