Good Sports: The Impact of a Sporting Economy 

The Games People Play Have Lasting Effects on Our Culture and Economy

They're jocks at heart. Bruised and sometimes battered on fields of play, their personal and professional paths have been carved out between the goal lines. In fact, they would be the first to say that sports helped define their destinies.

"I'm the daughter of a sports coach. I was in gymnastics until I grew too tall, so I played basketball, ran track and swam. Come to think of it, sports is really the main reason I got involved in politics," said Meridian Mayor Tammy DeWeerd. "I wanted my community to have more playing fields."

"I grew up on Boise's sports fields," said Boise Mayor Dave Bieter. "Whatever the season, there I was playing sports."

Dreaming of being a Green Bay Packer like his idol, Idaho native Jerry Kramer, Bieter waxes poetic to "being a pretty decent football player" when he would suit up for the Bishop Kelly High School Knights.

But his gridiron days are long gone. In fact, the life of Boise's fullback in chief changed forever when he hit the turf for good in an intramural football game during his law school days at the University of Idaho.

"I was 25 years old and ..." Bieter thought for a moment. "I could have died. I could have lost my leg."

"I severed the artery that ran behind the knee. I was rushed into emergency surgery and woke up six hours later," he said. "When I came to, they told me I could keep the leg."

Just before Christmas 2009, Bieter underwent total knee replacement surgery to treat his long-standing problem traced to the 1985 injury. All these years later, Bieter still winces with sense-memory, recalling something that occurred 27 years ago.

Bieter still loves the Packers, and when it comes to baseball, it's the Minnesota Twins.

"I once bet the Twins would win the World Series. Now, here's how big a deal it was: The Twins were in last place when I made that bet, but that's how big a fan I was. I was given 60-1 odds," said Bieter. "The Twins won the next 16 games and won the series. I made $300. That was a long time ago."

But Bieter makes his political wagers with a bit more caution these days, especially when it comes to baseball--the stakes are higher.

While Boise Hawks franchise management tells anyone who will listen that the team is overdue for a new facility, conversations with Boise and Meridian officials have been cordial but unproductive. Both Bieter and DeWeerd are more than willing to facilitate conversations regarding the possibility of a new multi-sport stadium, but the most important question remains unanswered: Who has the money?

"The Hawks are trying to keep their options open," said DeWeerd. "I've sat down with them and some of our developers who would like to see something happen. It's a business decision, not necessarily a government decision."

If Bieter were as rich as, say, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a new stadium would be a no-brainer.

"If I had the money, I would build the stadium myself," he said. "That's how strongly I feel about it and how much I love sports. But it's prudent for a mayor to go about this in a way that verifies the wisdom of such a decision."

EXTRA INNINGS

"We've talked to Boise. We've talked to Meridian. We've even talked to Nampa. Plus, we've talked with Garden City and Ada County about renovating this place," said Todd Rahr, president and general manager of the Boise Hawks.

Anyone paying even remote attention for the past two years has heard the constant drumbeat from the Hawks: They want out of Memorial Stadium. At the very least, they want a new facility to replace their Garden City home. Their druthers would include a new home, preferably in Boise or Meridian.

"We know [a new stadium] would be pretty good for downtown Boise, pretty good for Meridian, pretty good for right here," said Rahr waving his arm across Memorial Stadium, built in 1989 for $2.3 million.

Rahr admits that the original designers of the ballpark didn't necessarily have fans' best interests at heart.

"Our first baseline has a reputation for being incredibly hot. You're staring at the sun. Those seats are not desirable," said Rahr.

Traditionally, first-base seats are the best in any other ballpark.

"We added some club seats, but we don't have skyboxes," he added. "We don't have a video scoreboard. And we have some ADA components we have to deal with."

Rahr was referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted one year after the stadium was built, requiring full access to those with disabilities when visiting public locales.

Rahr describes the Hawks' professional relationship with its parent organization, the Chicago Cubs, as a "marriage of convenience."

"They need a place to house their minor league team, and we need a team to play here," he said.

But it's a marriage that is on the rocks.

"I believe that in my heart of hearts, the Cubs will leave at the end of the season," said Rahr.

The Hawks' season wraps Saturday, Sept. 1.

"The Cubs need and want their minor league teams to be in the best facilities in the country, and I don't think you can say we're one of those," he said.

When BW asked if he had mixed emotions about divorcing from one of the best known franchises in professional sports, Rahr was more blunt.

"Mixed feelings? I don't even know if they're mixed. It's sad, in my estimation," he said. "Why would we want to let them leave? I honestly don't have mixed emotions. I have one emotion: sadness."

