SHADOW OF A DOUBT

THE DEFECTION OF PHILIP ANSCHUTZ IS JUST THE LATEST RED FLAG IN THE PEPSI CENTER DEAL.

Bailing out the Target Center with public funds was unpopular with voters, and the team was soon dubbed the "Minnesota Timbertantrums" by talk-radio wags. But downtown business interests were convinced that losing the team would be a blow to the city, and they lobbied hard for a public takeover of the Target Center.

"People bought the argument that professional sports teams are economic generators," says Minneapolis city councilman Jim Niland, an opponent of the bailout. "They thought Minneapolis would become a cold Omaha without a basketball team."

Eventually, the city council approved a deal to buy the Target Center, issuing $72 million in taxpayer-backed bonds. The local business community raised $12.7 million toward the buyout, selling private bonds to several Minneapolis-based companies.

As part of the deal, businessman Glen Taylor, a prominent figure in Minnesota's Republican party, agreed to buy the Timberwolves for $88.5 million--in exchange for a break on his property taxes that could end up costing the city millions.

Niland was one of three councilmembers who opposed the buyout, and he still bristles over the use of public funds to pay for the Timberwolves' bungled new arena.

"Harv and Marv were using the blackmail tactic to stampede the city," he says. "They said, `We'll be able to do it ourselves.' Then they went over budget and had a marginal team. You have the interests of a few millionaire team owners dominating the agenda. It's a national trend; we can't afford anything for our cities, but we can bail out the wealthy."

To repay the bonds, Minneapolis will use revenues from a parking fund the city has periodically dipped into during lean years. Niland predicts that vital city services will be slashed to keep the lights on at the Target Center. "They're spending money that could pay for cops on the street and childhood immunizations," he says.

Minneapolis city council president Jackie Cherryhomes defends the buyout, saying the Target Center anchors part of the city's downtown. "It was important from an economic standpoint," she says. "There's a lot of jobs involved."

But the Target Center bailout also apparently set a frightening precedent. Recently, professional baseball's Minnesota Twins threatened to leave the city if they don't get a new ballpark. And even Cherryhomes believes the demand for new stadiums and arenas has gotten out of hand.

"There are 65 teams in the U.S. asking for new stadiums," she says. "The public is getting tired of it. We can't continue with this madness of cities trying to steal away each other's teams."

The days when ticket sales alone were enough to keep the owner of a professional sports franchise happy are long gone. In order to pay athletes million-dollar salaries and still maintain large profit margins, owners have become increasingly dependent on luxury boxes and club seating rented at premium prices to corporate clients. Most older arenas lack those amenities, and teams are telling cash-strapped cities they can either build them new venues or lose beloved franchises.

Since many cities want professional sports teams, owners can play cities off against each other. The result is a bidding war that's given North American sports teams remarkable access to public funds. To win an expansion National Football League team, the city of Jacksonville, Florida, issued $160 million in bonds to rebuild the Gator Bowl, guaranteed the sale of 1,500 club seats every season and even promised to buy the new team's office furniture.

St. Louis came up with an even more lucrative deal to lure the Los Angeles Rams from Southern California. The city spent $260 million to build a domed stadium before it even had a team, guaranteed the Rams a new $15 million practice facility, coughed up another $15 million to help the team relocate, and even retired $30 million in debt the Rams had accumulated in California. Since cities like these are willing to do virtually anything to attract sports teams, towns with well-established and profitable franchises--like Denver--feel vulnerable when a local team demands new facilities.

"I think blackmail is a word for it," says Ford Frick, a sports analyst with BBC Research and Consulting in Denver. "There's no question professional sports teams have figured out they have leverage over these communities. How any community could take the St. Louis football deal, I don't know. They handed things over lock, stock and barrel."

The fever for new sports venues also may be drawing cities into an unending cycle no one can really win. Since each new arena is technologically more advanced than the last, arenas only a decade old are regarded as outmoded--and a 21-year-old model like McNichols Arena is treated like an antique.

"As you build these new arenas, the team at the bottom goes to the city and says, `We can't compete, we need a new arena or we'll leave the city,'" says Arthur Johnson, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. "Then there's another team that suddenly finds itself on the low end of the totem pole and that makes the same argument. It's a self-perpetuating process."

The 1990s certainly will be remembered as the decade of the sports palace in Denver. The opening of Coors Field and the lucrative lease the Colorado Rockies negotiated at the ballpark prompted the Nuggets and the Denver Broncos to insist that McNichols Sports Arena and Mile High Stadium be replaced. The Nuggets continue to insinuate that they will leave Denver if they don't get a more upscale arena. And Comsat has a proud history of playing hardball with the city.

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