Why this matters
Time and again, U.S. cities dole out heaps of money for sports facilities despite consistent public sentiment against such deals. Through lobbying influence, the threat of relocation, and spending power, teams don't actually have to worry about what locals want.
In the first few months of 2022, a rush of plans for new or renovated National Football League stadiums has shattered all-time records for levels of public funding provided to sports projects. First came the April approval of just over $1 billion in state and county money for a new Buffalo Bills stadium. One day later, the Maryland legislature OK’d $1.2 billion for stadium upgrades for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens and Major League Baseball’s Baltimore Orioles, all to be paid off by the state. Next came a plan for a new Tennessee Titans stadium that could cost upward of $1.2 billion in tax money, though the details are still to be worked out as the proposal works its way through the state budget process.
It’s tempting to interpret this flood of conspicuous stadium consumption as a renewed eagerness on the part of American sports fans to prioritize finding new homes for their beloved teams. Perhaps the decamping of the Rams and Chargers to Los Angeles and the Raiders to Las Vegas has fans antsy about warding off potential move threats for their teams; or maybe the pandemic has people eager for new venues filled with the latest in touch-free shopping technology?
There’s only one flaw in such theories: Nobody, it turns out, is actually asking taxpayers what they want. The Bills deal, for example, was deliberately timed to drop at the last possible moment in the legislative session, belatedly added to the state budget two months after New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s preliminary budget contained no stadium funding. The Maryland subsidy package was likewise approved amid a flurry of final-weekend legislative moves, with little public notice. With few legislative hearings on the bills, there were scant opportunities for members of the public to express their opinions.
If the public had, the subsidies might have been a much tougher sell. An after-the-fact poll of New York state voters found that they opposed the Bills deal by a whopping margin of 63 percent to 24 percent, with opposition consistent across both parties and all parts of the state. A poll by a Nashville community group of residents of the neighborhood where a new Titans stadium would be built found 90 percent opposed to taxpayer funding of the project. (As for the Ravens and Orioles money, the next time someone asks Marylanders their opinion will apparently be the first.)
While some states require (or at least allow) public votes before tax money can be sunk into sports projects, in most of the U.S. team owners and elected officials prefer to do an end run around public input, for obvious reasons: The public might not approve. A new national survey conducted by the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University looking at community benefits of sports stadiums found that a minority of the American public supports stadium subsidies, with that support plummeting if subsidies require raising taxes. Similarly, when University of Colorado Denver public affairs professor Geoffrey Propheter looked at 125 proposed sports subsidies from 1982 to 2013, he found that voters approved stadium subsidy deals only about half the time, even with team owners and their allies generally spending big on ad campaigns to get them passed.
When it was just up to local politicians, meanwhile, the success rate soared to 96 percent.
So, is this just how the sausage gets made in 21st-century America? After all, U.S. cities are littered with publicly-funded, non-sports private projects that were passed regardless of public opinion. Virginia’s Amazon HQ2 project, aided by nearly $800 million in state spending, comes to mind. Or is there something special about sports that inspires politicians to take matters into their own hands and keep them there?
“That’s something I’ve been grappling with, literally, for decades,” says Villanova University sociology professor Rick Eckstein.
In 2003, Eckstein and co-author Kevin Delaney published Public Dollars, Private Stadiums, a comparative study of why some cities are quicker to funnel money to sports projects than others. Their main finding: Cities with more cohesive “growth coalitions” — assemblages of politicians and business leaders who share an ideology and social circles — are more likely to swiftly approve public subsidies.
Nearly two decades later, Eckstein says he still believes that sports subsidies are “just another boondoggle of many.” But he also says he and Delaney may have downplayed the ways in which stadium decision-making can be even more profoundly undemocratic than, say, the public process for auto plants.
“Sports matters a lot,” he says. “They’ve got their own private PR departments in the local media. They’ve got that whole sports section dedicated to parroting the party line that comes from the teams and the boosters.” As local newspapers’ budgets have shrunk in recent years, sports coverage has become an ever-larger part of their appeal — and daily sportswriters have only grown more wary of biting the hand that feeds them, especially when team owners can cut off the locker-room access that is their stock in trade.
This not only influences readers in general but also works its way into elected officials’ talking points.
Take the threat of a team owner picking up and leaving town if their demands aren’t met. In Buffalo, even though the only actual relocation claims had been one oblique mention by a team official that “our football team has to play someplace at the conclusion of our lease” and one tweet by an ESPN reporter that Austin would love an NFL team, the prospect of relocation was used repeatedly as a justification for Hochul’s need to push through a stadium deal, with one Buffalo state rep telling The New York Times, “If she were seen as the person that let the Bills leave, then she’s probably got a shelf life.”
North American sports leagues, as is frequently noted, are monopolies, with varying degrees of protection even from antitrust laws. If a factory moves out of your town, you can try to entice a competitor to move in, but the same isn’t true of sports, where leagues maintain a stranglehold over where franchises are placed. Elected officials have long used this as political cover for their stadium plans, dating at least to Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey’s warning that Minneapolis would become a “cold Omaha” if the Twins and Vikings did not receive a new stadium to keep them in town. (When the Minneapolis Metrodome arrived in 1982, it was posthumously named after Humphrey.)
