In case the broadcast of the Super Bowl on Sunday didn’t make it crystal clear on high definition TV, there’s one very specific reason why the NFL chose to hold a giant tourist event in freezing Minnesota in February. (Hint: It wasn’t for the fan experience.)
The reason: Money.
Specifically, $1.2 billion spent to construct the new US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Even more specifically, the estimated $498 million in taxpayer subsidies for the stadium. That amount of public money keeps sports franchise owners toasty warm in their luxury boxes, bless their hearts.
The NFL’s reward for extracting our taxpayer funds is the Super Bowl. Historically the NFL chooses a warm-weather city in Florida, Texas, Arizona, or Louisiana for the Super Bowl. Football fans, one would sort of think, prefer their walkable pre-game experience without putting on eight layers of clothing. For the right amount of taxpayer money, however, the NFL will send die-hard fans to the weather-equivalent of planet Hoth.
Awarding Super Bowl locations follows the construction of new stadiums by NFL cities, just like night follows day. Here, have some data:
New $1.2 billion stadium for the Vikings in 2016? Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis in 2018.
New $1.4 billion stadium for the Falcons in 2017? Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta 2019.
$550 stadium renovation of the Dolphins’ stadium in 2016? Super Bowl LIV in Miami 2020.
$150 stadium renovation for the Buccaneers in 2017: Super Bowl LV in Tampa 2021.
New $2.6 billion stadium for the LA Rams in 2020: Super Bowl LVI in Inglewood, CA. in 2022.
If I were a gambling man, I’d wager my life’s fortune on Super Bowl in 2023 in Las Vegas, after the peripatetic Raiders’ new stadium gets built on the sturdy foundation of taxpayers’ wallets in Nevada. Please, somebody, tell me if there’s a sports book at Caesar’s Palace that will accept my wager on the location of Super Bowl LVII in 2023.
Anyway, those new stadium price tags aren’t the amount taxpayers subsidize billionaire sports owners, but rather the total estimated costs of construction. Here are the estimated taxpayer subsidies associated with those specific stadium construction projects:
Minnesota: $498 million
Atlanta: $200 million
Miami: $75 million
Tampa: $29 million
LA-adjacent Inglewood: $0. The LA Rams’ owner reportedly turned down an offer of $477 million in public subsidies from St. Louis to keep the Rams from moving to California. Yay!
Las Vegas: $750 million
By the way, I love the owner of the LA Rams for that. That’s the way a good NFL owner does it.
The way the rest of the owners do it, however, is to extract maximum taxpayer dollars as a subsidy for their privately-owned sports businesses. Which makes me mad.
Did you know that Patriots owner Robert Kraft also built Gillette Stadium without using any taxpayer money? Karmically speaking, that explains everything about their success in the last 17 years, no?
Back in 2002, Houston received its award from the NFL for building the $449 million NRG stadium, two-thirds of which was funded by taxpayers. That entitled Houston to host two Patriots championships during the 2004 and 2017 Super Bowls. So that was nice. Maybe taxpayer funds help you host, but karma wins championships?
I’m sorry, where was I?
Oh yes. Besides the inherently anti-capitalist practice of using public subsidies for private owners’ gain, I don’t believe the public gets good value for its money.
The New York Times filed a glowing economic development report in mid-January on the surge in economic development around Minneapolis’ new US Bank stadium. The story features excited architects, developers, real estate agents, and the leaders of a public-private partnership promoting their neighborhood, and lots of pictures of cranes at construction sites. The story name-drops future company office spaces, a big number of planned housing units, and potential hotels with plans to move there. What’s not to love, at least according to developers? This echoes the familiar argument that taxpayer money into the pockets of billionaire owners is justified because it spurs local economic development.
Now I’ll adopt my grumpy Bill Belichick-persona about the Times’ glowing report. Studies regularly debunk this myth of development-through-publically-subsidized stadiums. The University of Chicago polled economists on whether taxpayer costs for stadium building outweighed public benefits, with 83 percent agreeing, and 2 percent disagreeing. (The remaining economists polled did what economists do, which is respond with some version of “it’s complicated.”)
A Brookings Institute report on the subject in 2016 does not equivocate: “after 20 years of academic research on the topic, articles published in peer-reviewed economics journals contain almost no evidence that professional sports franchises and facilities have a measurable economic impact on the economy.” Take that, New York Times.
On the subject of the myriad ways we taxpayers subsidize private sports team owners, do you remember the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed in December 2017? Whatever the merits or demerits of the final bill, I had pinned my hopes on a little-discussed provision of the proposed House bill that forbade federal taxpayer subsidies for sports stadiums via tax-exempt municipal bonds.
Frankly, I loved that little reform provision with all my heart.
The House version of the bill would have eliminated that subsidy right up until the very end. Oklahoma Senator James Lankford (R) and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker (D) tried to team up in the Senate to eliminate subsidies in the bill’s Senate version as well. And then, in the wee hours of legislative reconciliation, the final bill re-opened up federal subsidies for sports stadiums via tax exempt municipal bonds. Nevada Senator Dean Heller (R) bragged about “preserving” the subsidy in the final bill, presumably because of the upcoming stadium to be built for the Raiders in Las Vegas, using taxpayer money.
The Empire struck back! Billionaire sports owners won again. Senator Heller was Lucy to our Charlie Brown, snatching the ball away from our kickoff at the last minute. A little part of me – the uber-nerdy federal tax-reform-following part of me – died that day. (The other part of me died when the Pats didn’t win Sunday.)
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