In city after city, politicians and voters are throwing themselves and their money at the feet of professional sports teams.
Washington state lawmakers wouldn’t vote for a gas tax to repair crumbling streets. Yet they approved legislation that would spend $327 million and put state taxpayers in debt for 23 years to build billionaire Paul Allen a new football stadium in Seattle.
Voters have the final say on the proposal June 17, when it appears on ballots statewide.
If they say yes, Washington voters will join taxpayers around the country who have dug into their pockets for pro sports teams and their wealthy owners, even as they reject spending on their own public facilities, from roads to parks and schools.
Economists and other observers chalk it up to stadium fever, stoked by the appeal of the big money and celebrity of professional sports.
“It’s an edifice complex. Let’s build a stadium unlike any in the world. It’s the destination-city thing. It’s a guy thing. It drives a lot of people crazy,” said Rob Baade, an economist at Lake Forest College, Ill.
In Washington, stadiums are also a gal thing.
Washington’s Legislature has the highest percentage of female lawmakers in the country. And plenty of women lawmakers helped pass legislation to spend $320 million on a baseball stadium in 1995.
Many of the same politicians who were determined to drive a hard bargain with welfare recipients as they retooled public assistance programs doled out tax breaks and interest-free financing when megabuck sports teams came calling.
“It’s like they just kind of lose it, in terms of rational decision making,” said Allen Sanderson, a sports economist at the University of Chicago. “The primary beneficiaries of these things are the team owners, the leagues, the players and the fans in the seats having their entertainment subsidized for them.
“I call it a reverse-Robin Hood effect, of stealing from the poor and moderately wealthy to make the well-heeled even better off. I find it all rather astounding.”
But unusual? Not at all.
“Almost every city mayor is being hit with these things. It’s the gold rush of the 90s,” said Mark Rosentraub, a professor at Indiana University and author of “Major League Losers: the Real Cost of Sports and Who’s Paying for It,” a new book about the economics of sports stadiums.
“When it comes to sport, we allow the leagues to tell us what we will get and where we will get it. They also have some of the best PR machines and lobbyists in the country.
“And it ties into the image of a city. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle. The media give favorable coverage because sports are one of their biggest profit centers.”
Many also credit a sizable fear factor that prods lawmakers to coddle pro sports teams, hoping it will keep them in town. Gaining a team is a feather in any pol’s cap, while losing one is usually perceived as disaster.
“Sports is a glamour issue,” Baade said. “Politicians ignore it at their own peril. These people are also well-connected. They are part of the old boy network, and all the guys who run these things anyway want to rub elbows with sports figures. These are deep-seated things that are very compelling. It goes on worldwide, not just in the U.S.”
Saying yes to stadium proposals is usually sold as building a town’s prestige and its future - even if it shackles the city to long-term debt, said Arthur Johnson, a political science professor at the University of Maryland.
Stadium opponents, meanwhile, come off as poor sports. “You are a naysayer, people say you have no vision, you are not creative,” Johnson said Sports also have a simpler appeal: They are fun and easy to understand. Many other things taxpayers spend their money on are more complicated and their benefit harder to discern.
“With sports there is a very clear winner and loser,”Johnson said. “It’s pretty easy to understand. There is a short-term payoff.”