On April 10th, I attended a community forum where Minneapolis mayor RT Rybak made his pitch to citizens about the Viking stadium proposal. I use the word pitch, but it was more like a declaration. The mayor and the council had approved the measure with its $150 million price tag for the city.
(Since this forum took place, a State committee defeated the bill, throwing everything back up in the air. As I write this, more is being done to try and sew together the loose ends of the stadium deal including a visit to the Capitol by the NFL commissioner.)
Regardless of how this issue resolves itself, this night was important as crucial points about this debate surfaced and revealed themselves: points about policy, economics, and our love of sports.
I arrived wondering why the mayor willingly walked into the lion’s den of angry Minneapolis tax payers when the decision to approve the stadium was already made. I gave him props for giving citizens their say and facing their challenges. But now I suspect he agreed to do this forum as part of a deal to coax on-the-fence city council member, Sandy Colvin Roy (nervous about voter disapproval), over to his side. I can imagine the conversation going something like, “Sandy, you go along with the stadium, and I’ll appear in your ward to back you up and make the case for the stadium.”
Whatever the reason, there he was at the Lake Nikomis Community Center:
with those in attendance in favor of the stadium:
and those against:
Should the citizens have the chance to vote on the stadium?
Many communities in New England are known for holding lengthy town hall meetings where residents have their say on all aspects of the budget. Most of America, though, elects representatives to do this bidding for them—-though at the risk of giving politicians a longer leash. When it comes to this issue, Mayor Rybak’s favors the latter, claiming that it’s his and the city council’s job to decide how to spend city money—including this stadium—and that the time for public decision-making comes at the ballot box every four years.
That’s an easy claim for the Mayor to make as anyone on the DFL ticket wins in Minneapolis. But, it doesn’t mean his point is without merit. And many do agree with him. The stadium, though, straddles the line of who should be able to decide, and many in attendance wanted a chance to vote.
What are the economic benefits of building a stadium?
This was the dominant theme of the night. Indeed, this is the benefit advocates tout loudest—and in this case, very loud, as not building a stadium also involves the threat of losing an NFL franchise.
This point is an easy one to offer as everyone can picture the economic activity of builders building, players playing, and stadium employees working—all on account of building a stadium and the Vikings franchise. Conversely, we can feel the lack if the stadium wasn’t built, and especially, if the Vikings left town.
So it’s not surprising that economic and job claims are an effective argument and persuade people all the way up from citizen to city council to governor. And interesting is how even in a time of recession, the case to spend a huge sum of money can be bolstered on account of this argument.
More interesting, though, is that this argument—which can so clearly support the stadium supporters—has also been undermined time and again. It keeps getting used because it works to win the debate, but for the intellectually curious and honest, there’s really no need to keep retreading these points. This isn’t the first stadium ever built, and by examining all the stadium projects in the U.S.—dozens of them, as economists have done—the numbers show that a community doesn’t gain much from a sports franchise, let alone building a stadium.
One has to remember that tax dollars are a zero-sum game. If they aren’t spent on a stadium, they would be spent elsewhere, employing other—or perhaps even the same–workers doing something else. Regarding the franchise, if people didn’t spend money to see a game, they’d spend their money to entertain themselves another way. Did we feel a blip when the Northstars left town?
This isn’t to say that stadiums and sports teams don’t offer jobs–of course they do, but are these jobs better than what would have been? It’s also not to say that stadiums and teams don’t grow the economy. But the numbers tell us they largely tend not to. Economist and Freakonomics author, Steven Levitt, writes, “Sports do not create many jobs or generate much economic growth. And such evidence has proven to be quite persuasive. In fact, a survey of economists by Gregory Mankiw noted that 85% of economists agree that local and state governments should not subsidize professional sports.” See here. They also found that the studies that do that show significant job and economic growth are ones conducted by those with economic interest in seeing the stadium built. Neutral studies show insignificant gains.
So when getting down to nuts and bolts, we find that this debate is really about three things: status—having a flashy new stadium; revitalizing a neighborhood in Minneapolis; mostly, though, it’s about Purple Pride—fear of losing the Vikings to another city.
But what is this attachment to the Vikings worth?
Well, back at the neighborhood forum, Mayor Rybak thought the stadium was a money saving proposal. He thought it was smart for Minneapolis citizens to go along with the plan because this plan also included an agreement for the city to retain more of the entertainment tax dollars that the state usually absorbs. The city, then, could use that money to do things that property taxes are normally used for. So his warning to us in the audience was: if we don’t build this stadium, your property taxes will go up.
Even stadium backers, I assume, need to scratch their heads at that rationale.
But maybe not.
Because despite using this same kind of child-like monetary logic when justifying my need for a new car some years back, today it’s radical to oppose this stadium at the expense of the Vikings leaving Minnesota. People love the Vikings. Plus, the momentum of this national conversation has normalized subsidization in almost every case. But rising up 10,000 feet we can look down and see that our whole perspective and behavior regarding stadium building in this country has been skewed as the NFL leverages people’s addiction to football to its utmost.
Truths have been twisted. The onus isn’t on us to come up with a plan for a stadium. Zygi Wilf can enjoy our market and take advantage of our team and state pride, but not exploit that pride by having us plan and pay for their place of business. The NFL wants a team here as bad as we want one. Yet right now our governor is doing the NFL’s bidding no matter the expense to our state and communities.
People go broke trying to keep up with the Joneses and last I checked, we were in a recession. We ought to be demonstrating some Minnesotan common sense and tightening our belts. Instead, we’re buying luxuries when we can’t pay for essentials, building a billion dollar stadium with the idea that it will save us money, and banking on building it on the back of gambler’s losses.
The house that gambling built.
Yet it’s considered radical to oppose this stadium—“Are you crazy?! Do you want to see the Vikings leave!?”
At this monetary and moral price—and if that is the ultimatum—then yes.
That’s not to say we don’t welcome a franchise, of course. I’d just like to know why the stadium can’t be built privately, like the baseball park in San Francisco or Gillette Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots. Or why can’t there be a system where the public can donate on their own accord? I grew up loving the Vikings and might just chip in if given the opportunity.
The reason these two points aren’t seriously considered is because they haven’t needed to be. Why wouldn’t the NFL and owners take taxpayer money since taxpayers are willing to give it? In large part, this is about a drug dealer squeezing all they can from their sports junkies.
Let’s sober up, Minnesota.
As someone who disapproved of the Twin’s stadium, I admit being impressed that first home-opener. I remember walking around First Avenue and the energy in the air was palpable with Twins fever and Minnesota spirit. I heard the ‘ding ding’ of the light rail cars go by as Twins jersey-wearing fans ate outside their favorite sportsbar under a gorgeous sunny day. More fans walked the sidewalks, and one lady said to me, “It finally feels like a real city.”
So putting the brakes on this stadium effort would be a serious buzzkill, I know. It would also seem awkward to be the stick in the mud while all these other cities in the U.S. regularly cough up their dough for billionaire’s stadiums. But in time, cooler heads prevail and studies show that these “highs”—economic and physical—wear off.
America’s radicals: the Tea Party, the Occupiers—ever-distancing themselves from one another—are, in a strange twist, in agreement in their opposition to this stadium. Tea Partiers dislike taxes; Occupiers hate giving more of their money to the 1%. In today’s America, these “radicals” aren’t that radical anymore. In St. Paul, who’s left supporting the stadium, so far, is our DFL Governor with support from Republican representatives.
It is my hope that these moderates realize that all that we’re forfeiting with this stadium deal is much greater than the benefit of watching the Vikings play.