In Play

The sports stadium issue is up in the air.

THE DALLAS COWBOYS LOST to the Carolina Panthers. The Houston Astros folded against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Houston Rockets were eliminated by the Seattle SuperSonics. The Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs seldom beat anybody. All of these Texas sports franchises, however, will face even tougher opposition this spring. Unless their owners can persuade Governor George W. Bush and the Texas Legislature to authorize public funding for new stadiums, many of them could soon follow the Tennessee-bound Houston Oilers out of the state.

Every Texas pro club except the Texas Rangers sees its home venue as a detriment to its bottom line. The Astrodome is a sterile place to watch a ball game and has too few good seats. Two of the three basketball arenas lack lucrative sky boxes. The Cowboys want to enlarge Texas Stadium and put in a retractable roof. But the owners can’t afford the price tag for new and/or improved digs—which may run as much as a quarter of a billion dollars—and have asked the Legislature for a helping handout. The pitch is that new stadiums attract more fans, bring tourists to town, increase sales tax revenue, and provide new jobs. The Legislature has bought that argument before: In 1989 it allowed San Antonio to increase its mass transit tax and use the extra revenue to build the Alamodome, and two years later it let Arlington raise the city’s sales tax to help pay for the Ballpark. Now the clubs favor a proposal introduced by Representative Kim Brimer, a Fort Worth Republican, that would let cities raise money for new stadiums with higher local taxes on sales, hotel rooms, and rental cars.

But a lot has changed since the Rangers got their deal. Oilers’ owner Bud Adams announced his departure for Nashville, the Astros’ Drayton McLane threatened to sell the team to a group from Northern Virginia, Jerry Jones presided over the disintegration of the Cowboys, and Ross Perot, Jr., whose father cost the governor’s father the 1992 presidential race, bought the Mavericks. The political climate has changed too. Offering public subsidies to lure a business to—or keep it in—Texas was in vogue during the post-bust years, but now it’s fashionable to cut taxes. “The stadium bill reminds me of the Greater Fool Theory in real estate,” says Representative Tom Craddick, a Republican from Midland who is the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. “The owners spent too much money, and they’re hoping that a greater fool will come along to bail them out. It’s not going to be the State of Texas.”

Another obstacle to the stadium bill is Bush, who has staked his political future on cutting property taxes and finding other sources of revenue for public schools—including higher sales taxes. Bush has vowed to veto any stadium bill that allows local governments to raise sales taxes too, a position that verifies the old political saw that where you stand is where you sit: Bush was a general partner of the Rangers when they got their taxpayer-financed stadium.

Politics aside, the unanswered question is just how the loss of big-time professional sports will affect the vitality and the image of a city. The sad truth for Texas sports fans is that they’re likely to find out.

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