Wisconsin governor’s arena plan depends on future NBA players averaging $33m/year salaries

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker unveiled his Milwaukee Bucks arena funding proposal yesterday, and oh man, was there ever a last-second plot twist. Walker is not, as rumored previously, proposing to raise $150 million for an arena by kicking back all state income taxes on Bucks players and other employees and also possibly some arena sales taxes as well. No, he says he’s going to raise $220 million, and only from Bucks income taxes — and only from new income tax above what team employees already pay:

“There’s absolute security for the taxpayers,” Walker said. “No new taxes, no drawing on existing revenues, no exposure to the future…”

Well, except for the uncertainty of what happens if NBA salaries don’t soar to the point where enough new money pours into state coffers that the government can use it to pay off $220 million in arena bonds. How likely is that? I was all gearing up for some painful Excel crunching, but fortunately Walker’s office has made a handy-dandy chart for us:

That red block along the bottom is how much the Bucks (and visiting teams’ players, pro-rated for the days they play in Milwaukee) pay now in state income taxes, which is $6.52 million a year. The current Bucks player payroll is $62.6 million, and the top state income tax rate is 7.65%, so about two-thirds of that figure comes from the team’s roster, with the rest presumably coming from visiting players, team execs, hot dog sales people, and the like.

How much would salaries have to rise to make the green part of the above chart come true? Walker’s projected state revenue in the year 2046 is about $45 million, meaning at a 7.65% state income tax rate, we’re looking at $588 million in payroll. If two-thirds of that is the Bucks, then for a 12-player roster, the average player salary would have to be $33 million a year in order to make these numbers work.

Is that as crazy as it sounds? The average NBA player salary 31 years ago was $330,000, and it’s $4.1 million today, so it’s on pace with historic trends. (Salaries have leveled off the last few years, but they’re expected to take a big jump in the next CBA thanks to the league’s lavish new TV deal.) But past performance doesn’t guarantee future returns, and lots of things could torpedo that assumption:

  • The cable bubble could burst. In fact, it’s a near-certainty that nobody will be watching NBA games in 2046 by turning on a cable box — broadband Internet will have replaced it decades before then — but the issue isn’t really what pipe people use to get their sports fix but how much they’re willing to pay for it. Right now, sports on TV is a loss leader for cable companies to get viewers to buy their service at all; once everybody is watching TV on the web and companies don’t have to worry about cable cutters (because everybody has to have Internet service whether they want to watch TV on it or not), the economic calculations start to change. Unless you envision a future where a huge number of people happily pay $1000 a month for the right to watch sports on TV, NBA revenue — and salary — inflation is going to have to level off sometime soon.
  • Basketball could sink in popularity. The NBA has done great at expanding its marketing in recent decades, but who knows what the future holds? Competition from leagues in other nations? Kids defecting to watching e-sports? Not that this necessarily would mean plummeting salaries — baseball has lost market share for a while now, but continues to rake in more cash — but it wouldn’t help.
  • Jon Bois could seize control of the NBA and make it die an agonizing death.

If any of that comes to pass, it’s not altogether clear what happens to Walker’s arena bonds: I haven’t been able to find any indication of what the backup revenue stream would be if income tax revenues don’t balloon as expected. (There will have to be something, though, or else nobody’s going to buy these bonds.) But this is essentially an income-tax variant on a TIF — an iTIF? — and if the increment fails to materialize as they so often do, the only possible answers would be new taxes, drawing on existing revenues, or the Bucks paying of the debt themselves … okay, ha ha, that’s not very likely.

(I should also note that I’m slightly skeptical that Walker’s green triangle would be enough to finance $220 million in bonds — it looks like about $600 million in nominal dollars, but the bulk of that is pushed way back into the future, which is going to require tons of finance charges like Miami took on for the Marlins. But a more specific accounting is going to have to wait for someone with better Excel skills than me.)

And finally — finally — keep in mind that all of this is not actually found money, but rather income tax receipts that the state of Wisconsin would otherwise be able to spend on other things if they weren’t handing it over to the Bucks owners. Unless you assume that the Bucks would definitely leave without $220 million in subsidies, and that Milwaukee sports fans wouldn’t find something else to spend their money on that would increase income tax receipts elsewhere, neither of which is anywhere close to a sure thing.

What Walker appears to have done is to come up with a way of writing a $220 million check to the Bucks that is rationalized in the most politically acceptable way possible: It’s not new taxes, it’s not existing taxes, it’s just future taxes on future imaginary super-rich basketball players who otherwise wouldn’t be playing in future Milwaukee because the future NBA will have future teams everywhere but there unless the state subsidizes a new arena. (And the city or county — Walker assumes another $50 million from those taxpayers, though he doesn’t specify how.) That still may not be enough to win over the state legislature, whose leaders were making mildly skeptical noises after Walker’s announcement yesterday, but it’s got as good a shot as anything.

And okay, really finally, I can’t let the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article on all this pass without noting that Walker’s plan was apparently so remarkable that it stunned Journal Sentinel writer Don Walker into actually calling some economists to ask what they thought of it:

Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College in Massachusetts, says studies have found there is no statistically positive correlation between sports facility construction and economic development.

“Bear in mind that this is an observation about the average case,” Zimbalist said via email. “It does not mean that in a particular case that there can’t be a positive or negative effect. I would say in individual cases one has to look carefully at the financing and lease terms, as well as elements of land use and the local economy.”

The Bucks will argue that plans for ancillary development near the arena site will bring new construction jobs, new dollars and new development to a revitalized downtown Milwaukee.

Mark Rosentraub, a professor of sports management at the University of Michigan, says the key for Milwaukee and the Bucks is whether the anticipated ancillary development is successful. The new Yankee Stadium in New York, he said, was a “complete wasted opportunity. One billion dollars was spent and it had no impact at all on the south Bronx.”

This is, so far as I can tell, unprecedented in the history of Don Walker reportage, which normally lends itself to this. Maybe he’s actually starting to realize that only citing the people proposing the arena plan isn’t the best way of doing journalism—

Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

Or maybe not.


3 comments on “Wisconsin governor’s arena plan depends on future NBA players averaging $33m/year salaries

  1. It just goes to show you that it’s not the “government spending” that is the evil, but rather who it is spent on.

    And more to the root of things, it doesn’t matter if you are a governor building an arena, a guy buying a big screen TV, a nice new car, a bigger house, or just an 8 year old buying a kite…nothing is sexier than a major purchase.

  2. “past performance doesn’t guarantee future returns”

    “it’s a near-certainty that nobody will be watching NBA games in 2046 by turning on a cable box — broadband Internet will have replaced it decades before then”

    There were a couple nuggets of gold in this post, tip of the hat Neil.

    Although I don’t think there’s anyone protesting the new arena with the argument: “A new arena?! The NBA won’t even be popular 30 years from now.” That’s a far out stance. Humankind would have to be facing major catastrophes… if that was the case then I’d imagine it’d be a lot more than sports that would be halted.

  3. To think the City of Seattle is begging for at least a chance to be screwed.

    The Mayor of Seattle went to NY himself to meet with the commissioner. Adam Silver told him off (No moving franchise. No expansion).

    If ONLY. If ONLY Seattle was given the same oppt. as it is being given to Mil. back then.