Thursday, February 10, 2011

Who Supports the Sports?

I've never been that into sports. Sure, I collected baseball cards as a kid and cheered on the Jays' World Series wins in 1992 and 1993, but it was less out of a deep, abiding interest and more because I was a socially awkward ten-year-old, and an interest in baseball is right on the contract for being a ten-year-old boy. It's not something I follow at all anymore - hell, it was only within the last month that I discovered the Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas eighteen years ago. Though I will admit that I was sorely tempted to brave the crowds at Wrigley Field the first time I was in Chicago. It's not something that's important to me, but I recognize its broad and long-standing appeal in the population at large. Sports speak to something primal: they've been with us from the beginning.

Modern-day organized sports, on the other hand, is something else entirely.

Yesterday the Globe and Mail ran an article from John Allemang asking a simple question: "if arts and culture are publicly funded, why not sports arenas?" I know enough about sports to know that this is a third rail, and it's a complicated issue besides. It stems from recent noises that have emanated from Ottawa recently, suggesting that the federal government may assist in the financing of a new hockey arena in Quebec City - part of their cunning plan to lure the Nordiques back home from Colorado. Government involvement in cultural affairs is not new; there are many such venues that get some government support, from arthouses to science fiction magazines.

As sports do occupy a major place in modern culture, it's easily arguable that sports facilities should only be entitled to a share of that same funding. I can see that point... but for me, there's only one fly in the ointment.

How many sports venues are currently owned by for-profit corporations, explicitly as profit-making endeavors?

Chase Field, a publicly-owned sports venue in Phoenix, Arizona

As a member of the Torontonian diaspora, the example of SkyDome still stings. Back in the late 1980s, what was then one of the most technologically advanced stadiums in North America - just look at that dome! - cost $570 million to build, with the cost split between the governments of Metro Toronto, Ontario, and Canada, as well as twenty-eight Canadian corporations - corporations that, incidentally, paid $5 million in 1980s dollars for stadium exclusivity, and so you could be sure you wouldn't get any Pepsi products at the dome. The big problem is that there were extensive cost overruns, enough so that the Dome wasn't making enough money to pay them off - so, ultimately, its debts were paid off by the provincial government in 1994, from provincial revenues, and sold into private ownership for the bargain basement price of $151 million. When Rogers bought it in 2004, it paid the princely sum of $25 million.

Ontario's tax dollars at work.

Given that experience... there are limited circumstances where I'd be okay with tax revenue going to support a sports venue. If it's done in conjunction with private partners, and it's the for-profit private partners that are on the hook in case of cost overruns - as was the case with Chase Field in Phoenix - and if a share of the revenues go back into the public purse, I could conceivably be for it.

What I'm not for is the subsidization of profit-seeking corporations with tax dollars. Taxes should be used for delivering public services - water supply, electricity, space exploration (at least until private corporations find a profit motive out there), infrastructure, public transit, and so on - and even then, we have to remember to keep our priorities in order. Look at the example of Arlington, Texas - at 380,000 people it is the forty-ninth largest city in the United States, and it does not have a public transit system. Why? Perhaps part of it has to do with the fact that the requisite share of Arlington's sales tax revenue, which appears to be one of the only real options for funding mass transit in Texas, is instead going towards paying off the debt for building Rangers Ballpark in Arlington and Cowboys Stadium.

Governments shouldn't be the ones left holding the bags for these places unless they're the only ones that get the money when times are good.

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