Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Colleges that drop football should be cheered, not jeered

When the University of Alabama at Birmingham, also known as UAB, announced it was going to drop football, it was as if the Marines had decided to stop training for amphibious invasions or the Air Force was dropping fighter plane training.

There’s a dangerous notion afoot in the realm of higher education that goes something like this: “Real universities do football.” It’s been around since the turn of the last century and it brings up the heroics of Knute Rockne, George Gipp, former President Ronald Reagan in the movie on Rockne, the phrase “Win one for the Gipper,” the culture of football in states like Texas and Florida, and the belief that football can redeem young men from the scourges of drugs, drink, poverty and premarital sex.

A recent article in the Tampa Bay Times took readers to one of the worst parts of Florida, an economically deprived town of South Bay on the south edge of Lake Okeechobee, where high school football was the key – not to better education – but to escaping from the town to colleges where the educational expectations are minimal but the gridiron hopes are astronomical.

The message young men get is simple: Football pays. Learning doesn’t.

It’s easy for teenage boys to buy into this culture. Older men are out there pitching it every day and offering approval for those who worship at the altar of athletics. The one or two former players who actually make it into the National Football League are lionized as the examples of what can be achieved if one gets the breaks. And for good measure, there are those who reached the heights and fell back, tempted by the evils of the big city: drugs, booze, easy women, easy paychecks that vanish.

Or their body fails them. A turn the wrong way can turn an ankle into a mass of bone and gristle that never regains its former form. Knees break, brains get squished around and you see the result of the old joke of the baseball scout: “Want to sign for a bonus or a limp?”

I was of the most despised class of student at Florida Atlantic University in the early 1990s, the commuter student. Oddly, the professors and adjuncts didn’t imbibe the culture of denigrating the commuter student. There were many in the administration and the student body who viewed the older undergraduate as a kind of hit-and-run driver. We came to the college for venal purposes, just for our own selfish benefit, and left with education and a degree, but hadn’t really put our hearts into it.

One professor told me that the commuter students he knew made his work worthwhile. “You guys show up on time for class, turn in your assignments, sit in the front, participate and have life experience to bring to class,” a political science professor told me.

Sure, there were bright folks among the traditional-age students, but there were a lot of people who lived in the horrible dorms at FAU, joined every club and extra-curricular they could find and whined that they were bored.

“Where’s the football team?” students at FAU would sometimes ask, and they were stunned to learn that they had signed up for a Florida university that had committed the ultimate sacrilege: it did not have a football team.

Though FAU had a good complement of other sports in which it competed with other colleges, including baseball, basketball, soccer, tennis and more, the one that really counted was football. Some students left FAU, and an editorialist on the student newspaper declared that if you thought coming to the university was a mistake because they forgot to tell you about the lack of a football team, you probably were right.

One year, an April Fool’s Day issue of the University Press, the student newspaper I worked on, had a fake front page announcing that a football team was being started.

Florida Atlantic University was less like the University of Florida or Florida State University or Florida A&M, and more like the University of Central Florida or Florida International University or University of South Florida.

The student body was skewed older by people like me who were writing the checks for our tuition, living in our homes and ambitious to change our lives. We didn’t live on campus and didn’t have to cope with the dislocation of leaving our parents’ home because we had dealt with it years before.

Perhaps the traditional-age students of that time (the late 1980s, early 1990s) were frustrated by the lack of a unifying ideal like a football team. But even back then there were many colleges without football teams.

One thing that stands out is an AT&T commercial from the late 1980s that played to all the stereotypes of the young college freshman. The voiceover went like this: “AT&T understands the special relationship between fathers and daughters.” (It was a more innocent time. Today that has a mind-bending double meaning.)

It went along the lines of an 18-year-old girl heading off to college and dealing with the dislocation of being away for the first time. She repeatedly calls her father, often late at night, in tears over being lonely.

Then, one day, she attends a college football game and the team stages a stunning come-from-behind victory. She again calls her father late at night, in tears but in tears of joy, to announce, “Dad, we won! We won!”

The message is: college football is my new family structure.

Football and college have been associated, as I said, since the late 1800s.

Corruption in the college game has been endemic, and the movie “The Freshman” from 1925 and starring Harold Lloyd, was a comedy that, according to Wikipedia, told “the story of a college freshman trying to become popular by joining the school football team.”

One of the funniest quotes is an intertitle: “Tate University — A large football stadium, with a college attached.”

For many people, especially parents struggling to pay for their children’s college, the thought of having to pay to have their progeny attend what is basically a minor league football team with a college attached adds insult to injury.

UAB noted in its press release that it was giving up football because it was “financially unsustainable.”

