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Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit Hardcover – July 1, 2002
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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
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.
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Cagan and deMause paint a picture of a playing field that is decidedly not even. Local communities are pitted in a struggle against powerful coalitions of wealthy sports moguls, politicos, real estate developers and other related businesspeople (which oftentimes includes the local media, since sports helps sells newspapers and TV advertising) over the allocation of increasingly scarce public tax revenues. The authors show that public education in particular seems to bear the brunt of the burden whenever the community loses the fight and sees its funds siphoned away to build these private sports palaces.
Cagan and deMause detail specific cases where owners have successfully blackmailed communities and strong-armed local politicians. These case studies reveal a formula that the authors term "the art of the steal", a step-by-step game plan for owners who plan to fleece their communities for free sports structures. Shamelessly exploiting the community's emotional attachments to the home team and ruthlessly working the good-ole-boy business networks to which local politicians are beholden are a few of the key ingredients that helps to make these schemes work, the authors claim.
Cagan and deMause interview individuals associated with a few of the grass-roots organizations that sprung up to oppose various stadium initiatives. While such groups often experience initial success, they are usually overwhelmed in the long run by the persistence of the powerful forces lined up against them. Citing numerous opinion polls and voter referendums where citizens strenuously opposed the use of tax dollars to fund privately-owned stadiums, the authors suggest that the reason owners win more often than not is due to the greater political power at their disposal, and not the democratic process.
Indeed, the cost to society as a whole is often great. In Chapter 8, "Bad Neigbors", Cagan and deMause brilliantly relate baseball's current preoccupation with the recreation of a mythic past (through the construction of "old time" ballparks such as Camden Yards in Baltimore) with the real decay of America's inner cities. The authors discover that many urban centers have actually been subjected to a corporate "structural adjustment" program akin to those experienced in many Third World nations. They contend that a core problem is a system of private enterprise that privileges the profit motive at the expense of ordinary people.
The authors wrap up the book by alluding to signs that the public stadium-building frenzy may be slowing down, but sadly this appears to be the case mainly because most cities large enough to support a sports franchise have already been tapped out. Fortunately, the authors propose common-sense ideas that, if legislated, could discourage some corporate welfare give-aways. For example, the authors wonder why recipients shouldn't be required to report the public subsidies they receive as taxable income? This would vastly diminish the value of such subsidies and encourage private financing for these deals, which is where the authors contend they rightly belong.
I strongly recommend this book for both sports fans and non-sports fans alike who may be pondering how our society's infatuation with sports fantasy may be harming the real world in which we live.
Like most journalism Field of Schemes is best in the specifics of telling stories of individual efforts to oppose efforts to build new sports complexes. It follows the stands made against the owners in such cities as Detroit, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Seattle. I should add that in every case a new stadium eventually was built with significant taxpayer involvement. The only small success in these fights was in San Francisco, where the Giants actually built the stadium but not before the city made many internal infrastructure improvements to the area.
The best part of the book is Cagan and deMause’s delination of the steps taken by the owners to obtain new stadiums. The playbook goes like this:
1. The Home Field Disadvantage: the assertion that the current stadium is sol old and in such poor shape that it simply must be replaced.
2. Faking a Move: claiming that unless the situation in the local city is remedied the owner will have no choice but to move the team.
3. Leveling the Playing Field: claims that the team is unprofitable and cannot compete effectively without a new stadium to draw fans to the game and raise revenue.
4. Playing the Numbers: commissioning one or more reports that argue that investment in a new stadium will yield a tremendous return through the creation of jobs, rise of investment in business near the stadium and the like.
5. The Two-Minute Warning: owners setting a deadline for a decision to build a new stadium of a move of the team to another city will take place.
6. Moving the Goalposts: As agreement seems to be reached, even sometimes when the agreement is already signed, the owner demands more concessions from the city; handling cost overruns, technological add-ons such a retractable roof, and the like.
As my father used to say, when someone robs my I want them to use a gun. Regardless, city after city has placated the whims of owners rather than employ the slogan from the Reagan anti-drug crusade, “Just Say No.”
It’s an interesting problem. This book is cathartic for those of us frustrated by billionaire owners sucking dry the local government, but doesn’t do much to resolve the problem. Cagan and deMause do offer two suggestions that I liked. First, force the leagues to allow public ownership of teams. The Green Bay Packers have been publicly owned by the city of Green Bay for decades and it has worked out quite well. But when Ray Kroc’s widow tried to give the San Diego Padres to the city, along with an operating trust, Major League Baseball prohibited it. Now that Donald Sterling is going to be forced to sell the Los Angeles Clippers NBA franchise—good riddance Donald—why not allow the city to become majority owner?
Second, before any deal is to be done anyplace, anywhere, with any governmental entity, force the team in question to open its books for audit. Is it really losing money; is it really unable to compete? Don’t take what the owner says at face value. Make the franchise prove it. Until elected officials grow some backbone and stare down the owners the situation will not improve and ordinary Americans will continue to subsidize these activities even as our schools and our roads and bridges and other elements of our nation crumble around us.
I know a lot about politics, economics, urban development and corporate welfare, but I was amazed at what I learned from Field of Schemes. And everything is irrefutably documented.
This is one of the last books the "powers that be" want people to read. Read it. Every concerned citizen or activist in the US needs to know what is in this book.
Right now there are two huge holes in downtown Detroit. Any day now, we'll begin filling them with our tax dollars so they can fail to end the years of decay this city has undergone. It's possible that if anyone had cared to study the history of this practice, like deMause and Cagan have, we could have avoided this whole mess.
Maybe another team can keep its Tiger Stadium because of this book.