Stadia Watch

Now that County Judge Robert Eckels has his offer for a new baseball stadium on the table, the posturing over financing has begun in earnest. And the contradictions are emerging faster than the Chronicle can print them. In his knee-jerk rejection of Eckels' plan, Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr. predictably trotted out his (unsubstantiated) claims of a hemorrhaging wallet, arguing that he's unable to field a competitive team without a total giveaway like the ones handed the owners in Baltimore, Cleveland, Arlington and Denver. McLane failed to mention that 14 teams have drawn fewer fans than the Astros this year, including the Montreal Expos and the Chicago White Sox, both playoff contenders. We guess McLane would support the notion that those 14 teams may have to move unless they get new stadiums, too.

All the noise about McLane's purported losses and threats to sell the team to Virginia businessman Bill Collins obscure one of his more telling complaints -- that the $10 million Eckels offered to buy out the Astrodome lease was far too little. This after Astrodome USA vice president Bob McLaren told the Press that the lease was basically a break-even proposition for McLane. It's likely, though, that McLane's protest is legitimate: in May, we reported that Andrew Zimbalist, one of the foremost outside authorities on the business of major league baseball and author of Baseball and Billions, estimates the value of the Astrodome lease to be in the neighborhood of $30 million annually. McLane holds the lease through 2023. We'll let you do the multiplication.

Meanwhile, the county awaits a formal counterproposal from McLane, who in the past has expressed some willingness to throw a few peanuts at a new stadium. But Eckels may not be inclined to budge far from his request that McLane fund $100 million of the estimated $250 million cost. According to the Washington Post, if Virginia legislators are even willing to approve a stadium deal, Collins or whoever owns the franchise there will be asked to chip in about $100 million. Virginia's stance takes some of the air out of McLane's argument that a new stadium in Houston must be virtually 100 percent publicly financed, since that's the way the last few new stadiums in other cities have been built. Baseball's owners haven't been able to control their expenses, but the host cities may be finally getting a handle on theirs.

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