A Different Angle on Sports Subsidies

The New York Times fronts an excellent story this morning that ought to put another nail in the coffin of the publicly financed sports stadium. Ought to but won’t, of course, as long as owners can blackmail cities with the threat of moving out.

The Times finds several sports stadiums that no longer exist but are still being paid for by taxpayers. Primary among them is Giants Stadium in New Jersey, which was demolished earlier this year, but which still has $110 million of public debt on it. Giants Stadium opened in 1976. To make matters worse, Izod Center (what the heck is that? Oh yeah, “formerly Brendan Byrne Arena and Continental Airlines Arena,” says Wikipedia), which sits mostly unused next door, has $75 million on it. A horse racetrack brings the grand total to $266 million. That’s costing Jerz $36 million this year in interest and payments. The Times says, optimistically:

Those bonds will not be paid until 2025.

Good luck with that! Here’s why:

The financial hole was dug over decades by politicians who passed along the cost of building and fixing the stadium, and it is getting deeper. With the razing of the old stadium and the Giants and the Jets moving into their splashy new home next door, a big source of revenue to pay down the debt has shriveled.

Giants Stadium is just the biggest dead dog. The Audit Seattle bureau is pleased to learn that he and King County still owe $80 million on the Kingdome, gone for ten years.

The question, of course, is why are taxpayers paying for this stuff in the first place? In some cases, it’s their own fault—having voted specifically for the projects or for politicians who promised them. But even that is complicated, because the millionaires and billionaires who control sports teams, hold the votes over their heads. “Gimme half a billion dollars or I’ll take your beloved home team and ship them to someplace that will.”

Here in Seattle, voters approved $300 million for Qwest Field to house MIcrosoft multi-multi billionaire Paul Allen’s Seahawks. Around the same time they coughed up $340 million to pay for Safeco Field for the Japanese-owned Mariners.

A couple of years ago, voters tossed Starbucks billionaire Howard Schultz’s proposed arena for the Seahawks (oops: football on the brain) Sonics into the Sound, and Schultz sold the team to an Oklahoma consortium who moved the team to Oklahoma City—with the eager backing of NBA commish David Stern. No more NBA for you, Seattle!

And then there’s the economic-boon arguments, which have been entirely disproven, but which still get pitched to voters as a sweetener to the blackmail argument.

It should be noted that this is another way the poor and middle-class subsidize the rich. It’s not just the owners, who get the value of their franchises increased enormously by the skybox suites and other luxuries, who make out like bandits. The outrageous salaries of the pro athletes, which surpass those of all but the richest CEOs, also are getting indirectly subsidized by taxpayers’ largesse.

If that’s not infuriating, I don’t know what is.

Good work by the Times, and make sure to check out the graphic showing how “The N.F.L Plays, the Public Pays.”

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.