Give sports owners some incentives to deliver wins

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Incentive-laden contracts are everywhere in professional sports, but only for athletes. We need some for team owners.

The reason should be obvious for anyone living in Pittsburgh. We built Heinz Field for the Steelers and we've had a couple of Super Bowl parades since. We built Consol Energy Center for the Penguins and they're favorites for another Stanley Cup. We built PNC Park for the Pirates and they've yet to win even one more game than they've lost in any of the past 20 seasons.

The Pirates aren't alone in reneging on a stadium deal's implicit promise of good times ahead. In Miami, few citizens can utter Marlins owner Jeff Loria's name without adding words I dare not share on a Sunday morning.

"You'd think that getting a new stadium built with the help of gobs of public money would force the man to play it straight for a while, to field a competitive team and to spend money without expecting an immediate two-for-one return on the dollar,'' Dave George wrote last winter for The Palm Beach Post. "This is the way the Marlins operate, however, the old catch-and-release.''

In fairness, bad as the Marlins are now, they won the World Series in 1997 and 2003. Nineteen franchises have been to the Series since the Pirates' last winning season in 1992, and four of those teams didn't even exist in '92. Setting the all-time professional sports record for consecutive losing seasons in an era of such widespread success represents an Olympian degree of difficulty.

It's too late to put incentives into the PNC Park funding package, of course. Some teams pay high rent, but the city had the Pirates pay $47.7 million up front to allow just light rent of $100,000 a year. The Pirates also handle the stadium's operating costs.

That deal delivered the prettiest ballpark in North America and spin-off North Shore development that never surfaced in the Three Rivers Stadium years. Fans have thronged through the turnstiles despite the losing. Six of the top 10 attendance years in the 132-year history of the franchise have come since the park opened. Thus there's no longer any danger of the Pirates leaving town. The owners know they can sell more than 19,000 tickets a game in awful years, and 25,000 if the team can tread water a few months. The city gets a comfortable return through the amusement and parking taxes. The only missing piece is a winning team.

I called Steve Leeper, who was executive director of the Sports & Exhibition Authority when PNC Park was conceived and built, to see if there's any way to get incentives into a stadium contract.

"I think it's actually a great idea,'' Mr. Leeper said.

Mr. Leeper grew up in Highland Park and is still a Pirates fan despite living in Cincinnati for most of the past decade, running the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. He tunes into the Pirates game every night and even bet 100 bucks in Las Vegas that the Pirates would win at least 77 games this year. (Vegas oddsmakers see a 21st consecutive losing season here.)

One could conceive a deal where a team's rent went up or down depending on how well it played, Mr. Leeper said. He'd tie incentives instead to attendance, but I fear that could reward bad baseball. There were 2.4 million attendees in PNC Park's first year, a season that ended with 100 losses.

The rent should be more directly tied to results: Have a winning season and the rent is cut 10 percent. Win the World Series, and the next year's rent is free. Have a losing season and the rent goes up 10 percent. And so on.

As I said, it's too late for Pittsburgh to try this, but the next time some team owner leans on the populace for better digs, the locals should remember the lessons of Miami and Pittsburgh: Your investment doesn't guarantee either smart or ample investment on the playing field.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to root for the Penguins to go all the way. I'm not much of a hockey fan, but I like my friends and neighbors to be happy. As a city taxpayer, I also like the idea of thousands of hockey-mad visitors paying those parking and amusement taxes.


Brian O'Neill: or 412-263-1947.


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