Professional sports franchises have a tried-and-true method of extracting new stadiums out of their home cities. First, they talk about all of the economic development (and jobs!) the new stadium or arena will bring. If that doesn’t lure the local politicians who have control of the purse strings, the next step is usually to threaten to get the money from somewhere else. Not, as you’d think, from private investors or their own pockets. That would be ridiculous. Instead, they go running to other cities, many of which are usually enticed enough by the economic development and jobs to give them all the dough they want.
Politicians love the idea of economic development (and jobs!), so it’s usually easy to get them on the first point. But the second point is the one that’s the most powerful, as Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who just lost his Major League Baseball team to the suburbs this week, demonstrated on MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown this morning.
“I think the Braves are getting one of the best deals in America,” Reed, who has already committed $200 million toward a new stadium for the city’s NFL team, said. “I don’t have any bad feelings at all.”
“Hey, we had a terrific Ford. It was working just fine, we were prepared to invest in it, and Cobb came along and offered them a Range Rover and said, ‘Hey, we’ll fund 45 percent of it with public money,’” Reed continued. “So I’m not frustrated at all. What I did want to do is make sure folks understood my decision, because I love our Braves. It’s short-term pain and long-term the right decision.”
Think about that. Reed is a mayor who just refused to hand the Atlanta Braves hundreds of millions of dollars in public money for the team’s own benefit, a financial decision that on its face is pretty sound, especially since the terms of the Braves’ agreement with Cobb County are really bad for Cobb County (notice the annual reallocation of $8.67 million in property tax revenues that could have funded anything else, like the 182 teachers the county just laid off). And yet, here Reed is on national television feeling like he has to defend that decision, because the obvious counterclaim is that he and the city let the Braves get away.
And that’s why this works. Politicians are, in short, scared feces-less of being the ones who allowed the local team to move somewhere else, because sports teams are popular. Teams know this, so the threat to leave becomes a tool of extortion, and whenever possible they do it on terms where they don’t even have to put it to a public vote (as is the case in Cobb).
So what we get are a bunch of cities doling out millions of dollars in public money that could go to something else more beneficial. They’re financing an investment that won’t lead to the economic development (and jobs!) they promised. So we end up with cities like Cincinnati and Minneapolis, Miami and Glendale, where you may no longer have a public hospital but at least you still have your team. That’s why it doesn’t really matter that these stadiums are white elephants that don’t make economic sense. That’s just a talking point teams and politicians use to justify the subsidies. The threat to move is the real power play, and as long as those threats are credible, the teams will get what they want from somebody.