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Pro sports owners' extortion scam:
Stadium swindle

January 21, 2005 | Page 11

Sports columnist DAVE ZIRIN reports from Washington, D.C., on how cities and states have been ripped off to build sports stadiums and arenas.

IN THE weeks before the state legislature's vote on funding for a new baseball stadium, the Minnesota Twins ran a TV commercial featuring a ballplayer visiting a boy in the hospital. A voiceover announced, "If the Twins leave Minnesota, an 8-year-old from Wilmer undergoing chemotherapy will never get a visit from [Twins infielder] Marty Cordova."

It turned out that the boy had already died by the time the commercial aired. Whoops. But lying about a cancer-stricken child is small potatoes when it comes to the depths pro sports owners will sink in their drive for publicly funded stadiums.

Pro arenas paid for on the public dime now dot the country--monuments to corporate welfare.

The process is outright extortion: A major sports owner threatens to move his or her team, and demands that city or state taxpayers put up hundreds of millions of dollars to build a stadium that would be owned not by the city, but by the team's owners. Imagine if you wanted to move to a new town and demanded that your neighbors build you a home for the privilege of having you move in, and you begin to see the insane logic.

Over the last 20 years, working people in this country have paid an average of more than $500 million a year in stadium construction and upkeep costs, for a total of more than $7 billion spent on new facilities by 2006. And this doesn't include the $600 million that Washington, D.C., just pledged to build a baseball stadium for the newly named Washington Nationals (formally the Montreal Expos).

D.C. just laid off 300 public school workers, closed its only public hospital and has an infant mortality rate that is worse than every country in the Western Hemisphere except Haiti. The proposed site is an impoverished section of the city called the Anacostia Waterfront. Building the stadium will involve destroying low-income housing and homeless shelters under what is called, without irony, "fair use."

The D.C. stadium swindle moved forward even though 70 percent of the city oppose the proposal, and more than half strongly oppose it. These numbers cross all ethnic and racial lines in this heavily segregated city.

This opposition remained consistent even though Major League owners--and their shill, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams--continue to sell the fiction that the stadium will provide major economic benefits. This is pure folly, not only in D.C. but around the country.

According to a report by the Brookings Institute, "No recent facility has earned anything approaching a reasonable return on investment. No recent facility has been self-financing in terms of its impact on net tax revenues...[T]he economic benefits of sports facilities are de minimus."

As Roger Noll, co-author of the book Sports, Jobs and Taxes: The Economic Impact of Sports Teams and Stadiums, put it, "Any independent study shows that as an investment, it's silly. If they're trying to sell it on the grounds of actually contributing to economic growth and employment in D.C., that's wrong. There's never been a publicly subsidized stadium anywhere in the United States that had the effect of increasing employment and economic growth in the city in which it was built."

Cleveland is another loser in the stadium swindle. This former industrial city was once used as an example for how publicly funded stadiums could turn cities around.

In 1990, Cleveland's Central Market Gateway Project promised in full-page newspaper ads that a new sports complex would generate "$15 million a year for schools for our children." Instead, the Cleveland Teachers Union has calculated that tax breaks given to the project drained $3.5 million a year from the Cleveland school system, which is now in receivership. Cleveland was also recently named the poorest big city in the U.S., with a poverty rate of 50 percent and unemployment hovering at 33 percent.

The truth is that stadiums help nobody but the sports bosses and their political cronies.

When Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell secured funding for his $300 million playpen, he commented--in a rare moment of candor--to reporters, "The pride and presence of a professional football team is more important than 30 libraries." Maybe for Modell, but growing legions of people disagree.

The owners' friend in the White House

THEY DIDN'T think he was good enough to be their commissioner, but Major League Baseball's cabal of billionaire owners ponied up the dough to keep George W. Bush in the White House.

A recent Associated Press article found that Bush--a former co-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team--had his palm greased by over half of the 30 major league teams. Seven owners even hold the distinction of being "Bush Rangers"--meaning they raised at least $200,000 each--and six are "Bush Pioneers," signifying $100,000 a piece.

