Socializing sports could work, but wouldn’t necessarily end stadium subsidy demands

So Alex Pareene of Salon wrote an article on Friday in which he argued that the only solution to the problem of greedy, dumb sports team owners is to nationalize sports teams. It’s a legitimate argument — certainly no worse than nationalizing Facebook, especially since there you’d face a conundrum over which nation should do it — and there are plenty of examples of public- or community-owned teams that have operated successfully. But then Pareene pulls out the favorite object lesson of socialized sports everywhere, the Green Bay Packers:

We already have an example of what this would look like in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers, a publicly-owned team operated as a non-profit corporation. It has been a stunning success, with the person in charge of all football decisions having that authority not because he made a lot of money in direct marketing or real estate, or because his father owned the team, but because of his experience and expertise in football. Nationalized teams would be free of unscrupulous, meddling owners. There’s no reason why they wouldn’t continue to be massive money-makers, though now that money would be going toward the communities that follow and love the teams, and not random lucky billionaires who usually don’t even live in the same state.

First off, the Packers aren’t “publicly owned” in the sense of being owned by the public; they’re a not-for-profit owned by more than 100,000 people, which is an odd model, but probably was marginally less odd back in the 1920s when the team was first set up. Fans buy shares in the Packers, and get nothing back except the right to elect a board of directors — not altogether unlike how some European soccer teams operate, albeit through a slightly different mechanism. The team plows profits back into operating costs and a reserve fund, which currently sits at around a quarter-billion dollars.

All of which is well and good, but when Pareene suggests that Packerizing all of pro sports would help eliminate “extortionate threats to move that encourage public funding,” he’s forgetting something:

On Sept. 12, 2000, Brown County voters by a 53-47 percent margin agreed to tax themselves for the $295 million renovation of Lambeau Field, a project that Green Bay Packers leaders said was crucial to the future of the franchise…

D. Richard Parins, president of the [Brown County Taxpayers Association], said the Packers and their supporters won the campaign by threatening that the franchise would leave town otherwise. That so frightened football fans, he said, that they agreed to embrace the tax increase.

Admittedly, this might be harder to pull off if all sports teams were owned by the public, since it would make it harder for team execs to argue that they need subsidies because all the other kids are getting them. But it is a reminder that greed and self-interest aren’t the sole property of rich owners, even if rich owners are really good at them.

To really address that, you’d need to take up Pareene’s other, less flashy suggestion: national “legislation banning public funding of arenas for teams in the big four leagues.” There’s even model legislation ready to go! Though I suspect that Pareene’s suggestion that a presidential candidate could become “an instant presidential front-runner” by pushing for such a law overlooks the connection between presidential front-runnership and corporate fundraising…


17 comments on “Socializing sports could work, but wouldn’t necessarily end stadium subsidy demands

  1. I thought that proposed legislation was just supposed to make subsidies taxable, not ban subsidies entirely.

  2. Think somewhere in some NFL bylaw it currently states that teams are explicitly prohibited from being owned by shareholders. The Packers were grandfathered in, but unless you’re a billionaire, the NFL won’t let you buy a team. I’m sure there is more nuance to it, and rules can be changed, but that the NFL doesn’t want this is probably enough to make it worth considering.

    Also, I’m more okay with considering the public ponying up for a stadium if the public can buy shares in the entity that will benefit from said tax.

  3. Ben: If you set the excise tax to 100%, it would effectively ban subsidies.

    Michael: Correct, but if we’re talking about socializing entire sports leagues, clearly NFL bylaws aren’t something we need to worry about.

  4. Socialize or nationalize?

    Leagues already seem pretty social. Lots of people in the stands, tailgating before games, chatting on social media during games…

  5. Nationalized sports league? Can’t wait until they’d introduce motorcycles.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aVUxK1mNups

  6. Socialize Professional sports leagues? What would be next, College Football and Basketball, then what would be next Movie Studios? The music industry? Gun Manufacturers? Having Government controlling content and distribution? Unpopular forms of speech eliminated? I have seen enough of where too much Government will take us in general (see the Nuns and “Obama Care”) to see where that would go.

  7. @David Brown – The sad part is most of the college footballbasketball teams are actually owned by the states they’re located in. Doesn’t seem to have much effect on spendingdemands for new facilitiesetc.