Here’s the full quote, from The fiscal realities we face — both from an operating and a capital investment standpoint — are starker than ever and demand that we take decisive action for the greater good of the Athletic Department and UAB,” (President Ray L.) Watts said. “As we look at the evolving landscape of NCAA football, we see expenses only continuing to increase. When considering a model that best protects the financial future and prominence of the Athletic Department, football is simply not sustainable.”

Far from being the source of financial largesse, the football program was sucking the university dry in a financial sense. According to an article in The New York Times by Joe Nocera:

“Watts, it turns out, is a Birmingham native who played football in high school and who attended the university. He gets how important football is in Alabama. But in pulling together a five-year strategic plan for the school, he came to the obvious conclusion that it simply made no sense to continue fielding a football team. (The school is also eliminating its bowling and rifle teams.)

‘Our athletic budget is $30 million,’ he told me when we spoke. Of that amount, $20 million comes directly from the school — either through student fees or direct subsidies from the overall university budget. A consultant Watts hired concluded that it would cost an additional $49 million over the next five years to keep the football team competitive with the other schools in Conference USA.
‘We could not justify subsidizing football if it meant taking away from other priorities,’ he said. Then he added, ‘This is driven significantly by the changing landscape of intercollegiate athletics.’

Not surprisingly, students, players and boosters were horrified that an economic decision was being made to drop football, but why is that so surprising? Other colleges have made the decision to leave the gridiron and have gone on to great success in an academic sense. In fact, some have reinvested the money in intramural sports, allowing more students to actually play sports than watch sports.

Sure, there is dislocation. Scholarship players dreaming of an NFL deal can go elsewhere and retain eligibility, but students claim that the heart and soul of the college is being cut out.

That’s nonsense. UAB didn’t even have a football stadium. It’s true that a stadium is a sunk cost that makes it harder to cancel the game, but other uses can be found for a facility that’s maybe used 12 times a year at most for its intended purpose.

Florida Atlantic University finally did get its football team. In late 2001, the team, attenuated by about half because of academic eligibility issues, played its first game.

The need to use Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale and Dolphin Stadium in Miami limited attendance at first. The opening of a $70 million stadium, to be funded by private donors, student fees and naming rights, had to be delayed until 2011.

Florida Atlantic has won some games, but gets beaten badly by stronger opponents. When I was working for the Gainesville Sun, FAU was paid $750,000 to play the University of Florida in then-coach Will Muschamp’s coaching debut on Sept. 3, 2011. UF won easily, 41-3.

The battle over whether FAU should have a football team had gone on through the 1990s, and a rigged survey seemed to show that local businesses were in favor of it, so long as they didn’t have to pay for it through higher taxes.

The argument at the time was that the Boca Raton area was not a community, and having FAU football would make the area a community.

It’s a common argument when a sport that is not present in an area is trying to establish itself against strong opposition. “We’re not a community” is a catch-phrase that you hear a lot when someone wants the government to front them the money for a stadium.

I always thought that FAU was a special place with a focus on academics and developing people in the community who would go on to great things, and that sports would be in the background. Watching it succumb to the football culture hurt. This college, opened by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, was to be the kind of place where learning and scholarship ruled.

It would stand apart from UF and FSU, but now it longs to be in that august company with football teams that mostly are paid to lose. It’s sad. Very sad.

Many colleges have made the calculation UAB made and turned in their helmets and shoulder pads. Sure, you take a big hit up front, but in the end UAB will find its way.

It saddens me that FAU will probably struggle along. Maybe, with enough time and effort, the team will become a winner, but the opportunity cost will be incalculable.

UAB made the right choice. Let’s hope more follow.




December 17, 2014 Posted by | Education, The business of sports | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Penn State and other colleges must clean house after the Sandusky report

Job One: End Penn State’s football program.

Completely. Finis. Done. Gone.

Next: Make it clear to football team-universities that the era of multimillion-dollar coaches and million-dollar assistant coaches is over. Coaches are paid $250,000 a year plus health benefits and retirement. Assistants get $125,000 plus health benefits and a 401k. No exceptions.

Don’t like the deal? Leave the game. Go to the pros.

Athletic departments need to experience hard austerity, and I would recommend that universities start pricing boxes for the sports bureaucracies’ employees to take out their personal belongings. The days of wine and roses are over. Other university departments that offer a lot more have taken brutal cuts. Now it’s the turn of the sports departments.

These massive reductions are not mass punishment for Jerry Sandusky’s disgusting and sick crimes, but they have to happen. The public simply doesn’t want to spend the money on a college sports program that is little more than the equivalent of a man waving his tool in the air, shouting, “Mine is bigger than yours!”

