Tuesday, September 17, 2013





Sports Stadia Corporate/Government Complex

A description of three of the biggest welfare kings in the country has come from Think Progress' Travis Waldron.  On Forbes' 2013 list of the wealthiest Americans are fourteen owners of teams in the National Football League.

Steve Kroenke, owner of the St. Louis Rams, is the second wealthiest owner in the NFL and is worth $5.3 billion.  He has asked the city for more than $700 million in public funds, which has been wisely rejected. (Variation on the old real-estate joke:  What are the three major sports teams in St. Louis?  The Cardinals, Cardinals, Cardinals.)

Stephen  Ross of the Miami Dolphins, the 3rd richest owner in the league with a worth of $4.8 billion, is pushing county taxpayers for $380 million to renovate Sun Life Stadium.   The proposal is pending.

The Atlanta Falcons' Arthur Blank, with a net worth of $1.7 billion the tenth wealthiest owner in the NFL, has requested $1.7 billion to build a new stadium.   Waldron believes the proposal "will end up going forward, with a major assist from taxpayers."

These owners aren't alone.  All but one NFL stadium, according to Waldron, has been built with at least some assistance from taxpayers. The same week Detroit announces it is filing for bankruptcy, we are reminded the city is chipping in $400 million for a new sports arena although

On average, police take about an hour to respond to calls for help, and 40% of street lights are shut off to save money.

"If you want people to live in the city, and not just visit to go to games, you have to invest in schools, in having the police to respond to calls," said Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic leader in the state senate.

"There are so many investments that should trump a sports stadium." commented Dave Zirin, author, and sports reporter for The Nation.  He recently explained to Bill Moyers (most relevant portion of transcript, below)

Over $400 million for a new hockey stadium, the same week that they talk about Detroit declaring bankruptcy. I mean, first and foremost, it's not being built for Detroit, it's being built for a gentleman named Mike Ilitch, founder of Little Caesars Pizza, the man is in his 80’s, he's worth $2.7 billion. And he's getting over $400 million in public money for a $650 million arena. This was signed off on by Rick Snyder, the same governor who enacted the the anti-labor laws that are in Michigan that caused so much controversy last year, and making it a right-to-work state.

Governor Snyder also signed a law he proposed which provides for the appointment of an emergency manager nearly to obliterate municipal government and take over its operations.   Kevyn Orr, appointed by Snyder as City Manager in Detroit, is proposing to slash pensions and health benefits for city employees and retirees.  Other social services will be reduced, notwithstanding

Detroit is a place you leave, not a place you settle. You need to have real jobs that create a real tax base that can fund real schools that actually work. And you’ve got to keep the street lights on and you’ve got to have a garbage collection. And first of all, the kinds of jobs that it creates, it doesn't produce tax revenue. It produces revenue for Mike Ilitch which he can then hide and not pay. But it doesn't produce tax revenue for the people who are going to, who actually have to live in Detroit after this.

The stadia get built, Zirin speculates, "because it becomes wrapped in sports. And the idea, or maybe a fear that the team will move. Or maybe excitement at the thought of a new building. Yet we all pay a very serious price for this"  In addition, however, it's so much easier, and far more prestigious, to build a glitzy new downtown than to attend to the needs of the actual residents, which includes some of those employees and retirees, whose economic lifeline is now threatened.

But it doesn't end with those pensions and benefits, representing contractual promises; public education, representing investment in the future; street lights, representing public safety;  and garbage collection ("all politics is local"). In Minneapolis, Zirin recalls, "the very week they were going to break ground on the new stadium the bridge collapsed,"

sending about a dozen people to their deaths. 

A five-minute walk from where I live in D.C., the metro went off the rails the year after the new Washington Nationals' billion-dollar stadium opened. So people have to realize whether you're a sports fan or not, very real choices get made about the limited amount of public infrastructure dollars that we have. And if they don't get spent on infrastructure that safeguards our basic safety, then we all pay a price for that.

Zirin spoke extensively and eloquently about the conflation of sports with the public interest.  This only scratches the surface, though, of a larger and more important issue, the conflation of the government sector with the corporate sector.  Luckily, Zirin didn't disappoint here, either, remarking

I mean, and that's the part of it that just boggles my mind, especially as someone who grew up a Mets fan, the idea that sports can be used as a kind of economic shell game for people in power. And I think that really is how it happens. Because there's an agenda at the top of society that wants corporate welfare. That's a huge part of that kind of one-percent agenda. And sports is a way to do that without arousing the kind of ire that otherwise might exist.

