How Strong Is the Compact Between Cities and Teams?
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Here in the nation's capital, some officials are reconsidering the city's agreement to pay for a new stadium for the baseball team, the Washington Nationals. It's a familiar problem to commentator Frank Deford.
The question of what a sports franchise owes its city and vice versa is forever debatable. Usually now it revolves around the matter of the stadium or arena. Spectators used to go to games, fairly content just to, well, spectate. But as ticket prices have risen, as going to a game has become more like an event than a drop-in, fans demand ever more comfortable surroundings. Hey, you want to see a game? You can turn on a TV. Paying big money to go out and attend a game demands a full sensory reward. Likewise, teams themselves are no longer satisfied with mere capacity. They require significant numbers of luxury boxes, insulating the aristocracy at high prices.
Sports are thought of as the people's entertainment, but stadiums and arenas have become more about class. Ironically nowadays opera houses are more democratic venues. Ever since the construction of Camden Yards in Baltimore in 1992, the single-most significant athletic edifice ever built in this country, baseball fans have become even more discerning. As a consequence, whereas patrons in all sports now expect rather plush accommodations, baseball fans demand the correct ambience as well, everything but candlelight, flowers and a quiet little table in the corner.
In places like the two major-league ballparks in Florida, where the stadiums do not approach these standards, people simply will not take themselves out to the ball game. Now the Marlins of Miami have declared that they will be departing for greener pastures as soon as their lease is up at their cheerless converted football stadium, and basically greener pastures is wherever they will build you a proper abode. Miami, you see, won't kick in the rays of sunshine facsimile of Camden Yards, and here, of course, always is the crux. Is any metropolis obligated to help build a sumptuous home for a team that is privately owned?
Opponents of public funding for such private assistance invariably cite the likes of poverty, education and health as more pressing concerns, which, of course, they are. But if every municipality only worked its way down the genuine social priorities, we would never have funding for zoos, parks, plazas, symphony halls, let alone stadiums. Ultimately, each community must decide. Miami obviously concludes that it does quite well enough in the tourist business, thank you, without need of a new baseball park. But generally the less glamorous metropolises feel the need to pay up to be certified as a big league town, and whatever any commercial payback, sports palaces do reward us emotionally. They are, at the end of the day, about fostering community, and God knows we need that.
And so we get to the current truly painful question: Do the NFL Saints and the NBA Hornets have to return to New Orleans whenever the Superdome is restored? Do they owe New Orleans that? How strong is any compact between franchise and city?
INSKEEP: We have a long-running compact with Frank Deford, senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated. The agreement is that he joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.
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