Sports

'Throw a Billion Dollars from the Helicopter' Is a Grand-Slam Attack on Publicly Financed Stadiums

A new documentary chronicles the defeat of a grassroots protest to halt the Texas Rangers' subsidized stadium deal.

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Throw a Billion Dollars from the Helicopter is a new documentary about the wildly successful (and incredibly stupid) 2016 ballot initiative led by Jeff Williams, the mayor of Arlington, Texas, to throw $500 million in subsidies at a new ballpark for the Texas Rangers. If you care at all about sports, you'll want to stream this movie, at the risk of killing whatever residual pleasure you might still get from watching baseball. And if you care about tax policy, crony capitalism, and good governance, you'll want to watch it too, even though—spoiler alert—the ragtag bunch of ex–Tea Party renegades opposed to an indefensible giveaway got bowled over like Ray Fosse trying to protect the plate against Pete Rose at the 1970 All-Star Game.

Director Michael Bertin advances two intertwined storylines. The first is tight study of local politics, showing how Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams came into office in 2015 as a small-government, tax-cutting, low-spending character straight out of central casting. Once in office, Williams almost immediately starting pimping for taxpayers to cover half the cost of a new billion-dollar stadium for the Rangers (a team once partly owned by former President George W. Bush).

Williams expertly works the levers of local boosterism, and Bertin relishes showing the mayor and other stadium supporters invoking the phrase "world-class city" over and over again. The new ballpark will feature a retractable roof! It will be not just a stadium but a family "destination" with bars, restaurants, and concert venues! All of which will be "world class" and make Arlington a "world-class city"! Smaller cities—Arlington has about 400,000 residents and is part of the Dallas-Forth Worth metro area—often have inferiority complexes, and sports leagues and national chains know how to take advantage of that when looking for sweetheart subsidy deals.

"Someone in Cleveland once said that, without the sports teams, Cleveland is just Omaha," Bertin told me yesterday in an interview. In 2009, Arlington lured the Dallas Cowboys from Irving, largely by giving billionaire team owner Jerry Jones $325 million in subsidies.

Opposing the stadium is group called Citizens for a Better Arlington, a handful of folks left over from the Tea Party movement. They come across as an amiable group of people who don't want the city to issue $500 million in bonds to cover half the cost of the park, especially since the old one was opened relatively recently (in 1994) and remains popular with fans. The bonds would be paid off by continuing a half-cent sales tax put in place to cover the debt incurred on the Cowboys' deal, plus a series of hospitality taxes on rental cars, hotel rooms, stadium parking, and tickets. It's a classic David-and-Goliath story, with the stadium backers funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaign while opponents scrape together loose change to cover the cost of yard signs and Xeroxed factsheets.

The second storyline deals with the phoney-baloney economic analysis that gets mustered up every time a team owner and pliant politicians want to sell a stadium to wary taxpayers. The Stanford economist Roger Noll compares stadiums to pyramids in ancient Egypt, structures built to honor dead pharaohs but paid for by the sweat and toil of living, breathing people. Noll and others point out that entertainment spending is generally a fixed pie and that local residents substitute one option for another. Teams thus don't create new spending; they take it from other businesses, most of whom are actually paying property and other taxes. Bertin drives home the fact that most stadium boosters talk about the "economic impact" of having a team, not the actual economic benefits. Invariably, when you factor in the costs of building and financing a stadium and all the extra giveaways to team owners (who keep most or all revenue from parking, concessions, and the like), stadium projects are municipal money pits.

As Bertin shows, Irving's economy has boomed relative to Arlington's since the Cowboys vamoosed. It might be true that Cleveland without sports teams is just Omaha, but Omaha has a median household income of nearly $54,000 while Cleveland's is just over $27,000.

The movie's title comes from the University of Chicago economist Allen Sanderson, a longtime critic of subsidized stadiums (and a one-time Reason contributor). Rather than spending massive amounts on a stadium deal to keep a team in town, Sanderson says you'd get a bigger payoff by taking the money, converting it $20 bills, renting an aircraft, and then throwing "a billion dollars from the helicopter" while hovering over a city.

The good news is that publicly financed stadiums and arenas seem to be on the decline. As one economist mentions toward the end of the movie, "Arlington is the old world" when it comes to things. Here's hoping.

A first-time filmmaker, director Bertin tells me that he started the project because he loved baseball. Before the coronavirus shut down sports (including the planned opening of Arlington's new billion-dollar stadium), he used to get MLB's streaming package that allowed him to watch just about any game he wanted to on his computer. Working on the documentary has kind of ruined it all for him, because it's just so awful to watch teams bilk taxpayers for so much money. Speaking as a fan of baseball, football, soccer, college basketball, and the Olympics (the biggest boondoggle of them all!), understanding the economics of most modern sports had me turning away long before COVID-19 cancelled everything.

