Whenever people have told me they were turned off by the money professional sports teams and athletes rake in these days, I’ve shrugged. “That’s your problem only if you make it one,” I’ve told them. “We fans are volunteers. The jocks get our money only if we choose to give it to them. If you don’t like it, don’t go to their games or buy their gear.”
Upon reflection, though, I must confess that statement is false. Many if not most of us are compelled to support our cities’ sports establishments through the tax money that goes to buy and maintain the stadiums in which our teams play. Their paws are in the pockets of fans and non-fans alike; the only way to escape (at least for a while) is to put on camo, grab an AK47 and take to the hills.
That thought intrudes increasingly of late, especially in the Phoenix, Arizona, area in which I live. Three of the four major-sport teams here—the hockey Coyotes, basketball Suns and baseball Diamondbacks— are agitating for new or upgraded playgrounds, paid for mostly by the taxpayers, of course. The only local team not queuing up to the trough is the football Cardinals, but that’s only because state and local sources anteed up about $310 million of the $455 million it cost to build them a new stadium that opened in 2006. Give them a few more years and they’ll be there, too.
Every other U.S. major-league city is generous to its teams, but a few things set Phoenix apart. One is the lack of accomplishment of the aforementioned four. They have made Arizona their home for a total of 113 seasons and have only one championship—by the 2001 Diamondbacks—to show for them. It’s a record of ineptitude few can match.
More basic, however, are the area’s economic and political realities. Although the parts of it most tourists see sparkle with palm-lined wealth, the city remains a low-wage, Sunbelt burg whose average per-capita income trails the U.S. as a whole and is down from what it was in the year 2000. Further, it lacks the sort of corporate-home-office base that supports luxury-box and season-ticket sales in other places.
The area and the rest of Arizona are notoriously tax averse, a trait that’s been worsened by seven-years-and-counting of one-party, Republican state rule, during which public budgets for education, health care and just about every other social service have been slashed. The state ranks 46th nationally in per-pupil K-12 funding and tuitions at its three four-year universities have about doubled in the last eight years as tax-based support declines. Getting blood from such stones is no mean feat.
Finally, the once-popular notion that new stadiums are a boon to a locality’s economy has been debunked by just about every study of the subject that’s been published in the past several decades. Any kind of major building project brings a brief employment spike, but the big majority of long-term jobs that teams and stadiums create (ticket sellers, ushers, vendors) are part time and low paying, and almost all the money that passes through their box offices is locally generated and comes at the expense of such other entertainment enterprises as theaters, bars and restaurants. Indeed, the economic importance of sports generally usually is overblown; an analysis by Michael Leeds, a sports economist at Temple University, recently concluded that if Chicago were suddenly to lose all four of its big-league franchises the hit to the city’s economy would amount only to about 1%.
With such givens it’s hard to rate which of the Phoenix teams exhibit the most chutzpah. That’s also because, while they’ve made clear that they want to leave their 24-year home in downtown Phoenix, the Suns have yet to make their demands clear. Maybe that’s because they had the fourth-worst record in the just-concluded National Basketball League season and want to wait until the odor clears. But maybe not.
The Coyotes, in the area since 1996, initially shared the Suns’ playpen before quarreling over sight lines and revenue splits and began agitating for one of their own. They want out of the arena in the western suburb of Glendale that they’ve occupied only since 2003. They might qualify in the chutzpah race because theirs was the sweetest deal initially, with taxpayer-backed bonds paying the place’s entire, $180 million cost. They landed there after the arena’s developer, real-estate skate Steve Ellman, teased a subsidy from east-side Scottsdale only to jilt it for the better offer and steal off in the night leaving a derelict shopping center in his wake.
Alas, but perhaps deservedly, the team has languished in the low-rent west, where it has gone through bankruptcy, National Hockey League receivership and numerous lease squabbles with its host city. Now it declares that after next season it will stiff Glendale with a 17,000-seat white elephant and a $144 million debt and move to a more-foolish municipality, not yet named. Good luck to all concerned with that.
Until a few weeks ago the Diamondbacks had been laying low in their state-of-the-art, publicly financed ballpark now called Chase Field, where their 30-year lease is supposed to run until 2028. The place cost $364 million to build, of which $253 million has come from a quarter-cent, county-wide sales-tax boost that wasn’t enacted without bloodshed (a county supervisor who supported it was shot in the butt by a deranged citizen after attending a meeting on the subject). Then the team suddenly presented the county with a $187 million bill for improvements it says the stadium needs over the next few years. It’ll sue if the money isn’t forthcoming, it avers.
The Diamondbacks have taken heat for killing its season-opening buzz with its heist demand. It’s also been noted that the team is flush, having just inked a $1.5 billion local TV contract and committed a reported $206.5 million to a six-year contract with a single player, and a pitcher at that (Zack Greinke).
The cherry on the sundae is that the team’s principal owner, data-tech billionaire Ken Kendrick, is a generous donor to right-wing politicians and causes that say they want to get government off people’s backs.
And replace it with sports teams, apparently.