THIS JANUARY, LIKE every other, brings a wave of newly sworn-in elected officials who must immediately choose which campaign promises to discard. They tend to find upon arrival in office that business as usual is more implacable than previously imagined. Hence the persistence of crony capitalism and related scourges in the face of widespread popular desire to eliminate them.
So it was an unfamiliar and welcome sign out of Missouri on Jan. 2, when new governor Eric Greitens, a Republican who ran on a platform of reform, answered a press-conference question this way: "To be very clear, I have completely ruled out state funding for stadiums."
The public-cash-for-stadiums gambit has proved a hard one to snuff, animated as it is by authoritative-sounding financial claims and an appeal to civic pride. Usually a beloved franchise bemoans the shabbiness of its couple-decades-old building and flirts with teamless cities, then puts the screws to politicians. An expert-for-hire offers wildly optimistic projections of what a new building would do for the local economy. Then a backroom legislative session approves bonds to be funded by, say, new hotel taxes, regardless of the government's fiscal health. Study after study has revealed stadium subsidies to be a remarkably inefficient stimulus, providing a major boost to franchise values but little net benefit to the region that pays. Yet the racket remains alive and well in states, cities and counties—and in every sport.
In just the last few months Nevada pledged $750 million toward the construction of a new stadium that would host the Raiders if they move there; Oakland and Alameda County have made a competing proposal valued at $350 million to keep the team around. In Texas the people of Arlington voted to approve $500 million for a new Rangers ballpark, even though the current one is just 22 years old. On Saturday the Falcons may play their last game in the 25-year-old Georgia Dome, as a new stadium funded by a large public subsidy awaits them this fall. The neighboring Braves just finished their last of 20 seasons at Turner Field; they're leaving the city this year for a suburban ballpark funded by nearly $400 million in Cobb County bonds.
Stadium hustlers love to play this trick on downtrodden places in particular. Take St. Louis, which lost the NFL's Rams to Los Angeles in 2016 despite a new-stadium proposal that offered $400 million in public money. (Deep-pocketed owner Stan Kroenke chose to build a stadium complex in L.A. instead.) So a consortium of investors reached a deal with Greitens's predecessor, Jay Nixon, for $40 million in state tax credits to bring an expansion Major League Soccer franchise to St. Louis. The city would have chipped in $80 million. Greitens's comments though have all but killed the plan.
Missouri is not alone. San Diego residents voted in November to reject public funding for a new Chargers stadium, and owner Dean Spanos must decide by Sunday whether he wants to join the Rams in L.A.
If he stays, he'll be stuck begging for a new stadium from citizens who voted not to give him one. If he goes, the Rams and the Chargers will soon share the rare stadium built without the benefit of a municipal shakedown. Here's to the new heyday of billionaire populists.
The Falcons will soon play their last game in the Georgia Dome, as a new stadium funded by a large public subsidy awaits them this fall.