Maryland’s presumptive status as “the Free State” was always a little mystifying until Art Modell and Jack Kent Cooke came along. Now that both rich stiffs will be chowing down gratis at the public trough, the Free State’s slogan has new resonance. Gov. Parris Glendening believes the population of Maryland is sufficiently football-starved to support two franchises, so he spent $300 million of Maryland’s money at the NFL before-Christmas sale: Buy one team, get the second half-price.
Hey, it’s great that Baltimoreans will be made whole again after the municipal rape perpetrated by Robert Irsay, but at what cost? There was something inherently wrong with the governor’s bargaining posture; if you walk into the negotiating room with your pants down, your willingness is manifest. Apart from being a tad undignifiedeven for a former professor of governmentit’s a tendentious tactic that generally doesn’t lead to an equitable outcome.
If someone has been, how shall we say, “doing without” for a while, any potential suitor is going to find an easy mark. Maryland apparently started hearing a mysterious voice whispering, “If you give it up, they will come.” Baltimore has been hard up ever since that dark snowy night in 1984 when the Colts slinked out the back door and made their way over to Indy without even a note on the pillow. The city reached out to new teams again and again, only to find it was being led on. Whenever the city made overtures to other NFL franchises, owners were able to cultivate compliance from their current sweethearts by threatening to take off for that slut from Baltimore. And when Baltimorewith its demonstrated history of fanatical NFL supportgot all dressed up for the Miss Expansion pageant, the younger women won out. Jacksonville’s and Charlotte’s sexier demographics turned the NFL’s head in no time, leaving Baltimore at the altar again, panties at its ankles.
So when Art Modell came along, Glendening negotiated with all the savvy of a desperate barfly. The governor of Maryland offered a rent-free $200-million stadium; all profits from parking, concessions, and stadium advertising; promotion rights to, and half the profits from, nonfootball events at the stadium; the right to exact up to $80 million from fans for Personal Seat Licenses; $30 million in tax-free profit from sky boxes and club seats; $1 million in improvements on Memorial Stadium, which would be the Browns’ temporary home; and $75 million for moving expenses. Whew. It is generally acknowleged by anyone who takes an interest in the economics of sports to be the sweetest, most fantastic, most ludicrous deal any professional sports team has ever been offered by an American city.
And now that the Maryland General Assembly is going into session, legislators and the people they represent are getting to see the check. By law, the costs of the Baltimore stadium have been financed by cash from four Maryland lottery sports games, which kick up $21 million a year. But Glendening checked the kitty and decided he was a little short, so he directed the lottery agency to find an extra $11 million in revenue to cover Modell’s tab. Stadium opponents rightly point out that those lottery receipts go into the state’s general fund, and finance minor-league stuff like education and health care. Still, the governor is pushing ahead, certain that Marylanders will be swept up in Browns fever once he gets the deal rigged.
There is virtually no upside for Baltimore and the state, other than the requisite civic chest-pounding about being “major league.” Modell negotiated a deal with Glendening that entitles him to most of the revenues from the stadium Maryland is generously building for him, as well as the property-tax receipts. His rent-free occupancy will rob the Maryland Stadium Authority of $6 million in rent from the Orioles for Camden Yards as well; a clause in their lease assures them of “parity” with any new Baltimore sports franchise.
For Modell, it could not conceivably get any sweeter. The state of Maryland is virtually guaranteeing him a profit for operating in Baltimore. Modell might need every bit of it, considering he managed to lose money in Cleveland with a franchise that never ranked lower than seventh in attendance, with the exception of 1982 and ’84. Without dredging through the particulars, it is sufficient to say that Modell is not a shrewd businessman. His $50-million debt comes from questionable business decisions, notas Modell has claimedfrom questionable support from Cleveland’s city fathers and mothers. And it doesn’t take a CPA to figure out that getting into bed with Baltimore was a no-lose proposition. The old Browns/new Coltslet’s just call them the Boltscan be mismanaged off the field, stink up the place on the field, and still be assured of endowing Modell’s children.
The deal-making wasn’t pretty to watch, even if most of the important stuff took place out of public view. The same cloak-and-dagger furtiveness that Marylanders railed against in 1984 when Irsay and the Colts stiffed Baltimore crept back when the tables turned in 1995. While Browns fans filled Cleveland Municipal Stadium throughout the season to cheer on his team, Art Modell clandestinely climbed aboard a jet on a BWI runway to conduct secret negotiations with Glendening. Cleveland Mayor Michael White was making plans to finance a renovation of Municipal Stadium in an effort to hang on to the Browns, but he was asked by the team to put the effort on hold so that it would not disrupt the football season. Modell quietly finished the Baltimore deal, smoked a cigarette, and went back to Cleveland with divorce papers in hand. This announcement came, of course, smack dab in the middle of the football season, sparking a six-game losing streak by the suddenly hapless Browns.
