Do States Get a Return on Sports Facilities Investments?

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A little less than 34 years ago, the New York Giants played the Dallas Cowboys in the opening game of the new stadium off of Exit 16W of the New Jersey Turnpike in the Meadowlands. This year the Giants and the New York Jets will play the first football game in the new stadium off of Exit 16W of the New Jersey Turnpike in the Meadowlands. The new stadium has hosted concerts and the international kind of football but this place was built for the Giants and Jets.

The new place has a price tag of an estimated $1.6 billion, which was to be split between the Giants’ and Jets’ ownership. But the state of New Jersey is on the hook for a lot of cash too, an estimated $300 million in infrastructure costs. The new stadium was built in a decaying sports complex. The race track, which was once the crown jewel of the Meadowlands and could be counted upon to pump money into the complex, is dying and the three-decades-old arena no longer has either a National Basketball Association or a National Hockey League team. The Xanadu project has not been the panacea that Meadowlands backers had hoped it would be.

New Jersey is saddled with the debt of Giants Stadium 34 years after it was opened and months after it was demolished. New Jersey joins places like King County (the Kingdome in Seattle) and Pittsburgh (Three Rivers Stadium) in paying off the debt of a place that no longer exists except on the ledger sheet.

The New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority could be as much as $830 million in debt. The Meadowlands Racetrack cannot help pay down the debt anymore. It is no longer 1971, a time when horse racing was still popular and a few years before it began a slow decline.

The New Jersey Sports Authority is in charge of the Meadowlands sports complex. The property includes the Xanadu retail and entertainment project, and also oversees the football stadium and the arena. Monmouth Park Racetrack in Oceanport and Atlantic City Convention Centers is under the authority’s aegis.

The Meadowlands has become unwanted, unloved, and a money drain except for the area around the new stadium. New Jersey is not only pumping money into the football facility but is also providing all sorts of tax breaks. This has not made elected officials in East Rutherford too happy. The municipality is losing much-needed revenue from property in the area.

In this time when all municipalities are struggling with revenues and balancing budgets, the question that should be asked: is any municipality getting a return on stadium and arena investments?

The State Comptroller of New York, Thomas P. DiNapoli said he didn’t know whether New York was getting any kind of return on the state’s investments in stadium and arena projects in Buffalo, Rochester and especially the Bronx with the Yankees and Queens with the Mets. New York State also has hundreds of millions of dollars slated to go into the Brooklyn arena project, a construction that, when finished, will become the home of the Newark-based New Jersey Nets National Basketball Association franchise.

DiNapoli was quick and seemed very honest when saying that he had no idea if his state was getting any kind of benefit from a minor league baseball park in Buffalo, a hockey arena in Buffalo, or a minor league stadium in Rochester. New York is a state which spends hundreds of millions of dollars for infrastructure in the Bronx and Queens, as is New York City for the Yankees and Mets stadiums.

DiNapoli said New York State has never done a survey and figured out if it was worth the effort to spend what is probably a billion dollars for sports venues in Albany, Binghamton, the Bronx, Buffalo, Elmira, Queens, Staten Island, Syracuse and other locales in the state.

The state money for facilities was started when Governor Mario Cuomo decided to go along with Major League Baseball’s Player Development Contract with Minor League Baseball, which required Minor League Baseball franchises to play in facilities that had to meet a standard created by Major League Baseball by 1994. Virtually every minor league team needed some form of upgrade or new stadium and that forced a realignment of minor league baseball teams. The New York Penn League Glens Falls (N. Y.) team relocated for a while in Augusta, New Jersey. Cuomo pitched hard for a Major League expansion team in Buffalo by building a minor league stadium that could have been expanded into a 40,000-seat stadium.

The MLB/MiLB PDC agreement gave birth to independent baseball leagues and teams in New Jersey in the Atlantic and Northeast League-Northern League which is now the CanAm League.

The stadium/arena building in Buffalo has not been an elixir that has brought the Buffalo economy back to the late 1950s boom years when the city was a major port and there were vibrant steel, flour and shipping industries in the city. Rochester is still reeling from the loss of Eastman Kodak; Syracuse has lost Carrier air conditioners. Binghamton has not replaced IBM and clothing industries, yet stadiums and arenas were sold as economic engines.

New York is not alone in the assessment. Has New Jersey benefited from building the Meadowlands Racetrack, Giants Stadium, the Meadowlands Arena, the Trenton arena and other sports venues? The latest proposals to fix the Meadowlands problems of a dying race track and an empty arena include selling the properties to private investors or shutting down racing at the track and make the building a glorified racing studio or Off Track Betting parlor with no horse racing.

The Meadowlands as an OTB parlor may not work as well as hoped without slot machines. The Meadowlands is only about 13 miles away from Yonkers Raceway in New York where there are video slot machines and there are plans to have video terminals at Aqueduct Raceway in Queens.

