By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig paints a glowing picture of publicly funded sports complexes.
“There’s been a debate everywhere you’ve had it, and every community has wound up doing it and they’re happy they did it,” Selig told Wisconsin Reporter on Tuesday after a speaking appearance at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “They bring in business. They make the community a better place to live. And overall it’s been a very positive experience, and I happen to believe in it.”
Selig, former owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, was at his alma mater to give a speech at the university’s business school on ethical leadership. In the big leagues, ethics of operation often involve wealthy franchise owners strong-arming cities for hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to pay for state-of-the-art stadiums on threat of losing the team to a city that will.
Opponents say it’s a racket on the legal side of extortion.
The uber-wealthy sporting elite don’t see it that way.
“We never really talked about that,” Selig said about the idea of moving the Milwaukee Brewers to North Carolina in the 1990s while politicians debated the merits of bilking $150 million from taxpayers.
They finally agreed. After the approval of a contentious multi-county sales tax that cost a Racine senator his job through recall and tens of millions of dollars in cost overruns, Miller Park was built.
“But the Brewers put in a lot of money and there’s just not a debate. In fact … with (the Brewers) now drawing 3 million-plus people a year, that’s why I said all the critics are gone now, because they know they’re wrong. And they were wrong.”
The critics, as it turns out, are alive and well. Whenever a new stadium is pushed by an owner, however, their voices tend to be drowned out by vote-seeking politicians and the team’s loyal fan base.
Marc Levine, director of the Center for Economic Development University of Milwaukee, recently wrote in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel op-ed:
“The same fallacious economic development arguments that were used to sell Miller Park are being trotted out to justify public spending for a new (Milwaukee) Bucks‘ arena: the building of a new facility, and the presence of a sports team, is an engine of economic growth for the city and region, a critical source of jobs, income and enhanced revenues for public services.
“Yet, with a unanimity that is rare in social science research, academic studies have found that professional sports franchises and facilities generate little or no job creation or income growth.”
The total taxpayer cost of Miller Park, the place the Brewers call home, has swelled to nearly $500 million. In 1995, the debate over $150 million raged on. Former state Sen. George Petak, R-Racine, lost his job in a recall election after promising to vote against the stadium only to later cast the deciding vote in favor.
The economic benefits of a stadium are really a reshuffling of the consumer’s spending cards, research shows. Instead of going to the movies, the consumer goes to a baseball game. Milwaukee, one of the poorest cities in the country, has been dogged by persistently high unemployment even though it has two publicly financed professional sports complexes.
“The sporting industry in general, it’s not like it’s suffering for money,” said Eileen Norcross, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. “It’s analogous to the film tax credits. Do they really need these subsidies in order to build these stadiums? These can be privately financed or financed through other means. To have them publicly subsidized, it seems to me, is putting the taxpayer on the hook for something for economic benefits that don’t necessarily materialize.”
But Selig insists publicly funded stadiums are a good deal for taxpayers.
“It’s not a question of monopoly power, there’s a question of doing the right thing. If it brings in $350 million a year, what other public facility can you spend that kind of money and then draw that money back on?” Selig asked, pointing to a MLB-commissioned study on the economic impact of the Brewers.
Selig and others suggest there’s an arguably bigger benefit to stadiums, particularly in communities like Milwaukee.
Minnesota state Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, said during a discussion last spring on financing a $975 million Minnesota Vikings stadium that professional football is “one of the things that puts us on the map.”
Publicly financed sports facilities have hit taxpayers nationwide.
A recent Bloomberg article noted that, “Over the life of the $17 billion of exempt debt issued to build stadiums since 1986, the last of which matures in 2047, taxpayers’ subsidies to bondholders will total $4 billion.”
“In the last 20 years, there have been more than 60 publicly financed stadiums and arenas in the U.S. that have totaled about $20 billion,” Norcross said. “And all the team has to do is hint at leaving in order to extort a subsidy from the city. So in a sense they hold the city hostage. And that’s just not good fiscal policy, and I don’t think it’s good economic development policy.”
Contact Ryan Ekvall at [email protected]
— Edited by John Trump at [email protected]