Stadium blowback – at last?

Updated: April 24, 2012

Updated to reflect bill being sent to floor of house for vot.

Updated: April 21, 2012

Updated to reflect action by senate committee.

Earlier this week the House Government Operations Committee in Minnesota voted against the proposed funding measure for a new $975 million Vikings stadium. After years of wrangling it had appeared that the measure, which is strongly backed by Governor Mark Dayton, was poised for passage. It would have provided $398 million in state funding raised from charitable electronic gaming alongside $427 million from the team and NFL (relatively generous compared to many recent stadium deals) and $150 million from the city of Minneapolis.

Proposed Vikings stadium

Like many states, Minnesota has been wrestling for the past several years with extraordinary budget challenges and this measure had difficulty garnering any support from members of the governor’s DFL party or even those from the host city on the committee. Having already funded a baseball stadium, a university football stadium (Query: Why couldn’t the Vikings have shared that stadium with the Gophers as the Steelers do with Pitt?) and a hockey/basketball arena, this was apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The NFL is left with few options other than to raise the specter of relocation (LA anyone?) and trot out Commissioner Roger Goodell to issue dire warnings about whether the market is adequately supporting the Vikings. One wonders why 15 years of sell-outs is not considered sufficient “support” by the league.

One local observer has suggested this vote may signal the end of the era of publicly funded sports facilities. Given the track record of each of the four major sports in garnering billions of dollars of public funds for these sports palaces, I am not so sanguine about his prediction. Dave DeLand does offer some compelling statistics. According to him, the inflation adjusted cost of the current 1982 stadium was $161 million; the projected cost for the proposed stadium is over $1 billion. I think it is fair to ask whether NFL owners would have engaged in a stadium “arms race” over the past two decades (perhaps best epitomized by Jerry World in Dallas) if public dollars had not been so readily available. Would we be so much worse off as a nation if we were still watching games in stadiums and arenas with 1960s era comfort levels?

DeLand points out that in 1991 the NFL’s Fan Cost Index (i.e., the cost of a family of four attending a game) was $151.55. After two decades of public funded stadiums, the Index has skyrocketed to $427.21. So taxpayers have paid for the privilege of paying even more to see their favorite teams play.

One could argue that sports facilities are an addiction that U.S. cities cannot afford but which they cannot resist. The real action today isn’t in major league cities, but in second and third tier cities which are trying to emulate their big brothers in a kind of perverse trickle down fashion. For example, El Paso (!) elected officials are considering a ballot measure that would provide $150 million for an arena, $45 million for a minor league baseball stadium, $50 million for upgrades to the Sun Bowl, and perhaps another $100 million for a soccer stadium.

I suspect that Minnesota will find a way to pass this measure to avoid losing its beloved Vikings. In fact, days after the house committee rejection, a senate committee voted to approve a similar funding measure giving the project renewed life. Subsequently the bill was also revised in the house with an unrecorded positive voice vote in a different committee paving the way for a floor vote.

No single city is likely to be able to stem the tide of public financing for sports facilities. Doing so would take unprecedented concerted action by a group of several dozen cities or legislative action at the federal level. Neither seems likely. A broad-based, multi-jurisdictional taxpayer revolt may be the only way to force a reexamination of how sports facilities are funded in this country.

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