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Key legislators cool to Sports Authority idea

If National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern wants California to create a statewide Sports Authority, he might want to start putting together a 2008 campaign for the California Assembly or Senate. His most likely allies already in these bodies haven’t given his idea much support–at least not in the form that he suggested.

“I don’t see it,” said Senator Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who represented the Maloof family, owners of the Sacramento Kings, in negotiations for public financing for a new arena earlier this year. He went on to say that he would be against the state taking over stadium funding. “That’s just a non-starter because we have a $5 billion deficit in California and much higher priorities.”

“I just want to make sure that the California taxpayer isn’t treated like an ATM by having to pay for sports venues,” said Assemblywoman Betty Karnette, D-Long Beach, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Arts, Entertainment, Tourism and Internet Media.

Stern brought up the idea last Monday when he traveled to Sacramento in an attempt to revive an arena deal for the Sacramento Kings. Such a body could help finance sports arenas around the state, he said. With him was consultant John Moag, formerly chaired the Maryland Sports Authority that helped lure the National Football League back to Baltimore.

In 2005, Senator Kevin Murray, D-Los Angeles, sponsored a bill that would have created such a body. SB 4, the California Public Performance Facilities Act, would have authorized the state to fund and build performance venues. It passed the Senate and Assembly Appropriations, but stalled last January.

Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas, D-Los Angeles, who succeeded the termed-out Murray, said that he would like to spark a “full and complete discussion” on the issues of professional sports in California. This would include a serious evaluation of the economic impact of franchises. While in the Assembly in 2004, Ridley-Thomas sponsored AB 2805, a successful bill to authorize the Los Angeles City Council to amend its redevelopment plan and take other measures that would allow it to improve the area around the Coliseum as part of its efforts to lure a NFL team.

“There are huge questions about professional sports in California,” Ridley-Thomas said. “I clearly see the need for some attention.”

But Ridley-Thomas echoed his colleagues in saying he didn’t see the state paying for stadiums. Rather, he wants to look into whether the Department of Consumer Affairs’ Athletic Commission or some other body could take on some of the roles of a Sports Authority, such as conducting economic studies or acting as a financing go-between.

There are two key issues that could complicate the creation of a California Sports Authority. First, many of the states with successful sports authorities, such as Arizona and Maryland, have a single dominant metropolitan area. California’s recent stadium woes, by contrast, have often pitted different California cities against each other.

Second, it is unclear what funding mechanism a statewide sports authority could tap into. The standard ones don’t make sense, Steinberg said. For instance, Maryland funds their authority via the state lottery, but California’s lottery funds already are claimed, mainly by education.

Revenue bonds aren’t really an option, Steinberg said, because they would require arena revenue to pay off the bonds rather than going to teams and leagues. Finally, there is little appetite for California taxpayers funding stadiums via general-obligation bonds. This is painful lesson from his Sacramento arena experience. He represented the Maloofs in early negotiations around Measures Q and R, which would have provided county tax funds to build the Kings a new arena. Neither measure got more than 25 percent of the vote.

“The public is just plain not going to float the money for an arena in Sacramento,” Steinberg said. “That’s pretty clear.”

Karnette said her opposition to state-based financing for sports arenas “doesn’t mean I’m against new ideas.” After all, she said, the state has an interest in keeping its professional sports teams, Karnette said, because they create “a positive regional economic ripple.”

Dean Munro, executive director of the San Jose Sports Authority, said establishing a statewide body is a “terrific idea.” However, he said there are two basic models for a state sports authority. The version Stern appears to be promoting, Munro said, would exist mainly a means for the state to finance stadiums–and probably would not fly in California.

“Who pays the mortgage, that’s the $64,000 question,” Munro said. “Most people would probably say it’s best if it’s a local responsibility.”

The more appropriate version for California would be an “event-based” body, he said. Florida has used this model successfully with its decade-old Sports Authority, which balances the needs of many large cities. Its main role would be to bring one-shot events to the state; it could also take on a role of helping arrange, but not providing, stadium funding.

Such a body might also play peacemaker among California’s competing cities. This is could be an important role, given how inter-city conflict has been a dominant theme in recent California sports history.

Witness the oddly-named Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. When the baseball team came out with this moniker in January 2005, the city of Anaheim sued to force them to take “Los Angeles” out of it–and lost.

Since then, full-scale metropolitan warfare over teams has erupted in the Bay Area. Last month it was widely reported that the Oakland Athletics would be taking their quest for a new stadium to nearby Fremont, while the San Francisco 49ers would be planning a similar move to Santa Clara. This latter situation has caused a negative economic ripple in San Francisco, which promptly dropped a bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics, because the 49ers new stadium was central to those plans.

It also prompted Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, to float legislation denying both the words “San Francisco” and even the name “49ers” to the team. Leno’s office has dropped the idea and otherwise declined to comment for this story. However, Senator Dianne Feinstein is looking at similar action in Congress.

Contact Malcolm Maclachlan at
malcolm.maclachlan@capitolweekly.net


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