As first appearing in The American Spectator:
In ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy and human freedom, the richest citizens often paid for roads, bridges, theaters, and gymnasiums. They picked up the bill for athletic games and other public amusements. In times of peril, they built war ships and donated them to the city.
This voluntary giving of both time and money maximized freedom, reduced the need for government, and reinforced a powerful sense of Athenian exceptionalism. In his famous funeral oration in 431 BC, Pericles spoke of how the freedom and openness of their city did not weaken but only served to redouble the valor, resourcefulness, and generosity of the citizenry, enabling Athens to exceed all its neighbors in dedication to the common good, both in war and peace.
Charles W. Adams, author of the classic book For Good and Evil: The Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization, called this system of giving “the Greeks’ brilliant alternative” to government ownership and control. He described it as “private enterprise for public good.”
In our own time, sports-minded cities across the United States have stood this ancient ideal on its head. In trying to attract or to hold onto sports franchises, most U.S. cities have followed the model of public assistance for private gain, or what is also known as crony capitalism.
Political leaders in our cities and states have been all too willing to grovel at the feet of the wealthy owners of professional sports teams, saying, in effect: If you pick our stadium over competing venues, we will do everything in our power to use the public purse to swell your bottom line and multiply the value of your franchise.
Consider the astounding concessions that the city of Saint Louis made to get the then Los Angeles Rams to move to Saint Louis in 1995—and how the city has now landed in a situation in which it will have to agree to another roughly $400 million in taxpayer assistance to have any hope of holding onto the team.
Neil deMause, co-author of Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit, calls the original deal that the city of Saint Louis struck with the Rams “the worst lease ever”—meaning the most one-sided in enriching the team’s owners at the expense of taxpayers . . . while doing far more to please deep-pocketed corporate clients than to control ticket prices or provide better seating for ordinary fans.
The Rams paid no part of the $480 million in construction costs in building the Edward Jones Dome, and they have paid almost nothing in rent (just $250,000 a year). They received all luxury box and concession revenues, took 75 percent of advertising and name rights, and pocketed a $46 million relocation fee.
Still more, political and civic leaders signed on to a deal that gave the team the right to opt out of a 30-year lease after 20 years—if the stadium no longer ranked in the “top tier” of NFL stadiums. As a result, the Rams may move as soon as 2016, but Saint Louis City and County and the state of Missouri are still on the hook for $120 million in remaining bond payments falling due between 2016 and 2021.
According to Forbes, the St. Louis Rams football team is now worth about $930 million. Experts say that the value of the franchise will jump to between $2.5 billion and $3.5 billion if the team moves to Los Angeles. Any such increase in value would more than offset the cost of building a new stadium in Los Angeles. Rams owner Stan Kroenke—a billionaire developer and the husband of Ann Walton Kroenke, daughter of Wal-Mart co-founder Bud Walton—has acquired a prime site in the city’s Inglewood neighborhood.
The city of Saint Louis and the state of Missouri are considering a brand-new publicly owned riverfront stadium, with still more luxury suites, high-priced club seats, scoreboard, and other amenities, aimed at meeting the most exacting NFL specs. It would cost close to a billion dollars, with local and state taxpayers picking up about 40 percent of the bill through publicly financed debt, state tax credits, and other means that would deplete local and state treasuries and leave less money for police, roads, schools, and other public needs.
However, there seems to be little public or political support for the project. A recent poll commissioned by the Missouri Alliance for Freedom shows that 70 percent of Missouri voters are opposed to public funding for the stadium.
In waving good-bye to the Rams, many Saint Louisans (this writer included) are therefore inclined to say “thanks for the memories.” We had “the greatest show on turf” for three years—with the 1999 Super Bowl champion, a playoff contender in 2000, and losing only in the final seconds of another thrilling Super Bowl in 2001.
Thirteen out of 32 NFL teams have never won the ultimate prize, and four have never made a Super Bowl appearance.
But as for public funding of a new stadium built mainly for the benefit of a billionaire owner and wealthy patrons, enough is enough.
Andrew B. Wilson is resident fellow and senior writer at the Show-Me Institute.