A week after the Atlanta Braves announced that they’d be moving to Cobb County, which gave the team 300 million reasons to do so, the city of Cleveland agreed to give the Browns $22 million over the next 15 years. The money, though, isn’t for a new stadium or something that will keep the team in the city. Instead, it’s for new scoreboards, escalators, and other upgrades to the venue.
The project costs a total of $120 million, so the city is only footing part of the bill, and the good news from Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson is that it won’t actually cost the city anything valuable, even though the money is coming from Cleveland’s general fund, as ideastream.org reports:
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson says the money will come out of the city’s general fund. And he says the deal won’t lead to cuts in city services, but he acknowledges that money could have been spent on other things.
“Now could we have hired another police officer as a result of this? Yes,” Jackson said at a Tuesday news conference. “Could we have swept a street? Yes. We could have done it, because it’s general fund money. But what I’m saying to you is that the level of service we provide today will not be in jeopardy.”
The standard, then, is that since Cleveland will still be able to afford a base number of cops, schools, firefighters, and clean streets, shifting $2 million a year from the general fund isn’t any big deal. Everything will be all right. But just last year, Jackson had expressed worries about the city’s budgetary future, saying that even though it had a $4 million balance, that was “really nothing when you don’t know what the next year will bring.”
But the bigger question, I think, is why Cleveland should be expected — or willing — to pay for these types of upgrades at all. It’s understandable, if not financially sound, when cities and states hand over money to build stadiums because the reality is that those projects are integral to keeping teams in their cities. And given that cities get wrapped into actually owning these things, financing some basic maintenance and upkeep is understandable too. But new scoreboards, escalators, and other upgrades? Why is that the city’s job? Those are improvements that don’t necessarily keep the stadium up to code, don’t help keep the team in town, and don’t have much tangible benefit to the city whatsoever? Instead, they are designed to make the stadium more lavish, which in turn should help attract fans, which in turn should make ownership more money. All with some of the costs further subsidized by taxpayers. In addition to that, the new scoreboards, which are often larger and feature high-definition screens, can boost advertising revenue for teams (Jacksonville and Houston have both recently secured large new scoreboards).
The reason cities pay for these things is usually that they are contractually obligated to. Cities, under many of the newer plans, are required to keep their facilities among the nicest and most lavish in sports. That’s what the Pittsburgh Steelers are arguing right now. It’s the St. Louis Rams’ driving motivation to get either major renovations to the Edward Jones Dome, or a new stadium altogether (St. Louis’ deal explicitly requires the city to maintain the Dome’s “first-tier status”). It’s how the Carolina Panthers scored city subsidies to renovate Bank of America Stadium. And it’s included, it appears, in the Braves’ new deal with Cobb County. Teams don’t just secure public money for construction, they get promises for upgrades too — and those upgrades have to be substantial to meet terms of the lease. If cities don’t hold their end of the deals, teams can opt out of leases, and opting out of leases means they can ask for new facilities or threaten to move elsewhere.
It’s another way that teams exert leverage over their cities to get money that could be spent more wisely on something else. And as Neil deMause has noted at Field of Schemes, this may be the next big frontier in stadium financing: after a bunch of new stadiums popped up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, many financing fights will center not on new facilities but on securing public money for massive, expensive upgrades to those that already exist, even when many of the improvements will benefit the teams’ bottom lines the most.