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Stop Subsidizing Stadiums

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

Never trust politicians to negotiate with jocks; the jocks will win millions of taxpayer dollars and embarrass fans by losing games.

I didn’t always feel opposition to public stadiums; I enjoy attending live sporting events; I like wearing my NFL, NHL and MLB gear and rooting for my favorite teams. But I’m not buying the “Stadiums create jobs!” chant anymore. Here’s why:

1.) Caving To Jocks

Politicians care more about looking cool in front of jocks than representing their constituents. Case in point: The new Vikings Stadium.

Remember the old Metrodome with the roof that collapsed under snow last December? The roof was replaced for $20 million. Still, politicians feared that Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf would move the team to Los Angeles unless the taxpayers built them a new stadium.

So, on May 10, Minnesota’s Republican legislators voted to give billionaire Zygi millions of taxpayer dollars. 33 Republicans in the House and 15 Republicans in the Senate voted “yes” on a $975 million stadium project for the Vikings.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell basically pranced into town and told legislators: “Minnesota needs football.” And, guess what? They caved. They didn’t negotiate or exert their leverage. Everyone knew the NFL did not want to uproot the Vikings. Nielsen reports that the Vikings command the league’s fourth-highest TV ratings; the Vikings have 51 years of history in Minnesota; every Vikings game since 1998 has been sold out; 24 of 32 NFL owners must approve any relocation and transfer fees could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Zygi Wilf will never, ever get a fan base as zealous as he has right now in Minnesota. There is a love you simply will not find out here [in Los Angeles]. Minnesotans are willing to miss the bow hunting season to watch a 40-year-old QB [Brett Favre] get a dose of Flomax on the sidelines,” comedian Jeff Cesario writes in the Pioneer Press. Bottom line, Republican legislators had tons of leverage to tell the Wilfs to pony up significantly more cash, and they wimped out.

Nearly all of the Republican legislators who are retiring this year voted “yes” on the stadium whereas most of the Republicans who are staying in politics voted “no.” If the six retiring Republican senators had voted “no,” the stadium project would not have passed 36-30.

Retiring Republican Sen. Geoff Michel justified his “yes” vote: “It’s time to keep the Minnesota Vikings here so that our children and our grandchildren, yes, can wear purple.” Another Republican, Sen. Julie Rosen, stammered in jubilation: “I’m a little emotional right now.” I thought being a Republican was about being responsible, not wearing purple jerseys and making emotional decisions. Silly me.

2.) Stadiums Are Taxes, Not Job-Creators

Associated Press columnist Tim Dahlberg writes: “You might think Minnesotans are just rubes who got conned into spending nearly a billion dollars on stadiums, but they're hardly alone. Wealthy owners have been stealing from taxpayers ever since they figured out that communities with major sports teams would pay good money for the right to keep them.”

I find little evidence showing that subsidizing stadiums creates jobs or improves the local economy. Indeed, Dennis Coates and Brad R. Humphreys write for Cato Institute: “The evidence suggests that attracting a professional sports franchise to a city and building that franchise a new stadium or arena will have no effect on the growth rate of real per capita income and may reduce the level of real per capita income in that city.”

Stadium supporters argue that sports facilities create construction jobs. However, there are plenty of potholes and bridges needing repair that could employ construction workers. And infrastructure work like road and bridge repair serves everyone (not just sports fans) and is necessary for safety (not entertainment).

I think the Republicans in Minnesota should have put the stadium vote on the ballot in November as sportswriter Tom Powers suggests in the Pioneer Press: “…just put it on the ballot: yes or no to public financing. But make it clear in advance that a ‘yes’ means a tax hike of however many dollars.”

Minneapolis will need to extend multiple downtown sales taxes for 20 years in order to meet its commitment of over $600 million (after interest). This will make the entertainment district in Minneapolis one of the nation’s highest-taxed downtown areas.

Zygi Wilf calls the new Vikings stadium a “people’s stadium.” He claims to be investing in the community by pitching in $477 million, but that is just a vanity figure; the NFL will likely kick in up to $200 million in subsidies and the Wilfs have exclusive naming rights which will bring in at least $7 million during the Vikings’ 30-year lease. This is not a “people’s stadium,” it’s a billionaire’s jackpot.

3.) Money Won’t Win Games

Throwing millions at professional sports teams does not guarantee wins or championships. USA Today reports: “Four of the five highest-paid [MLB] teams would not qualify for the playoffs, even with the expanded format, if the season ended today.” And, consider that the Chicago Cubs had the third highest MLB payroll but finished below .500 in 2010.

The Minnesota Twins debuted Target Field in 2010 and what have taxpayers received in return for a roughly $350 million contribution? Twinkies who lose games and ride the bench while making millions.

Once the Minnesota Legislature forced taxpayers to subsidize the stadium, Twins ownership padded its payroll and locked into a record-breaking, eight-year contract extension worth $184 million (for a MLB catcher) with Joe Mauer and a six-year extension worth $80 million with first baseman Justin Morneau. Mauer and Morneau are members of “a rotation that is too expensive to simply discard” because “The Twins were like hillbillies who won the lottery. They didn’t know what to do with all the cash. So they bought shiny things,” writes Powers.

Unlike the MLB, the NFL has a strict salary cap so owners won’t pad player salaries. But NFL owners can waste money in other ways and a new facility won’t win football games. For example, the Metrodome leads the NFL with a home game “noise advantage” that will be difficult to replicate in a new stadium.

Here’s my theory: When you don’t “own” your money—when you haven’t worked for it—you make stupid mistakes. The Twins owners did not earn their stadium and so they made successive mistakes like signing Mauer and Morneau to ridiculous long-term contracts. Now, Mauer isn’t hitting (he claims he’s in a “funk”) and he hasn’t even played much at all due to injuries since Target Field opened. Likewise, Morneau has been on and off the disabled list since 2009 and does little to help the Twins win games.

Our economy is at rock bottom; let’s tell politicians to stop subsidizing stadiums behind closed doors. If they want to raise taxes frivolously by building sports facilities, they should put the question on a ballot so the people can decide.

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