SBJ/January 12 - 18, 2004/SBJ In Depth

Successful strategies for pitching an arena project to voters

Major league sports and big-time politics are more connected than most people think. Both arouse public passions, both are in the news on a daily basis and both are fiercely competitive. When a major sports team seeks public approval to build a new stadium, sports and politics combine in a unique campaign.

Team boosters and owners are often surprised to learn that the public is often slow to warm to the idea of building a new sports stadium. When the Miami Heat announced plans to build a state-of-the-art waterfront arena in 1994, civic leaders who supported the deal were shocked to see polls showing a majority of the public opposed the new arena. Worse yet, an up-and-coming candidate for mayor made opposition to the arena a centerpiece of his campaign and roared from behind to victory.

Voters are wary of arena deals because they are both stingy with public funds on big projects and suspect of big sports teams needing any public money in the first place. They read about huge player salaries and assume that wealthy team owners can pay for the stadium themselves. Voters also fear traffic jams caused by big arena projects.

The Miami Heat used then coach Pit Riley (bottom right) in television ads that touted what a new arena would do for the entire community.

Team owners quickly find that a strong fan base alone does not provide enough votes to win a referendum campaign or force a new stadium project on wary public officials.

So what is a sports franchise to do when the world of sports merges with the world of politics over a proposed arena or stadium? A quick study of the Miami Heat's successful campaign to win a Dade County referendum provides some interesting answers.

In 1996, the Miami Heat faced strong grassroots opposition to its plan to build AmericanAirlines Arena along the waterfront in Biscayne Bay in Miami. A Dade County open-space advocate had secured the petition signatures necessary to place a referendum on the November ballot to block the Heat's arena from being built. In late August, the arena project appeared to be doomed. A Miami Herald poll showed that 60 percent of Dade County voters were opposed to the new Heat arena being built along the waterfront. And while the agreement called for Dade County to invest only $8.5 million a year to pay maintenance and operation costs associated with the new arena, there was still strong opposition to taxpayer subsidies in the project.

When the Heat hired my consulting firm, we did the first thing we would do in any political campaign. We conducted a Hill Research poll to find out why voters were opposed to the new arena and what messages we could use to change their minds.

We found that to win we had to make the referendum about more than basketball. It is important to convince voters that the winners in a new stadium are not the big team owners but the entire community. That demands a wider argument than just the glittering attributes of a shiny new arena for the home team. We had to make the campaign about civic pride, and we needed an effective candidate-like spokesman to sell our message. The argument that the Heat might leave Miami was persuasive to some voters but was not a compelling enough message to secure victory.

Our research showed that Pat Riley, the Heat's coach at the time, was the team's greatest asset. Riley was viewed as a big celebrity, a winner and someone who added prestige to the Heat and the entire city.

We also saw that different voter groups each saw different benefits in the arena. This was important. Most cities are combinations of different communities, each with its own unique outlook. In Dade County, Cuban-Americans saw the arena as a symbol of pride and local achievement. African-Americans saw an economic project bringing new jobs and had pride in the local NBA team. White voters were most excited about a new family-friendly park on Miami's waterfront, including soccer fields and a new arena, which would bring in concerts and other entertainment events. Recasting the arena as a waterfront park and arena was to be key to our campaign.

It is important to convince voters that the winners in a new stadium are not the big team owners but the entire community.
We featured Riley prominently in political-campaign-style TV ads to deliver our message that Miami was a world-class city that deserved a world-class waterfront park and arena. The Riley ads refuted the notion that the referendum campaign was just about basketball and focused on the economic benefits and excitement the waterfront development would bring to the city.

To support the paid advertising we ran on TV, we ran aggressive direct-mail and phone campaigns that targeted research-driven messages to each specific voter community in Dade County. Jay Cross, Heat president at the time, hit the chicken dinner circuit with an impressive presentation on the new arena. We appealed to Cuban-American voters with Spanish-language ads and mail, and we conducted a community-by-community bus tour with Riley and Heat players to generate media coverage and momentum behind our "Save the Waterfront" campaign. We constantly checked and rechecked our effort with polling to make sure the numbers were moving our way.

In five weeks, we were able to shift the referendum debate from a question of building a sports arena for a millionaire owner and his millionaire players to one of securing Miami's reputation as a first-tier American city. On Election Day, the anti-arena referendum was rejected by a vote of 59 percent to 41 percent, a nearly 40-point turnaround from the late August polling numbers.

So how do the lessons of the Miami Heat's successful referendum campaign apply today? To be sure, the political situation that owners face now is more difficult than in 1996. There is much evidence to show that new sports arenas haven't delivered the economic bang their proponents promised. There is growing fan dissent over rising ticket prices and spiraling player salaries. And there is a very real perception that teams have no loyalty to their communities.

All of these dynamics point up the need for sports teams to turn to political professionals to run the elections they need to win to secure public financing for new arenas. In most circumstances, the opposition forces to building a new arena will not have the resources to wage a traditional campaign with television ads and the other tactics we used in the Miami Heat campaign. This is a big advantage that owners should fully exploit. For a relatively small investment (we spent $3.5 million to win the Miami campaign), you can run a political-style campaign that will drive the public debate on your referendum.

The bottom line is if you need to win public financing to build a new stadium, you should do these things: First, start early, plan ahead and use a political pro who understands the schizophrenic way voters think about issues and elections to run your campaign. Second, make the argument wider than a shiny new building for your team, no matter how popular you are. Third, don't be afraid to set the terms of the debate yourself, instead of waiting for your opponents to corner you.

Michael E. Murphy is a partner in the Washington, D.C., and Sacramento-based public affairs firm Navigators. He has handled strategy and media for more than 20 successful gubernatorial and senatorial campaigns, and has worked with the Miami Heat and the New York Jets on arena or stadium issues.

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