In university administration, every single job from top to bottom must be evaluated and justified, and pay and benefit adjustments downward need to be made. Anyone who won’t work for the money must be escorted off the campus and advised to never return.

Every nickel must be squeezed until it howls. The party’s over for administrators and boards of trustees. Now comes the reality the 99 percent have had to live with. We don’t get paid six figures for honorary degrees and attending meetings once a month or less. We don’t get our asses kissed by others.

The focus must be on education, not winning in sports. Anyone who is against that, exit stage right.

July 13, 2012 Posted by | Education, The business of sports | , , , , , | Leave a comment

New York Times series tells why hockey is dying

Growing up in the 1970s, my dream was to be a defenseman for the New York Rangers. I also wanted to play second base for the Mets. I did neither.

A series of articles in The New York Times is detailing the sad history of a hockey “enforcer” who died recently. The story of Derek Boogaard is a cautionary tale, but it’s also a sign of the decline of the National Hockey League.

The article is a great piece of journalism. Then again, I am very, very biased in favor of New York Times stories.

In the 1970s, the main concern was that hockey had become too violent and too focused on fighting, and not enough on the skills that made a hockey player good. Stick-handling, checking, shooting and skating seemed even back then to have given way to the pugilistic skills on the ice. In the 2011 story, we learn that Boogaard was a pretty mediocre hockey player whose main job was to beat the bejesus out of the other teams’ enforcers, whose job was to fight, not score goals or defend on the breakaway or fire the puck at the goaltender.

Not much has changed in 40 years, it seems. I remember reading as a kid in the Reader’s Digest about parents who dragged their sons away from hockey games that turned into giant brawls on the ice, and there was a general manager who bragged that he wanted players who, when facing raw red meat, would jump on it like a wild animal.

Then as now, teams are celebrated for their prowess at fisticuffs, not the power play. It’s so sad.

I remember watching a Stanley Cup final with Walter, a neighbor of mine from Lake Worth, Fla., back when I lived in that area. Walter loved hockey, and enjoyed sitting with me to watch it. I loved to hear his stories of the Merchant Marines and Navy in World War II. We saw the Florida Panthers play one year, probably 1998 or so, and it seemed like anyone who touched the puck was slammed into the boards by members of the other team.

Hockey had devolved into a mess of flying bodies, and a recent film on HBO, “Broad Street Bullies,” celebrated the brawling of the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1970s and the hope they gave the city during tough economic times. Oh, yeah, the Flyers won the Stanley Cup, too.

The game of hockey was no longer about 3-on-2 breakaways and slap or snap shots and saves, but who could hit who the hardest. Sure, some contact is inevitable in a sport like hockey, but contact for the sake of contact turned the games into slugfests that were fun for some, but boring for those purists who wanted to see hockey.

The Times notes in its series that fighting is prohibited in hockey at the college and international levels. Other sports have heavy penalties for fighting on the field.

Some people say that fights are an essential part of the game, and it seems that people go to the games to see the fights. That’s a shame. Hockey can be a fast, exciting sport without being a bloody mess, I think. And teaching kids that the way to advance in the sport is to pummel another player senseless as well as toothless is horrifying.

As a kid, I remember reading “Play the Man” by Brad Park, a defenseman for the New York Rangers. Among the many scenes he described was one where another Rangers player got into a fight and ended up getting crowned on the head by his opponent’s stick. Park was horrified to reveal that he was told that the impact of the stick on the head had driven pieces of the player’s skull into his brain. The player eventually came back, first skating tentatively onto the ice.

Today, stories of players continuing after losing teeth and having their faces nearly demolished in fights are common, even in the age of helmets and facemasks being worn by all players, not just goaltenders.

The biggest fear seems to not be catching a puck in the puss but a fist to the face, and helmets – according to the Times story – are considered for wimps.

Putting an end to fighting and enforcers might disappoint those hoping for blood at a hockey game, but let’s hope the NHL comes to its senses and saves the sport of hockey for future generations.

December 7, 2011 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age, The business of sports | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Time for colleges to dump football?

With the big controversy over Jim Tressel and his performance at Ohio State University, and the behavior of his football players at the college, it’s time for colleges to consider what might be seen as unthinkable: Eliminating football.

There are plenty of other sports that can bring the name of a college forward. Granted, football is a marquee sport, like basketball, but when a team becomes a liability and starts to hurt a college’s reputation, something clearly has to be done.