Politicians have spent, spent, and spent on sports facilities nationally for six decades, and there seems to be no end in sight. The 1986 Tax Act did local municipalities no favors when it came to municipal funding of stadiums. The federal tax code limited cities, villages, towns, counties and states to collect just eight percent of the revenues generated in a sports arena or stadium to go to pay down the debt in the venue.

Since 1986, municipalities have been pitted against one another in attempting to get a team, whether it was an expansion franchise or a team looking to relocate for a better locale. The worst deal that was signed was between Louisiana Governor Mike Foster and New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson. Louisiana gave Benson $186.5 million in checks as a thank you for keeping the team in New Orleans between 2002 and 2010. The city of San Diego was buying unsold San Diego Chargers tickets as part of a lease arrangement in the late 1990s. This summer, the giveaways kept coming despite belt tightening around the country. Jacksonville politicians gave up the city’s right to collect 25 percent of the revenue for naming rights of the city owned football stadium to the National Football League’s Jaguars or about $4 million over the next five years.

Some of those four million dollars could have been used to pay municipal workers to keep social and other needed services going. Instead Jacksonville Jaguars ownership can spend the $800,000 or so annually on players.

The National Hockey League’s Columbus Blue Jackets franchise is crying the financial blues so, in the middle of July, the team president Mike Priest came up with a “most viable solution” asking the city to turnover over revenues from a proposed tax on new downtown casinos to the team. Columbus is getting a casino soon. A portion of the construction costs of the new Pittsburgh arena was paid by a new casino in the city.

Indianapolis elected officials decided earlier this summer to give Herb Simon, the Pacers owner, $10 million a year for the next three years along with $3.5 million for a new ribbon ad board inside the Indianapolis arena in an attempt to keep Simon happy and his team playing at the arena. Simon’s team has been playing at the city’s taxpayer-funded arena since 1999, a building that he uses for free, and the kicker is that Simon keeps all revenues from his team’s home games. The Indianapolis Capital Improvement Board which runs the arena and the one-year-old Colts-NFL stadium has to come up with the money. But there is a problem. The board is broke and had to borrow $27 million from Indiana last year to continue operating. Simon’s team will play in Indianapolis for at least three more years.

San Diego officials are planning to spend $500,000 (in cash strapped California where state workers may have their salaries reduced to minimum wage if Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state houses cannot get a budget done) to study the viability of a new football stadium for the Spanos family’s NFL Chargers. Hamilton County and Cincinnati are having financial problems and don’t have money to pay off the debt load on the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals stadium.

So it goes, and that is all the news in the past 60 days or so. In Major League Baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Oakland A’s continue to look across the bays, Tampa Bay and the San Francisco Bay, for new homes. Rays ownership would like to play in Tampa while A’s owner Lewis Wolff is waiting for Godot or Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig or Dionne Warwick or Burt Bacharach or Hal David to ask him “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” Wolff would pack up the A’s in a moving van and drive south on the I-880 in a New York minute to play in San Jose. Of course there is a question of stadium funding in Tampa and San Jose that needs to be answered.

The Giants ownership almost accepted a renovated Giants Stadium in the mid-2000s, while the Jets ownership planned to move to Manhattan’s Westside near the Javits Center between 30th and 34th Street surrounded by 11th and 12th Avenues. Both ownership groups watched other municipalities build stadiums or create incentive packages such as the Foster-Benson agreement in New Orleans. New York Assemblyman Sheldon Silver blew up the Manhattan stadium which forced Jets owner Woody Johnson to look elsewhere, and eventually Johnson, along with the Giants Mara/Tisch families, came up with the New Meadowlands Stadium deal which involved land swaps, tax breaks and infrastructure money for a stadium and other retail development.

Back in 1971, New Jersey officials decided to get in the game. What they didn’t realize then is that once you start playing, you better bring your money to the table and be prepared to spend, spend, and spend. Was it worth it? In New York the state comptroller DiNapoli couldn’t answer the question with an affirmative or negative response since he didn’t have the data because no one in the state ever decided to give it a close inspection.

The answer is pretty obvious.

It is no.

Stadium and arena building has not been an economic engine (in Baltimore, the baseball stadium came after the Maryland Science Museum, the Harborplace and the National Aquarium opened. the baseball and football stadiums were an add on and not an anchor for the project). Stadiums have not rebuilt city’s downtowns in Cleveland or Phoenix. Governor Chris Christie ought to appoint someone to do that survey that no one has done in New York as to whether a state or a city really gets a return on a sports venue investment like the New Meadowlands Stadium.

Of course politicians may not want to really know that answer.

Mr. Weiner is an award winning, nationally recognized radio and print journalist who specializes in the business and politics of sports. He has been a contributing columnist for major newspapers and a commentator on the Westwood One Radio Network. Weiner is the winner of the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award.