Cities across the country are turning to taxpayers to finance newer, fancier sports stadiums that feature more luxurious amenities than their predecessors, a trend that has persisted through the Great Recession and economic recovery despite dire state budget situations.
Team owners, with an assist from state and local governments, persuade taxpayers to finance these projects by promising increased economic activity, jobs, and growth, but those promises don’t often come true. The stadiums rarely pay for themselves, leaving local economies engulfed in debt while teams come back asking for even newer stadiums before the current facilities are paid off. Often, if taxpayers don’t agree to finance new facilities, teams threaten to move, leaving dedicated fans and indebted taxpayers behind.
Here are five cities that are currently in the process of financing either new stadiums or expensive renovations to their current facilities for their professional sports teams:
Minneapolis: After years of fighting, the Minnesota state Senate approved a stadium deal handing Minneapolis’ NFL team, the Minnesota Vikings, $348 million in state subsidies. Minneapolis will contribute another $150 million in public financing. That was actually lower than the original plan, which used taxpayer money to pay for more than 60 percent of the stadium’s total cost. The deal comes just two years after the opening of Target Field, the new home of baseball’s Minnesota Twins that was paid for by a new sales tax. The city still owes more than $50 million on the Target Center, home of the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves, and neighboring St. Paul still owes $32 million on the Xcel Center, which houses hockey’s Minnesota Wild. The state also paid for nearly half of the $300 million stadium that became of the new home of the University of Minnesota’s football team in 2009.
Santa Clara: In February, Santa Clara’s city council promised the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers more than $878 million in public loans for a new stadium to replace the team’s stadium in San Francisco. The city claims the loan will have no impact on its General Fund, even as its only assurance that the debt will be repaid comes from stadium revenue projections. Voters approved a stadium plan in 2010 but fought for a new referendum this year on grounds that the city didn’t spell out how the deal was financed. The new referendum was ruled invalid, though, and the 49ers broke ground in March.
Washington, DC: Taxpayers in the nation’s capital need no reminder about the negative effects of financing a stadium. Less than a decade ago, the city approved a taxpayer-financed stadium for its new Major League Baseball team, the Washington Nationals. Now, Major League Soccer’s D.C. United are seeking a new facility that would cost $157 million — and that’s before the cost of land is added. It’s unclear how the stadium would be financed, though city officials have reportedly expressed willingness to fund new infrastructure projects to serve the stadium. And the United are taking a page from the books of teams in larger sports in an attempt to get a stadium, exploring a move to Baltimore at the same time.
Atlanta: The Georgia Dome is a premier sports facility that hosts major sporting events nearly every year and is the home of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. But Falcon’s owner Arthur Blank is seeking a new stadium, even though the Dome is only 20 years old. Construction of the new stadium would rely on $300 million in taxpayer funds, even as the state’s education budget remains drained from the effects of the Great Recession.
St. Louis: In 1995, the city of St. Louis opened a new dome for its NFL team, the St. Louis Rams. The dome was financed in part by $126 million in bonds that will ultimately cost $720 million. (The same year, the city agreed to help finance a new stadium for its professional baseball team after it threatened to move to suburban Illinois.) Just 17 years into their 30-year lease, the Rams are asking for major renovations to the stadium thanks to a deal that requires the city to maintain its “first-tier” status. St. Louis recently rejected the Rams’ renovation proposal, but reports surfaced yesterday showing that it offered the team $48 million in public subsidies in a counter-offer.
In these cities and others, state and local governments are cutting services, slashing education budgets, and selling local hospitals, even as they ask taxpayers to pay for new and existing sports facilities. Pro teams that want new stadiums have an easy solution for getting them: instead of holding their hand out to taxpayers, they should foot the bill themselves.