But the looming possibility of losing the Cubs or, worse yet, losing Boise's minor-league franchise to another city didn't leave the Better Boise Coalition sobbing in its Cracker Jacks. It served as its motivation.

THEY WANNA PLAY BALL

The BBC, a coalition of Boise business, civic and community leaders, want a new multi-purpose sports and entertainment complex. It goes to painstaking efforts not to call the dream facility "a baseball stadium." Sure, it would host as many as 30-35 baseball games a year, but BBC officials say they gain greater support by touting a new facility as a location for high school football, minor league soccer, concerts and even an outdoor skating rink.

"Think of this as your Rockefeller Center in Boise," said Rahr during a Feb. 15 community pitch.

As for a location, the coalition recommended to Boise officials that an ideal site would either be a parcel of property at 27th Street and Fairview Avenue, currently owned by St. Luke's Hospital, or another parcel on 30th Street, owned by the city, which used to be the location of Roundtree Chevrolet.

Can a new stadium, or lack thereof, influence whether a baseball team stays or leaves town? More than a few interested parties took note when Hillboro, Ore., announced on June 19 that it will steal the Yakima Bears away from its Washington home once Hillsboro cuts the ribbon on its new $15-million baseball stadium, funded through city backed bonds. Yakima is a member of the Northwest League, which includes the Boise Hawks.

Bieter, a three-term mayor with an astute ability to test the waters of public opinion, said his constituents tell him "all the time that they would love to see a new sports facility."

"The bulk of them want to see a stadium--at least those who feel strong enough to talk to me about it," said Bieter. "I recently met with a group from Boise Young Professionals and asked them about this very issue. They were very receptive. And I must tell you, I didn't think their support was a foregone conclusion. If there's any likelihood that something like a stadium could happen, young professionals are the ones who are going to need to support it."

But Bieter added that a post-recession Boise, which has weathered the economy better than most municipalities, would still be hard-pressed to pay for such a venture.

"For us to do the heavy lifting is very unlikely," said Bieter. "Even if we had the authority, it would probably involve a two-thirds majority vote. Or we would have to find the money in the city's general funds, and I just don't see that happening."

Bieter said any strategy sessions surrounding a proposed stadium are at the "unsexy stage" of crunching numbers.

"Let's get to the dollars and cents of all of this. That's the phase we're in now," said Bieter. "But I want to be clear. The city's discussions have been limited to a potential site for the stadium. Our participation beyond that is unlikely. I think this project is going to need some philanthropy and we just haven't gotten there yet."

Securing deep pocketed philanthropists or strong community support for a new stadium is more often a science rather than an art. In fact, Boise Weekly learned that a team of Boise State researchers is working behind the scenes to craft different stadium scenarios to grab greater attention.

BY THE NUMBERS

"Quite often, we're asked to perform economic studies to confirm the benefits of keeping or growing a sports team. But we just can't do that," said Don Holley, Boise State economics professor. "Deep down in their hearts, sports team owners or those who support a new stadium would like us to do a cost-benefit analysis that proves that a team or a stadium is a big plus to a community and that the benefits more than cover any costs. I know what they would like us to say, but we just can't do that."

Though he couldn't share too many details, Holley confirmed that a new analysis, commissioned from Boise State economists, would involve a possible new home for the Boise Hawks.

"We're going to study something we call 'collective decision-making.' There's some people over in the engineering computer science department that will assist us on the project," said Holley. "We've been asked to consider the baseball team and different locations of a possible new stadium. And we're going to create different models to gauge how the public reacts to each one."

Collective decisions usually gain greater support when a project is tailored to a community's desire.

But Holley also said that when he and his colleagues at Boise State's College of Business and Economics crunch the numbers, they leave the anecdotes to others.

"When a mayor brags about how important baseball, basketball or hockey is to the city, it's very, very subjective, and we can't measure that," said Holley. "But we can tell them how important an actual sports operation is to the economy. That's measurable."

As an example, Holley was the lead researcher on the 2011 analysis of Boise's CenturyLink Arena, showing that the facility and its sports franchises pump about $7.7 million into the local economy each year. According to the study, CenturyLink's three operations--the arena, Idaho Steelheads hockey team and Idaho Stampede basketball team--account for the equivalent of 50 full-time jobs.

"But indirectly, you include some of the jobs at Boise hotels and restaurants and certainly some sales tax revenue," said Holley.

Bieter, who grew up playing baseball and football, said when the Steelheads came to town, he couldn't immediately relate to ice hockey.

"We didn't have much hockey when I was a kid," said Bieter. "But to watch the Steelheads and their fan base grow has been fascinating."

