CINCINNATI — Seven years ago, the owner of the Cincinnati Bengals told fans he needed a new stadium -- full of money-making luxury boxes -- to field a competitive football team.
They voted to hike the sales tax to finance a $458-million stadium of soaring steel on the Ohio River.
The Bengals are still the worst team in football.
And now county commissioner Todd Portune wants the taxpayers' money back.
In a lawsuit filed earlier this year, Portune alleges that the Bengals conspired to "shake down" the citizens of Hamilton County by demanding a new stadium in the mid-1990s, and then failing to deliver a winning team. He accuses Mike Brown of creating a "false crisis" by claiming that he didn't have enough money for quality players -- when, in fact, the National Football League's salary cap would have prevented him from boosting his payroll significantly, no matter how much cash was rolling in.
Paul Brown Stadium, which opened in 2000, did fatten team profits. But the Bengals went 2-14 last year. ESPN: The Magazine recently rated them the most pathetic sports franchise in the country. Even the team's own Web site calls them a "punch line."
The Bengals have performed so dismally that their vaunted stadium is half-empty on a good day. The crowds that county officials had expected to fill downtown restaurants, hotels and shops on game days never materialized. Without the anticipated boom in tourism, Hamilton County is finding it increasingly difficult to cover the $5-million-a-year bill to maintain the stadium. Portune is demanding that the team help out.
The Bengals have moved to dismiss the lawsuit, which Portune filed as a private citizen because the other two commissioners wouldn't join him. Spokesman Jack Brennan says the team won't comment on Portune's allegations.
But some sports law experts outside Cincinnati say the Bengals may be vulnerable to the claims of fraud.
"There was some deception going on," said Frank Zimbalist, a professor of sports economics at Smith College.
He points out that some of the teams with the highest revenues in the NFL -- such as the Washington Redskins, the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Jets -- have performed poorly in recent years. So, Zimbalist said, he's not sure owners can justify claims that a new stadium (and more money) will produce a winner.
Harvard law professor Paul Weiler goes further, calling public subsidies of sports stadiums "truly, truly evil" because the owners pocket most of the profits, leaving taxpayers with little economic benefit and often, not even a winning team. "It's totally a lie when anybody says a city or county is getting a good deal [from building a stadium]," said Weiler, who has written a book on the topic, "Leveling the Playing Field."
Cincinnati sports fans don't claim to understand the legal maneuvering. All they know is that they feel used.
"I would have given Mike Brown a one-way ticket to nowhere when he asked for that stadium," grumbled Wayne Rice, 80.
"With the state our schools are in, a lot of places could have benefited more from the money we spent on the Bengals," said Shauntel Dobbins, 32, a loan officer who stopped recently at a downtown sports bar. "The team should give the money back, because they didn't live up to their agreement."
At the next table, bricklayer Wayne Riggs, 38, echoed her indignation: "If they couldn't win a game with their old stadium, why did they need a new one?" he asked.
For all the muttering, some in Cincinnati admit to the slightest stir of excitement about the upcoming season.
The Bengals have a new head coach, Marvin Lewis, and 10 new assistants. The team works out in a new $250,000 weight room, following an all-new conditioning program. Spring workouts have drawn dozens of players.
And after running through 10 starting quarterbacks in 10 years, the Bengals used the first pick in the NFL draft Saturday to nab Carson Palmer, the star quarterback from USC. After signing a six-year, $40-million deal, Palmer said -- with apparent sincerity -- that it was an "honor" to "be part of the new Bengal era."Fans hope that new era will roll in soon.
"I'm very optimistic about this year," said Jenny Carroll, 44, an administrative manager who attends several Bengals games a year.
Carroll says she's glad the county built the Bengals a new stadium. Even if they never make the Super Bowl, she believes it's a point of civic pride to have a football franchise.
If pride fails, at least the team can unify the city in despair.
"Oh, heck," Carroll said, "I always have hope. They might win three games this year."