I always regarded Reader's Digest as a handbook for hypochondriacs ("I Was Joe's Pancreas," "Six Diets That Can Save Your Life") or a house organ for the terminally Pollyannaish (Book Condensation: "Happiness Is Good For You") and not very interested in the clangor of the real marketplace.
But here comes this venerable old dowager of a publication sticking its quill pen into my racket, the wonderful world of sports.
It's a piece by Tim Keown right between the article on the hunt for the perfect chili pepper and the feature "It Pays To Enrich Your Word Power" ("diaphanous" means "nearly transparent," in case it ever comes up in conversation).
The sports article is titled "The Stadium Shell Game" and it's about the public propensity to underwrite the business of sport, usually with tax money. Lots of it.
It cites the quandary of the citizens of Cleveland when, in the wake of the departure of their pro football team, the Browns, they were asked to put up money for a new sports complex for their baseball team, the Indians, and basketball team, the Cavaliers. The little old taxpayer was to pay half the $344-million construction cost. When the cost overrun added $76 million, the little old taxpayer had to pay ALL of that, the magazine reports.
In 1992, Baltimore's Orioles moved into a new $268-million, publicly financed ballpark in Camden Yards. Next is a $220-million stadium for the pro football Ravens (nee the Cleveland Browns) paid for by state lottery.
There's more. The magazine notes that the citizens of Wisconsin are coming up with half the money to pay for a new $313-million ballpark.
It's endemic. New York is being asked to come up with $1.5 billion in the next 10 years to provide new homes for the Yankees, Mets and Islanders. It's a form of blackmail. Come up with the money or we're out of here.
I bring this up because, on "Monday Night Football" this week, the network saw fit to cut away from the game to bring us a more important issue, a sideline interview with Pittsburgh Steeler owner Dan Rooney.
And what was the discussion about? The play of his quarterback? The problems of his receivers? No. Mr. Rooney wanted to talk about the necessity of his team having a new, more suitable place to play football.
The burden of his interview was, I gather, that Pittsburgh was at a crossroads. They either came up with a new stadium or else.
Or else what? Or else they'd squander the public's money on fixing highway potholes? Maybe they'd throw it away providing for more police in high-crime areas? Or, could be, they might spend it on such reckless expenditures as cancer research, higher education, a new center of government.
Actually, voters in southwestern Pennsylvania resoundingly decided the next day that playpens for the rich are not what they need. They voted "No thanks," decisively, on an initiative that would have raised the sales tax by a half-penny on the dollar to pay for proposed new stadiums for the Steelers and Pirates.
What you have to remember is that, back in the days when sports teams were not on the public dole, Pittsburgh used to have a reputation as the "Smoky City." Industrial emanations blanketed the city into invisibility from time to time until the community had enough and anted up the money not for a sports venue but for clear skies and breathable air.
Municipalities have been known to hold out promises to lure business to their rolls. L.A., for instance, in its time, has agreed to cut through streets for a hotel chain. But, I recall of no instance where a city has agreed to buy the land and build a $300-million factory for a business and then give it tax and rent breaks.
Today, we take that cost of doing business off the hands of the entrepreneur and let him concentrate on giving out $100-million contracts to his help, i.e., jump-shooters, homer-hitters, pass-throwers, wide receivers.
The taxpayer, of course, has the privilege of seeing these magnates in action--if he can come up with the admission or buy the PSL (personal seat licenses) that make him eligible to buy that seat.
Readers Digest says that, by the year 2000, U.S. cities will have committed more than $12 billion to construct places for teams to play. Taxpayers will owe $7 billion of that amount.
That would buy a lot of street lights. Build a lot of schools. Fill a lot of potholes. Fund a lot of flood control. Fight a lot of crime. In Washington, Sen. Daniel Moynihan has taken notice of the problem. He wants to strip away the tax exemption for stadium bonds. "Why should we subsidize commercial pursuits of wealthy team owners, encourage runaway players' salaries and underwrite bidding wars between cities seeking--or fighting to keep--sports franchises?" he said.
In other words, he wants to know, why do we have to build Taj Mahals with luxury boxes so Michael Jordan can get $34 million a year or Gary Sheffield can get $61 million for six years?
A Super Bowl might be a boon to a community. It attracts moneyed tourists. The weekly game is supported by the people who already live there and are already paying for it. Twice.
Don't get mad at me. I make my living off sports franchises. The more the merrier. I just thought you ought to know Reader's Digest is getting kind of indignant.