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Overplaying Your Hand: John Junker, DeLoss Dodds, Mike Brown ... And Arthur Blank?

The sports world is replete with recent examples of overreach. The Falcons ought to think about those examples when pushing for a new stadium.

Arthur, please don't be this guy.  (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)
Arthur, please don't be this guy. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)
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For me, one of the running themes in sports and politics for the past several years has been overreach. People in positions of power have found themselves in advantageous positions, but have then pushed their advantages too far, leading to a counterproductive backlash. If you asked a Republican about this concept, they would argue that President Obama overplayed his hand in his first two years in office, specifically with the content of the stimulus bill and the way that he approached his health care initiative. If you asked a Democrat about this concept, they would say the same about the Republican majority in Congress that came to power in January 2011, most specifically in the debt ceiling crisis.

Because I am contractually* obligated to reference World War II whenever possible, the German treatment of Ukrainians in the aftermath of June 22, 1941 is a historical example of overreach. Stalin's policies intentionally devastated the Ukraine in the lead-up to World War II, including one of the worst famines in human history. Ukrainians would have welcomed with open arms anyone who promised to end Stalin's rule over them. Hitler could have occupied the Ukraine in such a way that he would have had secure supply lines for his assault on Moscow and the oil-rich Caucusus. Instead, he authorized the SS to brutalize the Ukraine, in part to steal the agricultural wealth of the region (an element of the motivation for invading the USSR in the first place) and in part out of racial animus (another motive for starting Operation Barbarossa). Whereas the Germans could have had a secure rear area, they ended up having to fend off intense partisan activity. Underestimating Soviet manpower, industry, and will to fight, Hitler thought that his position in the East against Stalin was stronger than it was, so he overplayed his hand.

* - Not really.

There are numerous recent examples of overreach in the sports world, but I will stick to three. The first is the way that the major bowl games have endangered their position in the college football universe by screwing over their partners, namely the teams that play in them. Thinking that they are indispensable, the bowls have wrung every last penny out of their participants. As a result, as the powers that be in college football have discussed a playoff, they are giving very strong consideration to giving no role to the major bowls, with campus sites and/or NFL stadia both as options. Dan Wetzel did a great job of illustrating why:

All in all, the "2012 BCS Complimentary Tickets" document obtained by Yahoo! Sports detailed most of what would wind up being a $526,924 bill LSU owed the Sugar Bowl just for tickets.

It isn't uncommon. Almost every bowl charges schools for everything it can dream up. That's how the industry works: cutthroat capitalism that has made these games and the people that run them rich.

Yet, now athletic directors and conference commissioners say the extreme profiteering is one of the reasons bowl games could be pushed aside as college football's power brokers meet this week in Florida to discuss the future of the postseason.

"Everything has changed in the last couple of years," said an athletic director at a BCS school. "The business practices of the bowl games are of great discussion. ... When is enough, enough?

"There's a feeling that it's time to do it ourselves."

Anti-SEC grumblers aside, college football fans would have watched Alabama and LSU play for the national title anywhere. Put the game in Jerryworld, Gillette Stadium, Rungrado May Day Stadium, or a cow pasture in Montana and viewers would have watched. The people running the Sugar Bowl view their institution as indispensable, so they felt that they were on safe ground making all sorts of unreasonable demands to the teams playing in their game, but they are finding out that college football can live without the Sugar Bowl as part of the national title structure.

One state to the west, the University of Texas also illustrated the concept of overreach when they started the Longhorn Network. The thinking behind this move had to be something along the lines of "we are the biggest, baddest team in the Big XII, so we can have our own network and there is nothing that the other eleven members of the conference can do about it." As it turned out, there was something that Nebraska, Colorado, Missouri, and Texas A&M could do: leave. T. Boone Pickens described the situation perfectly:

While Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds professed his love for the Big 12, Oklahoma State billionaire booster Boone Pickens says the league won't last much longer.

Pickens believes the Cowboys will end up in the Pac-12, with Oklahoma. He largely blames Texas' insistence on creating the Longhorn Network.

"The network could have been the straw that broke the camel's back," Pickens said.

Dodds "is a friend of mine," Pickens said. "But DeLoss had too many cards and he played every damn one of them. I think that's too bad. You get tired of saying ‘aaah' while you get something shoved down your throat."

Even if the Oklahoma schools did not move West, one-third of the Big XII's membership ultimately left. The conference now exists as a smaller version and it had to add TCU (a small school that will not bring much value to the league if the football program does not maintain the level that Gary Patterson has attained) and West Virginia (a small market that is geographically remote from the Big XII region). Texas overplayed its hand and now sits in a less valuable conference.

The Cincinnati Bengals are a third illustration of overreach in sports. The Bengals managed to strike an incredibly favorable deal with their city and county to get Paul Brown Stadium paid for using a sales tax. As the revenue situation of the city and county worsened during the economic downturn, the Bengals refused to budge an inch, even as Cincinnati's public schools found themselves in a cash-strapped position. The New York Times explains:

The generous deal for the Bengals has been a sore spot. The team had to pay rent only through 2009 on its 26-year lease, and has to cover the cost of running the stadium only for game days. Starting in 2017, the county will reimburse the team for these costs, too. The county will pay $8.5 million this year to keep the stadium going.

The Bengals keep revenue from naming rights, advertising, tickets, suites and most parking. If the county wants to recoup money by taxing tickets, concessions or parking, it needs the team's approval.

Compared with the lucrative deals for teams in Baltimore, St. Louis and elsewhere, the Bengals won a particularly lopsided lease.

Bob Bedinghaus, the commissioner who spearheaded the stadium project, said as much in 2000.

"They're an organization that's run by lawyers, and they look for every penny around every corner," he told The Cincinnati Enquirer. "It's going to be a difficult relationship going forward for the next 30 years."

The national sports media was aghast last December that the Bengals were not selling out games even when they were playing for a wild card spot. Personally, I was happy to see that development because the Bengals deserve to be punished for screwing over their home city. It's one thing for a commercial partner to try to get the best deal against another. It's another for a professional sports team - one that relies on goodwill from the community for its revenue - to blackmail the local government into a one-sided deal and then refuse to budge. If I were living in Cincinnati and dealing with a situation where my children's teachers are being furloughed and trash pick-up is less frequent, you can be sure that I would have no interest in going to Bengals games.

I mention all of this as a cautionary tale for the Falcons. The local professional football franchise is seeking to replace the Georgia Dome - a facility that is only twenty years old and is a perfectly good place to watch a football game - with a retractable roof facility. The price tag for the new stadium is estimated at $948 million, although that seems to be a conservative estimate. Additionally, the only funding source listed so far has been a hotel/motel tax. The remaining funding is undetermined, but could very well come in the form of either additional tax revenue or in the form of charging fans more for the privilege of supporting the local team through PSLs and higher ticket prices.

I feel leery about any analogy that has Mike Brown and Arthur Blank in a sequence. Mr. Blank is widely popular in Atlanta for a variety of reasons, two of which are his various philanthropic endeavors and his generally good stewardship of the Falcons. That said, the Falcons risk the same sort of backlash that the bowls, Texas, and Bengals have all seen for pushing their position too hard. A new Falcons stadium promises little or nothing for an average fan, save for fewer seats, higher ticket prices, and the opportunity cost involved with $300 million in tax revenue going for a private business as opposed to schools, police, and other public services. The Falcons rely on the local community for much of their revenue. They ought to consider that fact when pushing for an unnecessary new stadium.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.