Paying billions for sports shrines

In Minnesota, scrimmaging over building a new metrodome

Jone Satran Fulkerson By Jone Satran Fulkerson

Snow covers the Vikings football field after the roof collapsed under the weight of snow in December 2010. The roof was repaired, but now state residents must decide whether to build a new metrodome. (Reuters)

On Sunday, Latitude News went to Minnehaha Falls Park in Minneapolis to find out which local stories people there believe have global implications. Niki Sauer, who is a Minnesota Vikings football fan, wondered whether it was appropriate to spend millions of dollars on a new NFL stadium for the Vikings — a “first-world” concern, as she puts it — against the backdrop of serious issues like the ongoing war in Afghanistan or heightened tensions in the Middle East.

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Niki’s ambivalence about building the stadium is thought-provoking. Are Minnesotans worried inappropriately about such an insignificant thing as a sport? And, who should pay for this monster-dome?? Usually, it ends up being the government (meaning taxpayers) that foots most of the bill, whether in the U.S., China or Britain.

The thinking of decision-makers seems to be a global mindset: If we build it, they will come. The British government spent billions of dollars on the infrastructure for the 2012 Summer Olympics, which will be held in London in July and August. Euro 2012, a major soccer competition, will be jointly held in Poland and Ukraine in June, and millions more are being spent in both countries to prepare for the event in a continent obsessed with soccer.

Mayor Ken Livingston of London looks at a model of the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing as the Chinese capital prepared to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. It’s London’s turn this summer. (Reuters)

The host countries for these international  sports events also spend millions just promoting themselves, thinking the international attention will be good for their countries’ “branding” and economy. South Korea, for one, tried three times in 12 years to host the Winter Olympics. It finally last year won the bid for the games in 2018. A whole plane full of government officials, sports celebrities and corporate executives jetted off last summer from Seoul to South Africa to pitch their plan.

But what happens when it’s just Minneapolis, a small-ish city with lots of snow and few other big cities nearby?

Although Niki believes Minneapolis should build a new stadium, she has her reservations. “I think we’re spoiled in how we spend money.” She adds, “people in Afghanistan or Israel probably aren’t worried about building a huge stadium for a stupid sport.”

In Minneapolis, the plan calls for the city to contribute more than $340 million to build the stadium (the Vikings would just about match that amount), according to the Minneapolis St. Paul Business Tribune. The proposal, city officials say, would not require new taxes, but would come from portions of its existing taxes, including sales, restaurant, liquor and lodging taxes. The proposal in Minneapolis has proven divisive, and a legislative committee this week delayed action on the plan.

The famed New York Yankees just got a brand-new baseball stadium and the New York Mets have a new one too, Citi Field. Stadiums for thousands of European soccer fans seem to pop up regularly. And who isn’t familiar with the world-renowned Bird’s Nest in Beijing, built for the 2008 Summer Olympics at a cost of about $400 million. (The designer of the stadium, artist Ai Weiwei, incidentally, was placed under house arrest by the Communist Party in China last year over supposed tax issues.)

Neil Demause recently wrote an article in The Nation, “Why Do Mayors Love Sports Stadiums?” In the piece, he pointed out that “owners of the ‘big four’ sports leagues in the U.S. — the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL — have reaped nearly $20 billion in taxpayer subsidies for their new homes since 1990.”

Money should and must be spent for the common good, including maybe even for fun things. But is football — even for the mighty, venerable Vikings — worth the expense?

Kelsey Dilts McGregor contributed to this story

Should the Minnesota Vikings, or any team, get millions for a new stadium?

Discuss this
  • Tim Mansel

    A belated post in response to this story – must be inspired by all those brand new stadiums in Poland and Ukraine.
    Stefan Szymanski and Andrew Zimbalist compare the respective cultures of football (soccer to you guys) and baseball in a 2005 book called National Pastime. One of the things they look at is the financing of stadium construction. They find clear differences between the models of the US and Britain.
    In baseball, they say, because the leagues are closed, the MLB is able to manage demand for a franchise in such a way that cities are prepared to stump up tax dollars to ensure that franchises stay put. They say that between 1989 and 2001 $4.9 billion (in 2005 dollars) were spent on 16 MLB stadiums, of which $3.67 billion came from public coffers.
    In Britain leagues are open. Anyone can start a team and if they’re good enough they’ll eventually rise to the top, displacing weaker teams on the way.
    (To illustrate the above, check the success of AFC Wimbledon, a team founded by angry supporters of Wimbledon FC, after the latter moved to Milton Keynes in 2003 and became the MK Dons; the only instance I know of a professional British team relocating to a different city. This was heresy in the UK. In the US I reckon you’d all have shrugged your shoulders.)
    With no guaranteed income from always being in the top division, clubs didn’t spend much on their stadiums, infrastructure deteriorated, and disasters like the fire at Bradford City in 1985 began to concentrate minds. Eventually in the 1990s the government ordered clubs to upgrade facilities, and earmarked £200 million ($350 million) in public subsidies for the purpose. Over ten years to 2002, say Szymanksi and Zimbalist, a total of some £1.5 billion ($2.7 billion) was spent on redevelopment, the lion’s share of the money, in significant contrast to the US, being provided by the clubs themselves. “In other words,” they write, “a small public subsidy triggered a huge wave of private investment.”
    In terms of whether building stadiums is the best use of taxpayers’ money, they say: “There is now a substantial body of academic research showing that these subsidies bring negligible benefits in the form of jobs and business for the local economy.”
    (I started reading this book because I wanted to find out about baseball’s National League, surprised by the strength of feeling among some Houston Astros fans at their team moving over to the American League next year. Can anyone explain that?)

    • Nick_Nehamas

      great info, tim. I will have to check out the book.

      the debate about the benefits of a stadium on the surrounding community reminds me of a similar argument going on between pro- and anti-casino advocates in the States and around the world.

      on the one hand, supporters say casinos create jobs, tax revenue and economic security for areas that need investment. on the other, detractors say they lead to crime and actually function as a drag on the local economy by cannibalizing local businesses and ripping off patrons (especially so-called “problem” gamblers).

      as for the Astros, that’s an interesting question. for some people, I think it’s about history. The Astros have developed a pretty intense rivalry with teams like St. Louis, Chicago and Pittsburgh. And, although the Astros are rubbish right now, so are the other teams in the division (with the exception of St. Louis. and Pittsburgh. I’m a Pittsburgh fan). the competition in the AL West – Pujols and the LA Angels, Josh Hamilton and the Texas Rangers – will be more intense.

      the American league in general is stronger because it allows designated hitters to replace pitchers in the line-up. it also has big spenders like the yankees and red sox, and smart moneyball teams like the devil rays. based on recent form, houston doesn’t look capable of competing with the big boys

      some of it, I’m sure, is reactionary. people, especially in america’s favorite pastime, just don’t like change. I’m excited for Rangers-Astros matchup tho, a regular Texas derby.

      you can read more here: