WASHINGTON — The nation's founders conceived of government as a night watchman, to do little more than protect life, liberty and property. Then, with the New Deal, government became a fiscal Santa Claus, redistributing income. Now, government is becoming a sports promoter. Rather like the ancient Roman empire, many states and localities entertain their citizens, guaranteeing the show will go on.
Over the last 20 years governments have built or rebuilt 50 stadiums at a cost of $6 billion. There's the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan, for example, and the Metrodome in Minneapolis. New Orleans boasts the Superdome--at an incredible cost of $163 million. According to an estimate by the Brookings Institution, U.S. taxpayers spend about $45 million each year to subsidize sports extravaganzas concocted by local officials. Yet more stadiums go up every year.
Consider microscopic Irwindale, a Los Angeles suburb, population 1,161. Irwindale plans to build a $115-million stadium to lure the professional football Raiders away from Los Angeles. Irwindale even gave the team's owner, Al Davis, a non-refundable $10 million "signing bonus" for agreeing to the deal.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Redskins' owner Jack Kent Cooke, reportedly worth close to $1 billion, is looking for a new, domed stadium--built with someone else's money. He thinks an arena on the order of $200 million would do. Local officials, despite some initial efforts to stand together, are preparing to engage in a bidding war involving various combinations of cash and tax preferences. One county chairman has already talked of a "public-private partnership" to finance a new stadium; Washington Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., a Democrat, has proposed "a regional cooperative venture" among local governments. Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, a Republican, is exploring the possibility of federal subsidies.
At the same time, Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, a Democrat, is opening the state treasury to Baltimore Orioles' owner Edward Bennett Williams. At Schaefer's urging, the legislature approved a $201-million bond issue to fund two stadiums--one for the baseball Orioles and another for a professional football franchise, if one comes to town. Disgruntled taxpayers collected enough signatures to put the issue to a statewide vote but Schaefer used a legal technicality to throw the initiative off of the ballot.
Yet many sports moguls, having invested nothing in the arenas where their teams play, feel little community loyalty. Davis' Raiders have been hopscotching across California; Robert J. Irsay took his football Colts from Baltimore to Indianapolis. Other teams have threatened to leave unless local governments give them extensive financial concessions.
And government officials stretch rules as they desperately try to hold on to professional franchises. Either localities hike subsidies for millionaire owners of profitable clubs or governments try to go in the sports business themselves by seizing the teams. Oakland, for instance, waged an unsuccessful court battle for years to claim the Raiders by eminent domain. The city claimed the takeover was necessary to preserve its "social, cultural and psychological" identity.
David A. Self, an Oakland attorney who filed suit against Davis, explained: "We got to thinking we can condemn land on which to build a stadium, the purpose of which is to provide a professional sports contest. You only need one more thing to have a contest, and that's a team. Why can't you condemn that, too?"
Similarly, Baltimore--the city now planning two stadiums at taxpayer expense--attempted to block the Colts' 1984 move through eminent domain.
While courts have said that government can seize private property, that doesn't make it right: A team belongs to someone else and no serious public interest is advanced by government taking it.
Indeed, there are only two reasons for government to build a stadium: local employment and municipal ego. "You look at the prestige, you look at the jobs," says Maryland's Schaefer, "you look at the things it generates in a city."
But what economic benefits do massive complexes and professional sports actually generate? "The record has been very spotty," concedes Dennis M. Lafferty, executive director of the Greater Cleveland Domed Stadium Corp. Therefore, he adds, his organization makes no "grandiose claims." The record is uneven because money spent on sports facilities is diverted from other investments. A Case Western Reserve University study concluded that building a new stadium in Cleveland would merely "recirculate" local money.