St. Louis voters approve sales-tax hike, reject giving it to an MLS stadium

St. Louis voters went to the polls yesterday and narrowly defeated a proposal to spend $60 million in city tax money on a new soccer stadium for a proposed MLS expansion team. The stadium proposal failed by a 53-47% margin, while an accompanying ballot measure to raise city sales and use taxes by 0.5% and use some of the proceeds to expand the city’s light rail system passed by a 60-40% vote.

Local news coverage hasn’t provided much in the way of exit interviews with voters about why they cast their ballots the way they did, though the St. Louis Post-Dispatch did include this outstanding photo caption on an image of a woman in a soccer jersey peering out from between her fingers:

Lauren Rapp of The Hill watches vote returns creep in at Union Station during a watch party for the Major League Soccer stadium funding on Tuesday, April 4, 2017. “It’s been a rough night,” said Rapp. “And then (Stephen) Piscotty gets hit in the head.”

The failure of the stadium-subsidy vote puts MLS commissioner Don Garber in an interesting position: He’s previously raved about soccer fandom in St. Louis — and did so again last night after the vote, in a statement saying that the city would be “a tremendous market” for MLS but that the vote outcome was “clearly a significant setback” for the city’s expansion bid. Does the league now turn up its nose at St. Louis and say, “Fine, if you don’t want to throw $60 million at us, we’ll go find some other city that will”? Or does it try to find another way to make a go of it there, either by team owners digging deeper and funding the $60 million on their own, much as Orlando S.C.‘s owners did with their stadium, or by the league lowering its $150 million expansion fee request — either of which would risk the league’s standing in future “the subsidy way or the highway” demands?

If I had to guess, I’d predict Garber will take door #1 for this round of expansion, and figuring he can always circle back to St. Louis next time and see if the appetite for stadium funding has improved any, since it’s clear that MLS is going to keep expanding until such time as it runs out of rich guys willing to blow $150 million on expansion fees. In the meantime, the vote makes one thing clear: MLS fandom may be on the rise, but not enough for fan frenzy about obtaining a team to tip the balance against taxpayer distaste for giving public dollars to the rich dudes who’d own it. There isn’t a whole lot of extortion leverage in being an 80-pound gorilla.

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29 comments on “St. Louis voters approve sales-tax hike, reject giving it to an MLS stadium

  1. Good for St Louis. More and more people are waking up to the way the game is played, and it’s starting to show at the polls.

    Substitute any sport for soccer (whose subsidies are still comparatively “low”), and the bill would’ve lost in a landslide. Democracy at work, ladies and gents. People always claim it’s worth fighting for.

    1. I’m not as confident as you on the latter point. Yes, an NFL stadium (for example) would have required a much larger subsidy, but NFL fans are also more numerous and louder, and the NFL has a lot more lobbying campaign firepower. Last year’s election results in Arlington should be a cautionary tale to anyone thinking this is a sign that the public won’t stand for this anymore when given a vote. (Sure, they often vote down stadium subsidies, but then, they always did, which is exactly why sports team owners tend to hate having to put their plans up for public vote.)

      1. I’d be curious to see how many public votes on stadium deals have happened in the last 30 years or so and what the success rate has been.

        My data-free impression is that, when the public is actually allowed to vote on these things, they are rejected more often than not.

        1. Someone I know (will credit him once I get permission to do so) did some research into this last year — totals for 65 referendums from 1982 through 2013 are: 38 approved, 27 rejected. From 2000 to 2013, it was 6 approved, 7 rejected, which probably isn’t enough data points to indicate much of a trend.

          1. Referendum data is from Geoffrey Propheter, of NBA arena impact study fame. He also cautions that it doesn’t include statewide referenda, of which there have been a handful.

          2. Hi Neil—do you have a reference for those Propheter numbers? We’re working to build a dataset and would like to cross reference. Thanks!

        2. Having a vote so soon after the city was fleeced by the Rams cut both ways. Vote Yes! we don’t need no stinking NFL. Vote No! We’re still paying for the empty stadium.

      2. As I’ve said–even considering the huge disparity in funding, I’m generally OK with these kinds of referenda. There is at least a little more skepticism of the programs overall, more media sources (like this one) with an opposing view, and perhaps most important of all–the awful financial condition of America’s cities and states.

        There’s nothing objectively wrong with building a stadium (or any “public” building). What is wrong is claiming that it will lead to massive economic expansion, that it will pay for itself, that it will have no “public” infrastructure costs, that it will generate surpluses for education, etc. There is a huge opportunity cost to these things, but if Arlington people want an enormous baseball stadium and to be known for a baseball stadium–so be it.

