Thursday, January 25, 2007

Bipolar Disorder Afflicts Penguins Fans

Whether you are a hockey fan or not, you've got to admit that it's been one hell of a tough ride for Penguins supporters over the past month or so. One day is bleak, the next looks rosy, and nobody at all -- including those directly involved with arena negotiations -- seems to have any idea of where this will all lead. On any given day, the Penguins are staying here in Pittsburgh, or headed for Kansas City, or headed for Houston, or headed for a city to be named later in exchange for two quarters, a dime, three nickles, and about 2.7 ounces of compacted pocket lint.

Let's take a closer look at some of the events that hockey fans have been hit with over the past month or so:

DOWN - 20 Dec 2006: PITG Gaming wins Pittsburgh's casino license, beating out Isle of Capri, which had pledged to build a new arena at "no cost" to either the team or local taxpayers. The Penguins respond by taking down the team's "For Sale" sign and vowing to pursue other options for the teams future.

DOWN - 03 Jan 2006: Penguins officials, including primary owner Mario Lemieux, travel to Kansas City, where they are promised a brand new arena, rent free and opening in time for the 2007-2008 NHL season, if they move the team there.

UP - 04 Jan 2007: Penguins representatives meet with state and local leaders to discuss the details of Plan B. Governor Ed Rendell, County Executive Dan Onorato, and Interm Mayor Luke "Flip Flop" Ravenstahl (that really does work better than "Handcuffs", don't you think?) are also present at the meeting. By all accounts, the discussions seem to go pretty well. Monsieur Lemieux emerges from the meeting stating that he is optimistic about reaching some kind of deal to keep the team in Pittsburgh.

UP - 08 Jan 2007: The Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority begins site preparation work at the new arena's planned location.

UP - 08 Jan 2007: In a show of public support, Penguins fans stage a rally prior to that evening's contest between the Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Spirits are reported to be quite high.

UP - 09 Jan 2007: As a contingency in case Plan B proves to be not attractive enough to the Penguins, Pittsburgh City Councilmember, soon-to-be mayoral candidate, and genuine hockey fan William Peduto proposes Plan C. Mr. Peduto's plan seems to build onto what is being offered in Plan B, while adding in a share of the profits from redeveloping the Mellon Arena site.

UP - 10 Jan 2007: PITG Gaming principal Don Barden indicates that he is, "willing to consider a partnership with the team in the redevelopment of the Mellon Arena site"

DOWN - 10 Jan 2007: In the same article, Mr. Barden makes it clear that his company's contribution to the construction of a new area will go no further than what is required by Plan B. Despite some pressure from the public, he will not increase his company's contribution beyond the already-promised $7.5 million per year for 30 years.

UP - 12 Jan 2007: The Penguins are offered the opportunity to use Mellon Arena rent-free for the 2007-2008 NHL season.

DOWN - 05 Jan through 18 Jan 2006: Despite an ever-shrinking amount of time to make a deal, Penguins officials and local elected leaders go nearly two weeks without holding a single meeting to discuss things.

DOWN - 18 Jan 2006: Team and government officials finally meet to discuss a deal, but are unable to reach any kind of agreement. Don Barden attends the meeting unexpectedly, and (perhaps as a result) things go very badly. Mr. Onorato and Master Ravenstahl leave the meeting without speaking to reporters. The two sides could not even agree about when (or perhaps whether) to hold any further discussions.

DOWN - 19 Jan 2006: News begins to leak out about why the previous evening's talks collapsed. Penguin officials reveal that, under the terms of their agreement with Isle of Capri, they will owe their former partners $10 million if a new arena is built for them in Pittsburgh. They also apparently disgaree with the terms of the profit-sharing proposal for both parking revenue and developing the current Mellon Arena site. The team feels that the terms proposed at the meeting are a worse deal than they would get by playing one more season, rent-free, in Mellon Arena. Governor Rendell, meanwhile, goes into full bluster mode, claiming that deal currently on the table, "is the best of any offer that's been made to any NHL team for a new [arena] in recent times and it's also by far the best of any offer made to any Pennsylvania professional sports team for a new stadium". Without knowing exactly what is being discussed during the meetings, the public is unable to evaluate this claim. But skepticism reigns, especially with a brand new, rent free, open-by-September venue on offer in Kansas City.

