Drayton McLane set his first deadline a year ago: Houston, he announced in dramatic fashion, had two weeks to prove it was worthy of a major league baseball franchise. McLane set three conditions for the Astros' continued presence here: a new retractable-roof dome financed with public money, the purchase of 30 percent of the team by area businessmen and pledges that 25,000 season tickets be sold annually for at least five years. If those must-haves were not forthcoming, McLane indicated he'd make good on his threat to sell the franchise to an out-of-towner who'd move the team.

The deadline came and went, as so many others would, without McLane's demands' being met. But as the months passed, the Astros owner got most of what he wanted. If Proposition One is approved next Tuesday -- which appears to be only a slim possibility at this point -- McLane will get a new $250 million ballpark built mostly with public funds. And though he never enticed any minority partners to buy a share of the team, he did extract $33 million from area corporations to pay for the land for the stadium and underwrite some of the construction costs he might otherwise have had to absorb.

But despite an unprecedented "Step Up to the Plate" campaign backed by the Greater Houston Partnership and pumped by Mayor Bob Lanier and other high-profile beggars, the season ticket sales failed to materialize. In fact, the Partnership's estimate that the market would support 17,200 season tickets proved faulty; the final tally was 11,680, less than half of McLane's magic number.

Attendance at the Astrodome in 1996 did increase by 45 percent over last season to almost 2 million, but the figure is misleading. As Astros vice president Bob McClaren complained late in the season, many of those tickets were no-shows. Though the Astros would not release no-show numbers for the past season, one source close to the team pegged the figure as high as 20 percent, meaning that total attendance was closer to 1.6 million than the announced tally.

The official number puts Houston squarely in the middle of the 28 major league teams, though with the high percentage of no-shows it's likely that the Astros finished closer to the bottom of the standings. That, in turn, would buttress McLane's assertion that his fan-based revenues are insufficient, because fewer fans means less money from ticket and concessions sales and parking.

The dismal numbers explain why the general public is shouldering most of the burden to make McLane's team "competitive" with other well-heeled franchises -- Houston's fans simply don't support the Astros, and blaming the team's performance for that doesn't cut it. During the stretch run, when the Astros were fighting for a playoff spot, the majority of the games drew fewer than 20,000 customers, easily the worst of any team in contention.

The team's projections for attendance at the new park assume weak support as well. Expect about 5,000 additional fans per game, the Astros say, which would push the average toward the 30,000 mark, well below the tallies in Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver and even Arlington, where new ballparks have jump-started the turnstiles.

Fan disinterest isn't the only attendance depressant. If the numbers floated by the Astros are correct, most of those 30,000 fans are going to have to come from the more affluent zip codes. The new stadium is expected to generate up to $30 million in new annual revenue for Drayton; concessions profits alone, the Astros predict, will double. There's no telling how expensive the hot dogs will be, but at $10 to $25 just for parking, as McClaren acknowledged during a radio appearance with Proposition One opponent Dan Patrick, the average working stiff may have a hard time fitting more than a game or two into the family budget.

And those figures don't include the user taxes that will in part be expected to pay off the stadium bonds, nor do they include the 15,000 personal seat licenses at an average of $1,000 apiece that will be sold to offset the city's $15 million commitment toward construction. If the team is figuring that half of the total annual attendance will come from personal seat license holders, they don't anticipate much of a stampede at the gate from the unwashed masses.

Of course, the same purchasers of the PSLs will be the same parties that usually buy the luxury boxes and season tickets -- the Compaqs and Enrons and NationsBanks and smaller businesses that write off the cost against their taxes. It's the larger corporations, of course, who also account for most of the no-shows. After all, a guy who buys four tickets to a game for his family is going to show up. That same imperative isn't driving the corporate client -- as evidenced by the swaths of empty red seats that stretched from dugout to dugout throughout last season.

When he was pleading for his own dome, Bud Adams didn't have to worry as much about fan support, even though he had only eight games a year instead of 81 to generate the revenue, which is why he offered to put up $75 million toward its estimated $245 million construction cost. And it was real money, not the phantom $37 million contribution McLane will make after he's handed at least $40 million for the naming rights to a stadium he won't own.

But football ranks in Houston, and maybe the city's just a lousy baseball town. Whoever ends up paying for the new ballpark -- and that remains to be seen, the promises of the vote-yes brigade notwithstanding -- will essentially be providing a public subsidy for a private business that can't attract enough customers to stay afloat on its own. Elsewhere, that's known as socialism.


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