Home Court Advantage

The Rockets get a lot of mileage out of talks with other cities.
Monica Fuentes

It would not be much of a stretch to assume that voters turned down the basketball arena plan last November because they didn't like the deal. Logically, the Rockets and the Sports Authority would have accepted defeat, sat down at the negotiating table and reworked the terms to be more acceptable to the public. Again applying simple logic, this would involve some concessions from Rockets owner Les Alexander, who sweet-talked Mayor Lee Brown into giving him everything but gold-plated toilet seats the first go-round.

But when Houston's sports venues are at stake, logic gets tossed out the window. The day after the referendum crashed and burned, ex-mayor Bob Lanier chuckled about how Les had actually benefited from the resounding public rejection. "I don't think he wanted to lose the referendum, but he's in a much better bargaining position than he was yesterday," Lanier told the Chronicle.

The reason (see "Hoopla," by Bob Burtman, February 10) was the sudden appearance of numerous cities willing to do just about anything to lure the Rockets away from Houston. The idea that the departure of the Rockets was virtually guaranteed unless the citizens begged Les to reconsider was bolstered by relentless drumbeating from the Houston Chronicle (see this week's News Hostage, page 17). The fact that those cities either had financially weak plans or no plans at all didn't seem to matter. "Today, there are so many opportunities for the Rockets to relocate that Alexander would be crazy not to take one of them," insisted Chron sports columnist John Lopez on November 4.

But the fatal flaws of the competition have been steadily emerging, most recently in Louisville, where key constituencies are resisting the prospect of mortgaging the city's future to enrich a franchise owner. And though some wanna-be burg may yet step forward with an offer Les just can't refuse, the horizon is empty of solid prospects.

The intent to strike fear into the hearts of the citizenry was only part of Alexander's strategy. More immediate was the need to leverage a new deal with the Sports Authority that at the very least offered Les as good a return as the original. After that, he wouldn't need to threaten the public with an exodus if it didn't pass the second vote -- the Chronicle would do it for him.

But according to a source familiar with the negotiations, the authority hasn't been buying into the plan. From the start, chairman Billy Burge and others have been publicly skeptical of the emigration reports. And the Rockets' chief hagglers, Baker Botts attorney Mike Goldberg and team general manager George Postolos, have been almost apologetic in conveying the news about overtures to other cities. Both reportedly favor keeping the team in Houston; the public posturing in Louisville, Las Vegas and other locales was a matter of following the boss's orders. "They said they had to do it, don't take offense," says the source.

A new arena deal is close, though mutual mistrust is bogging down progress. The details aren't yet set in stone but will include locating the arena on city-owned land at a savings of $30 million. Aeros hockey club owner Chuck Watson will have a chance to participate in a capacity other than as Les's serf, and the city is intent on capturing some of the revenue from the facility, including parking and a piece of the naming rights. "The structure of the deal has been agreed to," the source says. "We're still about $20 million apart."

This indeed seems like an improvement from the last offering, but there's a catch: In exchange for the concessions, the city will pick up the entire tab for the arena, which has now increased to $185 million (the original $160 million may not have been realistic). Les won't have to pay half the construction cost, though his annual rent payment will be more than $8 million, one of the higher rents in the league.

Whether the entire package ultimately shakes out better for one side or the other will likely be buried in the fine print, to be reckoned by accountants -- regardless of the latest dispatches from Boise, or Natchez, or Albuquerque, orŠ

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