Efforts to keep the Orioles in Baltimore are praiseworthy, except for one matter: public money should not be used.
This week nine Baltimore businessmen pledged to raise $6 million toward the purchase of the Orioles from Jerold C. Hoffberger and asked the Maryland legislature to lend them another $6 million.
According to the Baltimore Sun, "Immediate reaction from General Assembly leaders, including several from Baltimore, was decidely cool to the idea of state participation." It ought to be an ice/cold no.
Professional sports teams get more public funding than much of the public realizes; one more penny out of our pockets is one penny too much.
Government, at the local, state and national level, long ago decided pro sports served a useful function. To that end, teams were allowed to use publicly owned stadiums at rather modest fees and owners were given substantial tax breaks to buy into leagues.
In the book, "Government and the Sports Business," economist Benjamin A. Okner concluded that, in general, "the benefits from publclicly owned sports facilities probably accrue disproportionately to the moderate-income or well-to-do citizens in the community at the expense of the poor.
"To the extent that subsidized rentals are not passed on to the consumers in the form of lower prices or to players in the form of higher salaries, the prime beneficiaries of the local government subsidies are the owners of sports teams -- most of whom are extremely wealthy."
The group of private investors said the annual economic benefits of the Orioles for Baltimore "are estimated at over $20 million." That might be true, though Okner surely would argue the point.
In fact, he did several years ago. And the case in point, ironically enough, involved the Orioles of the mid-'50s.
Based on data from spectators, the Orioles estimated that about one-fourth of the fans attending home games were from out of town, or about a 45-minute drive from Memorial Stadium. They estimated each of the 276,000 or so fans spent an average of $20 to $30, or a total of between $5.5 million and $8.3 million.
A handsome sum, to be sure. But, Okner said: "The report indicates that 'no claim is made that all of this money was brought in by baseball' and goes on to say that it is impossible to estimate what proportion of the total might be counted as truly additional revenue for the city."
So did the fans come to Baltimore to watch the Orioles, or did they come to Balitmore for other reasons and decide to attend a game while there? Most surveys fail to ask that question. Okner did.
In prior years, bills before the Maryland legislature have failed. But they have wasted time that could be devoted to more useful subjects. Now there are two more Oriole-related bills up for debate.
Even some American League owners support the distinction between sport and state. The unwritten rule is 60 percent equity and 40 percent debt as the minimum requirement for ownership, with some owners urging a 75 to 25 ratio.
Louis Goldstein, Maryland state comptroller, has said the General Assembly cannot lend money to private citizens. So the private citizens could avoid that by having the state loan the money to Baltimore, which would waive the admissinons and amusement taxes.
Either way, the public pays. And if the state has a $200 million surplus, as Goldstein suggests, there are far better projects on which to spend it than baseball.
"I would certainly be against it," State Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell (D.-Baltimore City) said of state funding. "(The team) is an asset, but not a sufficient asset to call on the state to subsidize the effort to keept the team in Baltimore when there are other, more important prorities.
"We can't go to the legislature to ask for money for a baseball team when we're laying off teachers."