Oh, well. At least we've got documentaries like Throw a Billion Dollars from the Helicopter to pass the sports-free days.

Bonus video: "5 Cities That Got F*cked by Hosting the Olympics."

NEXT: The Pandemic’s Economic Carnage Looks Worse Than Expected

Sports stadiums Subsidies Texas Crony Capitalism Baseball

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23 responses to “'Throw a Billion Dollars from the Helicopter' Is a Grand-Slam Attack on Publicly Financed Stadiums

  1. Can’t we all just compromise and throw the commie’s from the helicopters.

    1. What? No. Are you trying to create an environmental catastrophe?

      Commies need to be disposed of properly, like the toxic waste they are.

    2. If we can throw elected officials from helicopters instead, then I’m there to help you throw!

      1. Rather than waste payload on good people throwing bad people out, just package up bad people in cargo nets, sling them up, carry them high / far enough, and open the net. Sure, some might try to hang on to the net, but you know they’d only manage it for a few seconds, what with all that wind buffeting them, and worse case, drop the net, send a crew out to collect it, and re-use. No need to clean it unless the drossage adversely affects the carrying capacity.

    3. Why did the helicopter meme take hold? Instead of the far more efficient use the Argentinean junta came up with, which was to load cargo aircraft with drugged up students and other undesirables, cruise a hundred miles or so into the South Atlantic, and dump em off the back ramp?

      Much cheaper to operate, and a lot more efficient per corpse.

      1. I’ve actually had this idea for years, but as a foreign policy tool, ever since I learned about Castro’s (brilliant) Marianas Boat Lift.
        Iran, North Korea, whoever wants to start some shit?
        Load up the airplanes with crackheads, rapists, murderers, armed robbers, etc then fly them over the troublemaking country and shove em all out.
        I’d give them parachutes, as it’d be more of a pain in the ass to deal with them running around, but I guess it’s optional

  2. couldn’t sit on the 3d base line at the other stadium in the daytime.

    MLB Network is showing the 1970 World Series all day they’re probably starting game3 right now. Pete Rose was thick for his height Ray Fosse never recovered.

    1. +1 jazz hands

      Sorry. Wrong Fosse.

      1. if Ray had jazz hands up he might not have been squared so hard in the shoulder

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        2. Many years ago, I played in an industrial softball league. I was playing catcher and a base runner who was a lot bigger than me tried to bowl me over. I just went lower and when he hit me I stood up and dumped him on his head. Never understood why MLB catchers didn’t do the same thing. Hell, don’t even worry about catching the ball just make sure the base runner suffers. Do it a few times and the base runner’s tactic ends.

  3. To be followed by ‘Throw a Trillion Dollars from the Helicopter’, a documentary about government stimulus spending.

    1. They wanted to do that, but they couldn’t find a helicopter big enough.

      1. First spending: more helicopters.

        1. Nah, more helicopters won’t work. They are retooling the project to use a C5 Galaxy rather than a helicopter.

          1. See. This guy fucks.

    2. Let’s see….a regular helicopter can lift about 4,000 pounds. One 55 gallon drum holds about $19.5 million in $100 bills and weights about 660 pounds in money and 40 pounds for the barrel. So one helicopter trip would be able to carry 5.7 barrels – let’s round it up to 6 barrels. So that’s $117 million per trip. Let’s say it take one minute to dump each barrel, 10 minutes to fly up, and ten minute to fly down. With very efficient loading and unloading of the barrels, and refueling, let’s say 40 minutes per trip. The bailouts were $2 trillion. So that’s 17,094 trips that would take 11,282 hours, or about 470 days. That helicopter is gonna be busy for a while.

      (Please understand I did this very fast and didn’t check anything, so my math may be way off)

      1. Recalculate for a C5 Galaxy and pallets of $100 bills stacked 5 feet high.

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  4. Someone in Cleveland once said that, without the sports teams, Cleveland is just Omaha,”

    I honestly thought Omaha was actually bigger than Cleveland, so I looked it up. I was right. Also I’ve been to both cities the exact same number of times and have the exact same level of interest in visiting them.

  5. It might be true that Cleveland without sports teams is just Omaha, but Omaha has a median household income of nearly $54,000 while Cleveland’s is just over $27,000.

    And Omaha has a stadium, too, the TD Ameritrade Park, run by the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority. It’s used for the College World Series, and that’s about it since their minor league baseball team moved to a new stadium. Fortunately, they only paid $131 million for the stadium, $100 million from bonds, so the taxes they put in place to cover the bond expenses only necessitate dipping into the “community betterment” funding for a million dollars or so each year. What a bargain! A useless stadium somebody else’s taxes mostly pay for except for what it doesn’t pay for and the taxpayers are on the hook for that!

    1. Cleveland with or without a sports team wishes it was Omaha.

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