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Volume 4, Number 3
March, 1999

Highway Robbery

by David Mandell



P.T. Barnum never gave a sucker an even break. Were he still with us, Barnum would be the owner of a professional sports team. All across America, sports owners are treating the taxpayer like a loser at a poker table. Our political leaders, the people who collect our hard-earned cash, can't wait to give it to millionaire sports owners. The next time you drive by a new stadium, stop and take a good look at it. Although you are not welcome in its luxury suites and VIP lounge, you paid for it.

Sports extortion is a simple process. A team owner threatens to move his pampered athletes to another city unless his state or city builds him a brand new stadium filled with luxury suites, licensed seats, and countless other amenities. If the mayor or governor doesn't agree to break the budget, the owner travels to cities that will do so. A bidding war breaks out as cities fight to see who can give away the most money. Never mind that there aren't enough police officers or library books, we want a team. If the home city does not match the offer, its team is history.

The process started back in 1958 when Los Angeles and San Francisco lured the Dodgers and Giants to leave New York City. Federal laws, designed to promote housing and recreation, were manipulated to provide stadium land for the teams. Today even this seems quaint. Dodgers owner, Walter O'Malley, actually paid for his own stadium, something few owners ever do now.

Today's process is modeled after the move of the Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis in the mid eighties. Despite years of sell outs by loyal fans in Baltimore, owner Robert Irsay demanded that Baltimore build him a new park. When the city hesitated, Irsay loaded up the trucks and headed to Indiana where city fathers built him a brand new arena, practice facilities, and promised to buy the tickets Irsay could not sell. A decade later, Baltimore imitated Indianapolis, and robbed Cleveland of its Browns, promising even more taxpayer money to Browns' owner Art Modell.

The latest deal in Hartford, Connecticut promises to be the mother of all sports swindles. After Massachusetts decided not to go bankrupt bribing the New England Patriots to stay, neighboring Connecticut jumped at the chance to break the bank for the Pats. Its governor and legislative heads have promised to build a 375 million dollar stadium for the Patriots. That is only the beginning. The state will spend 17.5 million dollars per year buying luxury seats the team can't sell. It will pay for all insurance costs and permanent maintenance expenses. The Patriots will not pay rent, but will collect all revenues from the stadium-advertising, tickets, concessions, parking, naming rights etc. As the old song goes, nice work if you can get it.

In return taxpayers will get a handful of low wage, no benefit jobs selling hot dogs and parking cars eight Sundays a year. As one of Connecticut's native sons, Barnum knew his state well when he said there's a sucker born every minute.

The next time a fire station or a school house closes, don't bother to call your governor or mayor. They're at the game.

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