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Let's Put Some Ice on Stadium Fever

Sports: Pricey proposals for new parks in N.Y., San Diego and L.A. could bankrupt cities.

October 25, 1998|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times and a regular columnist

As far as this sports fan is concerned, the right two teams made it to the 1998 World Series. But I don't feel that way for quite the same reason as other baseball aficionados.

As a fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers, I have little affection for the San Diego Padres who, after the San Francisco Giants, are the Dodgers' biggest rivals. And, as far back as when the team played in Brooklyn, no real Dodger fan could bring himself to root for the New York Yankees.

No, I wanted a Padres-Yankees series because it would give a non-sportswriter like me a chance to write about all the political action taking place away from the diamond.

For--in a twist of fate that only a political consultant could love--the rich guys who own the Yankees and Padres are both waging campaigns to get taxpayers in their respective cities to build them new baseball stadiums. And while both teams' great seasons on the playing field will generate additional public support for those campaigns, that is still no reason that either deal should be approved.

The Padres' co-owners, John Moores and Larry Lucchino, claim that their team loses money playing in Qualcomm Stadium, which was built in San Diego's Mission Valley in 1967 and was only recently expanded--at a cost of $88 million--to meet the demands of the National Football League.

With the help of Mayor Susan Golding and some members of the City Council, the Padres' owners have qualified an initiative for the Nov. 3 ballot in San Diego. Proposition C is complex, but in effect would commit the public redevelopment agency that oversees urban renewal in downtown San Diego to pay 70% of the cost of building a 41,000-seat baseball park there. Estimated cost of the new stadium: $411 million.

But even that hefty price tag must look downright modest to New Yorkers. The ever-controversial Yankees' owner George Steinbrenner wants a new stadium for his team on Manhattan's West Side, at an estimated starting cost of $1 billion.

Baseball fans can dismiss such an incredible estimate as typical Yankee arrogance. But taxpayers as long-suffering as New York City's must consider it sheer insanity. I only visit New York a couple of times a year, but even a hick like me can think of ways that hard-pressed city could better spend a billion bucks than by blowing it on a baseball stadium.

But such craziness is what the big business of professional sports has come to. Any Angeleno who thinks we are immune to the madness would be well advised to pay attention this week when NFL owners make their latest attempt to extort money from Los Angeles in exchange for a new NFL franchise. The price tag for that bauble, and a new stadium to put it in, also will be about $1 billion.

Thankfully, most of the cash will come out of the pockets of prosperous businessmen like Michael Ovitz and Edward Roski. The pair head rival Los Angeles groups that have been asked to make formal presentations at an NFL owners meeting Tuesday in Kansas City. A third group, from Houston, will also make a presentation.

Ovitz, a former Hollywood agent and Disney executive, would build his new NFL team a 77,400-seat stadium in Carson, near the intersection of the San Diego and Harbor freeways. It would have California mission-style architecture and be called the Hacienda (this suggests that Ovitz's team will have a Spanish name like Toros or Pumas--Padres already being taken--but that's a topic for another day).

Roski's partnership already is building the new Staples Arena in downtown Los Angeles. He would put a new NFL team in the same Memorial Coliseum that the Rams fled in 1980 and that the Raiders abandoned four years ago. Roski would modernize--and presumably improve--the Coliseum with luxury boxes and other amenities for about $350 million, $40 million of it public money.

Carson, a city of 90,000 with a general fund of $40 million, has offered to contribute up to $180 million to support Ovitz's bid. That may not seem like much compared to $1 billion, but it would be only the start of the public costs a new NFL stadium will entail.

For instance, with an average of only 10 NFL games per year, the only way a Carson stadium can be profitable is by luring events away from older, publicly owned facilities like the Coliseum or the Rose Bowl. That means local taxpayers could be stuck paying for the maintenance of not one, but two white elephants.

And does anybody really believe that a major construction project in a former garbage dump--which Ovitz's 157-acre Carson site used to be--will not entail significant environmental clean-up costs? The money for that also will come out of the public treasury.

These stadium deals stink as bad as that old Carson landfill did. And anyone who disagrees should call New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He's got a bridge to Brooklyn that he needs to sell to help defray the cost of a new Yankee Stadium.

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