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The history of states subsidizing professional sports stadiums with taxpayer dollars is long and, increasingly, controversial. Maryland provided nearly one hundred percent of the financing for the Orioles’ and Ravens’ shiny new facilities in the 1990s. In 2006, the District of Columbia subsidized the Washington Nationals’ new stadium at a cost to taxpayers of about $700 million. And even though most stadiums are, in the long run, economic washes at best, losers at worst, there are still politicians willing to throw money at them.
Minnesota legislators, for example, are currently grappling with how to fund a new stadium for the Vikings in response to threats that the franchise may leave the state. But before the legislature gives away nearly a billion dollars, State Senator John Marty raises some excellent points about the math, and morals, behind the proposed taxpayer subsidies for the stadium:
“The legislation would provide public money in an amount equivalent to a $77.30 per ticket subsidy for each of the 65,000 seats at every Vikings home game. That’s $77 in taxpayer funds for each ticket, at every game, including preseason ones, for the next 30 years.… Public funds can create construction jobs, but those projects should serve a public purpose, constructing public facilities, not subsidizing private business investors. The need to employ construction workers is not an excuse to subsidize wealthy business owners, especially when there is such great need for public infrastructure work.”
In Louisiana, the House of Representatives has gone ahead and approved a ten-year, $36 million tax subsidy to keep the state’s NBA team, the Hornets, in New Orleans until 2024. Some are asking if the state can really afford it given a $211 million budget gap. Representative Sam Jones noted that while the state has cut health and education spending, it still found a way to come up with millions of dollars to help out the ”wealthiest man in the state.” That would be Tom Benson, owner of not only the Hornets but the legendary New Orleans Saints football team, whose net worth is $1.1 billion dollars.
In California, however, a different scenario is unfolding. Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson just abandoned negotiations with owners of the city’s NBA team, the Kings. The Kings organization was unwilling to put up any collateral, share any pre-development costs, or commit to a more than a 15 year contract; this would have left the city shouldering all the costs – and all the risks – for developing the $391 million downtown facility. Mayor Johnson said he’d offered everything he could to the team and it still wasn’t enough, so he pulled the plug.
Given the high cost and low return (including in terms of jobs) that sports facilities generate, more leaders should follow Minnesota’s Marty and Sacramento’s Johnson and stand up for the taxpayers who pay their salaries.