AN ARTICLE WEDNESDAY INCORRECTLY SAID SEN. JOSEPH R. BIDEN JR. (DEL.) IS THE RANKING DEMOCRAT ON THE SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE. SEN. PATRICK J. LEAHY (VT) IS THE PANEL'S RANKING DEMOCRAT. (PUBLISHED 06/18/99)
Citing Baltimore's new PSINet Stadium, where the Ravens play, as an example of nationwide "legalized extortion," Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) yesterday threatened to revoke the antitrust exemptions enjoyed by professional football and baseball unless owners rein in demands for taxpayer-financed arenas.
At a Judiciary Committee hearing convened at his request, Specter said that at a time when football owners are enjoying an eight-year, $17.6 billion broadcast deal, "The NFL ought to be giving something back -- like paying for its own stadiums."
Since the mid-1980s, state and local governments have spent $7 billion to build new homes for 41 professional baseball, basketball, football and hockey teams, according to a witness at the hearing, Mark S. Rosentraub, a professor at Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
In most cases, the new facilities were built either to attract a team or keep one from moving. In baseball alone, 12 of the 30 major league teams have built parks since 1987, and construction of five more stadiums has been approved and six more proposed.
"We have seen the proliferation of legalized extortion," said Specter, who singled out his home state's decision to pay $320 million for new stadiums in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
The committee yesterday heard testimony from industry analysts, as well as lawmakers from Baltimore and Boston, on Specter's bill to condition the antitrust exemptions enjoyed by Major League Baseball and the National Football League on their payment of 50 percent of new stadium costs with television revenues.
The bill would limit the amount that state and city governments would have to pay at a total of 25 percent, with team owners expected to cover whatever revenue and governments do not. In return, the leagues would gain veto power over individual team moves.
Critics argue that public financing uses tax dollars to bolster profits of wealthy owners and athletes.
State Del. Jean B. Cryor (R-Montgomery) testified that public "anger and resentment" lingered in Maryland long after the August opening of the $222 million, state-funded Ravens stadium next to Camden Yards.
"How did government get in the business of entertaining its citizens, as opposed to educating them, providing roads and building bridges?" Cryor said. "Only the federal government can outmuscle the team owners."
"Why are taxpayers expected to subsidize already profitable businesses?" said Thomas M. Finneran (D-Boston), speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, which declined to build a new home for the New England Patriots. But team consultants said that the boom in stadium construction has peaked and that owners are sensitive to a growing political backlash.
John Moag Jr., former chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority and now a Baltimore consultant with Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc., added that Specter's plan to require leagues to pool television revenue to build new stadiums would not work. Football has already set aside more revenue from a different source, Moag said, and baseball lacks enough income from television to make meaningful contributions to stadium construction.
Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) also criticized the bill. He said a small-market team such as the community-owned Green Bay Packers would face a cut in TV revenue that "will severely hurt [its] ability to survive."
Baseball and football executives declined invitations to testify yesterday, Specter said. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, NFL Players Association President Gene Upshaw and Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson will speak next Tuesday.
Although the bill is co-sponsored by the Judiciary panel's powerful chairman, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), and ranking Democrat, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), Specter conceded that its usefulness lay more in "jawboning" league officials than in actual passage.
"If the parties can come to a conclusion on their own, that is fine. We're looking for the objective to be obtained," Specter said, reacting to a comment by Hatch that he hoped a bill would not be needed. "Legislative proposals frequently push the envelope through voluntary action."
If the bill becomes law, it could have an impact on efforts to bring major league baseball to Washington.
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who prefers a ballpark built in the city, has said it would require no taxpayer subsidy. Rival investors seeking to land a team in Northern Virginia have pushed to lay the groundwork for state financing in Richmond, with little success.
Jack Kent Cooke built the new $180 million Redskins stadium in Landover with his own financing, although the state paid for $70 million in transportation improvements. MCI Center in downtown Washington also was built with private financing and $70 million in land, road and subway improvements.
CAPTION: Sen. Arlen Specter says franchise owners should pay for team stadiums.