SBJ/November 30 - December 6, 1998/No Topic Name

Hartford contract steps up pressure for deals

Hartford may soon become a rallying cry in states across the country for proponents of subsidizing stadium development.

The parameters of stadium debates may have been forever changed when Connecticut Gov. John Rowland guaranteed New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft not only a $350 million stadium but up to $17 million a year in luxury suite and club seat sales to relocate his football team to Hartford from Foxboro, Mass.

From New York to Minnesota to Pennsylvania, the bar may have been raised on how much governments will be expected to kick in for new sports facilities.

In fact, some state legislators in Pennsylvania switched their votes last week to yes on a major stadium funding package because of the Patriots deal, said Carole Maravick, communications director for the Republican Senate majority. At the very least, Hartford influenced the debate.

"On the floor today, several senators mentioned the Patriots situation," said Erik Arneson, an aide to Sen. David J. Brightbill. "Their point was Hartford just spent $350 million for an NFL team, and we are looking at $350 million for four teams."

In New York, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who favors public funding for new stadiums for baseball's Yankees and Mets, pounced on Hartford as an endorsement of his strategy. "Take a look at what happened in Boston," Giuliani said on a radio call-in show the day after the Hartford announcement. "That could happen here. Not only could it happen here, it has happened here."

But public works experts said it would be wrong to treat Hartford as anything more than a unique situation. Hartford is a small media market that wanted an NFL team, so it should have no bearing on other cases, they argued.

"If the people of Connecticut want a big, classy stadium, more power to them — have fun," said Amy Allen Schwartz, a professor at the Wagner School at New York University. "But that doesn't mean New York should."

In fact, some saw Hartford as such an egregious case of corporate welfare that it could be the straw that breaks the camel's back and sparks a revolt against public funding of sports facilities.

And in Harrisburg, Pa., while Hartford was a rallying cry for the "yes" vote, so was "Steinbrenner" for the "no" vote. News that Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner might sell his team for around $600 million, 60 times what he paid for it, caused some state legislators to rethink their support of stadium funding, said Tony Russ, aide to Rep. Andrew Carn, who opposed the sports funding package.

If team owners can become so wealthy, Russ said, do they really need public support?

In the end, some experts said, there is no single approach to stadium deals, so Hartford should have little more than psychological impact on sports funding debates.

For example, after the San Francisco Giants agreed last year to privately fund their new ballpark, the Patriots argument was made in reverse: that no government would ever fund stadiums again, said Mitchell Ziets, a managing director with Public Financial Management, which consults cities and teams on stadium issues.

Teams may bring up the Patriots during stadium negotiations, but the argument will not get very far, Ziets predicted.

"If I were representing a city and I sat down across from a team and they said they would like a Patriots deal, I would dismiss it in about 10 seconds," he said.

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