Tue. May 28th, 2024

Let the Voters Have the Final Say on Stadium Funding

Alex Thompson By Alex Thompson May23,2024

However bad inflation may seem at your grocery store or gas pump, it’s got nothing on the inflation of the price tags for professional sports stadiums over the past few years.

As with their gas tanks and grocery baskets, voters are responding by becoming smart shoppers when it comes to the increasingly expensive deals their state and municipal governments have been making to subsidize sports stadiums, arenas and “stadium district” real estate projects.

It’s time to make sure voters get the chance to approve or reject these deals in every community across America — not just when it’s convenient for politicians or sports team owners.

Voters need to step in because stadium subsidies have grown so fast and furious in recent years that they’d make even MLB superstar Shohei Ohtani’s accountants take notice. The Buffalo Bills’ planned new stadium broke the $1 billion barrier in 2022 and was quickly joined by stadium subsidy price tags of approximately $2.1 billion in Nashville, $1 billion in Oklahoma City, $470 million in Milwaukee, $1.2 billion in Baltimore, and $380 million in Las Vegas, among many others.

Even Utah’s legislature approved $900 million in subsidies for a notional baseball stadium and $500 million for a hockey arena, despite having no teams yet to play in them. The idea is to establish the government equivalent of pre-approval for the financing, to help Salt Lake City attract interest from MLB and NHL teams.

Politicians make these deals because they want the support and fear the backlash of their sports-fan constituents. But the eye-watering price tags are making even passionate sports fans question whether these deals are being made in their communities’ best interests.

Two recent deals highlight the potential difference in outcomes when voters have the final say.

In Washington, D.C. the mayor and team owner put together the outline of a plan to spend $515 million on renovations to Capital One Arena, home to the NBA Wizards and the NHL Capitals. Despite a budget crisis that has Mayor Muriel Bowser proposing tax increases and budget cuts, the District’s elected officials jumped at the chance to keep the teams in town after political infighting between Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Virginia legislators killed a proposed $2 billion arena subsidy there.

Less than a week later, voters in Jackson County, Missouri rejected a proposed sales tax surcharge extension to subsidize the Kansas City Chiefs and Royals stadiums. The vote was 58 percent against, despite the pro-stadium “Yes” campaign outspending the “No” side by a reported 20-1 margin.

Residents of D.C., Virginia and other cities and states where the futures of their beloved teams and hard-earned tax dollars have recently been determined by political maneuvering and behind-the-scenes dealmaking are likely wondering why they didn’t get a vote, like the people of Kansas City did.

They’re right to feel that way.

According to a database maintained by University of Colorado Denver professor Geoffrey Propheter, Kansas City marked the 29th time since 1987 that voters have rejected a referendum on stadium subsidies for a “Big Five” professional sports team, meaning the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL or Major League Soccer.

Votes on stadium subsidies aren’t a slam dunk either way. In fact, according to Propheter’s database, the score since 1987 is 36 stadium deals approved to 29 rejected — a 55.4 percent success rate for pro-stadium campaigns.

In some places, elected officials have actively blocked attempts to put stadium deals in front of voters. In St. Petersburg, Florida a League of Women Voters survey found that 77 percent of local voters are opposed to a proposed $1.3 billion baseball stadium subsidy. But as of right now, those voters won’t have a say on the deal. Although a 5-3 majority of the St. Petersburg City Council wanted to put the proposal on the ballot, they were unable to muster the required supermajority to do so.

Why is it so important to give voters a say? In part, because American cities have decades of real-world results that demonstrate that stadiums are terrible deals for taxpayers. Instead of being catalysts for revitalization, they usually serve as cover for land-grabs in neighborhoods that are already trending toward new growth, giving developers a block of land for a “district” that they would not have had if not for the stadium’s allure.

Once built, stadiums sit dark and empty for almost their entire lives, coming to life for a few hours on gameday before going silent again. Additionally, their “economic impact” is largely a function of rearranging where locals spend their existing entertainment dollars. Instead of serving as cash injectors into the economy, they absorb the money spent there on tickets, food and beer, instead of at local bars, restaurants and other competing local entertainment venues.

Although we may love sports, American voters have demonstrated that we’re not always willing to give billions of dollars to billionaire team owners so that they can build stadiums where they’ll sell us $9 beers. It’s time to give voters in every city and state the power to reject stadium deals, and to hold their elected officials accountable whenever and wherever they don’t.

John Mozena is president at the Center for Economic Accountability.

Alex Thompson

By Alex Thompson

Alex is an award-winning journalist with a passion for investigative reporting. With over 15 years of experience in the field, Alex has covered a wide range of topics from politics to entertainment. Known for in-depth research and compelling storytelling, Alex's work has been featured in major news outlets around the world.

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2 thoughts on “Let the Voters Have the Final Say on Stadium Funding”
  1. Do you think it’s fair for politicians to make these deals without consulting the voters first?

  2. It’s crucial that voters are empowered to have the final say on stadium funding. The exponential growth in subsidies for sports venues demands accountability. Let’s ensure communities across America have a say in these deals, avoiding decisions made solely for the benefit of politicians or team owners. Transparency and voter approval are key to managing the escalating costs involved in stadium projects.

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