- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 9, 2000

Americans have once again reaffirmed their love affair with pro sports at the polls.

Before Election Day, referendums for stadiums and arenas around the country appeared in serious trouble, particularly in Arizona and Green Bay. But when the polls closed late Tuesday, charges of stadium aid amounting to corporate welfare for team owners faded and every significant pro sports initiative on the ballots won.

Voters in Maricopa County, Ariz., approved by a razor-thin 51-49 percent margin a $1.8 billion spending package that will include a new $331 million stadium for the Arizona Cardinals. The Green Bay Packers received voter permission to sell the naming rights to help pay for a $295 million renovation to Lambeau Field, marking the end of a less commercial era for the hallowed stadium. Green Bay voters in September also approved a sales tax increase for the project. Both votes were approved by a 53-47 percent margin.

Houston voters overwhelmingly passed $175 million in public financing for a new arena for the NBA's Rockets, a year after rejecting a similar initiative. Voters there also approved a sales tax increase to help efforts to host the 2012 Summer Olympics.

The votes are major steps to keep the Packers, Cardinals and Rockets in their current cities and ends threats by the latter two to leave town.

And several ex-athletes and coaches will be returning to Congress. Rep. Steve Largent, Oklahoma Republican and former Seattle receiver; Rep. Jim Ryun , Kansas Republican and former mile record holder; and Sen. Herbert Kohl, Wisconsin Democrat and Milwaukee Bucks owner, each won re-election on Tuesday.

Former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne, arguably the most popular figure in the state, won a House seat in a landslide vote that hearkens back to his numerous runaway victories on the field.

"People are still feeling a lot of pressure of about their teams leaving town. The Packers in particular were effective in communicating how lucky a small town like Green Bay is to still have the NFL. And we didn't see in a lot of these places either truly organized opposition or politicians saying what Plan B would be if the referendums failed," said Mark Rosentraub, Indiana University associate dean and a researcher on sports finance.

"But the closeness of some of these votes, and the fact the Houston deal had to come back after being rejected, indicates that voters are indeed looking for a better deal, a better package, perhaps more private financing."

The Arizona vote was easily the most contentious because of the size of Proposition 302, the awful on-field history of the Cardinals and insular, unpopular owner Bill Bidwill. Early polls projected 302 failing by more than a dozen percentage points.

But Arizona Wins, the proponent organization behind 302, spent nearly $2 million 200 times opposition spending to tell voters the proposition was also intended to benefit Cactus League baseball, the Fiesta Bowl, youth sports and tourism promotion. The vote was also helped by not targeting any sales or income taxes, instead using tourism and stadium ticket taxes to raise the money.

The Arizona vote, despite the reporting of 100 percent of precincts, technically will not be complete until the election is certified on Nov. 14, as 135,000 ballots out of nearly 900,000 remain uncounted or need to be recounted. But Arizona Wins retains a lead of more than 21,000 votes, and is anticipating no change in the current percentages.

"The votes left outstanding come all over the county and from every demographic group," said Joe Yuhas, campaign manager of Arizona Wins. "We only have to win 42 percent of those votes and we still win. We're optimistic the lead will hold."

The Cardinals, however, are not entirely out of the woods in their bid to replace Sun Devil Stadium with a retractable roof stadium. A site for the new stadium has not been firmly identified, and infrastructure questions also have not been answered.

"I wish the Cardinals well, and I hope this is being expected there as a cultural enhancement rather than an economic engine, because that won't happen," said Andrew Zimbalist, Smith College economics professor and an outspoken critic of stadium subsidies. "These results are not surprising, given the level of prosperity we're living in right now."

In Houston, approval of the basketball arena marks the third sports facility project there in less than five years. Combined with the Astros' Enron Field and the NFL Texans' forthcoming Reliant Stadium, taxpayers there will spend more than $550 million for the three facilities.

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