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November 1999
Volume 17 Number 11

Stadium Socialism
Gregory Bresiger

Jesse Ventura, Governor of Minnesota, took a position that is extremely rare in state government. He said that neither the state nor the city nor any other unit of government should spend any money on funding yet another municipal ballpark or providing a taxpayer subsidy to professional ball teams and their media flunkies. "The taxpayers shouldn't have to foot the bill for new stadiums," said Ventura.

That's a sentiment that would have been common in America a hundred years ago. Today, after decades of government entitlement programs for everyone, it now seems revolutionary. Imagine the gall of Ventura! He expects private businesses to, well, act like private businesses and not take government handouts.

The Minnesota Twins and Vikings, two major league teams with huge revenues that have been subsidized for decades, each want new parks. Ventura, sounding like Grover Cleveland, complains that these teams should pay their own bills.

In other words, Ventura, a pro wrestler presumed by many media elites to be a rube, doesn't want to let the already overtaxed citizens of Minnesota get body-slammed by the bogus argument that a city's economic development is improved when a city or state spends tens of millions of taxpayer dollars building and running a ballpark, arena, or convention center.

Once built, these white elephants are then rented to highly profitable major league sports teams, which certainly have the resources to build their own ballparks. Teams get rich. Salaries of even rotten players go through the roof (Bill Veeck, the maverick owner of several major league teams, used to complain about the "high price of mediocrity").

Market forces are distorted by these subsidies. Taxpayers, including those who could care less about sports, pay and pay as team owners-rather than showing gratitude for taxpayer largesse-demand more and more like addicts.

Elected officials around the country are ready to do almost anything to attract or keep major league teams in their towns, including build or rebuild stadiums and approve sweetheart leases that are subsidies for the teams. Sometimes they'll even abuse their already considerable eminent domain powers to get the land for new stadiums. New stadiums are under discussion or are under construction in, among other places, New York, Boston, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Detroit.

The history of these ballparks is identical to the history of almost all mammoth public projects: It is a history of boondoggles, cost overruns, and sharp political deals. For instance, Camden Yards, the highly- praised home of the Baltimore Orioles, originally was going to cost $60 million. It ended up costing $100 million, not including land acquisition costs.

Back in the early 1970s, New York City taxpayers were told that renovating Yankee Stadium would only cost $26 million. The project ended up costing city taxpayers more than $100 million. Two decades later, the Yankee Stadium renovation wasn't good enough. George Steinbrenner, citing new municipal ballparks in other American league cities he was competing against, said he needed a better park. Pols in both parties in the spending-mad Rancid Apple rushed to offer Steinbrenner new sweetie-pie deals.

So Democrat officials in the city have proposed renovating the stadium again. One politician who wants to run for mayor now proposes creating a "Yankee Village." Price: hundreds of millions of dollars. Meantime, the GOP mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, wants the city to build a new stadium downtown for the Yankees. Price: at least $1 billion.

By the way, the new Yankee stadium would be located very near the state's corruption-plagued Javits Center. That's a convention center that has had problems attracting conventions because of union graft and the incompetence (or worse) of city and state officials. They spent a lot of money and time to find possibly the most undesirable site in Manhattan. The Javits Center replaced the Coliseum, another government nightmare that officials have been unsuccessfully trying to unload for years. Shall I go on? (Have you got a few years?)

Not only are these shady deals obviously expensive and usually riddled with stupidity, but, by the nature of municipal ballparks, they pit team against team to determine who gets the most out of the taxpayers. Sometimes the local football team gets all the concession money and shuts out the baseball team. Usually, a team with very effective lobbying skills receives a cheap rent from the city.

In Pittsburgh, for example, the Penguins don't get nearly as good a deal as the Pirates and Steelers, two aptly named teams. The latter two have much better leases with the city. But cheap rents haven't kept those teams happy. And, after building Three Rivers Stadium in the 1970s, the Pirates recently told the city that they didn't want to share it with the Steelers. So the city is talking about building another stadium just for the Pirates.

In Minnesota, the Vikings get a better concession deal than the "poor" Twins. That's caused a lot of bad feeling with the Twins, who are pushing St. Paul to give them another stadium. But don't think for a moment that the fat and sassy Vikings are happy. Oh, no. Their ownership is talking about moving to San Antonio unless city Minnesota pols ante up again.

The New York Jets once played at Shea Stadium, the home of the New York Mets. But since they didn't get any concession money-the Mets's lease let them hog it-and since the stadium was poorly maintained by the city, the Jets moved to New Jersey, where a state authority offered them a wonderful deal. Shea Stadium is another city monument to incompetence and the reckless spending of taxpayer funds.

Shea Stadium was built in the wrong place-right in the path of jets from nearby LaGuardia Airport-and it is one of the most egregious ballparks in the country. Over the years many fans have complained that it is dirty and ugly, with no character. So guess what? The Mets, after only 35 years there, want another new stadium. Will the taxpayers have to pay for it? And will it be another dump? Probably.

Across town, the Yankees are allowed by a generous city to deduct from their already low rent any repairs they make to the stadium. The Yankees's lease is an invitation to rip off the landlord, which is the city of New York. This is a place that Money Magazine has called "tax hell." And this major league welfare policy has been supported by mayors both Democratic and Republican.

Of course, cities owning and maintaining stadiums is a ridiculous idea. Professional sports were born and grew into a big business without taxpayer funds. Like so many other services, stadium construction used to be the exclusive responsibility of the private sector. Ebbets Field, Polo Grounds, and the original Yankee Stadium, for example, were all built with private funds. That was a time when major league sports weren't nearly as profitable as they are today, yet teams didn't look to the government to baby them in those days.

Major league teams used to build their own ballparks until the owners of these clubs bought a lifetime seat on the government corporate welfare train, a train that is going to end up jammed with passengers who expect their tickets to be bought by taxpayers. That train has become incredibly expensive.

Let us not forget the one bit of common sense from "Jesse the Body." Ventura's comments were a remarkable departure from the usual comments of poltroonish pols from New York to Los Angeles, who live in fear that they will be in office when a major league team leaves town because it was not sufficiently bribed with taxpayer funds.

The Twins and Vikings now play in the Metrodome, which is only about 25 years old, but apparently it is no longer good enough for Carl Pohlad and Red McCombs, the billionaire owners of the Twins and Vikings. Ventura, who recently provided a tax rebate for the state's overburdened taxpayers, said the citizens should be free to send all or part of their rebate checks to help pay for new stadiums.

"We'll call it the Help Poor Carl and Help Poor Red fund," said Ventura, whose sardonic, common-sense comments have earned him the scorn of much media, especially many Minnesota sports writers. The subsidies, direct and indirect, may go on forever as long as the taxpayers continue to be snowed by media mountebanks and pols who believe bread and circuses win elections. Maybe Jesse Ventura isn't a clown after all.

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Gregory Bresiger is a journalist writing from Manhattan.

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