Let the Fans Own the Teams

Okay, I admit it. Every once in awhile, I have spanking fantasies. No, they're not the kind of fantasies you're imagining. I have fantasies about putting Art Modell and Jerry Jones over my knee and making their rear-ends sore. For those of you who don't read the sports pages religiously, I should tell you that Jerry Jones owns the Dallas Cowboys and Art Modell owns the Cleveland Browns. Well, they used to be the Cleveland Browns, but that's part of the story I'm about to tell you. It's a story about little boys who grow up, have lots of money, and buy sports teams as their hobby of choice. In that way, they get to stay little boys. Mostly, they are unable to play the games themselves, so this is a good way achieve glory without working up a sweat. Art Modell is the fellow who raised his middle finger to the loyal fans of Cleveland who, year in and year out, braved snow storms to watch the mostly dismal Browns perform. (Cleveland was one of the NFL's original franchises, to which such legendary names as Otto Graham and Jim Brown are associated.) In making his move, Mr. Modell asserted one of the rights of private ownership and an incredibly weak league structure. He claimed to have no other choice. The city fathers of Baltimore had offered him more than $180 million in tax incentives and other goodies. How could he say "No"? Baltimore, you should know, is the same city that suffered the indignity of seeing its beloved Colts leave town in the middle of the night for Indianapolis not too many years ago. Now Baltimore is to get a new team at the expense of Cleveland. Baltimore city officials had apparently learned how to play the "pay them any price" game. Jerry Jones is the man/child who stands on the sidelines with his team, basking in the glory that is the Dallas cowboys. For Mr. Jones, the pleasures of ownership include dressing-down the coach after a loss, making commercials with his star defensive back (Deion Sanders), and thumbing his nose at the National Football League by making his own deal with Nike sportswear. It was this last act of defiance that led me to add Mr. Jones to my spanking fantasy list. A few owners of sports teams have always been a pain in the ass. But in 1981, everything changed. That was the year Al Davis successfully defied the city of Oakland and the National Football League by taking his Raiders south to Los Angeles. In the litigation that Mr. followed the move, the NFL lost the ability to prevent team owners to move a franchise without the consent of a majority of the rest of the owners. In short, the league structure crumbled. Now it's commonplace for cities to compete for teams by shamelessly promising multi-million-dollar tax packages and sweetheart stadium concessions to lure teams away from their cities of birth. The offers to these spoiled tycoons often exceed $200 million. These "incentives" often are in the same neighborhood as the value of the franchises themselves. Federal legislation to once again make the NFL a real franchise by preventing team owners from changing cities without league consent is the appropriate remedy for this outrage. But long-term, my suggestion to cities in search of a football team or any sports franchise, for that matter, is this: when a team comes on the market for sale in the future, the city of its residence or some other municipality (if the home city isn't interested) should buy it. Then owners wouldn't just up and leave their faithful followers because they would be one and the same. If Jerry Jones, Al Davis, and Art Modell were the only owners of sports teams who give a black eye to the very concept of sports capitalism, my call for public ownership of sports franchises would not be so compelling. But add to the list the names of Marge Schott, George Steinbrenner, and Georgia Frontiere and the case becomes more convincing. Let's be clear. I am not suggesting that all existing sports franchises be turned over to public ownership via condemnation, eminent domain or otherwise. A team owner unwilling to sell should never be forced to do so. The model is Green Bay, Wisconsin. It is unthinkable that the Packers would move to Milwaukee or any other city, for that matter. Why? The Packers are not owned by a private individual or family. The city -- or more correctly a municipal corporation -- owns the team. Think of the possibilities: The decision to sign or not sign a free agent could be decided by an elected board of directors after conducting a phone poll to gauge fan sentiment. Those sports enthusiasts willing to do so could put their own money into a voluntary fund dedicated to raising money for the team. The downside, of course, is that essential governmental services would have to compete with a free agent's salary. That is a major cause for concern. Many hometown fans probably do care more about the success of the local team than they do about the homeless and other pressing problems facing the urban centers of our country. Therefore, as part of the creation of the municipal corporation, local job development should be made an essential part of the mix. I recommend a requirement that all team employees other than athletes should be residents of the city in question. Local companies should be given an outright preference for all contracted services as well. That should allay some of the concerns. The upside is this: The team would be a source of local pride, bringing a sense of unity to an otherwise divided city. On Sunday afternoons, in stadiums throughout the land, people of different racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds come together to root for the home team. As cities decide how best to bring in a professional football franchise, local politicians and civic leaders should keep this thought in mind: It doesn't matter whether an existing or expansion team is available. What really matters is that the team can be purchased and the city can buy it for not much more than what would have to be shelled out in tax and stadium incentives.

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