Monday, April 25, 2005

Rooting Against Both Teams

My editor cut my opening line--it even got a laugh from Beth--so I'm sticking it back in. I was pretty proud of it, too. However, I owe my editor gratitude because I'm apparently incapable of spelling "Bidwill" correctly. Newspaper version is available here.

We just returned from a weekend in St. Louis, where my brother-in-law received a distinguished alumnus award from the Washington University School of Law and we not only had Seder with the Schermer family in their native time zone, but we also learned that Ted Drewes' frozen custard is certified kosher.

East Valley Tribune, Apr. 24, 2005

Instead of writing about the Pope, I’ll rant about the Cardinals.

The National Football League is America’s finest example of socialism. Teams share most revenues equally, blunting the economic impact of success or failure. Draft order and scheduling favor weaker teams, to help unsuccessful franchises over their failures. League rules restrict franchise sales, and teams (except the grandfathered Green Bay Packers) must be owned by individuals -- rules that restrict competition and entrench existing ownership.

But where the NFL’s socialistic bent really shines is in public subsidies. These rich guys have gotten taxpayers to provide their stadiums, which sheds costs and makes these private businesses even more valuable. Studies have long shown that stadiums don’t spur new economic development, they just redistribute existing entertainment dollars. Economic studies, however, don’t provide legislators with seats in luxury boxes at prime sporting events, so even conservatives support this form of income redistribution.

As part of the political wheeling and dealing to get the Cardinals their sweetheart deal, the Fiesta Bowl agreed to support the stadium. But the Fiesta Bowl is strictly a junior partner, and the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority, which keeps confusing the public interest with the Bidwill family’s finances, gave the Cardinals control of 55 of the stadium’s 86 luxury suites at each Fiesta Bowl game. The Fiesta Bowl is learning that hopping into bed with the Bidwills does not lead to morning-after respect. Not that the college bowl barons are morally superior to NFL owners. The college football-industrial complex takes the same public stadium subsidies, and enjoys tax-exempt status, and avoids paying the players by calling them “amateurs.”

The Fiesta Bowl now has cause to regret their dalliance because they want to host the first one-game playoff of the top two college football teams following the bowl games in January, 2007. This playoff idea “solves” future disputes over who plays for the national championship by shifting the debate from before the bowls to after. Its real purpose is generating more money, and fighting over money is the real contest here. Who gets the local cut from this new mega-game, the Fiesta Bowl or the Bidwills?

The Cardinals and their ASTA lackeys argue that the Cardinals got control of everything -- suites, marketing, and concessions -- at the stadium except the 23 suites at the Fiesta Bowl. Any new event usually would be included within “everything.” The Fiesta Bowl argues that a brand-new post-bowl playoff game wasn’t contemplated when the ASTA gave away the store to the Bidwills. Unfortunately, once you cut a deal, you normally can’t renegotiate if it’s worth more than you originally thought.

Well, there’s one thing a well-connected group like the Fiesta Bowl can do when stuck with a weak legal argument: Have the law changed. Last week, the Legislature (with only one dissenting vote!) passed a bill to reserve this new college game for the Fiesta Bowl. Legally, the Cardinals are getting hosed -- and they deserve it. Supporters of this legislative legerdemain argue that Arizona’s chances of landing the big game are better with the Fiesta Bowl running it. That’s true, but only marginally, because TV is really in charge; the host committee is basically courtesy drivers and party organizers. Still, given the Bidwills’ track record, the less they’re involved, the better. Supporters also claim that taking from the Cardinals to give to the Fiesta Bowl also upholds voters’ intent that the stadium be a “multipurpose facility” providing “public benefits,” and not just a boon to the Bidwills. But this argument confuses spin with reality.

Any talk about the public interest in the stadium deal was just sweet talk for the voters. The actual statute and the ASTA were under no such instructions; the stadium truly was a $331 million gift to one family. So it’s hard to pretend outrage at the Legislature eliminating some goodies that the Bidwills shouldn’t have gotten anyway.

I’d rather the politicians would give that money back to the public and not to the college bowl barons, but if that’s the only way to make sure that mediocrity isn’t rewarded with even more money, it’ll have to do.

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