In recent research, I found that the biggest reason colleges gave for eliminating football from their sports program was money. For example, Hofstra University on Long Island ended its Division II-A football program in the late 2000s for that reason. I’ve read of other colleges, also mostly in the low, non-scholarship divisions, that decided football was a non-starter.

It might seem I’m picking on football because I’m not suggesting that basketball be eliminated. There are plenty of dirty basketball programs, but the staggering size of the football program at many Division I colleges makes the other programs look like rounding errors on a balance sheet. The National Football League and the National Basketball Association both use the colleges as their “minor leagues,” though there is NFL-Europe and the NBA’s development league that are kind of minor leagues. Still, the major focus is on the college teams and they are the main pathways to the pros. The development leagues seem to be for injured and washed-up players whose best days – if they ever had best days – are behind them.

In baseball, players are signed out of college but often end up in a team’s farm system, not in the major leagues – unless the player has absolutely awesome talent.

Unless the NFL is ready to pony up cash to keep the colleges’ football programs going, I am sure that in the current economic climate, a lot of colleges are going to decide to end football.

I was somewhat present at the creation of Florida Atlantic University’s football program. Near the end of my time as a student there in the mid-1990s, there was much talk about the “need” for a program, and the old saw that “real colleges do football” was thrown around by the president of the college. I could point to plenty of “real” colleges that did not have football, but the president was insistent that football could do plenty for FAU.

The cost estimates were staggering, though, and naturally the local pro football team wasn’t about to pay more to help out. When FAU finally got a college football team, it was in Division III, with dreams of moving up, and in its first game, nearly half the team was ruled academically ineligible.

Anyone who criticized the college for deciding that it needed to be a “real” college and have a football team was deemed an obstructor of the holy goal. Then-president Anthony Catanese was determined to have a team, it was said, so he could then build a stadium and strong-arm donors in the luxury box as FAU played Notre Dame.

Well, right after FAU got the team, Catanese split for the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, and his departure was marred by the infamous red Corvette controversy, in which an assistant in the college’s foundation managed to purchase a Corvette for him through donations to the foundation. It’s a long, boring story.

In any case, FAU had a football team and the head of the search committee for the head coach, Howard Schnellenberger, managed to find himself to be the coach. The leader of one of the dirtiest football programs ever, at the University of Miami, became the head of the newest program.

FAU is close to having its stadium and has had the usual array of issues with its program, though nothing on the level of Ohio State.

But as noted in a recent article in The New York Times, colleges and universities are adept at gaming the system and cheating. A piece on Title IX noted that in an effort to inflate the number of women athletes, some women are counted two or three times if they are on one team, and men who practice with the women’s teams are counted as women even though they don’t play.

The lesson for all of us is that if there is a way to cheat, American college programs and athletic staffers will find a way to cheat, even if they don’t get away with it and are severely punished for doing so.

Years ago, I read about one college whose leader finally had had enough. The teams weren’t competitive with other colleges and the pressure to win was enormous, so the president ended sports and used the money to create intramural sports at the college: men’s and women’s softball, soccer, flag football, etc. The result was that participation in sports went up, the pressure to spend more and more to win was eliminated and the college saved a lot of money – and its reputation.

This should happen at public colleges, and even in the K-12 system. It will save taxpayer money and provide sports experiences to a wider variety of students. Private leagues could be started for those who wish to play more competitively in football and basketball, and the professional sports teams could be persuaded or forced to fund them as their minor leagues.

The current system is clearly not working and easily corrupted. That Tressel continued for so long in his lying, deceitful and corrupt ways is a clear sign that college sports is irretrievably broken. If the rules cease to matter, what’s the lesson for the rest of us?

June 5, 2011 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age, The business of sports | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sports turns word definitions upside down

It’s become a fashion of late to declare that anyone who’s not a total convert to your cause is committing the sin of apathy.

In recent Gainesville City Commission elections, most of the registered voters failed to turn out to elect the candidates, leading to letters in The Gainesville Sun condemning “apathetic” citizens for failing to vote. At the University of Florida, a regular lament is that “apathetic” students fail to vote for anyone in Student Government, or are focused too much on their education and not enough on political activism in the SG context.

And in sports, the “apathetic” fan (I’ll explain this odd construction later on) is the lowest form of life. How dare you not come out and support the local team with your presence, your cheers and – here’s the big one – your money? It’s pretty much made clear in such declarations that the empty seats are the reasons the players are not performing up to par, and not the other way around.

As a wordsmith and copy editor, I find oxymoronic constructions endlessly delightful and frustrating at the same time. One way to dismiss a person is to attribute to him or her in two words oppositional attitudes and motives. It’s sort of like calling someone a moderate conservative or moderate liberal, or saying a worker is both lazy and hard-working in the same sentence.