    2. Fact is the St Louis alderman would never allow a vote for any of the so called top 4 sports. That’s why the gave the Blues a 130 million last month and gave the voters a sacrificial lamb.

      1. I agree completely, but I became confused when I read “so called” top 4. Don’t understand why you said so called, they are the top 4 most popular team sports in the United States.

        1. Popularity is relative. Do you rate it on organic growth and participation ? Or do you rate it on government and corporate sponsorship. Do you think its by accident that the NFL is the most popular sport in the USA and most profitable in the World ?

  2. The early polls on this thing showed numbers as big as 67% against. MLS must have known it would go down to defeat. I can only assume the prospective owners wanted to try anyway. The owners need to decide if they want to just pay the 40 million themselves. 20 million from ticket tax will assume can still be imposed on fans by owners.

    1. The ticket tax surcharge is only $7.5m to $12m over 30 years, so they’d still be left with more than $50m to come up with out of pocket:

      The obvious face-saving move would be for the league to cut their expansion fee to $100m, or let them space the $150m out in payments so it comes to $100m in present value, or something. I do think it’ll be interesting how badly Garber wants to hold to his “We’ll play in any city with a big enough stadium check” model.

      1. Your right. Problem for Garber is he would have to do it for all the other new guys. So the 50 million turns into 200.

  3. I had a dream where it passed, and easily. And I was upset at Roger Noll for his comment, “Arlington is the old world.’ Something must be wrong with me when my dreams involve public financing of stadia.

    1. Whoa — I had *two* dreams this morning where it not only passed, but I was already writing up my post about it.

  4. Wow, I guess all of those bolded and capital letters and exclamation points, that Patrick Rishe used to emphasize what GREAT DEAL this plan was all went for naught. I don’t think that I’ve ever ready anything more boosterish and less professional. This guy has a doctorate. Embarrassing.

  5. I hope Garber still gives them a team, and they pay for their own stadium, but first they play in that dome for a few years. For some reason, I’d like to see that. St. Louis does have a real soccer tradition, but, yeah, I’m glad this didn’t pass.

    1. Not sold on the Midwest for MLS expansion. But I guess another team or two would help MLS with their national footprint.

      1. Different league, different model… but the USL team (AC St Louis) created when they were shut out of MLS expansion some years ago did not flourish… despite the “tremendous” history and legacy of the game in St. Louis.

        Comparisons between leagues of varying levels are not entirely fair. If the rationale for locating a team in a city is it’s tremendous record of support for amateur and lower league teams, though, I think it is reasonable to note this point.

        1. TV ratings for World Cup games did great on both coasts. Outside of I believe Cincinnati & to a lesser extent Chicago they were very pedestrian in the rest of the Midwest. That’s why Garber wants downtown locations. A bad location in a Midwest city = Columbus & Chicago.

        2. Those lower league teams played way out in Fenton and across the river in Edwardsville. In St. Louis, if you’re not downtown, you’re not major league.

  6. I realize this is probably just crazy talk… because there are limited ways that rich guys can pilfer vast quantities of taxpayer money in a plan like this.

    However, I wonder if anyone has noticed that St. Louis – a city with a fairly oppressive and high humidity climate in mid summer – has a reasonably modern domed stadium with an air conditioning system (?) in place that is presently unused.

    Surely it could be converted for MLS use at less cost than a brand new outdoor stadium? It would also be available for year round events (friendlies, international competitions etc).

    It’s true that the pitch would have to be plastic and not grass…. but it’s not like MLS has made that a hard and fast rule (Seattle, Vancouver, Toronto… even Montreal when they play at Olympic Stadium).

    1. That’s actually a good idea. How is the location compared to the present site ?

      1. The Dome is not by Union Station, but it is downtown, a few blocks, and one rail stop from the hockey and baseball stadiums. So location wise it’s more or less the same.

    2. For the record, Toronto’s soccer stadium has natural grass (converted from plastic at owner’s expense in 2009). However, Portland, not mentioned, has a plastic field.

    3. I’ve thought that too. I prefer outdoor stadiums, but St. Louis in July and August? People might like to come indoors for a couple of hours. The city might lose money on the conversion costs, but they’d save face about having an empty stadium.

  7. MLS will find a way to put a team in St. Louis, with or without a government subsidy. It’s too attractive a market for minor league sports.

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