Sports Teams Begging Again

Listen carefully and you’ll hear a rumbling in the distance. It’s the rumble of the good-news bulls heading for the public treasury, and they’re beginning to work up a sweat. After years of sitting around waiting for the bad-news bears to get off the stage, the good-news bulls are now in full sprint.

The good-news bulls are the region’s professional sports teams. They are pretty prosperous-looking, these bulls, but their appetite is insatiable. Give them credit for one thing: They do have a pretty good sense of public relations. They know that when times are tough and the bad-news bears are patrolling Wall Street, they’re not likely to find much to sustain them. So they hibernate, waiting for the day when the bears are gone.

Now, with red ink turned to black and revenues flowing-though not quite gushing-the good-news bulls are coming back. This is their time. They almost got what they wanted a few years ago, before they beat a hasty retreat, tails between their legs. But things are looking up again, and now they can strike fear in the hearts of those fools who would stand between them and great piles of cash belonging to the public.

You may remember a few years ago, when the Mayor of New York was a middle-aged man who wore a Yankees jacket and hat in public, the owners of the city’s baseball teams were carrying on about their right to build beautiful new stadiums with the generous assistance of the taxpayers. They managed to get two little ballparks built with public money, one for the Mets’ minor-league team in Brooklyn and another for the Yankees on Staten Island. But just when it looked like the big-league Mets and Yankees would get new palaces of their own, the economy tanked, terrorists attacked downtown, and the Yankee fan in City Hall was replaced by a guy who grew up rooting for the, er, Red Sox.

The good-news bulls retreated. Plans for a neo–Ebbets Field in Queens to house the Mets were put into storage. And that bull of bulls, Yankee principal owner George Steinbrenner, realized it looked unseemly to suggest that nobody wanted to travel to the Bronx to see his team when, in fact, more than three million people were doing so every year.

So, for a few years, New York stopped entertaining the false dream of riches through better sports facilities: The city had no money to build stadiums. Despite this turn of events, New Yorkers continued to patronize the very facilities which team owners regarded as unacceptable. It seemed, yes, it really seemed as though these existing stadiums were, in fact, quite adequate for the task at hand.

But there’s that rumble again. The economy is better, and that means sports teams see their opportunity. Several weeks ago, the owner of the Mets, Fred Wilpon, renewed talk of building a new ballpark for his team. The Mayor wants to build a football stadium on the West Side to house the “New York” Jets, who play in New Jersey and who once played in Queens. A new arena is supposed to go up in downtown Brooklyn, where the New Jersey Nets, who once played on Long Island, will move one of these years. And if you think George Steinbrenner will stand idly by while all this sports construction goes on, you haven’t been paying attention.

Across the river in New Jersey, where the governor made the sensible decision not to build an arena in Newark and may have lost the Nets as a result, there’s startling talk of building a new big-league baseball stadium in the Meadowlands. That’ll put a smile on the face of a certain principal owner of the New York Yankees, who would like nothing better than to use a New Jersey facility as leverage to get City Hall to build a new Yankee Stadium.

Back in the 1990’s, the Yankees made threatening noises about the glories of playing baseball in the swamps of New Jersey, prompting City Hall to unveil plans for a billion-dollar baseball stadium on the very site where Mayor Bloomberg would like to build a billion-dollar-plus football stadium. (The Jets, it should be noted, are willing to break with precedent and pay a fair share for their prospective new home.)

Now that the city seems to have money, we can expect a good deal of public policy discussion to focus on the needs of the region’s wealthy sports owners-the only panhandlers who can ply their trade without fear of arrest. It says something about municipal priorities that infrastructure improvements like an extension of the No. 7 train come up for discussion only in conjunction with stadium projects. Maybe that’s the way to get the Second Avenue subway built: Somebody ought to propose a stadium on the Lower East Side.