Riverfront a symbol of a brief, bygone era

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CINCINNATI -- Parked like a giant flying saucer on the banks of the Ohio River, Riverfront Stadium really is a visitor from another world. Or at least another age.

Built for a thrifty $44 million in 1970, it was a marvel of engineering: a versatile, if ugly, structure that could play host to a Sunday afternoon football game and, with the toss of a couple of switches, be reconfigured for a baseball game less than 12 hours later.

The tenants -- the Reds and Bengals -- compromised on scheduling, shared some revenues and signed leases that guaranteed the taxpayers a decent return on their investment. Until recently, everyone made enough money and no one threatened to leave.

Like sister stadiums that popped up at about the same time in Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and St. Louis, Riverfront represented the state of the art when it opened. And, like most of the others, it is being abandoned not because it is old but because it is ill-suited to the economics and politics of modern pro sports.

No longer is the NFL a fledgling league that has to share space with its older brother, baseball. And no longer are teams of any major-league sport bound by tradition or law to their municipalities. They are free to roam at will in search of money, found most abundantly in publicly financed stadiums.

"Since the 1970s, there is a better understanding of how much leverage the sports teams have and the value of having your own stadium," said Kenneth Shropshire, author of "The Franchise Game," a book about team relocations.

He estimates that American cities have spent more than $1 billion over the past three years to build or renovate stadiums and arenas, and will likely spend another $6 billion before the end of the decade.

Baltimore is a case study. The Colts, forced to share an aging Memorial Stadium with the Orioles, opted instead in 1984 to move to the newly built Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis. Maryland officials suddenly overcame their reluctance and found the money for Oriole Park and a $180 million football stadium that is still on the drawing boards.

The reaction, and timing, was not isolated. A few years before the Colts moved, Al Davis, the owner of the Oakland Raiders, moved the team to Los Angeles and won a seminal lawsuit establishing the right of teams to move over the objections of their leagues (perhaps to prove his point, he just announced a return to Oakland).

The floodgates opened: In short order, Baltimore and St. Louis lost football teams, and San Diego and Kansas City lost basketball franchises. Teams in other cities demanded, and received, new or updated facilities.

"Davis tried it and it worked. Once everybody saw that the leverage worked, everybody said, 'What can I get?' " said Shropshire, a professor of legal studies and real estate at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

Meanwhile, the economics of sports have undergone seismic shifts since Riverfront and the other "cookie-cutter" stadiums first turned on their lights. The NFL eliminated its only major rival when it merged with the American Football League in 1970 and went on to become the nation's premier spectator sport, eclipsing baseball and leading the way for all leagues to accrue vast riches through television.

Team owners who may have bought their franchises for a few million dollars found themselves in control of assets worth $100 million or more. The Orioles were sold for $2.4 million in 1953, $13 million in 1979, $70 million in 1988 and $173 million in 1993.

Paying such prices has put a premium on luxury seats, the posh party boxes and "club" seats that ring modern stadiums and are a hit with the corporate set. The Orioles generate more than $5 million a year from the annual fees paid on these seats, nearly 20 percent of the team's home-game gate receipts.

Such revenue is especially lucrative for football franchises because visiting teams get 40 percent of the ticket take but none of the annual rent derived from sky boxes, which can go for $200,000 each in some stadiums. Rents paid on premium "club" seats also can be exempted from the gate split if they're being used to pay stadium construction costs.

Moreover, neither club seat nor sky-box rents are included when the players' share of revenues is calculated under the current football labor contract. That 1993 deal, forged in a bitter legal fight, established league-wide payroll minimums -- forcing some low-paying teams, like the Bengals, to shell out more for players.

"The courts have changed the ground rules. If it wasn't for that, Riverfront would be fine," said Bengals owner Mike Brown.

New stadiums also are exploiting the increasingly upscale tastes of fans for alternatives to hot dogs and pretzels. Concessions, such as Camden Yards' roving wine vendor and microbrew stands, have become big moneymakers.

"I think the economics are completely different now, and that's why you have to put all the amenities in to get as much money as possible out of the stadiums," said Mike Holleman, director of sports facilities for Heery International Inc., the architectural and design firm that built Riverfront, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and others.

The stadiums were built to last a century. That they are being abandoned in a quarter of that time is surprising but understandable, said Holleman, whose firm has an office in Baltimore and is renovating the federal courthouse.

But the doughnut-shaped coliseums have served their purpose, even if their life spans have been brief, he said. Atlanta managed to attract and house a football and baseball team for less than $20 million. The Falcons moved several years ago to the Georgia Dome, and the Braves will move after the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta into their own ballpark, both Heery projects.

"They were very economical ways for cities to get into the major leagues. . . . They were sort of disposable," Holleman said of the old facilities.

Disposal they are facing. And fast. Atlanta-Fulton County

Stadium, opened in 1965, will be torn down when the Braves move out. Public officials in Ohio have agreed to raise $540 million, mostly from public funds, to build new homes for the Reds and Bengals, at which time Riverfront will be demolished. A prospective owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates has said he would need a replacement for Three Rivers Stadium, opened in 1970.

The football Cardinals blamed much of their decision to move from St. Louis on the inadequacies of Busch Stadium, which has since undergone significant renovations. St. Louis had to build a new football stadium to get the Rams to move there this year.

Both the Phillies and Eagles have made it clear they would prefer replacements for Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, a convertible stadium that opened in 1971 with a slightly more rectangular shape than the others.

"We'd love to have a pure baseball stadium with natural grass. Everyone does," said Tom Hudson, the Phillies' director of planning.

If the designs left something to be desired by the team owners, they were equally unsatisfying for fans. The circular dimensions and artificial turf fields -- required for a rapid conversion between sports -- left the stadiums with the ambience of a freshly paved beltway.

"There is no soul here," said JoAnn Judd, a Cincinnati-area resident and sports fan. "It's a ball field. It's where you come and watch a ballgame and drink beer."

A temple of utilitarianism, Riverfront can be switched from football to baseball in less than 12 hours. Entire sections of seats are mounted on tracks and powered by five electric motors. Yardage and foul lines are hosed off with high-pressure water. The pitcher's mound, built on a steel dish, is lifted out with a crane.

Versatility demands major aesthetic concessions. Riverfront betrays not a hint of the city skyline or namesake waterfront just over its circular walls. The outfield dimensions are an unimaginative 330-404-330. Balls skip along the artificial grass as if on ice.

Dennis Wellner, a partner with HOK Sports Facilities Group, designer of Oriole Park, said he doubts future stadiums will be built for both baseball and football, because of differences in geometry and character.

"As a general statement, the two sports, other than being pro sports, do not have a great deal of commonality in their surface fields," Wellner said.

Furthermore, successful baseball stadiums evoke nostalgia and foster a sense of intimacy among fans by, among other things, keeping the seating capacity to about 45,000. Football-stadium designers must accommodate more than 65,000 fans, and try to mesh the ambience of the structure with the sport's faster pace and shorter history.

Gene Ruelmann, who, as a city councilman and later mayor of Cincinnati led the fight to build Riverfront, shakes his head as he looks through the windows of his downtown law office at what opponents once called "Ruelmann's Folly."

"If anybody had told me that after 25 years it would be outmoded I would say you are crazy," Ruelmann said. "It was state of the art."

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