One of Bieter's right-hand men, John Brunelle, knows a thing or two about sports. Before becoming an assistant for economic development for the City of Boise, Brunelle spent eight years as part-owner of the Stampede, serving five years as the club president and general manager.

"As far as the Stampede's future, I see ..." Brunelle took an extended pause and a large grin came across his face. "I see a new, better relationship with a single NBA team."

A few days later, Brunelle's "I know something you don't know" smile made all the sense in the world when the Stampede unveiled what it called "the biggest announcement in its 15-year history": the Portland Trail Blazers would become the Stampede's sole affiliate.

"You're going to see a younger, faster, smoother game," said Bill Ilett, managing investor of the Stampede. "This is more than evolution. It's revolution."

But the Hawks, Steelheads and Stampede can't come close to Boise's other sport--the one that more than a few consider to be the only game in town.

BLUE-AND-ORANGE MONSTER

"It's our best ... well, one of our best marketing efforts," said Bieter, quickly catching himself, not to get in too much hot water with his fellow University of Idaho alumni. "Obviously, Boise State is not just here for football, and we're careful not to be too demanding of a sports team. But it's stunning."

Bieter spokesman Adam Park said a City Hall staffer's spouse, an employee of Hewlett-Packard, regularly flies representatives from a number of foreign companies into Boise.

"They come into town and, of course, HP focuses on business, but they all want to see the blue turf. That's what they know about Boise," said Park. "Boise State football really is an economic development tool."

Brunelle agreed, saying the Broncos have served as countless icebreakers when he first meets business clients.

"I walk into a conference in Orlando or a boardroom in San Francisco and the first topic of conversation is usually about how Boise State is doing," said Brunelle. "It establishes rapport and then we get down to business."

DeWeerd said if it's football season, her family is watching the Broncos.

"I went to Washington State so my loyalties are to the Cougars, but my husband said, 'When in Rome,' So, yes, we're avid Boise State fans."

But DeWeerd is quick to add that Meridian has its own avid fan base, a loud one.

MOTORSPORTS, LACROSSE AND CYCLING

"The speedway has long roots in the community," said DeWeerd, referring to the quarter-mile track that has been the centerpiece of Treasure Valley racing for more than 60 years.

"Some really love it but, yeah, there are a few who would like to see it go away. It's probably because of the noise," said DeWeerd. "But the speedway is a major attraction. Our family loves to sit in the stands. It's a lot of fun."

However, it was another sport, soccer, that launched DeWeerd into public service, including her now-third term as Meridian's mayor.

"I was driving my kids back and forth to Boise to play soccer," she remembered. "So I decided to get involved in order to bring more parks to the city."

DeWeerd served on Meridian's Planning and Zoning Commission before being elected to the Meridian City Council in 1999 and first elected as mayor in 2003.

"Today, our youth sports programs, run through a number of nonprofits like Meridian Youth Baseball, Optimist Football and the Police Athletic League, are extremely successful. And our parks are filled with kids playing sports," said DeWeerd. "But we've also been noticing something new in the parks: lacrosse."

DeWeerd said lacrosse was gaining great popularity among Meridian school kids. Brunelle said he sees the same thing in Boise, and in his estimation, the Native American-originated game was "the fastest-growing sport in the Treasure Valley."

"Lacrosse, whitewater sports, cycling: These competitive sports didn't exist when I was growing up," said Bieter. "Watching these new sports emerge in the last 20 years has been phenomenal. And that's quickly becoming our brand. These are the sports that will help define our future."

And that, Bieter said, may be sports' greatest cultural and economic benefit to Boise--not in a stadium but on the field, in the water or on the slopes.

"Sure, Boise is an awesome sports town," said Brunelle. "But let's face it, there's a lot of great sports towns. But the difference in Boise is how many participants we have. Boiseans are the players. They're the runner, the skier, the rafter, and certainly, the cyclist."

The Treasure Valley's recent success with the inaugural Exergy Tour, a five-day world class cycling competition, was just the latest two-wheel showcase for Boise, which also boasts the ever popular Exergy Twilight Criterium. And perhaps most of all, the city wants the world to know that cycling's golden girl calls Boise home.

"I don't know if you can pick a better global ambassador than Kristin Armstrong," said Bieter.

Bieter will get a chance to remind the two-time Olympic gold medalist just how much she's loved by Boise during a special celebration, slated for Saturday, Aug. 11, which is also her birthday. And in perhaps the most tangible example of how Boise has evolved from a spectator- to a participant-centered community, scores of budding Olympians are expected to ride their bikes to the Armstrong celebration. Their parents may have preferred to cheer Armstrong onto victory but our newest generation would rather ride alongside her.

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