Major League Losers: The Real Cost of Sports and Who's Paying for It, by Mark S. Rosentraub, New York: Basic Books, 513 pages, $27.50
In October 1995, one of my childhood dreams came true. Thanks to a friend in the Indians' ticket office, I attended my first postseason baseball games: game five of the American League Championship Series, pitting the Seattle Mariners against the Indians; and game five of the World Series, with the Indians facing the team I've rooted for since 1969, the Atlanta Braves. I had the time of my life.
Both series were played in the one-year-old Jacobs Field, one of baseball's new showplaces, along with the Ballpark in Arlington (Texas), Coors Field in Denver, Turner Field in Atlanta, and the stadium that started the 1990s run of "new traditionalist" ballparks, Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards. These new retro stadiums mix features of the turn-of-the-century parks (asymmetrical field designs, exposed structures, seating close to the field) with high-tech luxury boxes, ubiquitous TV monitors, concession areas with full-service restaurants that overlook the action, expansive pedestrian walkways circling the field, and abundant, clean restrooms. A few purists may complain that the distractions these new structures offer divert attention from the action on the field, but the soaring attendance levels–last year the Indians became the first Major League Baseball franchise to sell every regular-season ticket before the season opened–suggest that most fans don't mind.
One thing clearly not old-fashioned about these new structures is their price tags: Jacobs Field cost more than $176 million. Indeed, Cleveland's Gateway complex–the downtown area which houses Jacobs Field, Gund Arena (home of the NBA Cavaliers), and the forthcoming stadium for the NFL Browns–may eventually cost $1 billion, much of the money coming from taxpayers. Had I known the magnitude of the subsidies at the time, I still would have enjoyed the games (especially since the Braves won the Series). But that knowledge might have tempered my euphoria just a tad.
The story of the fiscal nightmare known as Gateway is but one juicy nugget served up by Mark S. Rosentraub, associate dean of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University at Indianapolis, in Major League Losers. In meticulous detail, Rosentraub exposes what may be the most extravagant corporate welfare system in the United States today: the placement and maintenance of professional sports franchises. He marshals a dazzling array of statistics outlining the many ways well-heeled team owners, millionaire athletes, and headline-hungry politicians rip off taxpayers. And he offers somewhat useful policy prescriptions that might cut off the subsidy flow.
The cost of obtaining professional sports franchises (or keeping them in place) is skyrocketing. Before the Ballpark in Arlington was constructed, for instance, the estimated value of the Rangers franchise was $101 million, the 16th most valuable Major League Baseball team. After the new stadium opened in 1994–even though the Rangers had never played a postseason game–the team's value had jumped to $157 million, making it even more valuable than the storied Los Angeles Dodgers.
Politicians have an uncontrollable urge to throw taxpayer money at sports franchises. "At least five communities now provide or have proposed providing at least $250 million in subsidies for professional sports: Baltimore (and Maryland), Cincinnati, Cleveland, St. Louis (city and county partnership with the state of Missouri), and Nashville," Rosentraub writes. "Between eighteen and twenty-four state and local governments have provided or have proposed to provide at least $100 million in subsidies to professional sports teams, and several of these subsidies will amount to almost $200 million." And this list did not include Raleigh, North Carolina, which will spend $120 million on an arena to house the NHL's former Hartford Whalers; nearby Alamance, Guilford, and Forsyth counties in North Carolina, which are battling to build a $210 million stadium that would house a Major League Baseball franchise which doesn't yet exist; and Minneapolis, where the Minnesota Twins are threatening to leave unless the city builds a $400 million, retractable-roof stadium, even though the Metrodome is only about 15 years old.
Franchise owners and their political allies often justify subsidies by crying poverty and by claiming that their teams have a major impact on the local economy. Teams are in fact doing quite well; the sweetheart deals owners have made with local officials, along with media revenue, contribute much to their success. In the 1994 and 1995 seasons, for instance, the Dallas Cowboys earned more than $75 million from ticket sales and luxury-seating revenue at Texas Stadium alone. The New York Yankees get more than $50 million a year from broadcast, cable, and other media sources. And in the 1994 season, the Indianapolis Colts reported the lowest media income of any NFL franchise–$37.2 million. At press time, Los Angeles Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley is negotiating the sale of his team to media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who may pay as much as $400 million for the Dodgers and Dodger Stadium. It's little wonder the potential owners of professional expansion teams must fork over upwards of $100 million in franchise fees to put an untested product on the field. Hardly the sign of a dying industry.
