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Cities Debate Stadium Financing

October 23, 1997

Professional sports teams, no matter how well they do on the playing field, have built a winning streak for their owners in getting voters to dip into their pockets and spend public money on new stadiums.

After years of watching owners pocket millions and then threaten to leave town, angry voters may be ready to end that string on Nov. 4. Ballot measures in Minneapolis and Pittsburgh ask voters if they are willing to spend public money on new stadiums and polls indicate owners are probably going down to defeat in both cities.

``It’s not that we’re anti-stadium. The people just don’t want a public subsidy of any kind and to be making a billionaire more rich,″ Ricky Rask, a spokeswoman for a Minneapolis referendum group, said of Twins owner Carl Pohlad. ``It’s about economic justice and when it comes to baseball, there ain’t any.″

In July, 75 percent of Minneapolis voters questioned for the Star Tribune said they wouldn’t give a single dollar to build a stadium, while 72 percent of those questioned for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in May said they opposed a sales tax hike for new stadiums.

Although team owners have lost many attempts to grab stadium funding from taxpayers, they have been successful recently. The owners usually claim they can’t compete without more luxury boxes and other amenities. And they argue that a new stadium will revitalize their downtown districts, using Cleveland and Baltimore as examples.

Last year, voters in Detroit and Cincinnati agreed to help pay for new stadiums and owners won close races in San Francisco and Seattle earlier this year.

Put on the ballot by stadium opponents, the Minneapolis measure would require city officials to ask voters if they want to spend more than $10 million for any future stadium projects. In Pittsburgh, proponents of new stadiums for baseball’s Pirates and football’s Steelers tacked an 11-county development plan onto a tax hike for the stadiums.

The problem, say sports financing experts, is that new stadiums aren’t the moneymakers backers claim they will be. They create very few new jobs and little growth, they contend, and voters resent paying for them when owners and players are making millions.

``There’s a growing recognition that there’s no significant economic impact on the area,″ said Smith College professor Andrew Zimbalist, a contributor to a new compilation of essays on stadium financing published by the Brookings Institute.

Even those who support the projects say benefits are often overrated.

``A big mistake done in a lot of stadium projections is there’s a naive assumption that everything you see going on (around a new stadium) is somehow new money, when in reality it’s mostly displaced from somewhere else in the region,″ said Mark Kamlet, dean of the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

According to a study co-written by Carnegie Mellon _ at the request of stadium proponents _ the stadiums would bring only 2,000 new jobs to the region.

Stadium backers in Minneapolis admit that the project may not be very profitable. Instead, they say people should support a new stadium out of state pride.

The Pirates and Steelers, who would get their own stadium under the tax deal, now play in Three Rivers Stadium, which is 27 years old. The Twins play baseball in the 15-year-old Metrodome _ also the home to football’s Vikings.

The Twins’ stadium is expected to cost about $400 million and Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton has proposed having the county pitch in $54.4 million.

Pohlad has signed a letter of intent to sell the team if lawmakers don’t OK funding by Nov. 30. If the ballot question passes it would complicate a taxpayer-funded stadium plan but not necessarily eliminate it.

In Pittsburgh, the measure would raise sales taxes a half penny on the dollar. Neither team has threatened to leave Pittsburgh, though the Pirates can sell the team after Feb. 1 if a stadium deal isn’t in place.

Despite the polls, fans’ fear of losing their home teams may sway many voters to chip in for new stadiums, said Michael Danielson, a Princeton University political science professor who wrote ``Home Team,″ about the relationship between teams and cities.

``How else could we explain taking something private and making it public in an era of increasing privatization? And providing public money for these millionaires? The answer is, sports is different.″