Play ball!

In the final, frantic week before Saturday’s opening date, the drive to ensure that the world’s first multipurpose domed stadium with a fully retractable roof would meet municipal safety standards had all the tension of a major-league pennant race. Only three days before an inaugural spectacular for 55,000 spectators hosted by television star Alan Thicke, Toronto city inspectors and council members swallowed hard and made their decision: a stadium with a missing seal that allowed the roof to leak during rainstorms and some rooms that had not been equipped with emergency telephones was safe enough to open. At the centre of the drama was the SkyDome, a $500-million complex flexible enough to host events from football and baseball games to trade conventions and rock concerts. But it is primarily a sports stadium, the new home of the Toronto Blue Jays and the Canadian Football League (CFL) Argonauts. And the size of the structure alone – with its roof shut, the SkyDome could enclose a 31-storey building or Rome’s Coliseum – emphasized the moneymaking magnetism of professional sport. Said Buck Martinez, a former Blue Jays catcher who is now a television commentator on The Sports Network (TSN): “Baseball is big business these days, and domedstadiums make the sport more efficient.”

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Attract:

As a ball-player-turned-broadcaster, the 40-year-old Martinez has been well placed to observe the forces that have combined to make professional sports a multi-million-dollar industry. He spent 18 years playing for three major-league teams before switching to a pay TV-network broadcast booth with Toronto-based TSN in 1987. During that span, fans of hockey, football, basketball and baseball began turning to newspapers’ business sections as well as the sport pages for information about their favorite teams.

Sometimes, they discovered that the local favorites had decamped. In the National Football League (NFL) alone, the Raiders left Oakland, Calif., for the larger Los Angeles market in 1982, the Colts abandoned Baltimore for Indianapolis in 1984, the Cardinals forsook St. Louis for Phoenix last year – and New York City’s Jets and Giants both use Giants Stadium in New Jersey. As a result, cities from Vancouver to St. Petersburg, Fla., have built new stadiums, some with roofs, to attract – or retain – a popular civic status symbol: a major-league sport franchise (page 46).

The postwar boom in professional spot franchise has been particularly beneficial for major-league baseball and the NFL. And while the CFL has shrunk to eight teams since Montreal withdrew in 1986 and remains financially shaky, early sales of more than 26,000 season tickets have led Argos owner Harry Ornest to predict a good season’s business under the dome. In baseball, continued high fan interest during the 1960s and 1970s resulted in the expansion to 26 teams – from 22 in 1962 – among them, the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays.

Profitable:

In 1977, eight years after the National League Montreal Expos first took the field at ramshackle Jarry Park, the Blue Jays opened the season at a similarly makeshift ball yard carved out of the gridiron at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium. There, and at other stadiums, television’s partnership with major-league sports has proved to be mutually profitable for broadcasters and team owners alike, as advertisers lined up to promote their products – beer and automobiles in particular – to stay-at-home fans. As a result, NBC TV charged up to $650,000 for a 30-second commercial during last January’s broadcast of Super Bowl XXIII. There, in Miami, the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals in an NFL championship game that attracted a worldwide audience of 750 million viewers.

When Martinez began his second season behind home plate in 1970 for the Kansas City Royals, he earned $10,800 at a time when a factory worker in Canada made $6,197 yearly. Since then, the average industrial wage has risen to $29,445 – a 4.75-fold increase. But the average baseball salary is now 18 times higher than it was in 1970, soaring to $701,018 from $38,118. Indeed, statistics compiled by the Major League Baseball Players Association show that 120 of 680 players who began the season on the big-league rosters this year have contracts that are worth more than $1 million (U.S.).

Threat:

Among them is Mark Langston, a hard throwing pitcher whom the Montreal Expos recently acquired from the Mariners. The talented Langston has predicted that he will sign a three-year contract next season for at least $9 million. One reason for such confident expectations: like their counterparts in professional football and hockey, baseball players have used the courts and the threat of strikes to win the limited right to sell their services to the highest bidder once their contracts expire.

In response, baseball-team owners in particular have sporadically taken collective action to contain their employees’ ballooning salary demands. To that end, they banded together and refused to sign any so-called free agents whose old teams still wanted their services during the 1986 and 1987 seasons. But arbitrators have since ruled that, in doing so, the owners had colluded to deprive the free agents of their true market value. Released from such collegial restraints, several owners – the the New York Yankees’ flamboyant principal owner, George Steinbrenner, among them – have shown that they are ready to tap guaranteed revenues from the sale of TV broadcast rights and offer contract to rival players.

Indeed, for a limited package of baseball coverage that includes exclusive rights to the World Series, the CBS TV network alone will pay $1.4 billion for a four-year contract that begins in 1990. That amount will provide each of the 26 teams in the National and American leagues with a $12-million payment each year. In addition, each club can still reach a separate agreement for local broadcasts of 81 regular-season home games. And with a team that plays in one of the most densely populated areas in the United States, Steinbrenner recently signed a 12-year cable TV contract that is worth $602 million.

Baseball’s two Canadian entries enjoy relatively good broadcast revenues. For one thing, the Expos currently have a five-year, $30-million marketing agreement with the Labatt Brewing Co. Ltd. The 1986 agreement allowed the London, Ont.-based brewery – whose parent company owns 45 per cent of the Toronto of the Expos. Still, Steinbrenner’s huge local TV contract has sparked concern that teams in such rich media markets as Los Angeles and New York City will eventually dominate franchises in such smaller cities as Milwaukee and Kansas City. Andy Hawkins, a journeyman pitcher who entered the 1989 season with a modest record of 60 wins and 58 losses, was one of three free agents who have already profited from Steinbrenner’s bid to buy on-field success: he has signed a three-year contract for $4.3 million.

Lure:

At the same time, many cities across the United States and Canada seek the continent-wide publicity that a major-league team provides for its home city simply through regular TV coverage and media reports on its scheduled games. Covered stadiums, with their guarantee of good playing conditions, enhance the image promotion. At Toronto’s SkyDome, the stands will be air-conditioned in warm weather and heated on cool days.

Last year, St. Petersburg almost managed to lure the Chicago White Sox from their 79-year-old Comiskey Park to a $132-million domed stadium that the Florida city is building – and financing with the sale of city – and county-backed bonds. But the White Sox have wrung a promise of a new stadium from Illinois state legislators, and the Florida Suncoast Dome is nearing completion without a big-league tenant.

In Canada, at a staggering cost, Montreal gained a stadium – though without its planned roof – for the 1976 Olympic Games. Thirteen years later – with the cost of the stadium now totalling $850 million – Quebec government officials say that the Expos’ home park could finally have a functioning retractable roof in operation sometime this month. In any event, the British Columbia government won the race to build the first fully enclosed stadium in the country in 1983 when it opened Vancouver’s B.C. Place, a $126-million structure that was topped off by a permanent fabric cover.

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