Yet relocations are rare, with team officials often admitting afterward that their move threats had been only a feint to shake loose public cash at home. And even on the occasions that teams do move, it’s not clear that losing a team on your watch is actually that much of a political liability. Strikingly, elected officials are almost never voted out of office if a team leaves after a stadium or arena deal is rejected. Seattle’s Greg Nickels, who lost his job as mayor after the Supersonics left for Oklahoma City — and, perhaps more notably, Nickels botched his response to an epic snowstorm that left the city paralyzed for weeks — may be the only exception.
Meanwhile, as Eckstein notes, “there are graveyards filled with the corpses of politicians who have supported stadium initiatives.” As far back as 1996, the Milwaukee Brewers’ new stadium resulted in a first-ever-in-Wisconsin recall of George Petak, the state senator who’d switched his vote under pressure from Gov. Tommy Thompson to approve tax money for the deal. The Miami Marlins’ $900 million stadium subsidy led to a similar recall for Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez in 2011. Tim Lee, the Cobb County, Georgia, commissioner who led the charge to bring the Atlanta Braves to Cobb with the aid of $300 million in public enticements, was voted out in a landslide at the first opportunity.
So why are politicians so quick to kowtow to team owners’ requests, even against the wishes of their own constituents? Eckstein says he thinks they probably fear the loss of campaign funding more than the loss of votes, especially when, with enough campaign funding, you can just run ad campaigns to win those voters back. And while the lure of campaign cash can certainly be a factor — see the recent collapse of Anaheim’s sweetheart land sale to Angels owner Arte Moreno when Mayor Harry Sidhu was caught on tape by the FBI saying he was “hoping to get at least a million” in exchange for approving the deal — the influence of big money doesn’t even have to be as venal as that. When Minnesota state Sen. John Marty was asked in 2007 why the state legislature had approved a $400 million Twins stadium payout after nearly a decade of holding the line, he said lawmakers were simply worn down. “One of the lobbying efforts that’s very effective is ‘the only way this issue will ever go away is if we pass it,’” he said.
The unrelenting pressure on legislators is only heightened by the sports media, which can make a stadium deal seem more important than shown by objective data, whether economic impact figures or polling numbers. “There’s this complete misconception of how popular sports is,” Eckstein says. Nearly half of Americans don’t consider themselves sports fans, he notes — but those who do are more likely to be male and have high incomes. “It’s important to people who happen to have more money, more power, more resources,” he says.
So when elected officials aren’t inclined to listen to public opinion, then what? As Propheter’s research found, one way around the outsized influence of the sports industry is to hold a direct vote. California, in particular, is a case study in the power of direct democracy. The San Francisco Giants’ privately funded stadium came about after the team’s previous owner had failed four times to get public money approved in public votes. San Diego voters successfully rejected a plan to fund a new stadium for the Chargers, despite team owner Dean Spanos already having an option to move to Los Angeles. The Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Rams owners each funded new stadiums out of their own pockets when it was apparent that voters wouldn’t approve public money.
And yet the Warriors deal is also a cautionary tale about the limits of public balloting. “California has a whole initiative industry, where you have firms and organizations that just run initiatives,” says Ted Lascher, a voting expert who teaches public policy at California State University, Sacramento. It’s so costly to run an initiative campaign, he points out, that winning one becomes as much a matter of cash reserves as popularity. And, in any case, he says, “the little academic literature says that if the electeds are all on the same page, then the referendum wins” regardless.
“I don’t want to be a doomsayer and think that democracy is completely gone” in these negotiations, says Eckstein. But the few counterexamples, he says, look more like anomalies than models to be followed. One of the few examples of an elected official pushing back hard on stadium demands, for example, came when Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ efforts in the early 2000s to secure substantial public funding for a new stadium located in the city were stymied by Mayor Laura Miller — who as a journalist for the Dallas Observer happened to have written extensively on the tax money Dallas had spent on a Mavericks arena. If Miller hadn’t taken a reporting job in the city, hadn’t been assigned to the arena story, and hadn’t ended up running for city council and then mayor, Eckstein says, “it would have been a completely different story.”
In the end, the Cowboys ended up getting a new stadium in nearby Arlington. Taxpayers there contributed $325 million toward its construction — and even voted to approve tax increases to make it happen. Perhaps that’s the ultimate lesson: Sports team owners seeking massive infusions of public cash don’t have to worry too much about the opinions of voters or politicians in any one city so long as they can fall back on their hole card: appealing to those in the next city over. There's always a Shelbyville.
You can see it from the skyline: Sport is a dominant part of any community where it is played. The economic relationship between professional organizations and these communities has always been fundamental to understanding sport, but as the industry grows, so too does the sway sport holds over cities and states.
How do fans and residents see this relationship? Do these private businesses owe the public more than they are giving? And what is the ideal role sports organizations should play in a community?