Recently PressBox Publisher Stan Charles sat down with Governor Bob Ehrlich at the Governor’s residence to discuss the Preakness, slots and the state of sports in Maryland.
PressBox: Governor Ehrlich, how important are sports to the economy of the state of Maryland?
Governor Ehrlich: I can give you specific numbers about what occurs when a potential sports franchise exists in a particular town, and when lacrosse playoffs are in the town, the Preakness in the town. I can quantify that part of the answer. It’s a big number obviously; tens of millions of dollars. I cannot quantify for you, however, the local pride that we derive the benefit from something like the Preakness. You can’t quantify something like that. It’s impossible. So, when the Baltimore Colts left town, we could literally measure the loss of economic activity as a result of losing a professional franchise. I could never quantify for you, how you felt, how I felt, how all of us felt, not having a pro football team. So, there’s a measurable part to it and obviously there’s an unquantifiable element, as well.
PB: At a certain level, what’s the real value of sports franchises? Is it the economic benefits, or that sense of community that’s built around the teams? At a certain level, what’s the real value of sports franchises? Is it the economic benefits, or that sense of community that’s built around the teams? GE: Both, obviously. You’re talking about jobs and real dollars. Ask the bars, the hotels, the business establishments around Camden Yards or around any professional sports franchise. They can measure the value. But, again, you cannot measure the pride, the feeling of community, the feeling of team, the energy of 70,000 people sitting together watching the Ravens. You simply cannot do it.
PB: How valuable have the two downtown stadiums been in an economic development sense to the state?
GE: Again, I can give you numbers. Or all you have to do is ride around the area. We obviously have some real issues in parts of Baltimore. The older neighborhoods have some terrible issues, but around the stadiums in the Inner Harbor, you see major new bricks and mortar projects. You see the middle class, black and white, all races, all religions moving back into that part of the city. We can do that in other parts of the city and literally have a renaissance in Baltimore. Our issue now is that the renaissance is generally confined to Fells Point, Federal Point, the Inner Harbor; literally downtown Baltimore.
PB: What does the Preakness mean to Baltimore, to Maryland? What do you see as the future of the Preakness in our state?
GE: The future of the Preakness is relatively bleak. Pimlico makes money two days a year, the day prior to the Preakness and the day of the Preakness. I have run around this state for many years, not just the last four years, marketing horses, marketing agriculture. I love Maryland horseracing. I love the Preakness. I love Maryland agriculture. The problem that we face now is, given the intense competition from West Virginia, New Jersey, New York and soon Pennsylvania; we are at a competitive disadvantage. And unfortunately, we’ve had one major road-block here in Annapolis in the House of Delegates. That has caused us a lot of pain, in my view, with respect to [the horse racing] industry.
PB: Is it possible to have the racing industry and the breeding industry survive without a slots bill?
GE: In this environment, particularly given what Pennsylvania’s beginning to do, the answer is simply no.
PB: Can you quantify how many dollars currently leave our state and will leave our state once Pennsylvania has established its slots?
GE: There’s not a month that goes by that I do not learn of a stable, a trainer or a breeding operation that is about to leave, or is taking a certain amount of the operation, to another state that has the cash. These folks are business people. They will go where the cash is. To the extent that Maryland does not have the cash, they will leave.
PB: What do you say to those that rightfully add the negativity that gambling can bring to certain issues, such as spending money you don’t have, breaking up of families? How do you address those concerns?
GE: I think you need to look at life as it is, not as you wish it to be. Where I grew up in Kendale Apartments on Maiden Choice Lane, for a period of time in my early life, the police were raiding and knocking over the numbers runners, arresting the numbers runners. And then one day the State was the numbers runner. And the State was telling you, “you gotta play to win.” And you gotta play to win twice a day. And now you gotta play to win Pick-Three, Pick-Four and scratch-offs and Keno. My point is, we crossed the gaming threshold many, many years ago, decades ago in this state. For those who have a religious and/or moral conviction to the contrary, I accept it, and I do not lobby those folks. What does not count is, you are against gaming, except the Bingo in the church hall on Sunday night is okay. Sorry. If you’re against gaming, you’re against gaming. Now, what is fair, I think, intellectually, and can be debated, is where are you going to draw the line? But in my view, another form of gaming at a gaming venue, at a pre-existing gaming venue, a racetrack is not a wholesale expansion of gaming. It is not destination gaming. It simply will allow this industry to survive. And in my view, thrive.