DOWN - 23 Jan 2006: Governor Rendell unleashes local politicians, such as State Senator Wayne Fontana, to serve as his surrogate attack dogs. The Governor's mouthpieces assert that the state's final offer is already on the table, and that it is fruitless for the Penguins to continue holding out against the agreement. Penguins owner Mario Lemieux states that the time is fast approaching where the team must make a decision and stick with it.

DOWN - 23 Jan 2006: Penguins officials announce that they will also hold meetings with government and community leaders from Houston. The nation's fourth-largest city already has modern arena available for any NHL team that may want to locate there, along with a far larger population base than Pittsburgh.

DOWN - 24 Jan 2006: Governor Rendell threatens to appeal to the NHL's Board of Governors if the Penguins attempt to leave Pittsburgh. Most local commentary notes that the NHL is exceedingly unlikely to block the team's move to a new city, given the extensive history of failed opportunities to secure a new arena here in Pittsburgh.

UP - 10 Jan 2007: Governor Rendell announces that, after speaking with Penguins investor Ron Burkle, he is once again optimistic that a deal is again within reach.

Up again, down again, back and forth, and who the hell knows what the score is anymore? Rather than looking like effective leaders, our elected representatives come off looking like strong candidates for lithium and electro-shock therapy. The Penguins' leadership doesn't come off looking much better, but at least their motivations are transparent. They have a business to run, and they are looking for the best deal that they can get.

I'm not a hockey fan. After meeting the team when my child was in Children's Hospital recently, however, I was impressed. I was intrigued. I thought I might take my older child to see a game. And then I saw how much the Penguins were asking for seats -- and especially seats that would hold the interest of a somewhat-spacey 6-year-old -- and I gave up on the idea immediately. For me, at least, the price of attending a Penguins game is far too much cost for a rather tepid benefit of watching a game that I don't particularly enjoy.

I guess what I'm saying is that I find it difficult to go along with blackmail, at least in this case. The Penguins offer quite a bit to the community, and there are of course jobs and dollars which flow into downtown on game nights. As the primary tenant of our arena (new or old), they carry much of the burden for keeping the venue going. It would be much harder to justify all of the upkeep required to keep an arena in good repair if it wasn't being used all that much. But our resources, especially in the form of taxpayer dollars, are finite here.

I supported the Isle of Capri plan. While it would not have been truly "free", it would have at least been funded without an excessive amount of taxpayer funds. And it would have spared us the spectacle of the Penguins threatening to leave town and our elected leaders throwing (our) money at them to stay.

But the Penguins are, ultimately, a business. If they can get a better deal elsewhere, when all variables -- including the likely local fan base -- are taken into account, then they simply should leave Pittsburgh behind and depart for greener pastures. A number of us will even help them pack. They will be greatly missed by some. Their fans' dollars will be greatly missed by many more. But I'm not convinced that the loss will be so great as to justify caving into unreasonable demands just to keep them in town.

There is one key caveat in all of this, however. My greatest fear is that, if the Penguins should leave, we will find ourselves in a few years time doing precisely what Kansas City is doing now. We just might end up funding a new arena entirely on our own dime, with no support at all from casino money or from the arena's non-existent primary tenant. A new area might prove necessary, even without the Penguins, simply to attract decent shows, concerts, and other forms of entertainment. A new arena will also be needed for the eventual fight to lure another NHL team back to Pittsburgh. And make no mistake, folks, our hockey fans aren't going to fade into the woodwork if the Penguins leave. They will be quiet and depressed for a few years, but they will eventually warm to the idea of bringing hockey back to the Burgh.

I don't want to see us pull a Baltimore, who lost the Colts only to spend far more money several years later to steal the Browns away from Cleveland. In the final analysis, it would have been much cheaper for Baltimore to have built a new stadium for the Colts in the early 1980s, keeping the team and its economic impact in Baltimore for all those years, than it was to bring the Browns to town in 1996 and construct a new stadium at late-1990s prices. If we are going to need a new arena anyway, and I rather suspect that we will, it is probably a better move to build it now than and retain its central tenant than to bear the costs all on our own several years down the line.

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