Zirin maintains that funding for the Baltimore Orioles' stadium, Camden Yards, many years ago served as "this preparing of the public psyche to say, you know what the role of public money should be? To give it to private capital so they can build these stadiums."

If the bailout of Wall Street- also noted by Zirin- revealed anything, it may have been that it is long past time that the big money boys want to be left alone by the government.  They now demand that government fleece the public by taking tax money- often eliminating jobs- in order to bolster a large company's bottom line. The two have become co-conspirators, with corporate profits having reached unprecedented levels, wages as a percentage of the economy at an all-time low, and employment-to-population ratio collapsing.

And oh, yes: Joe Biden believes same-sex marriage should be the biggest issue in America.




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DAVE ZIRIN: The defining feature of that change can be seen in any city in this country where there is a publicly-funded, billion-dollar stadium. That to me is both a symbol and an expression of everything that's changed about the economics of sports. Now look, I'm not saying that owners back in the day were these kindhearted creatures.

But there was an economic system in sports where if you were an owner and you were going to make a profit, you needed to make sure that largely working-class fans would be able to pay money and put their butts in the seats and go to the park. Now fans have largely become scenery. The way owners measure profits in this day and age are public subsidies for stadiums, luxury boxes at the stadium, and sweetheart cable deals.

Now what's so horrible about two of those three things, the cable aspect and the public subsidies for stadiums, is that we're paying for this whether we're sports fans or not. Our cable bills go up, our taxes go up, to subsidize these kinds of ventures. And every single economic study shows that they don't work. So what these stadiums--

BILL MOYERS: You mean they don't produce the revenue.

DAVE ZIRIN: No, it's more like a neo-liberal Trojan horse. Where people end up agreeing to things that they would never otherwise agree to, because it becomes wrapped in sports. And the idea, or maybe a fear that the team will move. Or maybe excitement at the thought of a new building. Yet we all pay a very serious price for this. I went to college in Minnesota, I remember going to see the Twins at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.

And it was not a good stadium. Billy Martin once famously walked in and said, how could Hubert Humphrey's parents name him after this dump? So it was a pretty awful stadium. And so, and I'm all for them having a new stadium, except the new stadium was built entirely with public money, even though it had been rejected a dozen times by the voters in various referendum.

But the owner, Carl Pohlad, who's the richest owner in major league sports at the time, he devoted, and I, this is without exaggeration, the last 25 years of his life, from age 72 to 97, to lobbying to get this new stadium. That was his dream. And the very week they were going to break ground on the new stadium the bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, sending about a dozen people to their deaths.

A five-minute walk from where I live in D.C., the metro went off the rails the year after the new Washington Nationals' billion-dollar stadium opened. So people have to realize whether you're a sports fan or not, very real choices get made about the limited amount of public infrastructure dollars that we have. And if they don't get spent on infrastructure that safeguards our basic safety, then we all pay a price for that.

BILL MOYERS: What's the hold these billionaire owners have over the city fathers and sometimes city mothers of a place like Detroit? I mean, you saw the headlines in Detroit recently. One day the headline says, city declares bankruptcy. The next day, the headline says, multi-million dollar new arena.

DAVE ZIRIN: Detroit Red Wings. Over $400 million for a new hockey stadium, the same week that they talk about Detroit declaring bankruptcy. I mean, first and foremost, it's not being built for Detroit, it's being built for a gentleman named Mike Ilitch, founder of Little Caesars Pizza, the man is in his 80’s, he's worth $2.7 billion. And he's getting over $400 million in public money for a $650 million arena. This was signed off on by Rick Snyder, the same governor who enacted the the anti-labor laws that are in Michigan that caused so much controversy last year, and making it a right-to-work state.

BILL MOYERS: But he says this is a rebuilding project that they're doing it for jobs.

GOV. RICK SNYDER: What a wonderful opportunity to see excitement. And this will have a big multiplier effect in terms of additional development in that whole area of Detroit. So it’s a good win for Detroit.

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, once again, it's like, what kind of jobs are you creating? And could that money be used for different kinds of jobs in Detroit?

