Sally Jenkins
Sally Jenkins
Columnist

NFL lockout: Owners get the keys to stadiums, fans get the bills

Alex Brandon/Associated Press - The world-view of NFL owners was summed up the other day by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones: “I just spent a billion dollars on a stadium, and I didn’t plan on not playing football in it,” he said. Jones forgets that Arlington taxpayers wrote him a check for $325 million.

If the NFL owners want a fight over money, they can have one. The minute they announced they couldn’t live on their cut of $9.3 billion in revenue and locked out the players, threatening to cancel next season, they revealed their feudal-lord natures. They overreached. Instead of worrying about player salaries, they should worry about fans who are sick of being treated like serfs.

Here’s a good question: What right do owners have to padlock stadiums that taxpayers helped pay for?

The NFL owes fans a season. Why? Because the fans paid for it, that’s why, and this isn’t 13th-century France, and a season ticket package is not a wheat levy. They paid for it with outrageously priced seat licenses, as well as bond issues for stadiums, tax abatements, and sweetheart leases, not to mention all kinds of gratis services from cities and counties, right down to free snow removal.

If the fans don’t get a fair return on the public funds and favor lavished on owners, here’s what they should do: sue. That’s right. Attorneys general in every state that houses an NFL team should draw up suits to force the league to play, or repay what they owe us.

“The NFL needs to immediately stop soliciting season ticket payments, asking people to pay on the chance there will be a season,” says Brian Frederick, executive director of the Sports Fans Coalition, a lobby and watchdog group dedicated to protecting spectators’ interests. “They get access to tremendous capital and the interest on it, and state attorneys and local governments should immediately start looking into the issue in terms of the amount of money they’ve invested in these stadiums, and making sure their investment is protected.”

It’s time to change the way we do business with the NFL. You don’t have to pick a side in the owner-player quarrel over revenues to arrive at that conclusion. If nothing else, the current labor strife has finally alerted us to some truly rapacious practices by the owners.

They collect welfare, and treat it like a birthright. They use public facilities to enrich themselves, hostage-take whole cities for every subsidized dollar they can get, and then cry socialism at the suggestion they have any community responsibility. Among other things, they are profoundly ungrateful.

Their world view was summed up the other day by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones: “I just spent a billion dollars on a stadium, and I didn’t plan on not playing football in it,” he said.

Now, that’s a funny thing for Jones to say, because as it happens, he doesn’t actually own Cowboys Stadium. The city of Arlington does. And Jones didn’t spend a billion dollars to build it. Arlington taxpayers passed a bond issue and wrote him a check for $325 million. City sales tax increased by one-half a percent, the hotel occupancy tax by 2 percent, and car rental tax by 5 percent, all of which may hurt the local economy. Jones is merely a tenant, with a lease.

Virtually every one of the league’s 31 stadiums was built or renovated with the assistance of public money, about $6.5 billion worth, according to the Sports Fans Coalition. And that doesn’t include the indirect subsidies, the infrastructure improvements, municipal services, gift-revenues, and foregone property taxes, which can push the cost of hosting an NFL team 40 percent higher.

There have been 11 new stadium constructions since 2002, and public funding for them averaged 54 percent, $295.3 million per project. Frequently the funding came in the form of tourism taxes, such as Arlington’s, which can further burden a community, making businesses less competitive and suppressing revenue and growth. In some places, such as Philadelphia, which helped construct Lincoln Financial Field for Jeffrey Lurie, the debt has helped make the city a credit risk, which makes it difficult to issue new bonds for things it urgently needs.

When you look at it that way, the owners have some nerve shutting down.

“We’ve asked, as fans and taxpayers, if money goes into a stadium, then shouldn’t we have an equitable stake in the team?” Frederick says.

It wasn’t enough that Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown got 95 percent public financing for Paul Brown Stadium, which cost $455 million. The Bengals also got a sweetheart 27-year lease that said they didn’t have to pay rent after 2009. Taxpayers cover maintenance, and most of the yearly operating costs. The bill for 2009 came to almost $9 million. Meantime, the Bengals get to keep the naming rights, and revenue from advertising, tickets, luxury suites, concessions, and most of the parking. All of which makes them one of the most profitable teams in the league — with a 4-12 record.

According to stadium watchdog Neil deMause, author of “Field of Schemes,” the Bengals also have a draconian “state of the art” clause. “Cincinnati has a list of things that have to be installed if other teams get them, like, ‘a holographic replay,’ ” deMause says. The St. Louis Rams have a similar clause.

Obviously, NFL owners don’t realize how good they’ve had it. Nor do they recognize how they look and sound to the rest of us when they rake in huge revenue but cry poor.

All of which should cause us to reassess our municipal relationships to the league. There is nothing inherently wrong with spending some public money for our entertainment — owners do make significant investments in their teams, and some of them may deserve help with long-term expenses and obligations. But that doesn’t mean we should fling hundreds of millions of government funds to preferred wealthy individuals, just so they can repay us with price gouging, and a shutdown.

Where is it written that owners are entitled to the lion’s share of revenues from structures we help build and support? The next time an NFL owner comes to a city and demands public financing, these should be the terms: The municipality should get a portion of the concessions, naming rights, and stadium advertising revenue, and 100 percent of the parking fees. If the owner protests, the mayor should tell him fans are sick of paying for Lurie’s private bowling alley, and Stan Kroenke’s vineyards, and not getting a vote.

 
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