Owners love Bush for a more complex reason than the usual ardor that billionaires have for their tax-cutter-in-chief. They all want to get taxpayers to pay the tab for new state-of-the-art stadiums--and no one ever fronted a stadium swindle better than George W. Bush.

Bush set the standard for large-scale extortion when his ownership group got the state of Texas to pay for the Ballpark in Arlington. After an adult life of professional incompetence, Dubya had finally gotten his dream job as a managing partner of the Rangers. For an initial investment of $600,000--borrowed, of course--the then-president's son endured the toil of attending home baseball games and smiling a lot for the cameras.

As Bush smirked his way through his forties, the owners behind him (think a dozen Dick Cheneys in ten-gallon hats) threatened to move the team if the city of Arlington didn't pay for a new park. The local government caved. In the fall of 1990, it guaranteed that the city would pay $135 million out of an estimated cost of $190 million. The remainder was raised through a ticket surcharge. In other words, local taxpayers and baseball fans footed the whole bill. This plan was sold to Arlington voters with Bush's glad-handing help.

At the end of the day, the owners of the Rangers, including Bush, got a stadium worth nearly $200 million without putting down a penny of their own money.

But the scam didn't end there. As part of the deal, the Rangers' ownership was granted a chunk of land in addition to the stadium--land that, of course, increased in value as a result of the stadium's construction. To make this happen, Democratic Gov. Ann Richards signed into law an extraordinary measure setting up the Arlington Sports Facilities Development Authority (ASFDA), which had the power to seize privately owned land deemed necessary for stadium construction.

"Never before had a municipal authority in Texas been given license to seize the property of a private citizen for the benefit of other private citizens," wrote investigative journalist Joe Conason. "On November 8, 1993, with the stadium being readied to open the following spring, Bush announced that he would be running for governor. He didn't blush when he proclaimed that his campaign theme would demand self-reliance and personal responsibility rather than dependence on government."

Bush held onto his stake of the team as governor, and by the time he cashed out in 1998 for $15 million, Bush's return on his original $600,000 "investment" was 2,400 percent.

So the next time someone complains about the "greed" of pro athletes, tell them that if they want to get bent out of shape about someone's undeserved wealth, they should take a detour to the upper deck and boo outside the owner's box.

Organizing against these rip-offs

WHEN SPORTS owners and their media prizefighters are confronted with the mountains of statistics showing that publicly funded stadiums are fool's gold, they say, "People want their sports, and we're just giving it to them."

True, sports are insanely popular in the U.S. But ordinary people have shown time and again that they can distinguish between loving a team and not wanting to be taken to the cleaners by the billionaire bosses.

Polls show that up to 80 percent of people oppose public subsidies for stadiums. Stadium funding referendums have been defeated in both "red" and "blue" states, from California to Minnesota to Virginia.

But since polls and public opinion haven't been enough to shut the gaping maw of the ravenous stadium beast, organizations--ranging from lobbying operations to grassroots protest movements--have popped up around the country to fight against these temples of corporate greed. The groups (courtesy of the Web site fieldofschemes.com) include: Save Fenway Park! (Boston); People for Fair Development and Develop Don't Destroy (Brooklyn); No Jones Tax (Dallas); No Stadium Tax Coalition (Minnesota); Taxpayers Against an Anoka County Vikings Stadium (Minnesota); hellskitchen.net (New York); Hell's Kitchen/Hudson Yards Alliance (New York); New York Association for Better Choices (New York); Coalition Against Public Funding for Stadiums (St. Louis); and No D.C. Taxes for Baseball (Washington, D.C.).

Fighting stadium giveaways can raise big questions for people about the priorities of a system that will spit shine sports arenas while schools and hospitals crumble. All people who believe in human need over corporate greed should join the fight.

Read the Edge of Sports

You can read Dave Zirin's weekly column on sports at www.edgeofsports.com on the Web. And look out for his upcoming collection of sports writing, What's My Name, Fool: Sports and Resistance in the United States, to be published by Haymarket Books.

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