  8. Spending taxpayer money on facilities is bad in most cases (like everything else there are exceptions), but Socializing Sports Leagues, Movie Studios and the like is a frightening concept that moves us closer to the old USSR, and losing our basic freedoms (such as First Amendment Rights) in the name of “Political Correctness.” Names like Texas CHRISTIAN University, Southern METHODIST University, Indians, Redskins, Seminoles, and even Lions, Tigers & Bears being erased from history due to people complaining (the PETA Animal Rights activists screaming about the Shamu Float at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is a perfect example of this). If that would occur, then it would be meaningless if we spent zero or 10 billion dollars on sports facilities. I would then leave the Country ASAP.

  9. I’ve been saying for years that this would eventually have to happen. People ridiculed it. These teams have no competitors. They are monopolies.

  10. I find it interesting that no one asked for Mayor Reed’s reaction when the city of Harrisburg effectively went bankrupt, in part because of other “downtown saving” ideas for the city. I wouldn’t call the Sens a “city success story.”

    I took the article to be (at least) partially tongue in cheek, with the idea that public ownership would somehow drive the outlandish and selfish characters out of sport. If the experiences of Real Madrid and Barcelona are anything to go by, that just isn’t the case. They both have had crazy, over the top Chairmen who promise fun things at the annual meetings to get elected. Bayern Munich has been well known for its fractious board and outspoken team President. Sports pages in Europe, as in America, thrive on the personalities of these guys. Honestly, how many Dallas Cowboys other than Tony Romo and Jerry Jones do most people know?

    The main difference is that European clubs are anchored to their home towns in a way unknown in the “franchised” US system. Moving a team is rarely done and is hugely controversial, and most teams actually benefit in the European system from owning their own stadium (as collateral for credit, mostly!).

  11. If taken seriously, this would be a quintessential example of “a solution in search of a problem”. “…greedy, dumb sports team owners” isn’t a problem. Certainly not a problem worthy of government intervention. It’s a business circumstance.

    But I think this should be viewed as “A Modest Proposal”-style rant against owners.

    Interesting that the Packers reserve fund would’ve been sufficient to cover almost all of that $295 million stadium upgrade project. And in a world without subsidies that’s what would’ve happened.

  12. The team did actually contribute a part of the $295 million. Only about $195 million has been dispersed to the team via the tax before it expired with the rest coming from the team via seat licenses, NFL loans, and sales. [1] (I have no idea on how much of the $195 is direct costs and how much is interest on the original loans/bonds to do the expansion).

    There have been an additional $140 million in upgrades since the $295 million expansion all of which have been fully paid for by the Packers.

    All things considered the amount the Packers have asked for versus what they’ve contributed pales in comparison to some of the others in professional sports.

    [1] http://www.greenbaypressgazette.com/article/20101024/GPG0101/10240662/10-years-after-sales-tax-vote-public-still-divided-over-financing-Lambeau-Field-renovations

  13. “The team did actually contribute a part of the $295 million.”

    Cool. Which means they’d have even less problem covering the portion covered by subsidy, if all was right with the world.

  14. Does this egghead with his bright ideas know how much money we’ve spent buying politicians, not just locally but in D.C. as well? We’re the NATIONAL Football League, pal. We do the nationalizin’ around these parts.

    Sheesh, you’d think this was a communist country or something, instead of the beautiful plutocracy it truly is. And who the hell smoked one of my Cubans while I was out of town? The maid and the butler are both soooo fired!

  15. As others have said, college sports teams show that public subsidies of sports are not going to end anytime soon even when said sports teams are “owned” by the state. At the end of the day the government and it’s priorities are only as smart as the people who keep propping it up, and the reality is a large number of sports fans see absolutely no problem with subsidies and “investing” in large infrastructure we hardly ever use.

    I don’t see how we could head in the direction of a English styled system unless we also had some sort of promotion and relegation system. There are simply not enough teams to go around for the NFL to have a team in every major city.

  16. I would say the opposite. Most owners of the big English and European teams (many of whom are American) are increasingly appalled at what they (though not many of their fans) see as the waste of time of the relegation system. A lot of them would prefer an NFL-style “franchise” system with no relegation, lots of high profile matches against similar European opponents, and fewer teams to divvy up the cash. Tradition and fan interest are about the only things holding this back.

  17. “…the reality is a large number of sports fans see absolutely no problem with subsidies and “investing” in large infrastructure we hardly ever use.”

    Perhaps, but I think it’s more of an “out of sight, out of mind” thing, with a bit of ignorance. Lots of folks probably believe that major sports leagues need public help to build their stadiums. And nobody really makes much noise about the $billions wasted nationally in subsidizing the moves of businesses from one locality to another. From a national viewpoint, it’s 100% waste.

    “There are simply not enough teams to go around for the NFL to have a team in every major city.”

    Other than LA, the NFL probably figures they have every “major” city already covered. Not much benefit to be had from expanding further.

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