Taxpayers versus elitist pro sports owners

Marc Elliott

LARSMONT  – I have marveled for many years now at the game of extremely wealthy professional sports franchise owners extorting the public and taxpayers to construct their "places of business" for them.

I'll readily admit that as a young man I didn't give it much thought but now in my older years I've looked at it through a different lens. In a day and age where the working class and its taxpayers seem to be up against the wall on most things financial, while the oligarchs are wealthier than ever, private for-profit businesses seeking taxpayer subsidy immediately go under the microscope whenever it is brought up.

When I was a kid I lived close to the old Metropolitan Stadium. It was the first large multi-use sports venue in the area and when it was constructed it was mainly believed that minor league baseball would be a major tenant with the Minneapolis Millers being the core tenant.

At the same time there were a couple of Major League Baseball clubs considering relocations with the Griffith family, owners of the Washington Senators emerging as a frontrunner. Ground was broken for construction in June of 1955 which was close to the time when my parents and I relocated to St. Paul. No one knew at the time what would eventually take place at the site, but we were going to be right in the front row when it did.

The construction cost was projected to be $8.5 mil or $95 mil in today's dollars. In reality you couldn't build much of a professional sports venue for any sport or league today for that kind of money. Soon the Twins and NFL Vikings were secured as tenants and a sports whirlwind of fan excitement took root. It was found out rather quickly that multi-use stadiums were not optimal but both teams made it work as best they could.

From my perspective the configuration favored baseball more than football. The stadium saw a great many baseball and football games of significance over its twenty years of major league usage and was finally retired and replaced by the domed Hubert H. Humphrey MetroDome commencing with the 1982 sports seasons.

The owner of the Twins, Calvin Griffith, was the major proponent of getting a facility with a roof on it. The Vikings were also on board as they saw the Met as too small for their growing fanbase with an inability to add on or reconfigure it. Griffith stated that with fans coming from many locations throughout the midwest it would be beneficial to know the games they traveled to watch were going to be held no matter the weather. I have little doubt that Griffith was correct on that point, but no matter this was a hard sell to the staid conservative politics of a state government dominated by Scandinavians. It was about a nine-year process to pass legislation for its construction.

I went to the very first event there which was a preseason MLB tilt featuring the Twins versus the Philadelphia Phillies. The first thing I noticed upon entry was that this was a very spartan stadium.  

No frills, bells or whistles. It was an upgrade from the old Met though so that counted for something. When Camden Yards came online in Baltimore a few years later, it featured state-of-the-art fan amenities and in my eyes, the MetroDome was immediately obsolete. In fact I viewed Camden as the stadium that kicked off the phenomena of constructing stadiums for fans, not teams or even sports. Debate about a replacement for the MetroDome began and that led to the eventual construction of Target Field and US Bank stadium, and that process is a novel unto itself.

I would be remiss if I didn't say it was a case study of the influence and coercion over public subsidy and taxpayer funding for stadiums for professional sports tenants. The question begs to be asked, is this a good use of taxpayer funds? A Harvard study I read years back applied just that question to the Camden Yards facility. It found that after all was said and done the financial impact to the City of Baltimore was negligible. Perhaps it's changed by this time but I haven't looked into that. 

I do know that the MetroDome was a success story for the Metropolitan Sports Commission. All debts were retired early and that stadium is the only one in the country to host a World Series, Super Bowl, Men's NCAA Final Four and an MLB All-Star game. The amount of revenue and attention generated by Dome events for the Twin Cities and the State was tremendous.

Now, the NFL Chicago Bears are seeking a new home to replace the aging Soldier Field. The stadium is owned and operated by the Chicago Park District. I had a chance to see one of the last Bears-Vikings games there before it underwent its latest renovation in 2003. (best stadium food aroma anywhere) Y

et another renovation has been brought up and was quickly squelched by the club. They are focused solely on a new building and have no interest in a re-do. In reality it is likely time for the old facility to be replaced. The team has been working on this internally for several years. It is now just about go time for the financing to be secured and construction to commence.

This is where it gets interesting.

The Bears secured a parcel of land out in a Chicago suburb and were ready to leave Chicago proper. But property taxes there made that unattractive to the team and the focus returned to the Chicago lakefront area adjacent to Soldier. Current planning calls for a $4.7 billion development next door to Soldier. The figure includes $3.2 billion for the stadium, $300 mil for needed infrastructure, and $1.2 billion for two other phases of development nearby. The team would contribute $2 billion and the NFL $300 mil. The Bears are seeking $900 mil from the Illinois Sports Facility Authority but at the end of the day that leaves a $1.5 billion deficit in needed funding. T

his is the part where the wealthy teams in the wealthiest sports league in the world call on the taxpayers with their hats in hand.  

But billionaire Illinois Governor JB Pritzker says no go! If he has his way there will be no taxpayer funding for this type of private business development. It is a bit odd because most of the billionaires in the US decry "socialism" in every form it comes in. On the other hand they have never been against shifting their costs to the public dole while keeping their profits privatized and for themselves. At this point we usually begin to hear about the jobs, the revenue the project will bring and so on. In this case it is relatively early in the process, but I very much assume it will be brought up at some point. We are in for a very interesting process I think.

The Bears and the NFL will probably eventually prevail. These matters always go in the favor of the NFL. It appears that Pritzker just might make it interesting this time around though. PEACE