Can The Cardinals Be Saved?

Let's condemn the Cards. And own the team ourselves.
Hell, we could run it as well as Bill Bidwill.
And the day may come when, if we want pro football here, we're gonna end up as team owners.

We're talking about getting ready for the day Bill Bidwill decides the low attendance here means it's time for him to pack up the team and hit the highway. Hell, he's done it before, and if things continue, ole Bill might just decide to do it again.

We're way ahead of you, Dollar Bill. Just try an end run--even if your high-paid players don't know how--and we'll condemn the team as a "public entity."

Once we've wrested the team from Bill's control, we could sell shares to local residents.

In a best-case scenario, the Valley could save its pro football franchise and dump the team's odious owner at the same time. Sound far-fetched? Keep reading. Bidwill abandoned St. Louis after the 1987 season, following a steady drop in attendance at Cardinals home games. On November 15, 1987, a mere 27,730 "fans" attended a game at Busch Memorial Stadium. The team's last home game in St. Louis (December 6, 1987) drew an equally meager 31,324. Bidwill announced his departure to Phoenix just days after that final game.

Based on precedent, as well as a simple analysis of the team owner's greedy character, there is every reason to believe Bidwill is contemplating another move. Consider the Cardinals' brief history in town. In Phoenix, the team has sold out 72,000-seat Sun Devil Stadium only once--its first home game ever last year against the Dallas Cowboys. That happened only when ABC affiliate Channel 3 bought a huge block of tickets at the last minute to ensure local airing of the Monday Night Football broadcast.

The trend in attendance since that game has been sharply downward. During the 1988 season, average home attendance was slightly more than 62,000 per game. But the announced crowds at last December's two home games--54,832 and 44,586--were a sign of bad things to come.

Before the current season started, the Cardinals announced that some 20,000 of the team's season ticketholders hadn't renewed their tickets.

Among the reasons for the dramatic drop-off were: a) The extreme heat and sun exposure made watching early season afternoon games at Sun Devil Stadium a hellish experience; b) The team, as usual, finished the season by fulfilling its role as one of the most consistently mediocre franchises in all of professional sports; and c) Bidwill enraged fans by pricing Cardinals tickets higher than any other team in the National Football League.

This season's attendance at Cardinals home games is streaking toward St. Louis-era lows.

Only 44,201 attended the team's 1989 home-opener October 1 against the San Diego Chargers. A game two weeks later against the exciting Philadelphia Eagles attracted only 42,620. The most recent home game, against the Atlanta Falcons, drew a shocking 33,894 on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.

If the trend continues, the team will finish the season playing before approximately 20,000 fans. That would be well below even the attendance figures totaled during the last days in St. Louis--previously regarded as the franchise's darkest hours.

This December 26, Bill Bidwill will review the attendance figures of the just-ended football season. "Please get me the mayor of St. Petersburg," he'll tell his secretary. "And have the mayors of Oakland, Memphis, and Sacramento on hold."

This may be the opening we've all been waiting for.
When Al Davis was on the verge of moving the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles in 1983, the city tried to seize the team under California's eminent-domain laws. The city contended that intangible property can be condemned in the same manner as real estate, and its clever attorneys tried to demonstrate that the football franchise was a "public use" entity.

The Raiders argued (successfully, it turned out) that such action would be an abuse of the city's authority and a violation of the state's constitution.

"Condemnation, of course, is a bona fide legal concept, and in the Raiders case it was a novel strategy," says Bob Lyman, a Bay Area lawyer very familiar with the city of Oakland's efforts. "In the end, the city got killed in court and it cost them a bunch. The whole notion was un-American, I think."

Though Oakland ultimately failed in its outrageous legal bid to keep its beloved Raiders, perhaps a different judge in a different city listening to a different set of facts from a different set of lawyers could come up with a different ruling. For the sake of lively discourse, let's run with it.

Once the condemnation tactic succeeds, the team's ownership could be distributed to its fans. For decades, the Green Bay Packers have been owned by a quasi-public civic group. The stockholders don't receive dividends and have no stake in the assets the team may accumulate, but they are NFL team owners and are accorded many of the privileges of that title.

Well, they get to go to the games. The NFL constitution prohibits ownership by not-for-profit entities, and former league commissioner Pete Rozelle staunchly opposed issuing publicly traded stock in teams. But as everyone who reads the sports pages knows, Pete Rozelle is history. There is a chance new commissioner Paul Tagliabue may see things differently than Rozelle. Plus, until the new guy gets his feet wet, confusion will no doubt reign in league offices. The timing is perfect for a public purchase of the Phoenix Cardinals. A window of opportunity now exists for such a move. First, a key detail must be settled: a fair price for the team. Bidwill inherited the team from his father, so it didn't cost him anything. Despite the team's poor record and negative reputation, it does have some market value. Rounding off to the nearest $100 million, let's say it's worth $100 million. (Source: Jerry Jones bought 66 percent of the Dallas Cowboys last year for $145 million. Considering that the Cardinals have never had a player the caliber of Herschel Walker--a Cowboy at the time of the Jones takeover--this places the comparative worth of the Phoenix team in the $100 million ballpark.)

That comes out to a tidy 100,000 owners at $1,000 a share.
So, why put down a grand or so on the Cards, other than to rid ourselves of Billy Bidwill?

As part-owner of the new Phoenix Cardinals (Question: Would we really have to call them the Cardinals anymore?), you'd get the following:

Use of a team trainer for 24-hour emergencies, including ankle taping, et cetera!

Rotating use of skyboxes. Drink booze openly!
Free dorm lodging in Flagstaff during pre-season!
Year-around parking privileges! (An ASU student will pay at least $1,200 in parking tickets during four-plus years at the school. This is a sound investment.)

Chauffeur services provided by Cardinals players!
Rotating training-table privileges: Eat with the players!
Rotating play-calling opportunities: You make the call!

During games, hobbled former quarterback Neil Lomax will personally hold a shade umbrella over your seat at Sun Devil Stadium!

Off-season use of Sun Devil Stadium's 150 color television sets!
Free coffee and donuts at the Cardinals front office!
Arizona Republic sports columnist Bob Hurt will regularly interview you and publicize your few strong points!!

The notion of owning a football team--especially this football team--may take some getting used to, according to a recent scientific survey conducted at Phoenix's Fish Market restaurant.

"You got to be kidding me," says Phoenix resident Joe Silvas. "Run this by me again. We buy a piece of the team? I can hardly afford to pay my bills, man. On the other hand, if we could get rid of Billy baby . . . "

Gary Randall, a real-estate broker from San Diego, chirps in: "We're having a hard time in San Diego winning any games, but I think we're better off than you guys. If I was living here and I had a thousand extra bucks to invest, yeah, I'd do it. I love pro football--at least I used to love [former Charger greats] Dan Fouts and Kellen (Winslow). I even liked [former Chargers owner] Gene Klein. How can anyone like Bill Bidwill?"

But Barbara Phelps ("I like winners--that's why I watch my nephew play for St. Mary's") won't have anything to do with buying out Bidwill.

"Between the Sun Devils and the Cardinals," she says, taking a break from a bowl of chowder, "I don't think I'd waste a penny.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin
Dave Walker