Thursday, March 08, 2007

Fish, save Pittsburgh any way you can

As of this writing, it remains unclear what will happen to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Will they move to Kansas City or Vegas or will they stay in Pittsburgh, where they won two Stanley Cups and legions of devoted fans who pack the Civic Arena to its rafters year in and year out? I want to clarify that I am among the biggest hockey fans I know. I have a framed copy of the newspaper from May 26, 1991 (my birthday) hanging above my mantle, Lemieux grinning with Lord Stanley. I know that Jaromir Jagr spells Mario Jr., I know that Jim Kyte was deaf and Jim Paek was the first Korean player in the NHL. I remember when Billy Tibbetts punched Darcy Hordichuck in the bench, I remember Kevin Stevens falling face first on the ice in Game 7 of the 1993 Islanders series. I used to listen to Mike Lange as I fell asleep, the names Chris Tamer and Zarley Zalapsky sound like "Sandman" to my ears. However, I have to divorce my emotions from this whole mess and really think about it in a broader perspective.

The Penguins had to declare that they were "seriously looking at other offers" in order to be taken seriously at the negotiating table, and Governor Rendell, Mayor Ravenstahl and Commissioner Onorato are now forced to play hardball if they weren't before. However, this current debacle is the product of numerous problems created by Pittsburgh politicians from times past1, but more importantly by the urban-suburban stratification of our society today. The conflicts do not reflect the actual tensions. It's not Penguins versus Pittsburgh or Pittsburgh versus Kansas City. It's a misdirected confrontation between Pittsburgh and its suburbs and American urban areas in general against their suburbs.

This is a collective action problem. Like any major business, the Penguins are bargaining with the City over issues of civic pride and jobs. Who doesn't want a major, visible entity in their city? Much like the tax abatements that the City has doled out to major companies, as soon as the governmental charity is over (tax abatement expires or arena gets old), the team or business threatens to bail, holding the City hostage until it opens its pockets to build more or give more. I'm not demanding that Philadelphia build me a new house because I'm such a nice guy and people in Philly like me, why should the Penguins be able to extort the government for comfy environs? The reason is this: Kansas City is willing to compete with Pittsburgh for the civic boost they get from a pro sports franchise. But who is Pittsburgh's adversary? Is it Kansas City?

The modern urban center is naturally antagonistic with it's suburbs. Pittsburgh, just years out of an extremely dire financial crisis, has a massive suburban metro area which is outcompeting the city for retail jobs, sending commuters in to degrade the highways built for their convenience over neighborhoods like the Hill District. They work in the offices built with City tax breaks and they go to Steelers games at a stadium built on what was then my dime. They pay a scant fee in occupation tax. That's it. We've known for a while that this arrangement hurts cities, and Pittsburgh has been actively trying to consolidate resources with the county, despite opposition from suburbanites, who like their freeloading arrangement. I've been to Kansas City, and they certainly have the same problem, but they are willing to be suckers for the "pride" associated with getting screwed when their arena gets old. This is a collective action problem- but cities are in such trouble individually that they cannot afford to act collectively.

I love the Penguins, if they move to Kansas City, I will be more upset than I was when Francisco Cabrera knocked Sid Bream home. But- and it really, really pains me to say it- the day they leave will probably be a good day for the City of Pittsburgh. The City missed several great chances to build an arena- the stadium binge of 6 or 7 years ago and then again with the casinos. It might be too late. There are plenty of great cities without pro hockey teams. Portland doesn't have one, Seattle doesn't have one. Those two are doing great, and Seattle told the Sonics they didn't have time to play blackmail and told them to get lost.

As a sports fan it hurts. But sports franchises are not interested in repaying their fans for loyalty. Ask anybody from Cleveland or Baltimore about that one. Sports franchises play with their fans' emotions and their dreams, sucking up the money until something better comes along. Mario Lemieux, who I hold in as high an esteem as the Rooneys, is hopefully just doing what he has to in order to keep the Pens where they belong and where they are loved. Maybe the new majority owners don't have the same sentimentality has he does. But Pittsburgh gets shit on enough by everybody else, and we just say "Fuck You." Isn't it time we prepare ourselves to say the same if some Corporation wants to take our already fragile (but proud) City for a ride?


1: An arena serves the City much better than a football stadium. You can put 41 hockey games, dozens of basketball games, conventions, concerts, tractor pulls and graduations in an arena. You can put 13-16 football games in Heinz Field. After the stadium initiative was voted down, Mayor Murphy said fuck it and built them anyway. I can see the need for a new baseball stadium, but do you really think the Steelers would have left Pittsburgh if we had merely asked Pitt to hold off on tearing down Pitt Stadium while Three Rivers was remodeled with Sky Boxes over the course of a year or two?

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