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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

Wednesday, May 1 1996

Page 4 of 7

Baade adds another point. "It's an edifice complex," he says. "The Egyptians built pyramids. We build stadiums, shopping malls, and casinos." And DeBartolo builds all three. He's the perfect exemplar of this syndrome.

Affordable-housing activist Calvin Welch has another metaphor, and a slightly different explanation, for the problem. For years, he's called it the "cargo cult mentality" of city officials. Whether it's a convention center or a sports stadium, it has to do with laying down offerings to the long dead, long gone economic gods -- false gods in the case of sports stadiums. Build it and they will come back, that's the thinking. Just like the South Pacific Melanesians who built wooden replicas of cargo planes hoping they would beckon back the real World War II aircraft with their C rations and Coke.

Or as Baade says: "It's like Pascal, who said, 'I believe in God because I can't afford not to.' It's the same way with city officials and stadiums. They have to believe stadiums have an economic impact, because they can't afford not to."

Zipp agrees, attributing the rush to build stadiums to a desperate reaching -- fervent, even -- at creating some sensation of progress. "The fiscal crises of the last two decades have made city officials more concerned with issues of economic development while seemingly less able than ever to impact their economic fates," he writes in the preamble to his study. "In this climate, city leaders increasingly have sought major development projects, ones that can create jobs and that they can use to portray a sense of urban revival. In virtually every major U.S. city, part of these developments have focused on trying to keep or acquire a professional sports team."

In the world of intangibles, this is the greatest one: How does a mayor, a city, catch a self-esteem buzz? The drug analogy isn't gratuitous. Like drugs, the buzz is a lie, a fleeting perception, but a powerful one. And like drug pushers, sports team owners like DeBartolo rely on it to make their money.

Check out Carmen Policy, president and chief smooth-talker for the 49ers, discussing the intangibles. He hits all the right notes, the perfect pitchman pushing all the right buttons to make a sale.

"We are part of the soul of the city," he says of the team, when asked to defend a public subsidy, even though economists say it isn't money-wise.

"Why is it a good investment for the city to have a world-class opera? Why is it important to have a great symphony? Why is it important to have a great main library? We have become part of the fabric of the community."

As he spins out of control, Policy equates the 49ers with nonprofit public institutions bent on public service. One wonders if he's willing to take the whole plunge and wed his team to municipal government. His confusion is forgivable, however. Once you take the public teat in your mouth, independence and identity can tend to get skewed.

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."

About The Author

George Cothran


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