If we believe the local sports media, it's only a matter of time before we'll have to face the prospect of watching Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley light it up for the Baltimore Blackmailers, or Vegas Vegetarians, or whatever the Rockets will be called after Les Alexander takes an offer for a new arena from some other city. Houston Chronicle columnist Fran Blinebury recently warned, "Think in terms of months or even weeks."
Unless, of course, we hurry and pass an arena referendum and give Alexander everything he wants.
The lockstep view that the city's position has somehow deteriorated dramatically since the referendum has yet to be challenged. This is the case even though Alexander trotted out a list of cities that wanted the Rockets several years ago, as leverage to slither out of his Compaq Center lease (that list included Nashville, San Jose and perennial contender New Orleans). But under a microscope, the many shrill claims about Houston's desperate straits don't really make sense; some, like the Las Vegas rumor, border on the absurd.
If nothing else, Alexander has proven his allegiance to at least one principle during his tenure as Rockets owner: Whatever ultimately makes the most money for Les wins. And unless his tendency to act like a petulant, whining brat when he doesn't get his way gets the best of him, he'll be looking after his best economic interests when he makes the Big Decision.
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A few facts about Houston: fourth-largest city in the country, 11th-biggest media market, home to 13 Fortune 500 corporations as well as 18 of the Fortune 100 fastest-growing companies. That equals a huge fan base and plenty of money to spend on luxury boxes and other "premium seating." According to sources close to the team, Alexander has netted more than $100 million in profits since he bought the Rockets for $85 million in 1993. And even without a new arena deal, the value of the franchise has doubled in the interim. Hate Houston though he may, the city has been very, very good to Les.
So for him to pack the U-Hauls and flee would require a mighty fine deal from some other city desperate for major-league status. Dime a dozen, cry the Blineburys, reciting a list that includes Baltimore, New Orleans, Las Vegas, San Diego, St. Louis. Seller's market, they insist.
Civic boosters in those cities have expressed interest in luring an NBA franchise. New Orleans built a dome on spec in the hopes of attracting a basketball or hockey team. The owner of the St. Louis NHL franchise recently tried to buy the NBA's Vancouver Grizzlies and move them south. Ever since Baltimore lost its hoops squad to Washington, D.C., city fathers have plotted another heist like the one they pulled in stealing the Browns from Cleveland. And Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has been pushing the idea of a multipurpose arena downtown for several years.
But wanting doesn't mean getting. New Orleans has been shopping its sparkling new facility for years, with no takers. Even if the city could offer a prospective tenant every arena revenue stream, those streams may be more trickles than torrents. Only one Fortune 500 company has its headquarters in New Orleans. One of the smallest major metropolitan areas in the country (ranked 34th, according to census data), the city has lost more than 6 percent of its population since 1990. New Orleans also has the lowest median family income of any major U.S. city. "The numbers are bad," says André Maillho, editor of that city's Gambit Weekly alternative paper. "Who's going to be paying those NBA prices? An NBA team could not survive in New Orleans."
Vegas doesn't have a problem with extravagant prices, though its metro-area population (roughly the same as New Orleans's) wouldn't inspire the average bean counter. Jim Fossum, sports editor of the Las Vegas Review Journal, says Alexander would have other hurdles. With plenty of entertainment options, Fossum says, pro sports has never established much of a foothold in Vegas. And no agreement has been reached about how a new arena would be funded, since Nevada has no state taxes, and hotel taxes wouldn't fly there. "I'm not sure there's a population base for it," Fossum says. "I'm not sure of the arena situation. I'm not sure the NBA is ready for Vegas, because of the gaming. I don't see it as realistic."
As for Baltimore, a new downtown arena was a priority for the former mayor, but new Mayor Martin O'Malley hasn't yet brought up the issue. Baltimore Sun basketball writer Don Markus says the demographics in the city don't really support the idea of an NBA team, and there's not a lot of interest in the NBA among his paper's readers. "We don't even cover the Wizards," he says. "It would seem to me that Baltimore is not a market [that a team owner] would explore."
Moreover, the D.C.-based Wizards draw a hefty chunk of attendance from Maryland. One member of the front office contacted by the Press discreetly declined to comment. But asked if new Wizards executive Michael Jordan would be enthused about another team down the road sapping his revenues, he chuckled and said, "Exactly."
St. Louis offers another problem for Alexander. The NHL Blues already control the lease in the Kiel Center, meaning he couldn't get the cash for the naming rights or even be the dominant tenant. Similar problems would exist for him in Las Vegas if the arena, as is likely, were privately funded. "He's not gonna get a golden calf here," says Review Journal hoops writer Steve Carp, "because the guys he's got to play ball with won't do it."
Ask people in the know in San Diego, Kansas City, Cincinnati or other failed NBA cities, and the answers are pretty much the same: If you have no franchise and you want to put one here, then maybe (though probably not). But to move from Houston? Crazy, man, crazy.
Which brings us back to the dough. Les could always sell the team for a bundle, though he has never talked of bailing. If so, a likely buyer would be St. Louis Blues mogul Bill Laurie, who wants an NBA team and might be allowed to move a purchase to the Kiel Center. But the NBA recently rejected his proposal to buy and transfer the marginal Grizzlies, so the league might not be too keen on losing Houston from its roster.
Dissecting the other allegedly desirable deals, it's a long way down the gravy train from what Alexander would have gotten in Houston (under the proposal rejected by the voters) to the next best offer from some other burg. Even if another city can offer him all the revenues, which most can't (and which Houston did), revenues here are likely to be a lot higher than anyone else's. There's plenty of wiggle room, if Alexander wanted to wiggle, and still have all parties come out ahead. Perhaps, for example, he'll back off his insistence that the city build the arena on private land, at a cost of $30 million to the taxpayers, instead of land the city already owns a couple of blocks away.
But Alexander has said he won't budge a penny off his last position. In every other city where an arena has been defeated, the team owners have come back with a tweaked deal that was more palatable to the citizens. Les (and his slavish minions at the Chronicle) may continue to insist that the voters were too stupid to understand the issues the first time around and demand the same deal next time. If so, or if Alexander's hatred of Houston indeed means the Rockets are already gone, then farewell. If cities are waiting to snap up teams that aren't doing well enough at the box office, then Houston will become the most attractive destination -- for half the teams in the league.
E-mail Bob Burtman at bob.burtman@ houstonpress.com.
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