Reds might bolt if they don't like stadium vote

Sunday, August 23, 1998

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The headline was straightforward and definitive: Voters To Pick Stadium Site. Democracy had triumphed. The Broadway Commons referendum would be placed on the ballot. The will of the people had prevailed over the machinations of the power brokers.

If only it were that simple.

Hamilton County's ceaseless stadium debate will not be resolved on Nov. 3. It will only be prolonged. The voters will influence the ultimate decision, but they cannot make it. They might paint the Cincinnati Reds into a corner, but they can't close all the windows.

What Jim Tarbell, Todd Portune and the other Broadway zealots blithely ignore is that the Reds have recourse.

They are not obliged to occupy a ballpark at any specific site, no matter what develops at the ballot box.

They retain legal options to challenge the referendum and - or its results.

They retain the right to do nothing at all, to allow their existing lease to expire, to wait until they can negotiate again from the position of power conveyed by a pistol being held against your head. They do not have to consent to be steamrolled by populist saloonkeepers and political opportunists.

The Broadway Bunch operates on the premise that the Reds will follow their funding wherever it leads; that major-league baseball would never permit its oldest professional team to skip town over a dispute about where to build a new tax-subsidized pleasure palace.

Perhaps they are right. Probably, the same local owners who are wary of allowing Jon Ledecky to buy a piece of the ballclub would submit to Broadway Commons before they would summon the moving vans. Still, I have yet to see any documents to that effect.

Lesson from Bengals

What I have seen is a professional football team extort a $407 million (so far) stadium on a sprawling piece of riverfront real estate by threatening to relocate. What I foresee is the Reds learning to use their leverage.

Major League Baseball owners, generally speaking, have been more reluctant to resort to sabre-rattling than their peers in the National Football League.

No big-league ballclub has moved beyond its regional boundaries since the Washington Senators became the Texas Rangers in 1972. Yet recognizing that its very stability was undercutting its bargaining power with local governments, particularly in Minnesota, baseball has lately loosened its restrictions on franchise relocation.

If the Reds' memorandum of understanding on a new riverfront ballpark should be invalidated in November, the club might seek release from its lease at Cinergy Field (plus damages) on the grounds that it has not been accorded treatment equal to the Bengals, as stipulated in the contract. The club might then open negotiations with other regional governments, with Charlotte, N.C., with Northern Virginia.

The Reds could run the same charade that has panicked cities from Baltimore to Seattle, counting on baseball tradition to overcome the tawdriness of blackmail.

But their best course would be to make the November vote a validation rather than a repudiation, to make their case eloquently enough to mow down Tarbell's grassroots campaign.

The Reds might argue that the stadium issue is not a question of choice, but survival. They might show that baseball's dizzying salary spiral makes it imperative that a small-market team maximize its revenues, and demonstrate decisively that there's more money to be made on the banks of the Ohio than on the rim of Over-The-Rhine.

They might even win this election if they could ever arrive at the right message, and support their points with proof. This is a lot to ask of any operation owned by Marge Schott, but it is the Reds' best chance at a swift stadium solution.

Ideally, the Reds new ballpark would supply economic stimulus to an entire neighborhood, filling shops and restaurants with free-spending foot-traffic. This utopian concept is at the core of the Broadway Commons argument.

Pragmatically, the Reds can ill-afford to share their stadium windfall too widely. This harsh reality is at the center of their stubborness.

The Baltimore Orioles opened the 1998 season with a $74 million payroll. By the time a new ballpark could be built in Cincinnati, George Steinbrenner or Time Warner or Fox will surely be spending close to $100 million per year on player salaries.

If the Reds are to compete for talent in that kind of environment, they must drain every possible dollar from their new ballpark. They will need revenue from parking, dining, drinking and souvenirs as well as from ticket sales. They will have to bombard the bleachers with advertising and ply the expense-account types with pricey appetizers. Not wise to share

No team is in business to share its stadium bounty with other businesses, and the Reds cannot stay in business in Cincinnati if they share too much. If this is greedy -- as some short-sighted cynics have suggested -- so is the guy who fails to find "spare change" for every panhandler he passes.

The Reds have been offered economic incentives to accept Broadway Commons, and have rejected them. Presumably, there is some higher price that might be persuasive, but the city hasn't reached it and would be hard-pressed to justify further payoffs to the Reds for the purpose of enhancing the property values of a relative few.

A new stadium is a wonderful opportunity for any landowner with a vacant lot, and you can't condemn anyone for attempting to unload property at an enormous profit. But this debate should go beyond who's bankrolling Jim Tarbell and what hidden agendas lurk behind the riverfront deal.

Ultimately, the stadium question is about purpose. Did the voters agree to tax themselves in order to provide a boost to the businesses of one narrow neighborhood, or to save profligate professional sports franchises from self-destruction? Is it possible to achieve both ends in a small market such as Cincinnati?

Whoever best answers those questions wins the election in November. Whether that person picks the stadium site remains to be seen.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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