Friday, September 16, 2011

The grand experiment

If the Rosenberger plan is adopted, Nationwide Arena would transfer to public ownership.
Smile!  You'll be owning an arena!
Permit me to share some perspective on my three favorite sporting teams as a prelude to my discussion of the proposed Nationwide Arena plan.

I've been especially proud of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football program because, unlike so many other schools, they have chosen to eschew the choice between the academically qualified and the athletically challenged.  When the lads weren't doing so well - something that's happened a lot recently - I could at least take heart that our kids played hard and graduated after taking legitimate, quality coursework.  When the Irish were on top of the heap, it was even better - but that's another story for another day.

When I was a diehard fan (thanks again, Matt Millen), I took pride in the Detroit Lions for doubling down on a decrepit downtown Detroit as the place to locate the new Ford Field - a place I still consider to be America's football palace.  The team may have had tough times, but ownership did its part to help rebuild of one of America's formerly great cities.  There's nobility in that move...even if it ends up being financially questionable.  Strangely, however, winning has put rear ends in the seats even in downtown Detroit.  Go figure.

And even though the Columbus Blue Jackets have only tasted the playoffs for a brief four games in their history, I could always fall back on the arena as a means to keep my head held high.  As Jeff Little explained in his "Arena Chronicles" articles, Nationwide Arena was one of only five arenas (Boston, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver being the others) in the entire National Hockey League that used entirely private money to fund its operations.  So our team might not be winning every night, but at least the Blue Jackets weren't bleeding the taxpayers while they worked our way along.

All three represent grand experiments: Notre Dame in preserving the notion of the student-athlete in spirit as well as in letter, the Detroit Lions in their commitment to urban renewal and the Columbus Blue Jackets in the spirit of "The private sector can do this without government help, thank you."

With regard to the Blue Jackets, it appears that particular grand experiment officially ended in failure on Wednesday.  And while I'm genuinely pleased that the Blue Jackets' flight risk will all but evaporate by the time this deal is ratified, there still is a tinge of sadness.

John Rosenberger, the Henry Kissinger of the multiparty arena negotiations, announced his plan to shift the ownership of the arena to the public dime today.  (Here's the presentation.)  Should the plan pass, the announced $12 million annual losses that the Blue Jackets have faced would drop by almost $10 million.  Add in the $1 million saved by shifting marketing responsibilities to Ohio State University, and you're looking at a minor uptick in ticket sales to get the team to a break-even position.  Win a few more games, and that shouldn't be a problem.  And the Blue Jackets apparently will stay in town through 2039 if the deal is approved.

Even in these rough economic times, wise communities will still make strategic investments to make themselves shine to the world as a great place to live, work and play (not to mention pay taxes).  That the investment happens to be made in hockey, a sport which I have grown to enjoy so much, is all the better.  I appreciate the value of what big time, professional sports does for Columbus as a source of community pride and (to a much lesser degree) an economic focal point for a once-distressed part of Columbus.  The community will appreciate it even more if the Blue Jackets actually start doing some damage in the NHL.

It's taken ten years, but the Blue Jackets, Nationwide Arena and the Arena
District hopefully have proven their worth to the people of Franklin County.
In conclusion, I will offer an appreciation for what Mr. Mac and Dimon McPherson did in making the Blue Jackets, Nationwide Arena and the Arena District a reality, especially in the face of the voters that voted against the idea of raising their sales taxes to fund the arena.  Even moreso, I appreciate that JMAC and Nationwide were able to keep the arena in the rare air of being free of public support for as long as they did.  Considering the fact that the arena is now valued at 28.5% of its construction cost, and that the team has been losing money for years, it's clear that this whole particular investment in professional sports in Ohio was motivated by higher aspirations than profit-taking.  Much like Notre Dame holds true to its notion of a real student-athlete, and like the Detroit Lions put their money where their mouths were with regard to downtown development, JMAC and Nationwide stood tall on the principle that Columbus is a big-league town that deserves a big-league team.

For the past ten-plus years, they (and their successors) nobly conducted their version of the grand experiment and just couldn't make it work.  We'll still have NHL hockey in this town for the foreseeable future, and that's great news in this little corner of Franklin County, but it won't quite be the same as it was.

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