Saturday, July 4, 2009

Circumstantial evidence that Blue Jackets may leave

By Rick Morris

I would stress that the points raised in this column are purely circumstantial, because there is little about this situation that can yet be ascertained beyond what is already on the public record. But sometimes circumstantial evidence can lead us in the right direction and I'm always up for strapping on the tinfoil hat, so let's examine why exactly there is more than meets the eye to the Columbus Blue Jackets arena situation.
In the aftermath of the team's first-ever (extremely short-lived) Stanley Cup Playoffs run, the organization went public with claims of $80 million in losses over the past decade due to the fact that the arena is privately-owned. With the city, county and state being decimated financially to the point where THERE IS NO MORE MONEY FOR LARGE-SCALE PET PROJECTS, the franchise begged for public funds with an all-but-expressed "Or Else!"
Oh, and they want to be able to sell naming rights to the facility once the public has, in some form or another, purchased it.
Now, the team's side of the argument is not completely without merit, as the side of the story from this highly-sympathetic blog argues -- at least in the context of the real world. While public financing of sports facilities is asinine in every way, those of us who love sports have learned to make peace with the notion that "it's just the way that it is." So the plea that the Blue Jackets just want the same hand-in-the-public-pockets deal that everyone else has is true, if not appealing on any level.
But the real issue here is HOW the team raised the issue. It was clumsy and ham-handed, blatantly opportunistic in the still-glowing aftermath of the team's first playoff campaign. As a lifelong resident of the Greater Cleveland area (give or take my college years and a DC internship), I observed long ago that there is a Cleveland Way and a Columbus Way.
^ The Cleveland Way involves piggish graft on a massive public scale, with zero regard as to what the citizenry thinks. Think obese, swaggering politicians selling off patronage jobs for large paper bags jammed with cash. Think Art Modell clumsily watching his various money-making schemes with the Browns going up in smoke one after another before belching out a point of view so offensive to the public that it sealed his fate in Northeast Ohio. In Cleveland, it's a 24-7 train wreck of greedy, short-sighted business leaders (think the bozos who drove National City Bank into the ground with the mortgage meltdown) and government officials without an inclination to fight the Boss Tweed machinations that have dominated the scene forever.
^ The Columbus Way involves smooth backroom deal-making at all costs. While smoke-filled rooms no longer literally exist in Ohio thanks to the health nuts, they live on figuratively in the state capital, where even avowed enemies can find common ground behind closed doors thanks to the lubricants of social common ground and the vision of potential money to be made. In Columbus, it's a 24-7 parade of quietly "getting things done."
So when Blue Jacket ownership casts aside the CBus model for the shabbier one embraced by C-Town, head-scratching should ensue.
The inescapable conclusion when viewing the situation through the prism of Ohio's two most consequential cities (sorry, 'Nati!) is that ownership WANTED to create a public backlash. The horrific manner in which the team went public with the situation, with implied blackmail on the heels of the only feel-good season the team has ever had, leads to alternate conclusions ... like how much Kansas City has demonstrated that they want a team. Or Portland. Or Houston ...
Now, Gary Bettman has successfully blocked the Phoenix Coyotes from moving to Hamilton, and if ever a team could justify a relocation based on the bottom line, it would be the 'Yotes. So no moves anywhere can be deemed to be on the near horizon.
But franchise relocations aren't formulated in a day. Edifices have to be burned to the ground and the ashes urinated upon thoroughly. In this instance, the public had to be shaken from their pleased demeanor in the aftermath of the team's best season ever.
Well, if indeed that was the goal, mission accomplished.
Once alienation begins to set in, anything is possible. In light of the botched-or-was-it-botched-really? rollout of the team's "plan for public support," it is no longer unthinkable that the franchise could relocate once Bettman's "nobody moves ever for any reason" dictate falls apart down the road as it inevitably will. And frankly, it's not like public support for the team is unshakably deep in the first place; Columbus will always be first and foremost an Ohio State football town and the primary motivation for seeking this team in the first place was that the notion of remaining the nation's biggest city without a Big Four franchise was sticking in the town craw. That's not the firmest of reasons to want to hang onto an organization once times get tough, as they certainly have financially for both the organization and the region.
So again, all of this evidence is circumstantial. It proves nothing. But nothing in life or business ever happens by accident and the abandonment of "The Columbus Way" for "The Cleveland Way" on the part of the Blue Jackets organization means something. What does it mean exactly? Stay tuned.

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