Here’s a question: Should taxpayers pay to build new Walmart locations? Should tax dollars fund a new Wells Fargo office? Should city governments pony up whenever a mega-church wants a new facility or an orchestra requests a new concert hall?
Now, I confess, I don’t watch football, so maybe it’s easier for me to view stadium subsidies with a cynical eye. Yet I’m betting even football fans will share my cynicism when they read what’s happening to the taxpayers of St. Louis, Missouri, which recently lost the Rams to Los Angeles:
At the beginning of 2015, city and state taxpayers still owed more than $100 million in debt on the bonds used to finance the Edward Jones Dome, the stadium St. Louis put $280 million in public funds behind in 1995.
It isn’t scheduled to pay off that debt until at least 2021, and that could be more difficult without the Rams and the $500,000 rent payment the team made each year. The city itself owes $5 million per year over that period, and the loss of the Rams could increase costs in the short-term.
Taxpayers in Seattle possibly have it worse. They’re still paying off millions for a stadium that’s no longer occupied because it was demolished 15 years ago. This corporate welfare scheme happens with other sports (like baseball), too.
And even if you believe there’s a case to be made for forcing taxpayers to subsidize a playground of millionaires, the math isn’t on your side. Jim Geraghty argues this point at National Review:
If you’re looking to revitalize a local economy, an NFL stadium is just about the worst possible choice. A team will play only eight regular-season home games, two preseason games, and if they’re really lucky, one or two playoff games. At least a major-league baseball stadium hosts 81 games, and a basketball/hockey arena will be used by the home team for 41 games. Yes, stadiums can host concerts and other events. But they rarely hold enough to create a sustained economic impact in the surrounding community.
So when the NFL comes sniffing around for subsidies, mayors and governors would do well to follow the example of former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, who refused to hand over tax dollars to fund a new Vikings stadium back in 1999. (That new stadium is under construction now, and with Ventura out of office, Minnesota taxpayers like yours truly are on the hook for half a billion dollars.)
But when Ventura was here, the NFL had no such luck. Then-owner of the Vikings Red McCombs came to see Ventura about the proposal, Ventura recalls, “And I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to have fun with this.’ So I looked at Red and said, ‘Well, Red, what do you need to see me for? I’m sure there’s a landowner out there. You can buy some land and build a stadium. Go ahead. You don’t need my approval.’”
Reflecting on the encounter later, Ventura said, “The real pressure comes from yourself, because it’s your legacy. And any governor or high-ranking elected official — if a team does leave, well, that’ll be your legacy.”
He added, “The only good thing for Jesse Ventura was I didn’t give a damn. Because I’m not a career politician. I went there to serve and do the best job I could do for the people who elected me. And the NFL didn’t elect me.”