He Got Game

Bill Laurie has a basketball jones that won't go away. Who cares whether it makes economic sense?

Oct 31, 2001 at 4:00 am
Walking around the plaza level of the Savvis Center during halftime of the NBA exhibition game on Oct. 16, it was clear that this was no hockey game, where the infrequent African-American likely isn't a Blues ticketholder but part of the hired help. No, this was hip-hop nation, a majority minority crowd turned out to see 19-year-old Darius Miles, who got the hell outta East St. Louis to play with the new-look LA Clippers.

The game's promoter, Joe Yates, is disappointed that more folks didn't come out to see Miles. Attendance was announced at 11,489, but the number of tickets sold was about 4,000 fewer than that, and the total came nowhere near the 17,930 who showed up to see Larry Hughes and Allen Iverson play in a '76ers-Nets exhibition game two years ago.

"I'm pissed over the reception to the game," says Yates of the homecoming for Miles. "If you can't do better than what St. Louis did in supporting the only NBA game of the year, that had Darius Miles one year out of high school, from East St. Louis, if we can't sell more for the only game this year other than 7,500 tickets, then how in the hell are the Charlotte Hornets going to put 18,000 or 19,000 a game in the Savvis Center? I ain't buying it."

But, then, Yates doesn't have to "buy" it -- Blues owner Bill Laurie does. The Hornets are the latest pro-basketball franchise to flirt with the lustful Laurie, who has a basketball jones that just won't go away. The former backcourt mate of Memphis State's Larry Finch this time is playing slap-and-tickle with owners who say they don't want to sell their team, just move it into a more lucrative setting. Translated, that means a lot more than the number of asses in the seats; it's about the number of luxury corporate suites at Savvis -- 91 -- compared with Charlotte's 12.

Laurie would prefer to own an NBA team, and he and his wife, Nancy, have enough diñero, about a billion bucks, to do it. But even if the Hornets ownership won't sell, the Blues owner is enough of a gym rat that he might settle for another tenant for Savvis, which he bought when he plunked down $100 million of his wife's Wal-Mart winnings for the Blues. That price, which included a National Hockey League franchise and a modern sports arena that opened in '94, was a steal.

The current price of an NBA franchise is somewhere around $200 million. In 1999, Laurie thought he had a deal for the league's struggling Vancouver Grizzlies, for about $150 million, but he backed out when the league wanted him to commit to keeping the failing team in Canada. The next prospective buyer was given the go-ahead to move the Griz to Memphis once the league became convinced Vancouver was a losing proposition. Stung by that experience, a rational man might hesitate before beginning another mating dance with an NBA owner. But that would make sense, and since when does sports economics make sense?

So enough already of these sports-media nincompoops talking about how the sports dollar in this town won't support four professional teams. Since when is it the media's job to protect a billionaire's money? The NHL and NBA markets, at least in this funky town, are largely separate. Race serves as a marker, so the difference at the Clippers game compared with the Blues home opener against the LA Kings is striking. If the Clippers game was a Nelly concert, then the Blues game was Elton John. That's not racism, it's just racial profiling of a crowd.

Short Cuts hopes Laurie brings the NBA back to town, either as a tenant or as a new toy for Dollar Bill. Who cares whether it makes Laurie a richer man? We who share the billionaire's b-ball addiction want a fix, and we want it now.

The idea of 41 home games in the Savvis Center, with the city's 12.5 percent amusement and sales tax, should get St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay salivating, whether the games draw 8,000 or 18,000. It's certainly more promising than a new baseball stadium and a mythical "ballpark village." There already are 3 million fans a year going to Busch Stadium, and the new stadium's financing scam freezes what the city gets in taxes from the ballpark until it's paid off, so where's the advantage in that? Donald Phares, professor of economics and public policy at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, sees the Hornets as new money.

"If you had a basketball team come in, this is where you get your biggest economic kick, because what you have is a totally new activity coming into the area as opposed to building a new stadium, where you're just moving from one place to another," says Phares. "I think you would be tapping into a new group. They wouldn't be giving up a hockey game to go to a basketball game."

Phares, who co-authored a chapter in Mark Rosentraub's book about professional sports, Major League Losers, doesn't believe there should be much weeping or gnashing of teeth for Laurie when he says he's losing money on the Blues. "If he is losing money on the team, he's certainly making money on the Savvis Center, and that's contributing money to the team," Phares says. "I suspect he's not losing money on either one, but that's the kind of thing that's proprietary; you may never really know. It's privately owned, so he's not going to give you his books."

Consider that last week, when the visiting Hornets owner, Ray Wooldridge, came for a tour, Laurie had the basketball court put over the ice just for the occasion. What with how the carpetbagging Rams made out on the other side of downtown, Laurie has already seen how the right mix of management, money and marketing can turn a sow's ear into a silk purse. So if it isn't the Hornets this time, it'll be the next frisky NBA owner with happy feet. Go, Bill --just do it.