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Why do fans build arenas?

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We're suckers when it comes to professional sports teams. In America, the mere mention of Lions/Tigers/Bears-oh-my! moving to our town is enough to send us into a swoon.

We love them one and all. We love having them around to admire. We love the prestige that comes with discussing them with the relatives in Akron. We love wearing the team shirts, shorts and goofy hats with wild designs.

We love saying we've been season-ticket holders since the beginning.

We love the entertainment, sure, but moreover, we love them being ours to have and to hold, 'til death or relocation do us part.

Wouldn't things be dull during May in Utah if we didn't have the Jazz to discuss? Sorry. Bad example. This year the Jazz barely made it into May before their season ended.

There are, however, drawbacks to having pro teams. For starters, they're expensive. Not just their ticket, concession, apparel or parking prices, either. I'm talking about their arenas.

That's because in most cases, the public pays for them.

In the April 2001 issue of The Regional Economist, writer Adam M. Zaretsky addresses the issue of building arenas and stadiums for pro teams. The general conclusion is that public financing of such facilities is risky business.

"When studying this issue, almost all economists and development specialists . . . conclude that the rate of return a city or metropolitan area receives for its investment is generally below that of alternative projects," he writes. "In addition, evidence suggests that cities and metro areas that have invested heavily in sports stadiums and arenas have, on average, experienced slower income growth than those that have not."

He also notes that in metro areas where a stadium was built or refurbished in the previous 10 years, only three showed significant real personal income growth.

Why, then, do we do this?

Because we don't want to be the only city on the block without its own team.

Sometimes cities or states end up lining the pockets of the owners. The article states that the Baltimore Orioles were purchased for $70 million in 1989, shortly after Maryland taxpayers agreed to finance Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The park opened in 1992. But a year later, the owner sold the team for $173 million, which netted a $103 million profit — virtually risk-free.

Which brings up another point: Why do cities pony up tax dollars to accommodate teams that may not even stay there? Most team owners are interested only in finding the best deal available. That's why the Vancouver Grizzlies are headed to Memphis. But in many cases, if the public finances the arena, high rent must be charged to keep the building profitable. Eventually the team owner complains that the rent is too high and either negotiates a better deal or moves to another city where incentives are better. That can leave a city with an arena but no team to play there.

While civic leaders speak of economic growth, the article notes that Chicago's pro sports industry accounted for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the city's 1995 personal income. Meanwhile, the argument that the athletes spend their money in the local economy is usually exaggerated, as most pro athletes leave the cities during the off-season.

In Utah, both the E Center and Franklin Covey Field were built with taxpayer assistance. However, minor league player salaries, staff and operating expenses are lower, and thus the teams usually have an easier time meeting rent.

Since World War II, the article states, approximately 140 sports facilities have been built or refurbished; only 14 did not use taxpayer dollars. One of those is the Delta Center, which Jazz owner Larry H. Miller built with a personal loan. Miller isn't a typical owner. He has said he doesn't believe taxpayers should finance an owner's personal business ventures

For those who complain that Miller is making big dollars off the Delta Center, consider this: Unlike most owners, he took all the risk.

As the Salt Lake area grows, more teams will consider moving here. There is currently talk of an Arena Football League team landing in Utah. But the E Center is too small and the Delta Center sight lines are wrong for football. The AFL could conceivably make an offer: If you build it, they will come.

But the next time a professional team owner dangles a carrot, based on the taxpayers financing a new building, just remember the money may well be coming out of your pocket. And going into his.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com