Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Third Time's A Charm

A few years ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates threatened to leave town if they didn't get a new ballpark. If this city wouldn't build them a new playing field, they would find someplace else that would. The local authorities caved in, using taxpayer money to keep owner Kevin McClatchy rich and happy.

Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers soon followed suit. He didn't have much choice, seeing as how the two teams shared use of Three Rivers Stadium. And he got his way. Now, instead of one big white elephant on the north shore of the Allegheny River, there are three. (The one in the middle was imploded four years ago but its spirit remains.)

Of course, there is a third major sports team in Pittsburgh with a different kind of playing facility. The Pittsburgh Penguins have been playing hockey in the Mellon Area (nee Civic Arena) for years. Like the Pirates and Steelers, the Penguins have brought championship trophies to Pittsburgh. And now, the Penguins owner seeks to follow in the footsteps of his baseball and football counterparts.

The big difference between the Pens team owner and the others is that the owner of the Penguins win that championship gold simply by being the greatest player ever to perform in a Penguins uniform. Mario Lemieux saved NHL hockey in Pittsburgh by using the money that he earned as a player to purchase the franchise several years ago. The man who saved the team from mediocrity rebounded to save it from extinction. It was one of the best examples of giving something back in the history of sports.

The fact of the matter is, though, that no matter the extent of sentimental attachment between Mario and Pittsburgh, he is first and foremost a businessman these days. The Mellon Arena is over forty years old and looking less attractive than ever as a long-term home for a major league hockey franchise. What's a local sports legend to do?

Well, he can threaten to pack up the team and leave town if he doesn't get a brand new arena.
Since this is Pittsburgh, there is no shortage of spendthrift Democrat politicians to cave in to his demands, no matter where the money comes from:

Conceding that Pittsburgh is in danger of losing the Penguins, Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato said yesterday he and Pittsburgh Mayor-elect Bob O'Connor are trying to "find a way" to fund a replacement for the Mellon Arena and secure the team's future.

Mr. Onorato said he and Mr. O'Connor are considering a number of financing options, including private investment, state capital funding, naming rights sales and slot machine revenues.

Aside from the "state capital funding", those look like reasonable choices. Just leave the unwilling taxpayers out
of it. We're still smarting from the two stadiums deal of a few years ago. And I admire the fact that you fellows own up to it:

He ruled out using city or county tax dollars for the project, saying neither government is in a position to finance such an endeavor, which could cost up to $300 million.

"What we're saying 'no' to is you're not going to see local money. We don't have the money coming out of the county and the city right now," he said. "The city's still in quasi-bankruptcy; the county's coming off a 500-person downsizing. So there's other ways ... to look at this."

Well, thanks for that. But just watch what happens when they get desperate in a couple of years. Our incomes are not safe from these guys.

Mr. Onorato said there's a "real possibility" the team could leave town if a way isn't found to finance the construction.

"It's something we've got to deal with," he said. "I think it's important to try to keep the Penguins here for the region."

The remarks came in response to statements last weekend by Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, who said there was only a "slim chance" the team would remain in Pittsburgh after its lease at Mellon Arena expires in 2007. He cited a lack of progress in building a new facility.

Scare tactics, or a serious threat? It all comes down to the money. If the Mellon Arena is too expensive to maintain and repair, Mario needs to look for another facility. It makes no sense for him to keep the team in a run-down shack of a domed hut.

Also note Onorato's phrase "keep the Penguins here for the region". Why does a new facility need to be built in Pittsburgh, or even Allegheny County? Five years ago, a Washington County (PA) commisioner suggested that the Steelers could have constructed a new stadium in her neck of the woods. The Rooneys never took it seriously, but why not suggest something similar for the Pens? There are plenty of places in southwestern Pennsylvania with room for a sports complex. Taxes are lower than in Allegheny, too. If Mario wants to keep the team local, he should not limit his vision to the city of Pittsburgh.

You can take the Penguins out of Pittsburgh and still keep Pittsburgh in the Penguins. Think about it if you don't want them to leave the city, the state, or even the country.


jipzeecab said...

The Washington County thing is a good idea..and has been offered before to the Penquins. The last year or so they've gotten hung up on this false dream of a "slots license" as a white knight.
It probably won't happen..Rendell allegedly has promised the slots license to the Station Square Crowd (which includes the "Connellys" whose fast and easy way with cash sunk the Regatta five years ago). The pittance that bunch will throw to an Arena won't get it done.
I don't think the Arena is going to happen.

Nicko McDave said...

And today came the news that someone in Kansas City or thereabouts is trying to lure the Penguins out that way by offering to host an exhibition game against (I think) Saint Louis. I hope Mario seriously considers an offer to move. If he can't build his own arena, he seriously needs to shop around for a private investor who can not only finance an arena but also buy a significant share of the team from Mario.

Mark Cuban?