The NFL recently announced it would pay out $765 million to settle a lawsuit from thousands of former players suffering from concussions and related brain trauma. A large sum, but a small percentage of the billions the football league and other professional sports franchises haul in for their owners. The vast gap between sports tycoons and the everyday fans who shell out hard-earned cash to watch their athlete heroes on the field is yet another reflection of the gross inequality between the one percent and the rest of society and another example of how inextricably linked sports and politics are in our lives.
“There’s always so much happening in the world of sports and there’s always so many different ways in which sports not just reflects our lives but shapes our lives,” Zirin tells Moyers. “It shapes our understanding of things like racism, sexism, homophobia. It shapes our understanding of our country, it shapes our understanding of corporations and what’s happening to our cities. In so many different ways sports stories are stories of American life in the 21st century.”
At about 24:45, Zirin explains how the public pays for new sports facilities via subsidies and sweetheart cable deals, among other things, even though "every single economic study shows that they don't work."
He calls sports facilities "like a neoliberal Trojan Horse," since "people end up agreeing to things they would never otherwise agree to, because it gets wrapped up in sports."
Voices from around the U.S.
Moyers & Company collected essays from me and several others, both critical and supportive of new sports facilities. My essay is headlined In Brooklyn, Buzz, Hype and Distraction. An excerpt:
True, a new arena in the nation’s media capital, especially one in increasingly buzzworthy Brooklyn, would be sure to draw attention. The arena’s distinctive pre-rusted metal skin has drawn kudos from many architecture critics, though some locals call it a “George Foreman Grill.”South Bronx resident Joyce Hogi wrote The NY Yankees are Not Good Neighbors. An excerpt:
The hype has obscured how a major league sports team was used to leverage eminent domain for a larger project involving 16 towers, as well as subsidies and tax breaks for developer Forest City Ratner Companies, founded and run by Bruce Ratner.
The NYPD has become super-aggressive on game days by blocking streets with no prior warning and posting police officers all around the neighborhood. Streets with posted signs of “no parking on game day” are closed off to the community while fans are charged to park on these same streets where parking is normally legal and free.The situation is less glaring in Brooklyn, since the crowds at an arena are smaller and a smaller percentage of people drive. But it's still invasive for many of the closest neighbors.
The sanitation trucks circle all day, emptying trash (this would be a wonderful service for residents!). The community is host to numerous parking garages and lots that are open only on game day and of no use to us otherwise.
Civic pride and cultural value
Dr. Timothy Chapin, Florida State University, wrote Build Stadiums for Love, Not Money. An excerpt:
While there are many reasons for the public sector to invest in sports facilities, tangible economic development benefits should not count among those reasons. Instead, the public sector should justify sports investments by pointing to the intangible benefits of these projects, which include increased civic pride, an improved sense of community and a brand for the city.This suggests that public support is most important in second- and third-tier cities.
There is value to a community having a team: for the fans, there is a real sense of pride associated with victory and for the city, an ability to market a community on local, regional and national television (In what other settings than sports can Oklahoma City, Green Bay or Edmonton compete with New York City or Los Angeles?).
Lori Gilbert of The Stockton (CA) Record wrote Arena Offers Pride in ‘Most Miserable City’. An excerpt:
Instead the arena is a source of pride in a city desperate for positive attributes. Forbes Magazine consistently lists Stockton as the most miserable city in the nation. For those who love Stockton, the arena is a great addition to the city; “I never thought Stockton could have something this nice,” is a common refrain.Ed Lazere, Executive Director, D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, wrote Why Subsidize Billionaire Team Owners? An excerpt:
The arena is a gleaming thing of beauty, bathed in evening purple lights... The 2008 financial collapse halted any hoped-for private-sector development around the arena and ballpark and their expected tax revenue never materialized. Stockton Arena though, remains a valued, special part of the community that is worth more than the expense of erecting it.
Mostly I’m frustrated by the city’s decision to pay almost the entire cost of the $700 million park (about $1 billion with interest), making it one of the most heavily subsidized stadiums in history. When someone sits down with a beer and hot dog, virtually everything they see is owned by the District of Columbia.Seattle City Council member Nick Licata wrote Stadium Brings Joy, But Subsidies are the Real Issue. An excerpt:
Yet all of the money earned from the stadium — tickets, concessions, advertising — goes to the team owner, Ted Lerner.
..So I am glad the Nationals are here and that they have a great stadium to play in. I just don’t see why the district’s precious public funds were involved. Baseball is the nation’s pastime. With billionaire team owners and an amazing fan base, stadium building seems like the kind of thing the private market should handle on its own.
The debate in Seattle has always been one of “should the public subsidize such ventures and if so, how much?” The answer depends on what the public gains from their investment. And that has come down to measuring benefits in both dollars and in the almost incalculable resulting cultural or social value.Sharing naming rights
I once spoke offhandedly to a Sports Illustrated writer and said that studies have shown that the loss of a professional team showed no measurable economic loss to a city. When asked by the reporter about cultural value, in a state of hubris, I said close to zero.
I have since confessed many times over for that stupid remark, but it lives on tongues of sport enthusiasts when pointing out that professional sport teams do contribute to the sense of community and joy people share in a city that has one.
Robert Cluck, Mayor, Arlington, TX, wrote Big Win for Arlington, Thanks to Dallas Cowboys. An excerpt:
The stadium’s opening has been one of the greatest economic drivers for our city, providing thousands of jobs and an expanding sales tax revenue. If you combine this new revenue stream with the $500,000 expected annually from the Cowboys’ new naming rights deal with AT&T then Arlington is on pace to pay off the stadium ten years earlier than anticipated.The deal is worth up to $18 million a year, so $500,000 is a rather modest number, but it's sure better than zero, which is what most jurisdictions (including NYC/NYS) get, even though the Barclays Center, like the new stadiums for the Mets and Yankees, is technically publicly owned, in order to enable tax-free bonds.
Typically, cities do not receive revenue from naming rights deals. However, I worked with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to ensure Arlington’s partnership with the club would be mutually beneficial.