A Fan's Notes

Go Marlins! Go Panthers! Go Heat! Go to hell.

When the Miami Heat moved into the Arena six years ago, the team was greeted as the resurrection of downtown. No city had suffered more racial strife than ours during the previous decade. Few were as segregated. The Heat were supposed to unite our fractious kingdom. The Arena, their beautiful pink palace, was supposed to restore the center to our centerless city and lure bucks to local businesses. Today it seems quite obvious what the franchise has done: supplied thousands of white fans A who wouldn't dream of driving through Miami's ghettos and who probably feel vaguely guilty about this fact -- with a dose of Ghetto Lite.

The team has also made oodles and oodles of money.
But not, as it turns out, enough oodles. Now Heat ownership wants a new building with more seats and, especially, skyboxes. Ah yes, skyboxes. Ever wonder why owners are so hot on these deluxe seating areas? Here's how it works in the Arena: a corporation rents a skybox for anywhere from $75,000 to $120,000 per season, in exchange for which they get not just the skybox, but additional tickets, and often the rights to some of the arena's coveted advertising. (A swell place to bring Japanese investors, in other words, plus high-profile signage.) Unlike normal ticket profits, which are split with the league, skybox rental fees are dropped straight into the owners' fat little fists. Does the purchasing company particularly care about the Heat? Who cares; it's a business deal.

Schaffel, who reportedly snubbed an offer of $130 million for his team a fortnight ago, says the Arena makes it impossible to compete financially with other NBA teams. Bullshit. The terms of his lease agreement with the City of Miami, which spent $46 million in public money to build the Arena, are, simply put, a steal. Some blame the politicians for not building a bigger venue. But back when Schaffel was trying to land a franchise, he thought the place was just dandy. He wanted an intimate space. Now he wants more profit. And he, like all piggy owners, knows he can get his way by moving elsewhere, or threatening to.

Officials from Miami, a city teetering on the brink of insolvency, recently proposed a $90-million makeover of the Arena. "We will do everything within reason to accommodate the Miami Heat," says Bill Perry III, executive director of the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority, which oversees the Arena. Perry says city honchos are also vying to keep the Panthers in the Arena, despite Huizenga's stated intention to move the team ASAP. Their long-shot pitch: Allow Wayne to rename the building Blockbuster Arena. "We'd give him the name rights and the keys to the place, for a flat fee of $1.5 to $2 million per year," says a source familiar with the as-yet-unannounced offer.

One thing's for sure: The Panthers and Heat will never agree to share the same venue. Both teams want the same prime game dates, and the lion's share of concessions, parking, and the revenue generated by advertising within the building. The real question is whether the city can lure either team to stay.

But what, in the end, would that accomplish? After six years of wrangling with the Heat, Perry doesn't sound so sure himself. "There has been some impact on Bayside, but clearly the numbers thrown around when the Heat came in, about a multimillion-dollar impact and thousands of jobs, are just ludicrous. It's the song and dance you have to go through to get a franchise. But once that happens, everybody knows what the real story is."

Certainly, Edward Branch knows. A young black man built like a fire hydrant, he roamed the streets outside the Arena during the Heat opener, trying to make a few bucks scalping tickets. "Motherfuckin' trickle-down, that's what this shit is," he mumbled. "I'll be lucky if I make twenty dollars. Those brothers inside [the Heat players] are making millions. And they don't even give it back to the community. Why doesn't one of them build a youth center with all that money? How d'you think the brothers out here feel, just watching a few thousand scared white folks walk they asses 'round here, then get out three hours later?"

Behind the scalper, the pink palace of Overtown gleamed. A junior high school band played. The swells were arriving, and TV cameras captured the eerie image of Muhammad Ali, who stood handing out religious pamphlets, his body stiff as a puppet's. "I been to college. I'm no fool," Branch told me. "I don't need to pay no $40 to see Shaquille O'Neal, 'cause I can watch 100 Shaqs where I come from."

A hundred aspiring Shaqs, anyhow; the top players inevitably get sucked up by the NBA. Schaffel and his owner buddies sow millions hiring the best and reap millions more, as every scalper knows too well, by selling them to Rich White Guys. All of which has the net effect of transforming basketball, an alleged instrument of racial harmony, into a potent reminder that most black men never make it past the playground. "Fuck this," Branch said when he'd grown too resentful to say anything else. "I ain't getting shit outta this."

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