Pittsburgh city councilman Bill Peduto, the Democratic nominee to become the city’s next mayor, this week released a new television ad targeting the use of public funds to expand Heinz Field, the home of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers want the city council’s Stadium and Exhibition Authority to pick up most of the $40 million tab for adding 3,000 seats to the decade-old stadium, but the authority has resisted, arguing that the expansion doesn’t meet the terms of the team’s lease with the city.
In the folksy 30-second ad touting Steeler staples, Peduto outlines it not as a battle between a team and the city, but a question of whether the money should go to the stadium or toward youth programs.
“I’m Bill Peduto, and I’ll cheer with Sax Man for the Steelers,” Peduto says in the ad. “But instead of more money for stadiums, it should go to youth programs. I’ll answer to Coach Jeff and Earl the street sweeper, not the downtown insiders. Some things should never change. But who your mayor fights for will.”
Peduto is a member of the Stadium and Exhibition Authority, so his opposition to the further funding isn’t that surprising. But he’s also dedicated to the issue — he’s working to improve a potential deal with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins too — and running an ad on it and framing it as Peduto did is important. Politicians have of course opposed these types of deals before, but they often remain easily persuadable on the issue, whether because franchise owners have the money to try to tilt the debate in their favor if they want to or because it is easy to lean on the belief that stadiums are smart uses of public funds that create jobs and economic activity that benefit everyone.
That, of course, isn’t true. Stadiums aren’t free and they don’t provide the huge boosts proponents say they will, so handing them even more money usually amounts to throwing good money after bad. They are more likely to leave cities and states mired in debt they can’t afford, and the result is often that vital programs that need funding — be they youth programs or public hospitals or fire departments or anything else — get sacrificed at the budget altar even as money keeps flowing to arenas and stadiums and the millionaires and billionaires who own the teams that play in them. Even if a majority of people would choose to fund these projects, they deserve to know that they are a statement of priorities that come with a substantial cost.
That’s why seeing a mayoral candidate speak out about it — and frame it in either/or terms — is significant. Opposition to major funding deals is rising in many cities, especially as stories about the difficulty of funding stadiums in cities like Minneapolis and Glendale and Miami and everywhere else continue to show up. Even if this specific case will likely be decided by a court or by the two sides reaching a deal themselves, having a mayoral candidate speak out about it shows that more and more people are realizing that these deals rarely go well for the taxpayers who finance them.