Curse 2016 all you like, but all that bluster only matters if you can make 2017 better.
For cities, counties and states being asked/told to fork over tax money for stadiums, ballparks and arenas, 2017 looks like just about every year that came before.
In 2016, new sports facilities opened in Minneapolis, Sacramento and Edmonton with the help of more than $1 billion in public funding. During the same year, residents of Arlington, Texas, approved a new ballpark for Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers that could cost upwards of $800 million in public funding. Voters in San Diego, meanwhile, declined a generous offer from the owners of the National Football League’s Chargers to take public land and more than a billion in tax dollars off their hands to build a new stadium.
In Las Vegas, voters didn’t get that opportunity as local politicians promised $750 million in tax dollars — more than any city, county or state has ever paid up front for a sports facility — to help the Oakland Raiders build a new stadium. Though the Raiders are still in Oakland and are considered a runner-up to the Chargers for a second spot in Los Angeles, it didn’t stop casino owners, local media and just about anyone in Nevada with political aspirations from lining up the project and fulfilling local sports radio hosts’ wildest dreams on the public’s dime.
Even if the Raiders never play a down at Las Vegas Sands/Review Journal Adelson Stadium on the Strip, 2017 is already going to be a costly year for local governments willing to sacrifice the general welfare if it keeps the local team happy. In Atlanta, both the city and the state of Georgia handed Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank (net worth $3.2 billion) more than $700 million in tax dollars (after interest) for his new Mercedes-Benz Stadium that opens in time for the 2017 NFL season. It replaces the Georgia Dome, which was roughly 20 years old when Blank went begging for a new building, as well as two churches and six other properties to — using the threat of eminent domain — force owners to sell.
Even when Atlanta does say no to a team’s demands, it doesn’t end well for taxpayers. When the city wouldn’t fork over cash to overhaul the Braves’ roughly 20-year-old ballpark at Turner Field, nearby Cobb County took out nearly $375 million in bonds to pay for SunTrust Park and its surrounding infrastructure. Oh, and it booted a bunch of people out of their homes just to build a road to that ballpark … which also opens in 2017.
We’re already up to $1 billion in public funding for sports, and we haven’t even left the Atlanta metro area yet.
Perhaps the only place getting a worse deal for its tax dollars is Detroit, which we’ll remind you was in bankruptcy less that five years ago. The state of Michigan is collecting Detroit’s income taxes, a state emergency manager runs its schools and more than 50,000 of the city’s homes sit vacant. Yet the owners of both the National Hockey League’s Detroit Red Wings and National Basketball Association’s Detroit Pistons think it’s a fine idea to take almost $375 million out of the city’s pockets and use it to build an arena. Both the Red Wings and Pistons will start playing in this new facility — paid for with dollars taken right out of the School Aid Fund — in the fall of 2017.
All of the above has guaranteed that stadium funding will be a complete loss for taxpayers in 2017. However, what taxpayers and their representatives do in 2017 can help lessen the blow in years to come. The Milwaukee Bucks are already bleeding their city and the state of Wisconsin for more than $400 million to open a new arena in 2018, but other regions may provide some hope for the future.
Arizona, which has already seen cities like Glendale leveraged to the hilt on sports facilities, has been reluctant to simply hand the NBA’s Suns and NHL’s Coyotes a new arena or to provide ballpark renovations for Major League Baseball’s Diamondbacks. Meanwhile, Las Vegas got its T-Mobile Arena for free thanks to the combined resources of MGM Grand and the Anschutz Entertainment Group and drew an NHL expansion team — the Las Vegas Golden Knights — that will call the arena home starting in 2017.
The Golden State Warriors, meanwhile, will be moving from their current home in Oakland to a new facility in San Francisco that will be built on the Warriors’ own tab. Though there has been a lot of back-and-forth over site issues in that notoriously dense and expensive city, none of those discussions have involved San Francisco paying for so much as a bucket of grout for the Warriors’ new Chase Center home, scheduled to open in 2019.
“No” is a word that sports franchises don’t tend to hear enough in their negotiations with host cities, but it’s a word that cities need to be willing to use if they value their infrastructure, programs and services more than their teams. Team owners have found plenty of “yes” men for 2017, but hollow threats and privately funded facilities make it worth resolving to say “no” to further sports cash grabs in the new year.
Jason Notte is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post and Esquire. Follow him on Twitter @Notteham.