In sports, there is the fan. Short for “fanatic,” fan implies a level of interest in a team beyond just being aware that the team exists. Back in the day, you knew the starting lineup, the batting averages, and the earned run averages of the starting lineup and if you were really dedicated, the stats of the rarely used scrubs on the team.

When I was a teenager and a fan of MAD magazine, one of its features was called “You know you’re really a sports fan when …” and one of the classifications, to a line drawing of a man in bed with a book open while his wife slept, was that you memorized the names and numbers of your favorite football team’s punt return and kickoff squads. Another was that you were making $10,000 a year, and enraged that O.J. Simpson was only getting $25,000.

Let’s face it, there have always been “Fans” and “fans” of sports teams. Some people went to every game (back when season tickets could actually be bought by someone working for middle-class wages, and the seats actually had a decent view of the playing field) or attended as many as their finances and schedule could, supplementing their fandom with watching games on TV or listening on the radio.

Maybe they followed the team in the local newspaper or newspapers (easy to do even today in New York City; much harder in one-paper towns), or today followed bloggers or even started their own fan blog with their own news and views.

There are those who keep an interest mainly through following the games on TV or radio and in the news media. Maybe because of geography, they cannot attend games but feel closely connected to their team. I feel that I fit into this category because I still follow the New York Mets, but not as closely as I can, because of a host of other interests that take up my time. Generally, though, I know how they did in their recent games.

There are the “fair-weather” fans, whose interest ebbs and flows with the performance of the team. It’s a matter of pride for many people to say they are “real” fans, and not “fair-weather” fans of a team. With the Mets, for example, many people gave up on the team in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the team finished last or next-to-last in the National League’s Eastern Division, and Shea Stadium was sometimes dubbed “Grant’s Tomb.” (After chairman of the board M. Donald Grant, who was blamed for the team’s decline on the field.)

The Mets started to gain in the public eye again with the hiring of Davey Johnson and the ascension to the team from the farm system and through trades of a number of players who had real talent and ability. This began to manifest itself in on-field performance and even when the Mets’ performance did not live up to the fans’ hopes, the belief that the following season would be better kept people loyal.

The years 1985 and 1986 were probably the height of the Mets’ history, when on-field performance was just beyond what Mets fans had seen in years and the years of loyalty were repaid. In truth, who cares — when a team is winning — about fair-weather versus real fans? The former’s money is just as legal tender as the latter’s, right?

Of course, high expectations can lead to intense frustration, as we’ve seen with the Mets’ decline since 2006. The high hopes of the mid-2000s have not been repaid, and again we’re hearing talk about fan apathy. In their new sports palace, Citi Field, the Mets are struggling both on the field and in the owners’ box, as attendance at home games is down and there is little positive buzz.

And then there are the “fans.” This is mostly a theoretical construct of team owners, who simply declare that all residents of a team’s geographical area must be “fans” of the team, and that a lack of attendance and support is a sign of “fan apathy.”

Cool toward the Heat
A recent article in The New York Times about the Miami Heat’s troubles points out that there is another classification of fan, the fan who really is not a “true fan.” These are the folks who show up in the second quarter, the article noted, and leave to beat the traffic before the final buzzer. They stand around, swallow canapés and fine wines while LeBron James and his cohorts pass and shoot the “rock” on the hardwood, and are just at the game to be seen there.

From the story, in the Times from April 15, 2011:

Rick Torrente, a season-ticket holder since 2000, is stunned that some season-ticket holders in his section do not take their seats until halftime. “In general, and I’m sorry to say this and sad to say this: Miami fans are not true fans,” Torrente said. “I have never seen a team work so hard to get people to cheer.”

So it’s not enough anymore to have season tickets and just show up at the game, you have to show up on time, cheer the performance and stay until the end, or you’re not a “true fan.”

Apathy around the Rays
Few teams’ front offices have done more whining and complaining about the locals than the owners of the Tampa Bay Rays. For some odd reason, this is a team ownership that believes that it has an incontrovertible claim on the wallets of everyone in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, and that “fan apathy” is directly behind the team’s underperformance.

Like most teams, the Rays have had their ups and downs. The ownership’s complaints about the stadium, Tropicana Field, and the openly expressed wish to have a new stadium built at public expense (though the bonds for the Trop will still have to be paid for the next 20 years) plus threats to move elsewhere have cut into public support for the team.

Let’s face it, most people in the Rays’ surroundings have seen a significant drop in their economic prospects in the past few years, and have little patience with the notion of cash-starved governments spending money on sports when schools, libraries and other government functions are being cut back severely.

