My dad became a Baltimore Colts fan when he was 5 years old because he liked the color blue.
By the time he was in his 20s and living in Baltimore, he was a season ticket holder and a fanatic.
But when the Colts left the city in 1984 — due to the State of Maryland refusing to pay for renovations to Memorial Stadium and Indianapolis building a stadium in the hopes of attracting a team — my dad was devastated. He didn’t watch an NFL game for five years after the team relocated and to this day he hates the Colts.
In Oakland, California, Raiders fans are considered some of the sport’s most passionate followers, known for donning “Mad Max”-like costumes and cheering their team from the south end zone’s “Black Hole.” Now they find themselves in a similar situation as the team leaves its city behind for one reason — money.
With a 31-1 vote, NFL owners approved the Raiders’ plan to relocate to Las Vegas and into a brand new, $1.9 billion stadium Monday afternoon.
The lavish Vegas venue is a sure upgrade from the dilapidated Coliseum, and while leaving the East Bay wasn’t the only option for a new stadium for the team, it was the cheapest.
Oakland city officials repeatedly stated they were unwilling to use public funds to finance a stadium that would be privately owned by the team. The city currently faces educational budget cuts, so using taxpayer dollars to build a stadium for a team valued at $2.1 billion seems criminal. However, that’s just what the Raiders were expecting.
In the mid-1990s, Oakland lured the Raiders back to the Bay Area after 13 years in Los Angeles by offering to issue $225 million in city bonds to help pay for stadium modernization efforts. The renovation added “Mount Davis,” an upper deck addition widely derided as ugly, and ultimately unused and tarp-covered by the team during games.
The bond sale saddled Alameda County and Oakland with debt for decades, making local lawmakers unwilling to repeat the same mistake again. Their thriftiness with public money made Oakland unable to out-promise Las Vegas.
The Raiders will move into their new stadium in 2020, but the pronoun “their” is used in an incredibly loose sense. Las Vegas will provide $750 million in public funds for construction when the team will give just $500 million.
Defenders of public stadium financing, like that seen in Vegas, say professional sports franchises boost local economies, thanks to the jobs created and the fans of opposing teams brought in to watch games. However, this claim is undermined by economists like Roger Noll, who say these benefits don’t outweigh the costs.
Noll, a former senior economist for the President’s Council of Economic Advisers and a professor emeritus at Stanford, says NFL stadiums are never worth the money for the cities who help build them because they are just not used enough.
“NFL stadiums do not generate significant local economic growth, and the incremental tax revenue is not sufficient to cover any significant financial contribution by the city,” Noll said in a Stanford News article.
Yet, cities, like Vegas, often use taxpayer funds to pay for a stadium that doesn’t pay for itself. The Steelers passed the bill for Heinz Field in 1998 off to the citizens whose support gives the team value — and gives the owners profit.
Public funds accounted for $171 million of the stadium’s $280 million price tag. How much did the Steelers contribute? According to the Post-Gazette, they provided just $76.5 million for construction costs.
The team — valued at $2.25 billion, with $272 million of that coming from stadium-related value — seems like an unnecessary recipient of municipal welfare. To make things worse, the Steelers get to keep the $57 million a year from selling the naming rights of the stadium they did not build and do not own.
The city’s funding plan sparked controversy in 1998 as the City Council approved the deal despite polls indicating a lack of public support for a required tax raise. In the end, their objections were overruled and the stadium built on the taxpayers’ dime.
Admittedly, the Steelers are a key source of civic pride and one of the most treasured institutions in the city. The team leaving the city would be a huge blow to the Pittsburgh psyche, so much so that even thinking about the possibility seems disrespectful. But when one thinks about the many needs of Allegheny County, such as vital infrastructure repairs, splurging on a billion dollar corporation just seems ridiculous.
The Steelers stayed in Pittsburgh and maintained a fanatical following, but the organization’s decision — just like that of the Colts and Raiders — was informed by self-interest.
The Colts and Raiders both chose money over fan loyalty with their decisions to relocate. But these two teams are not alone in this sense — all privately owned sports franchises are run with the intention of turning a profit. If taking taxpayer dollars away from socially valuable programs is required to maximize profits, teams will not hesitate — not even the Steelers.
Oakland didn’t make a mistake in refusing to hand over public funds to the Raiders. Instead, the city should be applauded for standing up to the team and refusing to give out millions in corporate welfare. Oakland has much more important things to spend its money on.
And hey, the city still has the A’s.