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TSA plan deals with hard reality

Eventually, everything gets back to cost. Even sports.

And so, critics warn that when you look at the new plan of the Tampa Sports Authority for the future of sports in Tampa Bay, you have to be aware that you are talking about more than the teams and the games that they will play. You have to realize that you also are talking about a price tag.

Only one thing could be more costly in the long run to this community: the cost of not paying.

Okay, let us say this from the top. The price of $110-million is not exactly tip money. It is a large ticket, one that exceeds the price of a pro hockey franchise, and the decision to spend it should be made wisely and cautiously.

But if you examine what the plan brings to Tampa Bay _ or keeps here _ you see that the cost mentioned is small compared with the alternative.

The Tampa Sports Authority this week revealed the basic outline of a plan that would bring in the New York Yankees for spring training, keep the Lightning in town, solidify the bond between the area and the Bucs, and potentially bring in an NBA team. In short, it addressed just about every sports topic in Tampa Bay except Paul Gruber's contract.

All things considered, it looks like a good buy.

Right about now, you probably are grabbing your wallet with both hands. This is nothing new. Across the nation, the way things usually work is that a pro sports team goes to the public for facilities, and the public response is to resist.

We are taxed to death, aren't we? Why should public money be used to improve the businesses of millionaires?

The questions are valid, but the answers are simple. The choice here isn't whether they pay or we pay. The choice is whether we pay or they leave.

Think about it: the Sacramento Bucs. The Atlanta Lightning. The Yankees training in Orlando.

Here is the simple truth: Sports costs money. If you are a sports town, you pony up. If you are not, you watch teams leave.

Rick Nafe, executive director of the TSA, is reluctant to use the word "taxes." His preference, he said, is creative financing. He talks of the transportation tax that paid off San Antonio's Alamodome in short order. He talks of half-cent sales-tax increases, of ticket surcharges, of bed taxes.

Look, I feel the same way you do. It would be better if the teams involved would pay for their own facilities. It would be nice to see a news conference where the Bucs' Hugh Culverhouse, the Lightning's David LeFevre and the Yankees' George Steinbrenner each presented a $10-million check to get the ball rolling. It would be nice if Wayne Huizenga underwrote the whole thing.

It won't happen, however, and what we are left with is this: How good a sports area are we? It would be nice not to think of Nafe as a man ahead of his town.

The Yankees soon will make a decision whether to train here or take their considerable economic impact elsewhere.

The Lightning soon will make a decision on an arena. If it does not get one, this franchise is history.

The Bucs' agreement with Tampa Stadium is up in seven years. Within months, three of the five cities seeking NFL expansion franchises will be disappointed, and they will turn their attention toward existing teams. Tampa Bay must make sure this one is not vulnerable.

Besides that, consider the importance of an improved Bucs training site, particularly in an age where free agents are recruited. To athletes, quality facilities translate into quality franchises.

Nafe points out that his plan is only two weeks old. Obviously, just how good an idea it is will depend on how it will be paid for, and whether the teams at hand will go along. The Lightning, in particular, is taking its time.

But it is refreshing to see bold, progressive thinking. It is time to handle the future of sports as a package, not as something in which the public is asked to pay a piece at a time until it grows weary.

This community is frustrated by sports, by the lack of success on the football field, by the elusiveness of getting a team onto a major-league baseball field. But ask a citizen of Oakland or Baltimore or St. Louis about the frustration of seeing a franchise pack up and move. Ask them if they wish they had paid the price when they had a chance.

And realize this: If you don't pick up the check for these teams, some other city will.