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Commentary

Game over: Public financing of stadiums

Jon Wertheim Oct 28, 2011
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Kai Ryssdal: If you’re a baseball fan, you already know all about Game 6 of the World Series last night. If you’re not a fan and you somehow don’t know what happened, suffice it to say, it was a game for the ages. The 47,000-some-odd people in a packed Busch Stadium clearly got their money’s worth.

You can make a case that St. Louis did, too. Back when the stadium was built in 2005, the city only put up a fraction of the cost. Commentator Jon Wertheim says that’s the wave of the future.


Jon Wertheim: Leather football helmets. Wooden tennis rackets. Boxing on network television. The sports world has a singular knack for generating relics. Here, it seems, is another: the taxpayer-funded venue. For decades the owners of sports teams — wealthy men and corporations — could rely on the local populace to help underwrite the cost of their buildings. In most major markets — and even some minor ones — stadiums and arenas were built through the largesse of the tax base. Now? That game is over.

The voters of Seattle may have started the trend. In 2006, they declined to subsidize a new basketball arena for the Sonics, though that meant losing the team to Oklahoma City. In Minneapolis, the NFL’s Vikings are facing widespread opposition to the latest plan for a massive taxpayer-funded stadium. In Los Angeles, developers hoping to lure an NFL team have already promised that for a proposed $1 billion stadium, “The city’s never going to have to pay a penny.”

Some of this is a function of these austere times. What’s more, the economic impact from previous projects are, at best, inconclusive. Yes, these facilities create jobs, but they are mostly seasonal and low-paying.

It’s also become clear that dazzling stadiums don’t draw fans; dazzling teams do. A decade ago, the Milwaukee Brewers christened Miller Park, a half-billion dollar construction project, most of it provided by generous (if unwittingly generous) Wisconsinites. Attendance surged when the park opened. But the team lost games and attendance plummeted by as much as 50 percent. This season the Brewers, a top team, drew more than 3 million fans. The moral: Build a winning team and they will come.

For years, owners got their way — mostly by pitting one market against another, preying on civic insecurity. “If you don’t give me what I want, I might be forced to relocate my team to a city with more appreciative fans.” Now, though, the cleat is on the other foot. It’s the taxpayers pitting owners against owners. “If teams in other cities can build their pavilions without public help,” they ask, “Why can’t you?”


Ryssdal: Jon Wertheim is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. Send us your comments — write to us.

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