But as with the Heat, the problem of distracted people at the ballpark is an issue. I attended a game (the only pro sports game I have attended in the past few years) and got to go on the field as a reporter because a Bradenton Fire Department firefighter was tossing out the ceremonial first pitch. We sat way up in the left field stands and I saw tens of thousands of people at the game, but most were walking around in areas with no view of the field or in the many retail stores, and few were paying attention to the game.

But then again, the team placed all those distractions there to extract more money from the wallets of the fans who got into the stadium through their paid admission. So to complain that people aren’t paying attention is absurd.

And it’s nothing new. Many years ago, I went to a Yankees baseball game at the old Yankee Stadium with my friend from the neighborhood John Komendowski. (As an aside, hey John, if you read this, get in touch with me, OK? Just want to talk about old times and see how you’re doing.)

He and I drove up and found a place to park, bought tickets from a scalper and got seats along the first or third base line. I remember that it was the era of Billy Martin (don’t ask me which one) and we arrived for batting practice. Around the second inning, a group of yuppies showed up (so this had to be sometime in the 1980s) and made a lot of disruption. They had their dinners and their bottles of wine, and one of them spilled wine on John’s hockey jacket, to his dismay.

What was interesting was that when I went back to use the toilet, there was a bar where you could sit there and be plastered, and watch the game on TV, and there were lots of folks doing just that. Imagine that, going to the stadium, paying admission and then sitting at a bar and watching the game. You could have saved a lot of time and effort by just going to your neighborhood tavern and watching the game.

That bar didn’t just materialize in Yankee Stadium; it was placed there, so I can safely assume that it was approved. So when people start griping about the “fans” at a game being distracted, let’s remember who is distracting them and why (hint: it has to do with making money.)

In a nutshell, I think it’s just totally pointless to go on this long thing about true fans versus “not-true” fans. If sports teams don’t like being followed by certain people because their loyalty is questionable, then maybe people will find something better to do with their money.

Come to think of it, in many cases, people already have.

April 16, 2011 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age, The business of sports | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Extra innings in the stadium game

Unlike baseball, which ends when the third out is made in the ninth inning or the winning run scores, the stadium game never ends.

Is it any surprise that in the aftermath of the Boston Red Sox spring training affair, Sarasota city and county officials have decided that Baltimore Orioles spring training may not be so bad, after all. The word is in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

The current Ed Smith Stadium would either be refurbished or replaced at a cost of $40 million to $50 million. It’s not like we’re in a recession or anything, right?

As Roger Drouin notes in his H-T story:

Sarasota is vying against Vero Beach, Lee County and Fort Lauderdale, which are all pitching deals to the Orioles.
“The Orioles look forward to receiving a proposal from Sarasota,” said Orioles’ lawyer Alan Rifkin. “And we expect the process to continue.”

As I said before, stadium deals are like Bill Compton in “True Blood.” They never die, they just re-emerge from their coffins.

When it comes to sports teams and stadiums, politicians are sort of like children going through a well-stocked toy store three weeks before Christmas, and eager to get someone else to buy them all those lovely toys. Sometimes, politicians lose all sense of proportion and lose sight of the people they are serving. You can’t blame children for being children, but we have to hold politicians to a higher standard. “I want it” is just not justification enough for blowing taxpayer money on a little-used stadium.

While we’re on the topic, Fred Grimm over at the Miami Herald really hits the nail on the head in his latest column: Stadium plan won’t rev up the economy.

Grimm writes: “Economists don’t agree on much — except on the economic payoff from publicly financed sports stadiums. ‘We’ve got 30 years of consensus,’ [Brad] Humphreys told me Wednesday. ‘Those promised benefits almost never materialize.’ ”

But again, politicians refuse to see reality, Grimm writes:

One might think that 30 years of consensus and an ever-growing body of independent impact studies might give pause to public officials before investing several hundred million in a sports stadium.
Or that 30 years of economists saying “No!” might prompt our own elected officials to hesitate before they give that final “Yes!” to a deal financing a stadium and parking garage in Miami for the Florida Marlins.
Not likely. “Our argument just doesn’t win. We’ve been making this argument for years and the subsidies haven’t stopped,” Humphreys said.
Instead, public officials across the country have indulged in dogged disregard of overwhelming evidence and voted to donate public land and finance stadiums and cover construction costs over-runs with tax money and then hand over control of the building, concession profits, even the naming rights to some billionaire team owner.
Of course, sports operations enable public officials to rationalize signing away $400 million or $500 million or $600 million by offering up their own, privately financed, not very independent economic impact studies promising thousands of new jobs, giant dollops of new sales taxes and the magical regeneration of shabby neighborhoods. The one promise sports owners always keep: that elected officials will get access to luxury skyboxes where they can hobnob with the very, very rich.

