Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Great Day in Sports History in Portland

Perhaps many of you are following the baseball playoff race, or paying attention to the Republican National Convention as the pomp and circumstance continues, or maybe you are trying to get outside to take advantage of the last few nice days around here before the rains come. Me, I'm paying attention to a website and dreaming about what might happen, and I'm more than a little distracted.

The MLS to Portland official website was launched this morning. Designed by a team working for the current USL Timbers owner, Merritt Paulson, the site gives folks a one stop shop to view statistics about the MLS effort, what will happen to PGE Park, and what will happen to the baseball Portland Beavers. The plan to bring MLS to Portland involves paying an expansion fee, building a new baseball stadium in Lents for about 8,000 to 10, 000 fans, and then refurbishing PGE Park to a soccer/football stadium where the MLS Timbers, PSU Vikings football, and high school games would occur. The plan also calls for restaurants to be added, new sky boxes for rent, and a full bleacher of seats on the 18th street side; there used to be bleachers there in the old Civic Stadium days but they were pulled out during the PGE Park upgrade. The hope is the website would be a good source of information for people who want to know more about MLS, the Beavers, the Timbers, and the efforts. And I must say that they've done their homework, and the site is extremely informative and easy to use. You can even see artist's renderings of the new site as well. The investment being asked for is $75 million dollars for the changes to PGE Park, and a new stadium in Lents; this figure doesn't cover the MLS expansion fee which will be paid for by team ownership.

For me, I see nothing but wins here for everyone involved. Portland would get a newly refurbished stadium for MLS use, but could also be used for other international soccer matches, concerts, exhibition football games, and other large events. They would also get a rather nice baseball stadium in Lents, an area within southeast Portland that has been working hard to change its image as one of the slum parts of town. The city wants more commerce and business in Lents, and a ballpark would certainly bring people. Transit is being built to the new location, as the new Green Line MAX will have a stop a few blocks away. The Beavers would get their own stadium to use as they see fit. Portland gets another major sport, and plays on the top level of soccer in the United States, so we would get international and national attention.

But I'll admit, I'm a hardcore fan of the Timbers, and would watch them if they played their games in a parking lot. I'm already invested in the team and seeing matches, and I've felt for years that we have one of the most passionate fan bases for soccer in the world here. It doesn't take much convincing for me, but what I see on the site and heard in the media today should make stadium opponents a bit nervous. The city would actually be issuing bonds backed by the city to cover the debt, and revenues from ticket sales, player salaries, and other taxes would be used to offset the bonds. Money being put into this isn't taking away from any critical city services, and could provide a long term investment for the city. I also love baseball and see the Beavers getting a win from this. They would get a nice stadium in southeast that was their own, instead of a multi-purpose stadium, and it would provide some improvement to Lents, an area that needs it. Instead of trying to schedule around multiple events, you have one stadium, one team to deal with.

But I also understand the concerns of the casual fan of either sport or baseball fans in general. I like PGE Park for baseball, and find that games there are fun to watch. There's great architecture to see, unique views throughout the park, and some great history in the park as well, including a few events that I got to see in person (Crash McCray's run, Beavers playoffs a few years ago). Plus, moving the team to Lents would kill some of the walk up crowd you currently get from having a downtown park, but not necessarily all of it. There's some great character to PGE Park for baseball, but I think it could thrive in a new dedicated home. It's hard to deny the great baseball history that has happened at PGE Park, but a new stadium could fulfill the same purpose and be a destination spot. I could imagine the Beavers incorporating many of the nice touches they currently have now, like the cheap beer Thursdays, benches for food, great sight lines, and lots of great entertainment during breaks in the game.

Ok, Lents is a bit out from downtown although it's easy to drive to and transit will take care of some issues coming up, but Lents is only 15 to 20 minutes from downtown right now. Plus, any improvements to the area will attract businesses and consumers, something that Lents would love to have right now. You are losing part of Lents Park by building the park there, and there will probably be some parking and traffic issues in the area around game time. But I believe the people in charge will take care of the parking and traffic issues, they did in NW Portland when PGE was refurbished but working with the neighborhoods to set up parking permits and encourage folks to use transit. I can feel for the casual fans that might not totally buy into this plan. It might take a bit longer to get out to Lents for baseball, plus MLS tickets are a bit more expensive than USL, and didn't we already just fix PGE Park??? This idea is something that needs to be thought through in order to completely invest in it, and I think if you consider the situation, it's a win for everyone.

Put it in monetary terms - MLB would require a stadium investment of around $250 to $300 just to build something to standards, and that's not accounting for the money to get an available team, of which there aren't any. NFL has the same stadium costs, plus you are dealing with approximately 10 home games per year, so the ticket costs are a bit more, so you have a stadium that might be sitting empty for long periods. NHL hasn't been the same entity since the strike, and they've already admitted to over expansion issues. For a $75 million dollar investment, we get MLS in town, an up and coming sport, and a new baseball stadium. Ticket prices would be more reasonable for top flight soccer and triple A baseball, and they would still be available for us to see.

I'll admit, I like the idea of a downtown baseball stadium better, but there's no logical place to put the stadium without spending a lot more money than what's at stake here. And with MLS expansion deadlines applicable in October 2008, the city needs to move now. And the website is a great first step towards letting folks know what's going on. My hope is that the new stadium caters a bit to the hardcore fans by giving us a dedicated section of seats that aren't general admission. I appreciate what casual fans bring to the park and realize that most sports wouldn't survive by just catering to hardcore fans, but I want an area to share with people that understand what it's like to support their team by chanting, singing, and generally providing a wall of noise. I caught the Timbers fever back in 2001, and I don't miss home matches at all unless necessary and travel to see them on the road when I can. I think I'm entitled to a bit of care in my home park, and the casual fans can sit in other areas of the park to enjoy the game.

What impresses me most about this entire situation is that it's happening and it's out there now in the public eye. Many folks in this town have put forth ideas for new teams, new event centers, whatever, but have lacked either the funds or the forethought to put their ideas out there and then follow through. I give Merritt and his staff tons of credit by not only putting out the idea, but then following it up with press conferences, the web site, and appearances about town. This won't be the last you'll hear of this effort, but right now I'm optimistic that we have a chance to join MLS very soon. So pardon me if I'm a bit distracted right now, imagining the possibilities. I'm busy seeing our future....and it looks amazing..

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