Pay up or they'll take their ball and go home

SPORT IN ANOTHER COUNTRY: In the US, team owners are holding cities to ransom, says Rupert Cornwell
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The Independent Online
Imagine David Dein, Peter Hill-Wood (or whoever runs Arsenal these days) dropping unsubtle hints that unless a good deal of local taxpayers' money was forthcoming to build a new Highbury, the club would move lock, stock and barrel to some other more obliging borough or city. Or West Ham demanding taxpayers' help for a move from its humble surrounds to somewhere a bit more central - say an underused corner of Kensington or Westminster with development potential. Impossible, you will say, and you would be right. But in America, this sort of thing is happening every month.

The two biggest growth areas in the US construction industry these days are sports stadiums and prisons. Let sociologists determine whether this signifies the terminal decadence of America; the fact is that all four US major league sports - baseball, football, basketball and ice hockey - are affected, and none so much as the national pastime. Of the 28 major league clubs, no less than 18 have within the past five years either moved to a spanking new stadium, announced firm plans to do so or threatened to do so. Scoff not at this last category. The owners of American sports franchises invariably get their way, for a simple reason. Theirs is the father and mother of a sellers' market.

The four sports operate self- regulating oligopolies. The number of teams has been allowed to grow more slowly than the money a richer society is ready to spend on entertainment. Too much money, in other words, chasing too few goods. From cities desperate to gain or hang on to major league teams, the owners can demand sweetheart deals to make a mafioso blush. For fans, however, the blessing is mixed. State-of-the-art amenities are wonderful, higher ticket prices less so. Worst of all is the knowledge that if someone else pays more, your beloved team may simply vanish.

In the case of baseball, the make-over began with new "old-look" baseball stadia that opened for business in Baltimore, Cleveland and Dallas-Fort Worth between 1992 and 1994 - all of them huge critical successes. No matter that the Atlanta Braves' present home of Fulton County Stadium is less than 30 years old, and good for at least another 30. Next year it will be pulled down as the Braves move to the new Olympic Stadium across the street. Now voters in Seattle, Detroit and Milwaukee, among others cities, have approved new local taxes to help finance similar arenas for themselves.

Owners in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Houston want to replace ugly multi-purpose arenas from the 1960s and 1970s, now used for football as well, with baseball-only stadia. San Francisco plans a new ballpark and so, saddest of all for baseball nostalgics, does Boston. Fenway Park, synonymous with those eternal bridesmaids of baseball the Boston Red Sox and arguably the most picturesque stadium of all, lacks space for lucrative corporate boxes. So, before the millennium, down it will come, too.

Nowhere, though, do the antics match those of George Steinbrenner, owner and impresario of the New York Yankees. No matter that the Yankees, the most famous and history-laden franchise in the land, virtually are the Bronx. Mr Steinbrenner finds the area distinctly unsalubrious. Never mind the traffic problems; he wants to move the team to a new stadium in lower Manhattan. If the Big Apple does not come through with the financing, mutters Mr Steinbrenner, he will move the team to New Jersey.

Nothing so much as the $1bn Manhattan Project of Mr Steinbrenner reveals the clout of sports owners. Indisputably, in some cases, a new stadium - average cost $200m to $250m - can revitalise a moribund city. The prime example is Cleveland, which actually built two, one for the baseball Indians, the other for the basketball Cavaliers, and in the process endowed itself with a new self-belief. Detroit, arguably the direst specimen of inner- city decay in the Northern Hemisphere, hopes for a an even greater miracle from rehousing the baseball Tigers and the football Lions in adjacent stadia on the very edge of its ravaged downtown.

But the Steinbrenner gambit, driven by vanity, has no such logic. Nor did the move of the Cleveland Browns football team to Baltimore, driven purely by greed. Baltimore offered a new stadium bursting with skyboxes and corporate suites. Art Modell, owner of the Browns, and whose lease at Cleveland's decrepit Municipal Stadium was about to run out, had no hesitation. Poetic justice for Baltimoreans, who have never forgotten how their beloved Colts football team decamped to Indianapolis back in 1984. But who's going to bribe a team to come to Cleveland?