Tuesday, January 06, 2009

MECA Calls the Omaha Royals Bluff

Today's announcement that the American Association intends to approve an independent league baseball team to play in the new downtown stadium raises the stakes in the battle between the Omaha Royals and MECA, the operators of the Qwest Center and the new stadium. The Royals hoped to use Sugarland, TX and Sarpy County's pipe dream of a new Chalco stadium as leverage in their negotiations with MECA last year, but the two sides either wouldn't ... or couldn't budge.

So the Royals decided to move forward with exclusive negotiations with Sarpy County, and with nearly a third of that period gone by, there has been no public signs of progress. No plans on how to fund a $40 million ballpark, other than groveling to the Legislature for money.

Meanwhile, as expected, MECA now has an agreement for an independent league team to play downtown. That news has mixed implications for Omaha and baseball. On one hand, it means that if (when!) the Royals leave the Omaha area entirely, there still will be professional baseball in this area. It also means that there will be some activity in the new stadium in the summertime.

But let's not kid ourselves... it's not remotely the same level of baseball as the Royals. Might not even be up to CWS standards. Some people might wonder how Omaha can support two baseball teams, but that's not the question. The question is more likely: which one will Omaha support? The question might be answered for us, as while we know the downtown stadium will be built, the Chalco stadium proposal is, at best, just a dream.

Best case scenario for Omaha? The March 15th date passes by with no progress on building the Chalco stadium, and the powers that be (some might call them a Cabal)in Omaha bring MECA and the Royals back together to do the right thing. The whole downtown stadium came back from the brink several times last winter as MECA, the NCAA, CWS Incorporated, and the City went back and forth over proposals. At times, it looked hopeless as well. But in the end, the right thing was done.

Am I naive? Maybe. Am I stubborn? Perhaps. (My wife probably says "YES!") But I think while both sides have other options, both sides have much more to lose by staying with their current partners than by finally compromising and coming to an agreement.

A lot of people think the downtown stadium is too big for the Royals. Perhaps, but I wonder how the stadium will work when you divide the grandstand into two decks, allowing you to close the upper deck for smaller crowds, thus giving the impression of a 16,000 seat ballpark. Still too big, you say? Perhaps...but that was the size of Rosenblatt for years.

I'd argue that a 6500 seat Chalco stadium is too small for the Royals. Average attendance this season was nearly 5300 fans a night. That includes the 4th of July fireworks crowd...and those cold, windy April evenings when only die-hards want to head to the ballpark. Yeah, you have grass berms for standing room / general admission, but even that will limit crowds to around 10,000 fans. It's certainly possible that the Royals could pack a Chalco stadium on weekends...and still end up with lower attendance in Chalco, unless they can get large crowds during the week.

Bottom line is that this appears to be another round of hardball in the battle over the future of professional baseball in Omaha. We may have hit DefCon 4 today. But I remain convinced that the best plan for both MECA and the Royals is a deal with each other downtown, no matter how hard they try to spite each other. Time's a wasting.

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