Hook, Line, & Stinker

Everyone loves the 49ers. But even love has its limits. Are taxpayers willing to subsidize millionaire owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr.'s dreams of a new stadium when economists say it's a bad deal

Phony though it is, Policy's parable will probably work on San Francisco's political elite. In fact, they've already begun to repeat it. "The team is very important to the mental health of the city," says Immendorf. "It's not a question of whether the city will contribute, it's a question of how and when."

From Immendorf, this message will spin outward to the other appendages of the establishment. Soon it will become a mantra in newspaper columns and daily conversation.

And that isn't necessarily a bad thing, Baade says. After watching city after city bullshit their residents with chatter of economic windfalls, he'd be relieved to see a city that argues in favor of public subsidies solely using the civic pride argument.

"Since [a public subsidy for teams] isn't worth discussing on an economic level, you have to analyze it on cultural grounds," Baade says. "Honesty dictates no less when you are using taxpayer dollars. Don't sell it as a cash cow, because it's only a cash cow for players and team owners."

Unfortunately, knowing our civic lights, they will spew an amalgam of civic self-esteem and voodoo economics. But don't be too hard on our zombie pols. They really have very little choice in the matter. Self-interest and cynicism are really only two reasons why mayors and commissioners -- and the activists who barnacle themselves to their hulls -- can be expected to spin the 49er line and support subsidizing the stadium. There's an additional, and more insidious, reason: It has to do with blackmail, greed, economic collusion, and the economy of the National Football League.

Currently there are 28 teams in the NFL. Compare that to the several hundred cities who are ready and able to pay big bucks to lure an existing team with promises of stadium heaven, and the result is a classic supply-and-demand imbalance -- which turns the elemental lucre of NFL owners like DeBartolo.

Into this economic dynamic step club owners with their desires for new stadiums -- and a damn effective shakedown routine. Owners go to mayors and say something like this: "Give me a ton of money for a new stadium or I'll pack up and leave. There are several other cities who want me and are willing to pay to get me." Usually, it works.

Baade and his fellow skeptics are blunt as spoons about the whys and wherefores of this power imbalance. "It's a cartel economy," Baade says of the NFL. "Leagues are cartels who further their own economic interests by limiting supply, and they only expand when the political pressure mounts from the public."

Adds Stanford's Noll: "This is the whole reason cities get in these bidding wars. Leagues create this situation by making sure there are far more cities than teams."

Policy insists that the 49ers aren't threatening to leave. "I heard on the radio the other day someone saying we were threatening to leave," he says. "That's not true. I haven't done a very good job of getting our message out."

But Policy says the team can't stay in Candlestick. "We don't think Candlestick in 2007 [one year after the 49er lease expires] is possible," Policy says. "I think the mayor agrees with that." But from there, he refuses to predict the future.

What the city has on its hands then is a subtle, PR-smart threat. Former Giants owner Bob Lurie, who threatened to move his team if he didn't get a new stadium, taught DeBartolo that blatant blackmail doesn't work. But for all his bombast and arrogance, at least Lurie was on the level. What team owners do now, whether it's the Giants' new owners or DeBartolo, is deliver a coded message to city officials -- we can't play in Candlestick -- allow them to draw the obvious conclusion, and then filter the message to the public in small, savvy doses. Whether the 49ers are bluffing or not, the threat of them leaving is definitely hanging in the air.

Pressed on the economists' critiques, Policy interrupts to lay it on the line. "We could take forever and deal with what this or that economist says or with what this or that study says," he begins. "But it won't do anyone any good to get too philosophical. The real question is what are communities without football teams willing to do to get them."

Then Policy deftly shifts the argument away from actual economic benefits to the city and back to the supply-and-demand equation that serves teams so well.

"There is no better way for coming up with what something is worth than to look at the market value out there on the free market. Teams who have not come within sniffing distance of a Super Bowl are being offered a couple of million dollars in concessions to locate somewhere."

Notice how he's turned the discussion from what is best for the city to what is best for him, his boss, and the corporation he works for. Part of city's soul, eh?

San Francisco isn't alone in bartering over stadiums. As any ESPN viewer knows, America is spiking with stadium fever. Everyone is cutting deals for new sports cathedrals. Two years ago, San Jose built its stadium to lure the San Jose Sharks. What's more, the city failed to make even the most modest attempts at recapturing revenue from the stadium. New York is agog: Both the Mets and the Yankees are angling for new stadiums. And in Houston the city is juggling three separate stadium demands -- from the Astros, the National Basketball Association Rockets, and a third for some football team to be named later. The situation in Houston has gotten so comic and severe that SF Weekly's sister paper, the Houston Press, has launched a column called "Stadia Watch" just to track all the developments. At the same time, teams are bolting from cities and heading for better deals elsewhere. The Oilers fled Houston after the mayor failed to pony up for a new downtown stadium -- this after the city had poured $200 million in renovations into the football team's arena. Cleveland gave the Indians and the NBA's Cavaliers the $425 million Gateway sports complex two years ago but still failed to keep the Browns in town, losing them to Baltimore. And here at home, not only are the Giants building a new Camden Yards-like stadium at China Basin, but both the Raiders, who fled L.A. back to Oakland, and the Warriors are getting total makeovers at both the Coliseum and the indoor arena next door. By no means is this an exhaustive list; it's not even close. Everywhere fans turn, they're either getting new stadiums or getting screwed and losing teams.

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