And just for a final pitch, check out this story in The Palm Beach Post: FAU stadium plans short of cash after naming deal is dropped.

I have a blog post about FAU’s football program and its origins that I have yet to put up. The dream of a stadium was there from the beginning and it looks like it will not appear in the foreseeable future. A lot of projects, worthy and otherwise (and this one is in the latter category), have fallen out of the realm of possibility in the current financial crisis.

And here’s FAU’s student government chief, who has apparently downed some serious Kool-Aid if he’s saying this. His is the last word for now:

“I think the stadium is really, really important because it will increase the value of our diplomas in the long run,” said FAU Student Government President Abe Cohen, referring to how the stadium would raise the school’s profile, increasing its popularity and making admission more competitive. “More people will want to apply here.”

November 13, 2008 Posted by | The business of sports | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Third inning at the stadium game

Sports team owners today are adept at playing the stadium game with local elected officials, and know that it’s the threat of the “nuclear option” that can cause the leaders of even economically stressed communities to pay whatever it takes and build whatever has to be built to get a team to commit to come or commit to stay.

I sometimes get the feeling that team owners figure that Florida public officials are not that bright, and thus the owners can get away with more. Let’s be realistic here, spring training does bring in money and tourists, but only for a few months. True, some teams use the stadium complexes for player development and Class A teams from when the major league teams leave until September, and some complexes are used for amateur baseball, but many in Florida question the use of taxpayer money for funding the sports dreams of people who are worth millions or billions.

I have always said that the rustic character of spring training and less-inviting facilities have a purpose, which is to motivate players to do better and thus get a shot at the higher-level minor leagues and “The Show.” Yet teams seem intent on having super-luxurious facilities in Florida, especially when they can gull city and county commissioners into footing the bill.

There is also the advantage of renting the facility instead of owning it, as the Dodgers did in Vero Beach until the city of Vero Beach and Indian River County took it off their hands. The team that rents finds it is that it’s easier to pack up and leave if city officials refuse to play ball and approve even more subsidies — or another city comes along with a better deal.

That ability to make a rapid dash for greener pastures may leave local officials in a lurch, and also stuck with a giant white elephant of a stadium that has few uses, and none that can recoup even some sales tax revenue. True, local officials are at least savvy enough to ensure that teams will guarantee the bonds floated to buy or build a complex, but even if the locality is made whole, what then? The only option is to try to steal a team from another locality in Florida, and believe me that can be pretty costly.

That is what is happening now in Sarasota, Fla., where the Cincinnati Reds have announced that 2009 will be the last year of their spring training in the city, and they will go to Goodyear, Ariz., for 2010. It’s never a good idea to hurt the feelings of rich people, and the ownership of the Reds had to be feeling pretty down after voters rejected attempts to pick their pockets for a new facility for the Reds.

The Reds play at Ed Smith Stadium, near downtown. I went to a late spring training game there with my brother Robert, my first time there in the four years I have been in the area, and it is not that bad a place. I attended a number of Florida State League games at Holman Stadium in Vero Beach, and a couple of games at the Mets complex in Port St. Lucie, and I was expecting a real hole when I went to Ed Smith. I was surprised and got to see a good split-squad game against the Braves.

But the Reds wanted something new, and they wanted it mostly at taxpayer expense, and they had made noises that a city in Arizona was pretty much willing to do lots to get them to do spring training there. Since team owners only respect the voice of the people when the people say what they want to hear, the vote against a new taxpayer-funded facility for the Reds apparently showed that Sarasota’s people lacked the commitment to baseball.

Actually, what it showed was that the people of Sarasota had common sense. Baseball is not the only game in town in a city that prides itself on the arts. Sarasota is not St. Petersburg, but there is a vibrant arts community and people interested in paying to hear music, see pictures and attend street fairs. A team that could afford to blow millions on .220-hitting players could surely afford to refurbish the stadium they played spring training in.

It’s hardly a surprise that the Reds looked afield and found their new spring home in Goodyear, Ariz., though that city’s officials were not all thrilled at the one-sided deal with the Reds. The team will share the facility with another team, which means that someday they will want their own, and at government expense, no doubt. I’ll bet in five years, either the Reds or the other team will threaten to leave Goodyear unless they get their own facilities.

Experts on stadium deals say that teams always try to avoid referendums on packages of aid for a team because they know the people will never go for it. Sarasota voters have approved higher taxes for school and other desired services (though lately that sentiment has reversed somewhat), but I trust the people — and local elected officials should, too — that most of us can tell when a deal stinks.

