BY GEOFF HOBSON
In their second major concession in as many weeks, the Bengals have waived one of the most controversial elements of their stadium lease in not seeking the guarantee of 50,000 general admission seats from Hamilton County for the first two seasons.
When the lease was signed three years ago, the county agreed to pay the club the difference adding up to 50,000 general admission sales. But Bengals President Mike Brown said today the community's response to the charter ownership agreement program (COAs) has allowed the club to undertake the burden.
At a Paul Brown Stadium news conference this afternoon, Hamilton County Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus announced that the county is transferring the COA program to the Bengals. The transfer had been set for Aug. 1, but the county commissioners are expected to approve the lease change Thursday.
"This reflects confidence in our season ticket base," Brown said. "And it sets aside concerns that various people have expressed about the liability of the county to subsidize the team's operations."
The COA program, in which fans buy a seat license for the right to purchase season tickets, generated more than $26.5 million for the county's stadium construction. More than 43,000 season tickets have been purchased for luxury suites, club seats and general admission. The club has sold about 35,000 general admission seats.
But after the quick signing of first-round draft pick Peter Warrick, the six-year extension signed by right tackle Willie Anderson, the emergence of quarterback Akili Smith, and the signing of three free-agent defensive starters, the Bengals believe they have the potential for about 20,000 more general admission sales to get near the sell-out mark of 65,600.
"We have been provided a tremendous opportunity with this new stadium, which is magnificent," Brown said. "If we can perform the way we should, we'll have attendance greater than we've ever seen."
The move comes a week after the Bengals decided to waive a late payment of $2 million and open the stadium on time in the Aug. 19 preseason game against the Chicago Bears. That guaranteed there would be no $4 million payment for a missed regular season game.
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"To the extent that left a sour taste in people's mouths, that's gone away now," said Bedinghaus of the late payments and 50,000 guarantee. "Our goal is to try and get beyond that so people can enjoy the rebirth of the riverfront as it is rolling out. There's a lot of exciting things going on in our community besides Paul Brown Stadium. There's the underground railroad museum, the Fort Washington Way project and the new Reds' ballpark."
Brown admitted the Bengals will probably take some kind of a financial hit without the ticket guarantee, but he feels the draw of the new stadium and his re-tooled team can weather the games they could fall short. Given the recent track record of COA sales, it appears that potential new sales between now and July 31 will number in the few hundreds. The COA revenues probably won't exceed the club's advertising expenses.
"The risk we run by going forward without the guarantee would greatly exceed the benefit we would enjoy from selling COAs for a month," Brown said. "We can do this better and more effectively. We can withstand the expense a little better because we have the staff."
The 50,000 figure was arrived at because it was the average of home games in 1994 and 1995. The Bengals' heyday of 50,000-plus season tickets came during a streak of 43 straight sellouts of Riverfront Stadium (now Cinergy Field), stretching from the 1988 opener against Phoenix to the 1992 finale against the Colts.
With the club now in the 45,000 range after a watershed seat license campaign in the teeth of two dreadful seasons, Brown is grateful for the fan loyalty.
"When we started (in 1996), it wasn't clear if seat licenses could be sold in a city where a team had been rooted for so long without seriously undercutting the team's season ticket base," Brown said. "It had only worked in cities with a new team. But we have retained a strong season ticket base. It's not far different from what it was when we committed to going with COAs. The COAs were necessary to help fund the stadium and they were sufficient in that regard. We're now at a point we can forgo the insurance this guarantee provides us."
"This is another example of how public perception of Mike Brown and the Bengals is wrong," said Jeff Berding, the club's director of sales and public affairs. "It's false. It's out of whack. The perception about taking and never giving and trying to scrounge every nickel out of the county. We have the contractual right to take the guaranteed payments, but we're saying we'll take the responsibility."
Berding emphasized the Bengals are one of six companies that joined with the county to contribute to the pedestrian decks over Fort Washington Way with $250,000. He also said the club agreed to site the stadium one block to the west in the stadium lease to clear the way for riverfront development.
"We've done a lot of giving," Berding said. "The fans have given a lot to us as well. Since single-game tickets and multi-game packages went on sale May 1, our phones have been very busy. With the good offseason the team has had, we think we will hit that 50,000 figure on our own."
While the Bengals and Bedinghaus took much heat for the late payments and ticket guarantee, Brown believes the two measures helped the project.
"I wonder if we would have seen this building brought in on a timely basis without (the late payments), so it played a significant positive role," Brown said.
Brown was asked his response to the cynics' claim that the recent moves have been timed to boost Bedinghaus' re-election campaign, an effort the Brown family has financially supported.
"I don't apologize for supporting Bob," Brown said. "The role he has played in our community has been huge. If it weren't for Bob Bedinghaus, the development of the riverfront would have languished. . .As far as our motives for doing it, we're confident this works well enough now for the Bengals and we will do well in this situation even without the guarantee."
Brown reiterated the NFL has offered no financial help on stadium cost overruns, as the league has in Cleveland, and that he continues to fight the battle unsuccessfully at owners' meetings.
"I voted against it because I thought there's a certain unfairness to it," Brown said. "There are some inequities that are evident in stadium financing by the NFL. Shouldn't we be as deserving?"