And sports franchises don't have a large impact on their local economies. Rosentraub uses U.S. Department of Commerce statistics to show that even in counties with the largest concentrations of jobs directly related to professional sports, the teams typically employ less than three-tenths of 1 percent of the local work force. All told, in counties with at least 300,000 residents, professional sports teams pay about one-tenth of 1 percent of total private-sector payrolls. As is often forgotten, sports constitute merely one form of entertainment competing against others. "A large proportion of the spending on sports, or that which results from sports," he says, "is merely a transfer of activity from one area to another. Sports are not only small potatoes, but those potatoes may have been someone else's before the team or stadium existed."
Despite its meticulous scholarship, or perhaps because of it, Major League Losers is a big disappointment. Rosentraub claims his objective is to help "end this perverse and unfair system [and unravel] the mystique of sports and their mythical benefits." To do that, his book needs to reach a broad audience and grab it by the throat, because the book challenges some of our most precious cultural myths, especially those revolving around the relationship between sports, economic development, and civic pride.
Unfortunately, the book reads like a tome on public finance or a series of case studies for a grad student seminar when it should instead portray the welfare queens of professional sports as the scoundrels they are. The information Rosentraub offers is useful and often sobering, but his presentation is dry as dust. To demystify the subject, he needs to tell stories, the lack of which is one of the biggest shortcomings of Major League Losers.
And what stories Rosentraub could tell! Think of the franchise owners: the Yankees' George Steinbrenner ("Costanza! Where's my calzone?"), the Braves' Ted Turner, the Cowboys' Jerry Jones, Jerry Reinsdorf (Chicago Bulls and White Sox), "toxic tort" lawyer Peter Angelos (Baltimore Orioles), even the Walt Disney Co. (Anaheim Angels and Mighty Ducks); the players: Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Ken Griffey Jr., Deion Sanders, Albert Belle; the politicians: New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith, and Texas Gov. George W. Bush (part-owner of the Rangers). The personalities alone could offer plenty of riveting material.
Consider the book's chapter on Cleveland. The plight of the Browns dominated the 1995 NFL season. The team had played for 50 years to sellout crowds of more than 70,000 fans in "The Mistake by the Lake," aging Memorial Stadium. Then-Browns owner Art Modell made national headlines outside the sports pages when he pitted Cleveland against Baltimore for the privilege of housing his team. Modell threatened to move the Browns after the season unless Cleveland built a new facility, claiming that the lack of luxury boxes in Memorial Stadium kept him from making enough money to pay top salaries and attract the best players.
Modell overstated his "poverty": The NFL has done a great job of making it possible to profitably operate in smaller markets like Cleveland. It has in place a salary cap that limits each franchise's payroll. It also offers the most equitable media revenue-sharing package in professional sports. Since most teams get similar television revenue and pay comparable labor costs, for a popular team like the Browns that sells out all its games, luxury-seat revenue becomes clear profit for the owner. Baltimore, which had lost the Colts to Indianapolis a decade earlier, courted Modell by offering to let his team play rent-free in a new, $200 million football stadium near Camden Yards, financed by taxes on all Maryland residents.
A referendum was placed on the November ballot in Cleveland to raise $175 million through alcohol and tobacco taxes. But the day before the election–in the middle of the season–Modell signed a deal with Baltimore, and the Browns were a lame-duck franchise the rest of that year. In Baltimore they're now known as the Ravens.
The once-ubiquitous and much-beloved Modell faced death threats and had to go into hiding. He couldn't even attend home games after he decided to move the team. The "sin tax" initiative passed anyway; the money will pay for a new stadium to host a new franchise, also called the Browns, which the NFL says it will have in place by the end of the decade.
You can't make this stuff up. The story practically tells itself. Rosentraub instead focused on the financial package put together to build the Gateway complex, while noting Modell and the Browns only as an aside. This approach isn't likely to sell many books. And to get people upset enough about multi-millionaire moochers to demand that they start paying their own way, Rosentraub doesn't have to convince people like me, who already agree with him. He needs to win over sports fans and, more important, the beat writers, columnists, talk-show hosts, anchors, and essayists who can move audiences. He needs to convince George Will to write about these welfare queens in his syndicated column and use his platform on ABC's This Week to fume about them. He needs Dick Schaap to lambaste these freeloaders on World News Sunday or on ESPN's Sports Reporters. And from there, the Jay Lenos and David Lettermans could make the franchise owners, politicians, and even the more avaricious players national laughingstocks. But it's almost certain that Rosentraub's arid prose will turn off most readers soon after they crack the spine.
Among network journalists, to date, only ABC's John Stossel has used Rosentraub as a source for a major story. But this was for one segment of his prime-time special on freeloaders. And Stossel isn't a sports journalist. Until team owners who try to soak taxpayers become known as the enemies of their fans, rather than the saviors of their cities, they'll continue to get their bailouts. It will take more than the reams of information presented in Major League Losers to properly vilify them.
Rick Henderson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is managing editor of REASON.