Public Stadium Funding Blackmail Needs to End

A recent series of leaked emails between members of the Ricketts family brought back into the spotlight the fact that Cubs ownership had discussed moving the team out of Chicago after being refused tax dollars for renovating Wrigley Field. I have difficulty expressing my disgust for such petulance and I am glad Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel firmly refused to provide any subsidy to the Ricketts. In fact, I think the federal government should prohibit teams in sports leagues that enjoy anti-trust exemptions from obtaining public funding of any type.

Professional sports are unusual businesses as compared to, say, making toasters. For one, sports teams are fundamentally connected to their geographic locations. The Cubs are not just the Cubs, they are the Chicago Cubs. That connection creates a built-in consumer base. City denizens root for the hometown team based on civic loyalty. They hand their fandom down over generations. That kind of brand loyalty is rare in consumer products, but taken for granted in sports. And it does not even have to be earned, it literally comes with the territory.

Baseball – I’m going to narrow the focus, although the following applies to all professional sports – also enjoys anti-trust and labor exemptions not found anywhere else in the business world. No other profession allows 30 businesses to formally prevent new competitors from forming. No other profession allows a workforce to be drafted, controlled, and traded. We as a society granted these benefits to baseball to allow a league with parity and competition to flourish.

It is shocking to me that we do not demand more from baseball in return for these economic gifts. Instead of thanking Chicago for bestowing a fan base, the Ricketts tried to hold the hostage for public stadium funding by threatening to leave. This needs to end.

My solution would be a federal law that any sports league that enjoys anti-trust exemptions may not have financial relationships or preferential tax benefits with local government. Teams could still move, but would have to choose to do so on the long-term merits of the new city’s fan base, not a sweetheart stadium deal.

I hope the people of Oakland do not get swindled out of public money for the Athletics’ new stadium. I am discouraged that Portland has already indicated a willingness to partially fund a baseball stadium as part of an expansion bid. I hope no group of taxpayers ever gets blackmailed into paying for the “privilege” of keeping their city’s team.

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