On this Super Bowl weekend, let us pause to consider a stunning example of how games and stadiums were financed in the distant past.
In ancient Athens, the richest citizens often paid for gymnasiums and the staging of athletic events. They also paid for roads, bridges, and theaters, and, in times of peril, they built and donated warships to the city.
These were voluntary contributions — a gift, not a tax or confiscation. They served to maximize freedom, reduce the need for government, and reinforce a powerful sense of Athenian exceptionalism.
In his famous funeral oration in 431 B.C., Pericles departed from the usual practice of praising those who had fallen in battle and lamenting their deaths. Just as Abraham Lincoln would later do in the Gettysburg Address, he turned a mass funeral for war dead into a celebration of the most precious of human values: a paean to liberty.
In ringing words, Pericles spoke of how the freedom and openness of their city did not weaken but only served to redouble the valor, resourcefulness, and generosity of the citizenry, enabling Athens to exceed all of its neighbors in dedication to the common good, both in war and peace.
Charles Adams, author of the classic book For Good or Evil: The Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization, called the Greek practice of “liturgies” — or public giving and resource management by private parties — a “brilliant alternative” to government ownership and control through taxation and regulation. He described it as “private enterprise for public good.”
In our own time, many U.S. cities have stood this ancient example of inspired public service by private parties on its head. In trying to attract or retain sports franchises, our cities have all too often followed the reverse model of public assistance for private gain, or what is also known as corporate welfare and crony capitalism.
When it comes to building a new stadium or to making major improvements in an existing one, political and civic leaders have been all too ready to grovel at the feet of the wealthy owners of professional sports teams, saying, in effect: If you pick our stadium over competing venues, we will do everything in our power in using the public purse to swell your bottom line and to multiply the value of your franchise.
Consider the astounding concessions that my home city of St. Louis made to get the then Los Angeles Rams to move to St. Louis in 1995 — and how it will have to ante up another $400 million or so in public gold to have any hope of holding on to the team.
Neil deMause, co-author of Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit, calls the deal that the city of Saint Louis struck with the Rams “the worst lease ever” — meaning the most one-sided in enriching the team’s owners at the expense of taxpayers… while doing far more to please deep-pocketed corporate clients (conducting partially tax deductible “business entertainment” in their luxury suites) than to control ticket prices or provide better seating for ordinary fans.
The Rams paid no part of the $480 million in construction costs in building the Edward Jones Dome, and they have paid almost nothing in rent (just $250,000 a year). They received all luxury box and concession revenues, took 75 percent of advertising and name rights, and pocketed a $46 million relocation fee.
Still more, political and civic leaders signed on to a deal that gave the team the right to opt out of a 30-year lease after 20 years — if the stadium no longer ranked in the “top tier” of NFL stadiums. As a result, the Rams may move as soon as 2016, but St. Louis City and County and the state of Missouri are still on the hook for $120 million in remaining bond payments falling due between 2016 and 2021.
According to Forbes, the St. Louis Rams football team is now worth about $930 million. Experts say that the value of the franchise will jump to $2.5-to-$3.5 billion if the team moves to Los Angeles. Any such increase in value would more than offset the cost of building a new stadium in L.A. Rams owner Stan Kroenke — a billionaire developer and the husband of Ann Walton Kroenke, daughter of Wal-Mart co-founder Bud Walton — has acquired a prime site for a new NFL stadium in the city’s Inglewood neighborhood.
The city of Saint Louis and the state of Missouri are considering a brand-new publicly owned riverfront stadium that would meet the most exacting NFL standards, with still more luxury suites, high-priced club seats, scoreboard, and other amenities. It would cost close to a billion dollars, with local and state taxpayers picking up about 40 percent of that through publicly financed debt, state tax credits, and other means that would deplete local and state treasuries and leave less money for police, roads, schools, and other public needs.
However, there seems to be little public or political support for the project. A recent poll commissioned by the Missouri Alliance for Freedom shows that 70 percent of Missouri voters are opposed to public funding for the stadium.
In preparing to wave goodbye to the Rams, many St. Louisans (this writer included) will say “thanks for the memories.” We had “the greatest show on turf” for three years — winning the Super Bowl in 2000, contending in the playoffs the following season, and losing only in the final seconds of another thrilling Super Bowl in 2002.
Thirteen out of 32 NFL teams have never won the ultimate prize, and four have never made a Super Bowl appearance.
But as for more subsidies to support a new stadium — and the use of taxpayers’ money to line the pockets of a billionaire owner and to provide still more luxurious accommodations for wealthy patrons — enough is enough.
Expect St. Louis and the state of Missouri to turn thumbs down on a new riverfront stadium.
But will the United States and other nations ever revive the ancient Athenian practice of large-scale “private enterprise for public gain”?
Probably not. As Charles Adams noted in his book —
“This was the Greeks’ brilliant alternative to government ownership and bureaucratic control which typified the oriental despotisms of that day and the governments of our day . . . (It is) something no other people have been able to do, either before or since the days of the ancient Greeks.”
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