Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke recently claimed the team cannot break even unless it moves into a 75,000-seat domed stadium when his lease on 55,000-seat RFK Stadium expires in 1990. Already Prince William County and Fairfax County are making noises about stealing what has long been a prize possession of the District. A move to Northern Virginia would be a real coup for the state -- as long as Virginia taxpayers don't get stuck with the bill for the ballpark.
Residents of other states have found that publicly owned stadiums rarely live up to the glowing revenue potential conjured up by team owners and local politicians. In Michigan, for example, fans and nonfans alike have had to pay $11 million since 1976 to cover the operating deficits of Pontiac's Silverdome, a suggested model for the Redskins' new home.
Even in the early 1970s, before most of the expensive domed stadiums were built, a Brookings Institution economist calculated that American taxpayers spent about $14 million each year to subsidize stadiums and arenas. That's nearly $45 million in today's inflation-adjusted dollars. The most famous stadium boondoggle since then is probably the New Orleans Superdome, whose price tag of $163 million in 1975 and chronic deficits burden Louisiana taxpayers to this day.
Closer to home are the planned twin stadiums for Baltimore: one intended to keep the baseball Orioles from flying the coop, the other to corral an NFL expansion team to replace the Colts. The whole setup is expected to cost over $200 million. The lucky citizens of Baltimore get to pay $1 million annually for the project, and Maryland lottery players are expected to contribute $16.4 million annually.
Stadium proponents claim such massive expenditures stimulate local economies. Not so, according to Robert Baade, an economist at Lake Forest College in Illinois who chaired a local committee studying proposals for new stadiums in Chicago.
In a study published last February by Chicago's Heartland Institute, Baade found that stadiums and sports franchises have generally just diverted jobs and resources from manufacturing and other industries. After all, the more taxes people pay for stadiums, the less money they have to spend or save as they choose. Construction of the Superdome, in fact, actually slowed employment growth in New Orleans compared with nearby communities.
In addition, any sports fan knows that most public stadiums are ugly at worst or conversation pieces at best. Public ownership brought us a series of municipal Tupperware bowls like RFK in Washington and architectural oddities like the Astrodome in Houston. Private ownership, on the other hand, brought us charming Wrigley Field in Chicago and modern Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami.
Public stadiums possess another disadvantage that should make fans and nonfans alike blanch: they're easy to desert. When teams have to build their own stadiums, they think long and hard about moving because it's difficult to find someone interested in buying a used stadium. When a team plays in someone else's ballpark, it has little financial reason to stay around if another city offers a better lease.
Public stadiums create spectacles like the carpetbagging Los Angeles Raiders. Having left Oakland for a sweeter stadium deal in Los Angeles, owner Al Davis now wants to leave Los Angeles for Irwindale, a California town about the size of Falmouth, Va., population 970.
If local politicians want to protect their constituents, they'll have to insist that any stadium for the Redskins be built with private money. The Miami Dolphins' 75,000-seat, $100 million stadium, built with private funds after southern Florida voters rejected proposals for a tax-financed stadium, demonstrates that it can be done.
"This stadium is a monument to a free, competitive enterprise system and showed that anything government can do, we can do better," Dolphins owner Joe Robbie declared when the stadium opened in August. Robbie raised the money the old-fashioned way: by showing bankers a good, if daring, business proposition. To guarantee there would be money to pay off the loans, season ticket holders had to commit to 10-year leases, as did those who rented sky suites at up to $65,000 per year.
The result is a stadium that's the envy of other NFL owners. One official from the Chicago Bears, who hopes for a new stadium to replace aging Soldier Field, looked over the Dolphins' new home and told a sportswriter, "We'd like to wrap it up and take it home with us."
With 20,000 people on the waiting list for season tickets and a city full of lobbyists looking for glamorous ways to entertain influential policy makers, surely the Redskins could work a similar deal.
Virginia taxpayers especially should send a message loud and clear: Redskins stay home, or bring your own dome.
-- Jerome Ellig is an economist with Citizens for a Sound Economy, a public interest group.