Ness Notes (August 11)

At the core of every sport is a game in infancy, perhaps merely an intense showcase of innocence celebrated through unbridled hope, enthusiasm and sorrow. The National Football League’s quintessential savior to the modernly perceived cynicism of professional sports must be the Green Bay Packers. For even in the heart of winter, Wisconsinites can religiously bask in the warmth of Lambeau Field and illuminate an entire state with unflinching pride. It may be a dying breed of venues where a fan can purchase a bratwurst and beverage with plenty to spare on team paraphernalia. Games have been sold out for over thirty years. Season tickets are willed from generation to generation. (The waiting list has reached nearly 40,000 names long). And if a naïve outsider were to softly inquire to whom the team belongs, the homogenous enthusiasts, armed with “cheese-wedge” head gear, would respond in unison, “We do!”

The Packers, whose 1998 stock sale gave the community a minority stake and raised more than $24 million (120,000 shares) for an individual capital improvements fund, have made a staunch commitment to keep the franchise in Green Bay for eternity. Try convincing a Packers fan that there is life after football.

So, the relocations of the Browns (now Ravens) to Baltimore and the Oilers (now Titans) to Nashville, when compared to the aforementioned utopia, seem perplexing to an idealist. USFANS President Frank Stadulis would decree that franchise owners have absolutely no right to shift their assets to another city, even if the move equates to dramatically higher financial incentives. “USFANS believes that all communities should have the opportunity to own their hometown professional sports teams, as well as be allowed to form and own new teams if they choose,” Stadulis said.

It should come to little surprise VISIT Stadulis vehemently supports U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer’s bill aptly entitled, “Give Fans a Chance Act of 1999” (H.R. 532 for those of you scoring at home), which essentially requires franchise owners or leagues to provide advance notice and welcome purchasing proposals from local municipalities before relocating a member club out of the immediate community.

The report from Blumenauer on the House Floor earlier this year included a declaration that fans “continue to pay more for tickets, more for parking, more for taxes, more for seat licenses, more for concessions that make it less affordable, less comfortable for the community
and ever more lucrative for the few who profit. It does not have to be this way.”

But this provincial rhetoric undermines the reality that the masses, not the few, have benefited from franchise facelifts. Perhaps, Blumenauer missed Cleveland, Phoenix, Denver, and Dallas (to name a few) – cities with either relocated or expansion sports teams that have illuminated millions of people – on his cross-country voyages. Higher prices have raised fans’ expectations, which have forced franchise executives to improve the quality of their product. In turn, fans and city officials have reaped the benefits of having more accommodating facilities, luxurious amenities, exciting experiences, and a direct upgrade on the local economy. All of these interdependent mechanisms have improved the market value of the franchise, and sometimes its potential value elsewhere.

There are some remarkable examples of cities embracing their local teams, sometimes after a temporary parting. Cleveland Browns fans welcomed back their beloved team, after a nearly four-year absence, in typical form. On the eve of the Brown’s 1999 home opener, Clevelanders were spotted eating hot “Reuben delights” at Sportsman Restaurant (open since 1947 and always maintained its team’s orange and brown motif), talking football with buddies alongside the Cuyahoga River, and celebrating at Harpo’s Sports Cafe with a few extra rounds of drinks. Yes, Cleveland has validated that the Browns are there to stay.


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