Being a free-market advocate means that you often don’t get what you want. This is particularly true of the question of professional sports teams.
The case against taxpayer-bought stadiums for pro sports teams
Building stadiums for professional sports teams does not promote economic development, but instead represents a form of corporate welfare. It’s also, at best, a questionable use of the power of government: Sure, “fun stuff” happens in stadiums, and sports can “bring us together,” but by that logic we could have government distribute Nintendo Wii stations to everyone, or have taxpayer funding of churches.
The reasons why opponents usually lose
Alas, opponents of taxpayer funding for pro sports almost always lose. I’ve puzzled over the reasons why. Here are a few:
One. Politicians normally skeptical of government have good reason to go wobbly: “I can’t be thought of as the [governor/legislator/whatever] who let the [insert team name here] leave town!”
Two. Their willingness to cast principle aside is not unwarranted. After all, you have to stay in office to do any good as an office-holder. On the face of it, this is understandable, though if you continue this pattern long enough, a person could question the worth of your continued tenure in office.
Three. If supporting taxpayer funding of professional sports is an apostasy, it is of a small size (there are, after all, only four major sports in this country–nobody seriously contemplates a public stadium for, say, lacrosse). If you’re going to die on a hill for principle, is this really the right location? Parents have a different expression to say the same thing: Pick your battles.
Four. Now we more directly bring in the citizenry. It makes sense for stadium proponents to lobby for taxpayer funding; it does not make as much sense for opponents to lobby. Even the sports-hating taxpayer will pay another (making a very rough calculation here) $50 in taxes per year, which isn’t that much. People spend that much in a month on cell service that allows them to play Angry Birds. “It’s just money.” By contrast, the sports fan can be intensely, emotionally involved in his or her team. I know; I’ve been there, having been depressed for days at a time by the defeats of my college sports teams. Happily, I’ve learned to disengage my emotions from someone else’s athletic pursuits, and instead pursue my own. But not everyone is like that.
Five. Supporting taxpayer funding of stadiums is a way for the cynical citizen to say, “At least I got mine.” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this rationale: “I think government wastes money and is too big, but at least this is ONE use of government I can enjoy.”
Six. Large businesses as well as members of the legacy media love professional sports teams. Large businesses get a venue to entertain clients. Media outlets get something else to talk about. They gain financially by either carrying the games (TV or radio) or doing pre-post game shows.
Is there a free-market solution?
Lately, a friend has asked me, “OK, LaPlante, I get what you’re saying about stadium subsidies. I oppose corporate welfare, too–it distorts the purpose of government, taxes the middle class to pay the wealthy, etc. But is there a free-market alternative?”
Unfortunately, no. At least not if you mean, “can we respect free markets and keep our sports teams?” More on that soon.