Detroit is a place you leave, not a place you settle. You need to have real jobs that create a real tax base that can fund real schools that actually work. And you’ve got to keep the street lights on and you’ve got to have a garbage collection. And first of all, the kinds of jobs that it creates, it doesn't produce tax revenue. It produces revenue for Mike Ilitch which he can then hide and not pay. But it doesn't produce tax revenue for the people who are going to, who actually have to live in Detroit after this.

BILL MOYERS: So what's your intuition, if not your evidence, for what, how that happened?

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, I do have a lot of evidence on this one, because fortunately, the public records are good on this stuff. And this is about Mike Ilitch having a lobbying wing at the Michigan capital and having the ear of Rick Snyder, I mean, Mike Ilitch--

BILL MOYERS: The governor.

DAVE ZIRIN: Yes. Mike Ilitch wanted a new arena, the same way the Steinbrenners wanted a new Yankee Stadium. The same way in this town Fred Wilpon, even though we didn't know it at the time, but he was borrowing money on the new Mets Stadium, Citi Field, and giving it to his best friend, who happened to be named Bernie Madoff to invest it for him.

I mean, and that's the part of it that just boggles my mind, especially as someone who grew up a Mets fan, the idea that sports can be used as a kind of economic shell game for people in power. And I think that really is how it happens. Because there's an agenda at the top of society that wants corporate welfare. That's a huge part of that kind of one-percent agenda. And sports is a way to do that without arousing the kind of ire that otherwise might exist.

BILL MOYERS: You've said that what's happened to sports in the last 30 years was actually preparing the public psyche, for what?

DAVE ZIRIN: I think for the Wall Street bailout more than anything else. I mean, if you think about the trillion dollars of public money that went to bailing out Wall Street after the 2008 financial crisis, and the terms of that bailout as well, asking nothing of Wall Street, prosecuting nobody, and preparing people for this idea that says the role of public spending is really to bail out private capital.

And that's the way our society is going to work. Money will flow up. We have a trickle-up economic program in this country. So instead of a more classical economic model that says, if you get money in the hands of working people, they will spend that money, and that will stimulate more demand and make the economy grow, the other thing the other model is now it's a finance model that says, get as much money as possible in the hands of big business.

And that's going to be the basis of our economy, even though it's going to, in an incredible sense, be like inequality on steroids. Now I think the way that sports has operated over the last, particularly in the go-go 1990s, when the economy was growing starting really in Camden Yard in Baltimore you had this preparing of the public psyche to say, you know what the role of public money should be? To give it to private capital so they can build these stadiums.

BILL MOYERS: So what do we do about this?

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, I think one of the things that's exciting about this moment, right here, right now, is that you have examples in places like Brazil of people standing up.

DAVE ZIRIN: They're building all the stadiums for the World Cup and people think of Brazil as this soccer-mad country. And, of course, the organization that governs soccer is called FIFA. And so the big banners in the streets were, we want FIFA-quality hospitals. We want FIFA-quality schools.

And that became an in international news story, this idea of, no, the stadium doesn't represent civic pride, it represents why I have a bad hospital and why my kid goes to a failing school.

That, to me, is a huge step. You know, that there's that expression that sometimes in struggle, days are like years, and sometimes years are like days. Like what was happening in Brazil was like years of work happening in a matter of days. And so the argument is now an easier one to make with people. The second thing that's encouraging is just popular opinion. I mean, it used to be they would do these sort of showcase referenda for new stadiums and whatnot. They don't do the referendums anymore.

The former mayor here, Rudolph Giuliani was asked why there wasn't a referendum for the new Yankee Stadium. And he said, well, if we have a referendum, we'll lose, which was about as honest as you could get. So it starts with education, it starts with public awareness. And I think…

BILL MOYERS: And anger, doesn't it? I mean--

DAVE ZIRIN: It has to start with anger.

BILL MOYERS: In Brazil, you could watch the people protesting the inequities brought on by the spending for the World Cup facilities, and they're saying, we're mad as hell, we're not going to take it anymore.

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, that's we are going to need a lot of that in this country. And I think we need to actually organize with sports fans and say, okay, you love sports, but do you really want to feel like you're subsidizing the person who owns this team? Does that seem right to you?

And go to unions and say, okay, you think there's union labor in building this stadium and that's why you support this project, but what happens when it's done? And then your kids are working for $8 an hour and the only way you'll ever go into this stadium is if you're selling beer.




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