PB: Do you think the legislators, the racing people, everybody involved in this issue understand how fragile this industry is with the Maryland Jockey Club now being owned by Magna, which is a public company?
GE: I think to a very large extent, many do not care. And it’s also generational, Stan. When we were growing up, it was still the time, the era, where you took your date, you took your wife, you took your husband, you took your kids to the track. It’s no longer the case today. So it’s also generational. In order for this sport to come back, [having] slots is part of the answer. It’s not just slots as the whole answer. We need a marketing effort, trained at the slots players. People tend to focus on the 60- and 70-something slots player. Well, if you go to a casino, you see a lot of younger people. They are drawn to the quick action. But, they have not been exposed to the beauty of horseracing.
PB: When you hand out the trophy on Preakness Day, is that a big deal to you? And what does it mean to you to hand that trophy out?
GE: It’s exciting. What I look at is the owners, or the group of owners, their excitement. They are just wild. It’s just neat. For me, it’s handing out the Lombardi Trophy.
PB: How did sports help a blue-collared youngster from Arbutus like yourself, compete with a more a privileged group of fellow students at Gilman, then at Princeton?
GE: Personally, it was my ticket. I was literally taken from a totally foreign environment. The socialization that accompanies such a move, as you can imagine, is quite dramatic. But what I learned was that as you grow, as you meet different types of people, different classes, different races, different religions, different backgrounds, you learn to judge an individual in terms of their merits or demerits. Coming from where I came from, I had to overcome the class issue. Clearly, that break at 14 years old was a very dramatic event in my life.
PB: After graduating from Princeton, you went to Law School at Wake Forest, and you were a graduate assistant on the football coaching staff. What was that experience like and what did you gain from that?
GE: Well, I gained rent money and I ate for free for three years. Football paid for a lot of things in my life, including room and board in college and graduate school. I also learned a lot of football. I worked for John Mackovic and Al Groh, two very well known coaches. I did things from running study hall to breaking film down. I just learned a lot of football. The game is still as fascinating to me now, as it was then.
PB: How do political campaigns compare to athletic competition?
GE: The parallel is almost perfect. You have preparation. You have a team. You have a contest. You have a result. I often felt that my athletic background prepared me very well for the hyper-competitive world of politics.
PB: The Maryland Stadium Authority did such a remarkable job in building the two downtown stadiums, keeping them up as sparkling jewels in Baltimore and added big-time events like the Army-Navy game and NCAA lacrosse. What is next for them state-wide? Perhaps an auto-racing venue? Or even a new horseracing track?
GE: Well, I’m intrigued by auto-racing and the horse-racing track, obviously. I supported an auto-racing venue as a Congressman. A new track is potentially in the offering, if we get to where we need to be and nobody knows where that’s leading at this time. It’s very interesting because the Maryland Stadium Authority is also a construction company and they do good work. They do good work on time and under-budget. There are those, William Donald Schafer being one, who have questioned what they do in this state. And I also came into office with that question. I have to tell you to some extent, I have been satisfied when I see the quality that they do for the dollar.
PB: Is there something that we could do for a new indoor arena to come to Baltimore?
GE: Here’s the bottom line, and you’re talking to a kid who rarely missed a Baltimore Clippers home-game. You know the stories about the arena; it was dead when they built it. It was literally unacceptable to major league sports. Clarence Campbell came here in the early 1970s, when the NHL was looking to expand, looked at that arena, the Civic Center at the time, and said, “We are not putting a franchise in Baltimore.” I think, to some extent, the answer to your question is dependent on professional hockey and professional basketball, and quite frankly, given territorial rights, I do not see either one occurring in Baltimore given the proximity of the Wizards and the Capitals.
PB: Describe your relationship with Peter Angelos and Steve Bisciotti. And tell us how you feel the fans of this community are served by the stewardship of these two local men.
GE: Well, if you are of age to remember March 1983, you tend to have a degree of appreciation that would be different from a younger person. You also tend to have a degree of appreciation for local ownership that is probably now just accepted and taken for granted. But in the past, we paid a dear price for [local ownership]. I know both gentlemen very well. To be frank with you, they both support me politically. For Steve, that’s not very unusual. For Peter Angelos, one of the preeminent Democratic fundraisers in the country, it has been the subject of some consternation within the Democratic party. But we identify on a very personal level. Peter’s a Baltimore kid who’s a street kid. He appreciates my love for Baltimore and everything about Baltimore. They are different personalities, but they do share a common love for Baltimore and Baltimore sports.
Issue 1.3: May 11, 2006