In the next inning, the I-75 series: Fort Myers, Sarasota and the Boston Red Sox.

September 15, 2008 Posted by | The business of sports, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Playing the stadium game

Long and loud debates over sports stadiums have been raging in Florida of late. In Sarasota, where I work at the daily newspaper (until Sept. 20), the debate is over whether to go all the way on a new stadium for Boston Red Sox spring training since the Cincinnati Reds are leaving the current aged facility for Arizona.

In the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, the debate is over whether the Tampa Bay Rays need a new stadium and whether and how much the taxpayers should pay for it. The Rays play in “the Trop (aka Tropicana Field),” a domed stadium that was built to attract a major league team to the area (they almost nabbed the White Sox, and there was talk about the Giants), but one of the owners of the team caused a ruckus when he was quoted in The New York Times as saying that eventually the team wanted a new stadium, and sooner rather than later.

Let’s not even get into the Marlins-Miami battle. The team has been threatening to go elsewhere since nearly day one if it didn’t get a publicly funded facility. The Marlins play in Dolphin Stadium, a facility more suited to football, and it shows. Also, there are a lot of empty seats.

Before we get into anything, I want to tell a story from my childhood.

In the late 1960s, before the New York Mets got really good, the male relatives I knew would get very excited when the Dodgers or Giants came to town to play the Mets. Having been born in 1960, I was of course clueless as to why they cared, but noticed that Shea Stadium seemed to always be packed when those two teams came to town. I asked my father, and he told me that at one time the Dodgers and Giants had played in New York. This was news to me, simply because it was before my time. I just knew and loved the Mets. I had no team loyalty to the Dodgers and Giants, as did my relatives and father. Of course, as time went on they rooted for the Mets, and were happy — as I was — when the Mets won the World Series in 1969.

The thing is, team loyalties are not shifted that easily. I still root for the Mets and consider the Mets my team, not the Rays. When the Mets play the Marlins in Miami, there are often as many Mets fans in the stadium as Marlins fans. When the Rays play the Yankees or the Red Sox, the Trop is often full of fans of those teams. And recently, when the Rays started winning games, they started drawing larger crowds who supported the Rays. It makes you wonder: maybe the key to good attendance and fan support is not a super-duper-new (and publicly funded) stadium, but a team that plays good, exciting baseball and wins most of its home games. What a concept.

It may take several years, more than owners of teams like the Rays and Marlins are willing to wait, for the residents of an area to feel that they are fans of the local team. And in a situation like Florida’s, where so many people are from somewhere else in the country and bring their loyalties when they move to the state, owners may have to face the reality that those who do buy tickets are doing so to see the teams that have their first loyalty and not the home team. Of course, the children born after their parents’ arrival in Florida may develop loyalty toward the local team (barring indoctrination by parents or relatives) but it would still be many years before they have the wherewithal to buy tickets on their own. By that time, the team may be long gone.

Teams have threatened to leave. Even the Rays have made some noise about going elsewhere if they don’t get what they want. And, of course, as we saw with the Dodgers, Giants, Braves, Brewers and teams in other sports, a team will move if it can’t get a good deal from local elected officials, and if taxpayers insist that tax money should go to roads, schools, libraries, etc., and not a sports palace.

In Florida, team owners consider everyone living in the region a fan of the local team, and regularly lament the empty seats as a sign of “fan apathy,” and warn people living in the region that the team may leave if there is not more “fan support.” While there are those who are vocal supporters of the “keep the team at all costs” plan, others are adamant and vocal that if the area cannot support a team, the free market must prevail. With so much to do in Florida (aside from getting ready for hurricanes 1,500 miles away), sports often takes a back seat to other activities. And with the economic downturn and the high price of good seats, sometimes the best seat in the house is at home, in front of a TV set.

Instead of exploring why people don’t go to the games, the owners of the Marlins and Rays should look at why they do go. To see baseball, to see the teams to which they are still loyal and for entertainment. If the good seats cost less, and if people did not feel like the teams were trying to get something for nothing (perish the thought!), maybe they’d feel better about coming out to the stadium to watch the game.

Part of the frustration the public may have about these stadiums could be just that a group of rich people believes it is entitled to the time and money of those who have less. It just strikes a lot of people in the Tampa Bay area, including me, that it’s the height of arrogance to have a stadium — and one that is not that old — but then run it down, complain about it and make it sound like it’s dilapidated and falling apart, and then demand a new one.

That’s not how sports teams win friends, or fans.

September 10, 2008 Posted by | The business of sports | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment