Bob Smizik: Sleazy tradition of sports franchises blackmailing cities continues in Atlanta

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Forbes Field opened in 1909 and closed in 1970. Three Rivers Stadium opened in 1970 and closed in 2000. PNC Park and Heinz Field opened in 2001. When will they close?

Sooner than you think.

Some 25 years after it began, the deplorable practice of professional sports teams blackmailing large city and county governments continues. Which means it could resurface in Pittsburgh earlier than expected.

The process is quite simple. Sports franchises say the following to their local governments: Build us a new stadium or we’ll leave. And it works. Almost unanimously, cities across the country have caved in to demands and built new stadiums and/or arenas for the teams in their cities. Almost invariably this is done with the taxpayers picking up most of the bill.

People go hungry, streets go unpaved, bridges crumble, but stadiums to make the rich richer get built.

What’s more, they’ve been known to be built whether the taxpayers want them or not. When public funding for new stadiums in Pittsburgh was put on the ballot in 1997, it was resoundingly defeated. It made no difference. The politicians found a way around it.

Here’s why it works: No elected official wants a pro sports team to leave on his or her watch. It can be political suicide. It’s almost forgotten, for example, that the politicians went against the wishes of the voters and had PNC Park and Heinz Field built mostly with public funds. But if the Steelers or Pirates had left, the names of the elected officials who oversaw the departure would live in Western Pennsylvania infamy.

The most notable recent exception to that rule took place in Seattle, where the region refused to build a new basketball arena, which meant the Supersonics became the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The latest chapter in this shameful practice is taking place in Atlanta. The Braves pulled a stunner yesterday and announced they were leaving Turner Field -- only 17 years old -- in downtown Atlanta and moving about 10 miles down the road to Cobb County. The move goes against the recent practice of building stadiums in or near downtown areas. Cobb County is mostly an upscale suburban area.

Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed, in a statement yesterday, said, ''We have been working very hard with the Braves for a long time, and at the end of the day, there was simply no way the team was going to stay in downtown Atlanta without city taxpayers spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make that happen.’’

The hundreds of millions he spoke of was not, as you might expect, to build a new stadium in downtown Atlanta. The money the Braves were demanding was to upgrade Turner Field, which was built for the 1996 Olympics and opened as home of the Braves in 1997. That’s right: Hundreds of millions to upgrade a facility that’s 17 years old. It boggles the mind.

This probably won’t cause much of an uproar in Atlanta since the region is not losing its team. But it should cause an uproar in lots of places because it starts a new trend in the sports-facilities blackmail game. With there being few metropolitan areas still looking for teams -- MLB has almost nowhere to go if it wanted to expand -- this gives professional sports teams a different way to hold a gun to the head of their host city.

It’s largely forgotten, but there was a brief and not very serious flirtation between Washington County and the Steelers back when funding for a new football stadium was uncertain. Steelers president Dan Rooney said he did not want to leave Allegheny County. But if the funding had not been available, what choice would he have had?

The Steelers, as is well known, currently are engaged in a dispute with the Sports and Exhibition Authority, the government body that owns Heinz Field, over adding about 3,000 seats. The Steelers want the SEA to pay the $30 million such a project would cost ($10,000 a seat). The SEA has said it will not. The matter is in the courts.

This isn’t to suggest that the Steelers will head for Butler County or Washington County over this dispute. It is to suggest that when the time comes that either the Pirates or Steelers believe they need a new facility or massive upgrades on their existing one to keep up with their competition, moving up or down I-79 will very much be an option.

Yes, there are leases. They might even be called iron-clad. But pro sports team have a way of getting around them. They’ve been doing it for years and no one can stop them. And too few even want to try.

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