Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Role of Public Funding in American Sports

Brian Sutton-Smith described games as "quadralogues," or as involving four parties: the players, the group/individual that stages the event, the person(s) that direct the performance, and the audience. As we discussed in class last week, American football includes some categories that fall outside of this framework. John Oliver featured a segment on his show Last Week Tonight which showed some of the categories that are missing from Sutton-Smith's framework by detailing the ways in which cities and corporate interests collude to spend public funds on privately-owned stadiums for not just football, but sports like hockey and baseball as well.

Twelve billion dollars of taxpayer money has been spent on the 51 new sports facilities that opened between 2000 and 2010 despite the fact that sports teams are essentially successful businesses with wealthy owners. For example, Detroit taxpayers paid nearly two-thirds of the cost of a new hockey arena ($283 million) just 6 days after the city filed for bankruptcy even though the owner of the Detroit Red Wings is worth an estimated $5.1 billion dollars. David Samson, the president of the Miami Marlins stated that "The whole object of this [publicly funded stadiums] is to get more revenue." The financial component of American sports is so insidious that even the video game Madden NFL allows the gamer to play as an NFL owner and do things like upgrade the stadium and adjust concessions prices.

Tax-exempt municipal bonds are supposed to be used for public goods like roads, but are instead routinely used to build stadiums when sports teams claim that they cannot afford to. For example, the Miami Marlins said that they needed their stadium publicly funded because they were not making a profit yet they refused to open their books. Reports later showed that the Marlins had generated nearly $50 million in operating income in the previous two years. Team owners try to justify the spending of taxpayer money on stadiums by claiming that new arenas create jobs and bring money into the area, yet stadiums very rarely revitalize their surrounding areas or create large numbers of permanent jobs. Oliver explains that economists have "consistently found no substantial evidence of increased jobs, incomes, or tax revenues."

Public funding of sports stadiums seems to actually hurt cities, as Ohio's Hamilton county spent an estimated $50 million in 2014 on debts and other costs for the Bengals football stadium, which then resulted in a public hospital being sold, 1,700 jobs being cut, and delayed payments for schools because of budget gaps resulting from the stadium funding. Yet support for public funding remains. When a mayor in Arizona attempted to stop the millions of dollars that went to their football and hockey teams every year, a sports fan responded by calling him "childish, pathetic, and disrespectful." Sports teams often threaten to leave their cities unless tax dollars fund their stadiums, which means that it is most often the fans themselves that petition for public funding. The fact that people are willing to spend millions of public dollars on stadiums that the teams owners could afford themselves shows how integral sports are to American life. 


  1. I forgot to sign my name! this post is mine

    1. Thanks Rowan! Interesting points about public funding/stadiums.