My husband and I spent a recent evening walking along the Mississippi — he chasing Pokémon, I not. Towering above us across the river, taking up about half the Minneapolis skyline, was the new U.S. Bank Stadium, a glass and metal behemoth that looks, above all, expensive.
It looks expensive because it is expensive. And it's expensive on the taxpayer's dime. Scheduled to open today, the Vikings' new digs came with a bill of $1.1 billion, with Minnesotans on the hook for $678 million once all construction costs plus 30 years of interest payments are factored in. It's a deal Vikings owner Zygi Wilf and his pals at the NFL accomplished via naked political extortion, warning Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton there would be "serious consequences" in the form of a Vikings exit to sunny Los Angeles if the state didn't cough up the cash.
And speaking of Los Angeles: When the Rams announced their decision to move to L.A. in January, they left St. Louis with more than $100 million in lingering debt from the public bonds the city used to finance the Edward Jones Dome in the 1990s. The stadium won't be paid off until 2021, a feat that must now be accomplished with no NFL team (and no $500,000 of annual NFL rent). Mayor Francis Slay attempted to cast the situation in optimistic terms, but an NFL dine-and-dash is seriously resistant to positive spin.
Yet St. Louisans are, incredibly, not stuck with the worst of all stadium public financing deals. That dishonor goes to either Seattle or East Rutherford, New Jersey, formerly the locations of the Seattle Kingdome and Giants Stadium, respectively. I say "formerly" because both facilities are now demolished, the Kingdome since 2000, and Giants Stadium since 2010. As each city has learned, a stadium need not exist to continue costing taxpayers money: When the wrecking balls hit the Kingdome, Seattle still owed $83 million for its construction costs. Government debt for Giants Stadium was $266 million at the time of demolition and will not be paid back until 2025.
These three may be exceptional examples — Minneapolis for its high cost, St. Louis for its lack of team, and Seattle for its lack of buildings — but taxpayers still get ripped off even in the deals that go "right."
Taxpayers cover, on average, 78 percent of the cost of stadium constructions, even as the NFL rakes in $13 billion a year and team owners typically maintain their own sources of independent wealth. Football (not to mention baseball, basketball, and hockey, whose leagues are just as guilty here) is big business with big money behind it. Why should it get such big subsidies?
Of course, for politicians, the answer is easy: Lots of people like sports, so if you're the governor or mayor whose refusal to comply with a team's every demand is cited as their reason for moving, there's a strong chance you will no longer be governor or mayor. Still, PR benefits don't guarantee a wise financial decision. Stadiums are "big, discrete projects," explains Craig Depken, a sports economist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "They're very obvious. Politicians can point to them. Team owners can point to them. Even fans can look at the stadiums and enjoy them."
None of that changes the fact, Depken adds, that when economists consider "whether or not the subsidies to publicly funded stadiums are worth it or the benefits outweigh the costs," nearly nine in 10 say subsidies should be eliminated outright.
The failings of this crony capitalist dynamic have been noticed within the NFL as well. Asked last month what he would do were he the league's president, Seattle Seahawks defensive star Richard Sherman was quick to point the finger at subsidies. "I'd stop spending billions of taxpayer dollars on stadiums and probably get us out of debt and maybe make the billionaires who actually benefit from the stadiums pay for them," he said. "That kind of seems like a system that would work for me."
Undoubtedly informed by Seattle's public financing nightmare, Sherman is exactly right. Of course, it's undoubtedly easier for him to take that view than it is for, say, Gov. Dayton or any other politician who finds themselves staring down an NFL threat. But a former occupant of Dayton's chair proved it can be done. That man is Jesse Ventura, former Minnesota governor and sports (well, "sports") veteran himself.
When Ventura was in office, he took a meeting with Billy Joe "Red" McCombs, the Vikings' then-owner. McCombs' pitch was not dissimilar from the one Wilf would make to Dayton a little more than a decade later. "Red McCombs came in with nothing," Ventura recalled. "Plopped down in the chair, looked at me with his old Texas drawl and said, 'Governor, I need a new stadium.' And I thought to myself, I'm going to have fun with this.'"
So Ventura replied, "Well, Red, what do you need to see me for? I'm sure there's a landowner out there. You can buy some land and build a stadium. Go ahead. You don't need my approval." This, of course, was not what McCombs sought. He hemmed and hawed about public relations and the high cost of a stadium and its many alleged benefits for a city like Minneapolis, finally explicitly making his ask for cash — an ask Ventura rejected outright, announcing that if the NFL and its fans want a stadium so bad, they could pay for it themselves.
"The real pressure comes from yourself, because it's your legacy," Ventura mused, reflecting on the incident. "And any governor or high-ranking elected official — if a team does leave, well, that'll be your legacy. The only good thing for Jesse Ventura was I didn't give a damn. Because I'm not a career politician. I went there to serve and do the best job I could do for the people who elected me. And the NFL didn't elect me."
Unfortunately for Minnesota taxpayers like yours truly, Dayton did not have the courage to say the same. The subsidy McCombs sought was duly handed over. But hey, at least we still have a team and a stadium. Maybe we can even pay it off before that glass and metal behemoth bites the dust.