Cuyahoga exec says subsidy-for-wins plan just one option: “Hey, I’m open to ideas”

As promised, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald held a press conference yesterday to propose taking 20% of the public “sin tax” subsidies approved for the Cleveland Cavs, Indians, and Browns last month and making them contingent on the teams winning games. Under FitzGerald’s plan, which he called a (wait for it) “win tax,” a “fan advisory council” would come up with the actual criteria for how the $52 million in tax money would be divvied up among the teams based on wins and losses.

A couple of hours after that, no doubt spurred by my description of his idea as “walking the fine line between stupid and clever” (politicians just can’t resist a good Spinal Tap reference), FitzGerald called me to explain further just what the heck he was thinking. Among the questions he answered:

What on earth made you come up with this idea? “The tax issue that passed didn’t set up a distribution method,” he explained. When his staff got together after the vote to talk about how to divide the $260 million pie among the three teams, one idea he came up with was to “do something to address performance of these franchises over the past 50 years.”

Do the teams really need an added incentive to win, given that they’re already rewarded with 1) wins and 2) added revenue from people buying tickets to see winning teams? “I don’t think this is something that is going to be of such force that it’s all of a sudden going to take a team not inclined to care about winning and turn it around,” said FitzGerald. Not that he wanted to imply that Cleveland’s sports team owners didn’t care, mind you — the man’s a politician after all — but, as he put it, “Have there ever been instances in America of team owners not caring about winning? Yes.” Adding an additional economic incentive might tip some kind of balance, or at least let teams know that Clevelanders want their teams to win, in case the Indians’ attendance numbers didn’t tip them off.

Is winning games really the most important thing to be paying teams for? What about economic impact or something more tangible? FitzGerald said he’s open to ideas for tying subsidy levels to other factors as well, such as economic development or local hiring. (I threw out Jay Weiner‘s old suggestion for requiring a certain number of affordable tickets in exchange for public subsidies, and he said that could be part of the mix, too: “Hey, I’m open to ideas.”) There’s still that other 80% of the money that needs to be handed out, after all, so somebody needs to come up with some criteria for how to do that.

Is all this legal? FitzGerald’s lawyers think so. Scoring systems for payment are something that “happens with construction contracts all the time,” he said, so why should this be any different?

Did he really say that Cuyahoga County had to adjust its budget when LeBron James left?That’s what he said. More specifically, overall ticket tax revenues went down the year that James bolted for Miami, something he attributes to suburban fans spending their money closer to home rather than going to Cavs games: “It doesn’t mean they all stayed home on their couch.”

In short, FitzGerald made clear that he’s mostly just trying to start a conversation here, though you’re welcome to wonder how much his big ideas are motivated by wanting to reform the process and how much by wanting to juice his gubernatorial campaign. (Not that you can really ever separate the two when someone is running for public office.) Nothing’s going to get decided until the county council signs off on it, which doesn’t need to happen until the sin tax extension kicks in next spring, so this is likely to be a long conversation.

On the stupid side of the ledger, none of this really matters, because the teams are going to get the $260 million regardless — any funding criteria will just determine who gets what. (In other words, if all three teams continue to lose, they’ll still get paid.) And as Deadspin points out, paying based on straight wins could encourage bad long-term decisions, since “there are often times when it’s good to lose, like when tanking for a draft pick.”

On the clever side, though, it’s never bad to be talking about what you can demand from team owners in exchange for public funds, even if it’s just a matter of trying to get them to compete with each other for a pool of preexisting money. Yes, it might have been better for FitzGerald — who signed off on the sin tax referendum back in January — to bring all this up before the vote, so that taxpayers would actually get their money back if the teams didn’t live up to their promises of creating economic development and winning championships. But, you know, baby steps.

UPDATE: Just noticed that WCPN’s Nick Castele (whose show I appeared on yesterday — listen to it here) points out that Ohio state senator Shirley Smith did propose a subsidies-for-wins formula before the sin tax vote. It went nowhere, but credit for trying.


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