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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 6 of 7

Along the way, American sports are growing more and more elitist. New stadiums are quickly becoming less a place for working class heroes than playgrounds for CEOs.

Tom O'Donnell, chief executive of McDonald Company Securities in Cleveland, explained to the New York Times recently why his company signed a 10-year lease for boxes in the city's football and basketball arenas. "Ours is a relationship business," he said. "And a (luxury suite) is a great way to entertain our clients. Our company is now just minutes away from the downtown complex. I believe these luxury suites will eventually become the hottest tickets in town."

Personal seat licenses are particularly irksome to the beer-and-peanuts crowds. It's one thing to look up and envy the CEOs in their air-conditioned luxury suites with their personal concierge service, office equipment, meeting rooms, and full-course meals. But PSLs, as they are called, are cutting into the regular Joe zones, locking up seats in regular areas for those who can pay an arm and a leg for them.

Policy says PSLs will definitely be part of the new stadium at Candlestick. But in San Francisco, the PSLs will be for life. "They will be an asset to the fan, a marketable commodity they can sell or pass down to relatives," Policy says.

Likewise, all the other amenities -- luxury suites, stadium clubs, and fancy restaurants -- will be part of the new 49er arena and its financing scheme. And Policy makes no bones about the upscaling of American sports. "The dynamics of stadium economics dictates luxury features," he says.

But he rejects the notion that the pressure for more amenities comes only from the front office. "A lot of it has to do with the changing American public," Policy says. "Look at how people go to the movies now. Instead of a Coke and a dog they now have cappuccino and 12 screens to choose from, all attached to a theme restaurant and retail shops."

Policy is from Youngstown, Ohio, so he can be forgiven for believing that persnickety, rep-house San Francisco is anything like, well, Youngstown, birthplace of the American mall. But his comments beg the question: How prepared is he to sell a new stadium, and a public subsidy, to populist San Francisco? At least the Giants had the good sense to go classical, with a Camden Yards design that recalls the days of pin stripes and puffy pants.

But there's a more fundamental problem with the 49ers relying on CEOs to buy luxury seat leases, club memberships, and PSLs and finance their stadium. By the time the 49ers stadium is planned and gets the go-ahead -- assuming all goes well for DeBartolo over the next few months -- corporations and businesses may be tapped out. The Giants' financing scheme -- as well as that of the Raiders, A's, and Warriors in the East Bay -- is premised on the same scheme.

Ask Art Modell, the owner of the team formerly known as the Cleveland Browns. He will relate what happens when a team owner gets in line for corporate money behind other teams. One of the main reasons he was forced to leave Cleveland is he couldn't raise revenue from luxury suite leases. Downtown Cleveland had already given all it had to the Indians and the Cavaliers.

"Once your line in the cue is determined, it means everything," Baade says.

But such pressing questions -- just like the compelling research of economists -- will probably fall by the wayside. The 49ers don't really need cultural credibility. Nor do they need a realistic financing plan. Their ace in the hole is the Super Bowl.

To be sure, the team will hype the economic windfall of San Francisco hosting the Big Game as they argue for public money. And, they'll point out that the Super Bowl won't come unless the city builds a new stadium that meets NFL standards.

While economic benefit arguments mean squat during the regular season, Super Bowls do flood municipalities with hundreds of millions when the game visits. (The fact that they do so by drawing in people outside the area actually proves the skeptics' case for nil benefit in normal years.) At one time, Mayor Jordan had the NFL promising to hold the big game here in 1999 -- if the city upgraded Candlestick with $20 million to $30 million. When that became untenable under Mayor Brown, the NFL withdrew its vow and the new mayor was left with the goal of drawing the game in 2004. But there is no guarantee.

Which raises the question: Wouldn't it be worth it to spend $50 million to get more than $100 million in Super Bowl goodies? Sure sounds like a good deal. But consider this: San Francisco can only get the Super Bowl once every 28 years. Even assuming that we will get the bowl in 2004, which is quite an assumption, is it really worth it to spend $50 million for a one-time bang? And spread that $100 million to $200 million over 28 years, which is the real way to measure the economic impact of a Super Bowl. Whaddaya have? About $7 million to $8 million a year, and that's not figuring in the time value of money.

But again, what the Super Bowl truly represents has more to do with Eddie DeBartolo than it does with the city. The big game is a lure, an itchy tease DeBartolo is using to get his new cash cow stadium. And the stadium, above profit potential, above all else, is indeed a pyramid, as Baade says, a monument to one man's mission to define himself as a capitalist.

A new stadium and another Super Bowl would once and for all allow DeBartolo to step out of the shadow of his late father's mall empire. The struggle to build a new stadium is at one level a story of a young scion trying to free himself from the hold of a dead and obsolete dynasty and build a new dominion -- one more modern, one more him.

About The Author

George Cothran


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