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THE IMPACT of the high price being asked for a major-league baseball expansion franchise hits like a cold slap in the face to Buffalonians who thought competition from other cities -- not affordability -- would be the key obstacle.

Lease talks with the Buffalo Bisons may bog down because the team wants financial guarantees to compensate for the fact that a new franchise will cost an exorbitant $95 million.

But the jolt may not be all bad. After all, it forces local officials and residents to take stock of just where acquisition of a big-league franchise falls among priorities that also include keeping streets plowed, schools staffed and tax rates reasonable.

Officials negotiating with the Bisons already have drawn a line that should not be crossed: General city and county tax revenues that keep government running should not be diverted to guarantee private entrepreneurs a safety net. Taxpayers simply cannot afford it.

A major-league franchise would be an undeniable asset for this region. Beyond providing entertainment for residents and a boost to the local economy, it would bring national exposure that would be a great advertisement.

Team must be a viable business

But a major-league team is first and foremost a business. Bisons officials recognize that in questioning whether the venture is now "economically viable for this community." Public officials must remain just as cost-conscious.

The two sides already have agreed on some terms favorable to the team. Rent would be lower than the rent now paid by the minor-league operation, while the team would take over operating and maintenance costs. The team also would keep all revenue from tickets, souvenirs, food and advertising, instead of sharing it with the city.

This apparently is in line with what other
teams negotiating new leases are getting. Buffalo officials say the terms also are in recognition of the higher-than-expected $95 million franchise price the Bisons and their investors would have to pay.

But officials say demands that the city fork over $1.5 million annually from game-day parking revenues and, along with the county, commit $650,000 annually for capital improvements would require the use of general tax revenues.

Taxpayers can't provide guarantee

These arrangements would not be a good deal for either a city or a county government already struggling to stay in the black.

Nor are team demands that rent be waived in any year in which the team does not receive revenue from baseball's television contract, or that rent be reduced if attendance does not meet specified figures. Such guarantees shift practically all of the risk from the entrepreneurs onto the backs of taxpayers.

Of course, it may well be that such talk is merely part of the negotiating strategy as the team tries to get all it can while remaining a good corporate citizen. But it is not government's role to guarantee the success of a private business at all costs, not even one with as intricate a link to the region as a sports franchise.

Government already has made more than a normal commitment, building Pilot Field for the minor-league Bisons and pledging to fund the $40 million expansion to accommodate major league ball.

If major-league baseball sticks to its outlandish $95 million figure -- $20 million more than the San Diego Padres recently sold for -- the Buffalo ownership group may well have to broaden its base of investors or find other means of acquiring funds.

If it can't, that means it's not a good deal for the private sector. And if it's not a good deal for the private sector, then it would be an even worse deal for taxpayers.

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