Maryland’s other beau is less costly, but no more edifying. Jack Kent Cooke has a history of finding witless bimbos incredibly sexy, so it’s no surprise that he came calling after Maryland gave it up for Modell. Cooke looked like the much more attractive date. He’s got better manners, and he’s willing to pay for the room; he promised to build his own $180-million stadium, but Glendening still felt the need to proffer $50 million for road and parking lot construction, and $23 million in infrastructure improvements to the Wilson Farm site in Prince George’s County. Cooke’s motivation is highthe Redskins reportedly lost $6 million last yearand the District, Alexandria, Va., and Laurel, Md., all looked the gift horse right in the mouth and told him to keep moving.
To his credit, P.G. County Executive Wayne Curry didn’t sleep with Cooke on the first datehe demanded what amounts to some flowers and a box of candy before submitting to Cooke’s desires. For Curry’s approbation, Cooke came up with $3 million for a recreation center, 2,000 season tickets for county residents, $1.5 million for scholarships, and guaranteed 30-percent minority participation in all contracts associated with the stadium. But those gifts left the county and the state without the most important concession of all: a promise to move the Redskins’ Virginia offices and practice facilities to Prince George’s. For $73 million, Maryland gets the Redskins a total of 10 Sundays a year. Since most players live near their practice facility, Virginia gets the income taxes from the Redskins’ $45-million payroll, as well as the taxes on the property that young Redskin millionaires purchase. Prince George’s County gets the game-day traffic.
Come to think of it, Mayor Marion Barry isn’t weeping over the Redskins’ flight for the Maryland suburbs. Maryland can strut around and claim that the ‘Skins are all theirs, but everybody knows that the Washington Redskins are the emotional property of the District. The city gets the best of all worlds: It gets the team, without the expensive and bothersome upkeep. It’s the perfect low-maintainence relationship.
The pillow talk suggesting that the Redskins’ stadium will be the centerpiece of an inside-the-Beltway revitalization plan is morning-after bullshit. Suburban stadiums are generally surrounded by vacant lots, not thriving businesses. “No one is going to build a restaurant or hotel near the new stadium for only 10 days of business a year,” reasons Maryland Delegate Joan Pitkin, (D-Bowie). True enough, the new stadium will be the destination point for thousands of fans, but they will generally drive to the stadium, tailgate in the parking lot, cheer (or boo) their team, and pile back in the car to go home. The only significant impact will be the amount of trash they leave behind. A study from the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Developmentwhich forecasts an annual benefit of $51.4 million in sales, and $5.56 million in tax receiptsoffers encouragement, until you find out that the study got its numbers from an Arthur Anderson report commissioned by the Redskins.
You’re not going to hear anybody without a burning self-interest shouting about the economic benefit of a football team or two for Maryland. The lack of hard data and the preponderance of gauzy assumptions gives stadium supporters the freedom to throw mighty impressive-sounding numbers around. If Glendening tells you that the Browns’ move to Maryland will have a $123-million annual impact on Maryland’s economy, ask yourself how much of that $123 million is actual growth, and how much is money that would have been spent elsewhere had there been no football. For a large city like Baltimore, with several other ways to spend entertainment dollars, at least 85 percent of that figure represents money already going into Charm City coffers. And no amount of number-cooking in the world is going to convince someone with an ounce of common sense that Landover’s remote trysts with the Redskins will yield substantial public benefits to the citizens of Maryland.
A hard look at St. Louis’ recent rapprochement with the NFL studs is instructive in the extreme. As Baltimore’s fellow football widowthe Cardinals migrated southwest to Phoenix in 1988St. Louis went to similarly ridiculous lengths to bring the game back. Like Baltimore, St. Louis approved expansive public funding for a stadium in hopes of attracting a team. Like Baltimore, St. Louis filled out an entry for the expansion sweepstakes, only to see the NFL knock on other cities’ doors. So a year ago, the city used the promise of free rent and millions of dollars in revenue from Personal Seat Licenses to induce a cranky old ownerGeorgia Frontiereto bring a crappy football teamthe Ramsto their jilted muncipality. (This is sounding more familiar all the time.) After they consummated with the Rams, St. Louis’ civic leaders heralded a gigantic windfall for the local economy.
But there’s a very good chance that these two cities will be waking up the next morning wondering, “What the hell was I thinking?” A June 1995 story in the St. Louis Riverfront Times examined just how big a hole was torn in the St. Louis economy after the defection of the Cardinals. The answer: “None, negligible, you couldn’t even notice it,” according to Mark Rosentraub, director of the Center for Urban Policy at Indiana University. Neither general tax revenues, gross sales, property-tax reciepts, nor alcoholic beverage sales suffered in St. Louis in the immediate post-Cardinals era. Before-and-after snapshots of Baltimore will doubtless reveal the same story. There was no economic pain from the loss of football, so for all intents and purposes, there will be no gain when it returns.
What we are left with is a case of local governments playing fantasy football with taxpayer money. The fantasy here is the expectation of anything in return. The teams will come, the fans will give it up, but the affiliation is a marriage of convenience. NFL owners don’t care a whit about fan support, they only get romantic when they hear about revenue streams from sky boxes and ticket licensing. It’s only a matter of time before Maryland’s sweethearts get restless again. Another, even more compliant suitor will come sashaying down the field to turn owners’ heads, and Maryland’s romance with NFL football will be over, leaving nothing but empty pockets, deserted stadiums, and broken hearts. CP