Why Teams Get Away With Public Financing Deals

Back in April, in response to this story about the Carson City Council approving a new $1.7 billion football stadium without a public vote and with no indication of who would pay for the stadium (any guesses?), I wrote the following on Facebook:

Municipal stadium deals suck, actually all sports deals suck, ban sports

And I stand by it. Public funding of stadiums is one of the most egregious sports-related abuses there are, especially if you consider the truly outlandish publicly-funded construction done for the Olympics and the World Cup: stadiums built for one event and then left to molder; facilities built with slave labor. (Which will be the more absurd and corrupt event of 2022: the World Cup, to be held in a country where summer temperatures reach 120° Fahrenheit, or the Winter Olympics, to be held in a city with no snow?) And one of the most maddening things about the public-financing scam is that it relies on one of the best parts of sports to operate: our quasi-civic pride in our sports teams.

This is in the news right now because Wisconsin governor and 2016 Republican candidate Scott Walker, fresh off of gutting the Wisconsin public university system, signed a bill subsidizing a new basketball arena for the Milwaukee Bucks with hundreds of millions in public funds and all kinds of sweetheart provisions (the state is paying for half of the stadium but the team keeps all of the money from the naming rights, e.g.). Kevin Drum, apart from being rightfully appalled, is mystified that this action comes from a self-appointed crusader against government spending and waste:

For some reason, professional sports franchises float serenely above the free market for both Democrats and Republicans. Neither party has been especially impressive on this score. Still, it’s Republicans who are the market purists. They’re the ones who insist, for example, that providing health care for 15 million people is a travesty if the government is involved in subsidizing it. But basketball? Go Bucks!

This is, anecdotally, my experience as well. I had the privilege, visiting San Diego back in 2012, to sit in front-row seats at a Padres game, which is how I learned that the only downside of sitting in front-row stadium seats is sitting with the people who can afford front-row stadium seats. The folks behind us were Fox News types unable to find something else to talk about at a ballgame (something something “Michelle Obama” something something “angry black woman”), and one of the topics they landed on was San Diego’s inexplicable choice to spend money on building a new library rather than a new stadium for the Chargers. Libraries, they pointed out, are redundant in the age of Google, but without a new stadium the Chargers might leave town (as now looks likely to happen, and into that stadium Carson is building). That they saw no benefit in building a library is not surprising, given their ideological commitments; that they felt it was the County’s responsibility to sweeten the lucrative business of running an NFL franchise is a little more puzzling. Why do so many voters, far from saying “screw you” to billionaires’ demands for free money and land, actively lobby to subsidize them?

Of course cities give sweetheart deals to businesses all the time, not just to sports teams. But no other sweetheart deals approximate the amount of money and land involved in stadium deals; furthermore, none of them get voters actively asking to get bilked. You don’t get many people writing letters to the editor saying that the city needs to build Wal-Mart a new store so they don’t leave.

I think the difference lies in sports teams’ identification with their cities, an identification that savvy owners and marketers play to the hilt but which exists just fine on its own. People really think of sports teams and their stadiums as civic institutions: the Bucks have “Milwaukee” right in the name! This is an unspoken cultural assumption all over: think of SimCity, where a stadium is one of the things you as mayor build yourself, with public money, like police stations and airports.

For the residents of a city—even, I imagine, for many who aren’t that into sports—having a sports team is much more than an entertainment opportunity: it means you’re a “major-league city,” a status you never want to lose if you have it. Look, in the story about the Bucks, at how the president of the Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce sold the deal: not with putative economic benefits, but with “the ineffable benefits of a pro team. ‘It gives the city an identity and gives us something different than Des Moines.'” And since leagues expand so infrequently (what owner is going to vote to bring more competitors into existence?), sports teams are different sort of zero-sum game, one played between the cities themselves. How can Seattleites not feel that their city lost status to Oklahoma City when the Supersonics became the Thunder?

Now, here’s the rub: until public money is involved, that semi-public status really is something I love about sports, and it’s why cheering for a sports team can feel like an act of civic pride (not to mention binding expatriates together). I don’t want mayors to stop betting each other local delicacies on the result of the World Series, or city buildings to no longer be lit with team colors during a championship run. Now as during the original Olympics, almost all of us enjoy sports more when we feel like our town pride is at stake.

Obviously, it’s possible to root for your team as a representative of your city while remaining aware that this is an illusion that shouldn’t influence public policy. But, to me it seems equally obvious that that sort of awareness subtracts from the fun of sports. The more conscious you are that your beloved team is a business run by billionaires or conglomerates with no particular loyalty to you or your city, the harder it is to lose yourself in the illusion that your team is a group of public-minded athletes who have come together for the greater glory of the polis. Let me emphasize: that disillusionment is a tradeoff I’m willing to make, because I’m a citizen first and a sports fan second (or, like, 23rd, after considering obligations like family and career and so forth, but you get the idea). We should subtract from the fun of sports if the alternative is raiding our public services to subsidize entertainment corporations. But getting people to subtract from their own fun is always a tough sell.

I would love it if sports fans all saw it the way I did, that your allegiance to your team ends at the ballot-box curtain. But I don’t see that happening as long as the myth is so seductive. Being a fan of your hometown is often just as irrational as being a sports fan, and we’re willing to be cheated if we think our city’s pride is at stake.  It’s hard enough to resist money’s mastery of politics when our eyes are clear; when they’re blinded by team-colored glasses, the billionaires are just going to keep taking what they want.

Image Credit: “Qwest Field (Seahawks Stadium) under construction, 2001” by Seattle Municipal Archives is distributed under CC BY 2.0.

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4 thoughts on “Why Teams Get Away With Public Financing Deals

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