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Introduction: The View from the cheap seats
Back in the dim, distant past, when the earth was new and the Carolina Hurricanes were still the Hartford Whalers, we knew little about the world of sports franchise roulette. We probably were about as informed as any regular newspaper reader or ESPN junkie-namely, we knew that sports teams seemed to be moving to new cities, or at least threatening to do so, at an alarming pace. Those that stayed put were more often than not rewarded with new sports palaces with odd corporate names like the TWA Dome and the Pepsi Center. We might have wondered, too, whether these new sports facilities were really worth the hundreds of millions of public dollars being spent on them. And we might have questioned, in idle conversation, the wisdom of spending such exorbitant amounts of money on behalf of private interests while so much of what we knew and loved about U.S. cities was falling apart.
Mostly, all we knew back then, in the fall of 1995, was that the Cleveland Browns were no more.
Each of us had a long history as a sports fan. Joanna grew up in Cleveland, singing the Browns Christmas song in 6th grade choir and generally confident in the notion that football and Sunday afternoons would forever go together. The announcement in November 1995 that longtime owner Art Modell was yanking the team away to Baltimore stunned locals. If this could happen to one of the most devoted fan bases in the country, it could happen anywhere.
Suddenly, the topic of team relocation and stadium construction seemed to deserve greater scrutiny. Local taxpayers had handed over hundreds of millions of dollars for a new baseball stadium for the Indians-should they have done the same for the Browns? And at what point was it fair for a beleaguered populace, facing a neglected educational infrastructure and a continued urban exodus, to say enough is enough, we deserve to have sports teams and a successful school system?
For Neil, meanwhile, growing up a Yankee fan meant riding the subway to the newly renovated ballyard in the Bronx 30 times a year, to sit in $1.50 bleacher seats with a crowd more diverse than you'd find most anywhere in a rapidly polarizing city: Latino families from the surrounding neighborhoods, members of the rap group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, a Japanese newspaper reporter who happily gave up her press-box seat to sit with the real fans, and an elderly cowbell-wielding man named Ali, who commuted from his native Puerto Rico every baseball season to watch his team in action.
But being a Yankee fan also meant weathering New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner's recurrent threats to move the team to the swamplands of neighboring New Jersey. Yankee games became poignant with the fear that this could be the last generation to share in this sudden camaraderie. Meanwhile the city, pleading poverty, doubled the subway fare, while Steinbrenner, pleading poverty, redoubled his threats while quadrupling bleacher ticket prices. But it wasn't until a new mayor slashed social services to the bone while endorsing Steinbrenner's demand for a new midtown sports palace that the full extent of the story became clear: What was it about sports teams that they could find public money where the public couldn't?
Like other sports fans of long standing, we had worried over the yearly ritual of watching our teams declare their intentions to move to another city unless bribed with a new stadium or a new lease. As journalists concerned with urban issues, we wondered about the wisdom of city governments spending millions of dollars on these stadiums at a time when public housing, libraries, and schools were being dismantled at an unprecedented pace. Perhaps, we thought, there was a story in that.
What we found was more than a mere story. For one thing, the scale of the public subsidy was not millions of dollars, as we had thought, but billions-an expected $11 billion over the course of the 1990s, with no signs of slowing down.
We also discovered that the popular notion of the villains and the heroes in the battle over sports franchise blackmail was upside-down. Although newspapers had portrayed the public as unthinking fans who demanded their elected officials keep teams in town at any cost, we instead found hundreds of citizen activists who had been fighting city by city for years to stop public money from going to private profit. Corporate welfare, they called it, and understandably so. Meanwhile, the local politicians who had pleaded that they had no choice but to give in to sports owners' demands turned out to be eagerly lining up to build sparkling new luxury boxes-where they then happily attended games as the owners' special guests. As one fed-up city resident told us, "They're not public servants. They're corporate servants."
This book began because we were frustrated with free-agent franchises demanding money as the price of their loyalty. But this is far more than a sports story: It's also a story of deceptive politicians, taxpayer swindles, media slants, the power of big money, and most of all, a political system that serves the rich and powerful at the expense of the average fan, the average taxpayer, the average citizen.
The more we learned in researching this book, the more apparent it became that the most important partner in the new stadium tango has been left out for far too long. Average citizens are the ones paying for the cost of new sports facilities-in public subsidies, in tax revenue lost, in public spaces taken over for private gain, in disillusionment with the democratic process, and in the loss of sheer enjoyment at being a spectator at a pro sporting event. We spoke with heartbroken sports fans who couldn't imagine life without their team, and neighborhood activists just struggling to make ends meet. One outraged citizen, questioning the whole concept of public money going to sports facilities, wondered aloud if his love of bowling meant he should get state money to build new bowling lanes. Another has vowed never to patronize the monolithic stadium his once-beloved home team is about to build. All were willing to open their memories, their homes, and their lives to our inquiries and curiosity.
We remain overwhelmed and moved by the stories these people had to share. Yes, this is the tale of the Art Modells and George Steinbrenners of the world, but more than anything it is the average citizen's story: the story of people across the country saying "enough is enough" with corporate welfare in all its many forms.
We ultimately tracked the roots of the sports stadium swindle back in time to the construction of the railroads in 19th-century America, and into the corridors of local power politics in a hundred towns across the United States and Canada. But the story of the swindle really begins on the night it first broke through to public consciousness: a cold spring night in a Maryland suburb, when a fleet of moving vans crept away in the dead of night-stealing a city's football team away, and forever changing the way we think about sports, urban politics, and the future of the American city.