Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Lambeau Field: These stadiums — and the teams that occupy them — are shimmering icons in the pantheon of American culture. But as team owners and national leagues attract more and more fans, they continue to grow in political power. Sports teams and their stadiums no longer just stand for civic loyalty, but also present a civic burden.
As teams look to build better, more costly facilities, team owners capitalize on fan support to draw funds out of local governments — and, ultimately, taxpayers. When the money does not flow easily, teams can threaten to move to another locale, extracting expensive benefits from their otherwise unwilling host cities and potentially saddling local governments with crippling debt. This very scene is playing out today, as three NFL teams — Stan Kroenke’s St. Louis Rams, Dean Spanos’ San Diego Chargers and Mark Davis’ Oakland Raiders — superficially vie to move to Los Angeles.
Politicians have a notable incentive to prevent this kind of team migration since their constituents are likely to be dedicated fans. There simply is no replacement for a well-known and much-loved sports team, and politicians end up trapped between deciding whether or not to build expensive stadiums just to keep their teams at home. Knowing this, team owners can simply dangle a move elsewhere.
Though sports have long been a fundamental American pastime, this extortion problem is relatively new. Originally, stadiums were privately financed by team owners, but as national sports became more popular, more cities began to covet a team of their own. Since leagues kept the number of teams low, cities fought to offer sports teams the best benefits to secure franchises. Over decades, demand pushed cities and states, which were willing to pay extravagantly, to finance all stadium construction costs. This dangerous trend was temporarily halted in the 1960s, when the high demand for teams incentivized new leagues to threaten formation. To maintain their monopolies, the existing leagues increased in size, and so the share of public financing for stadiums subsequently fell to around 60 percent. But that number is now back up to approximately 80 percent, as the Big Four — MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL — have grown ever more popular and powerful.
To counter the high costs of stadium-building projects, politicians often pass them off as efforts to stimulate the economy. Research has demonstrated this claim to be exaggerated, if not downright misleading. Stadiums provide no positive economic impact, no improved employment and no significant tourism boost; one study argued that most alternate uses of tax money would yield better economic results. Additionally, the social benefits of stadiums disproportionately benefit those belonging to the upper class, since they are more likely to be able to afford tickets and memorabilia. Meanwhile, lower-income taxpayers, through regressive sales taxes and their substantial proportion of the population, shoulder the financial burden without many of the benefits. The unfortunate impact of publicly funded stadiums is made all the more terrible by the reality that teams often do not need government funding. Aside from the immense wealth of team owners and the franchises themselves, there are also large profits to be gained from stadium-naming rights and personal seat licenses, which could be used to finance new facilities.
This power dynamic is particularly apparent as the Rams, Chargers and Raiders avariciously glance towards Los Angeles. Strangely, two of the teams have actually been in the city before, but both failed to maintain and cultivate their fan bases and ultimately ended up leaving the city. Rams owner Kroenke has proposed personally funding a nearly $2 billion stadium in Inglewood, south of downtown Los Angeles, which would be large enough for two teams to share. As one of the richest owners in the NFL, he could just as easily finance a new stadium in Missouri — a fact that portrays this overture less as an attempt to seek better opportunities than as a case of playing hardball with the Missourian government. Kroenke’s two-team stadium would also conveniently keep the extortion option on the table for other teams hoping to threaten their local governments into building them state-of-the-art fields. For Kroenke, the threat seems to have paid off: Missouri Governor Jay Nixon recently proposed building a new $1 billion stadium to keep the Rams in St. Louis — even though the state has not fully paid off the Rams’ current stadium, which was built 20 years ago. Spanos and Davis have used a similar tactic: a proposed joint stadium in Carson, CA. Although no source of funding has been identified — and therefore the project seems particularly unlikely — Oakland and San Diego are still nervous enough about a potential move that both cities are scrambling to find ways to build stadiums for their beloved teams.
The influence of teams over their local governments is clearly problematic. Many solutions have been proposed, including lending-of-credit and public purpose doctrines, laws that forbid local governments from granting loans to private enterprises and mandate that public funds be used for solely public purposes, respectively. Court-ordered expansions of professional sports leagues, anti-trust laws and congressional statutes are other ways to approach this problem. Ultimately, though, history points to a trend of growing team owner and sports league power — power used to exploit local governments into subsidizing stadiums, killing the potential for that money to be used for otherwise more effective and more needed investments. So even though no one wants to tackle sports franchises, someone has to step up to the plate.
Art by Anisa Holmes.