The owners of the Los Angeles Lakers have voluntarily returned $4.6 million in refundable government loans they received as part of the Payroll Protection Program—
Hold up, let’s try that again.
The owners of the Los Angeles Lakers, a sports franchise worth an estimated $4.4 billion that turns an annual $178 million profit, asked for and received $4.6 million in federal government loans as part of its Payroll Protection Program for small businesses. (The loans convert to grants if recipients keep their current employees on payroll through the end of June.) Like other prominent companies that took advantage of the PPP program — Shake Shack, Potbelly, Ruth’s Chris friggin’ Steakhouse — the Buss family that owns the Lakers chose to return the money “so that financial support would be directed to those most in need” once they realized they’d bum-rushed the subsidy line and edged out actual small businesses, and also probably realized that the PR hit from doing so would have been worth way more than a relatively piddling $4.6 million in government grants.
That a billionaire sports family got approved for small-business loans should be alarming, but not surprising: The federal government has already approved more than $2 trillion in spending to help Americans hit by the coronavirus-spawned economic crash, and it’s all but inevitable that some less-needy Americans would put in applications as well — the feds define “small businesses” based in part on how many employees they have, and sports teams don’t employ a ton of people on payroll. And it’s also inevitable that they’d also be among the first to be approved, since programs like PPP are first-come first-served and rich folks are more likely to have lawyers on staff who know how to file paperwork fast, as well as established bank connections that made them more likely to get approved.
In fact, sports team owners are working many angles to get a cut of the Covid stimulus bailout cash, just as less-deep-pocketed individuals are as they try to figure out whether to consider themselves unemployed gig workers or entrepreneurs in need of cash to keep themselves on payroll. Among the ways:
- The Sacramento Kings owners are renting out their old empty arena in Natomas for $500,000 a month to the state of California for use as a field hospital, which is the same rent the state is paying for other temporary facilities, but maybe a tad disingenuous given that Gov. Gavin Newsom previously praised Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé as “an example of people all stepping in to meet this moment head-on” without mentioning that he’d be getting paid for his selflessness.
- The owners of the D.C. United MLS team are part of DC2021, an advocacy group of Washington, D.C. business leaders lobbying the district for “a massive new tax relief program” to help the local restaurant, hotel, and — apparently — soccer industries survive the economic shutdown.
- The stimulus measures approved by Congress weren’t all expanded unemployment benefits and checks with Donald Trump’s name on them; they also reestablished a tax loophole involving what are known as “pass-through entities” that will allow mostly wealthy people to save $82 billion on their tax bills this year. The biggest beneficiaries will be hedge-fund investors and owners of real estate businesses, a list that obviously includes lots of sports moguls: Just owners of hedge funds who also control sports teams include Milwaukee Bucks co-owners Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens, Los Angeles Dodgers owner Mark Walter, Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeffrey Vinik, and a pile of others.
Now, not all of this should be considered a fiasco: In the case of the PPP in particular, Pat Garofalo notes in his Boondoggle newsletter that the money is intended to keep low- and moderate-income workers from being laid off — the reimbursements top out at $100,000 per employee — and people who work for sports teams or chain restaurants are just as deserving of keeping their jobs as those who work at genuine small businesses. The main problem with PPP is that Congress massively underfunded it, then made it first-come first-served, then left it up to banks to decide who to approve — okay, there’s actually a lot here to consider a fiasco, but sports team owners deciding to fill their wallets at the same firehose of cash as everyone else is far from the worst part of it.
As for some of the other bailout proposals, though, sports owners come off looking a lot less innocent. That DC2021 plan pushed by D.C. United owner Jason Levien, for example, includes such things as tax holidays for corporate income taxes and property taxes, which Garofalo notes won’t help most small businesses that don’t turn large profits or own land. (Levien, you will not be surprised to learn, is not just a sports mogul but also a real estate investor.) And the pass-through tax break is almost entirely a sop to millionaires and the Congresspeople who love them, which though it doesn’t single out sports team owners, certainly helps many of them given that they’re far more likely to invest in pass-through companies than you or I.
I’ve said this before, but it really is worth harping on: The recovery from the pandemic is already involving a ton of government spending, and will unavoidably involve a ton more, since the feds are pretty much the only institution that has the power to keep food in people’s mouths during this crisis. (At least until the U.S. Mint is deemed a non-essential business.) This will invariably create winners and losers, both in terms of who gets what money and in terms of who ends up paying off the government debts that are being racked up now. There’s no way to avoid this involving subsidies — pretty much the whole idea of government spending to prevent an economic crash is about creative use of subsidies — so what you want to shoot for is fairness, where you have the most money going to companies and individuals who were most hurt by coronavirus shutdowns, and the least to companies and individuals that just were able to lawyer up the fastest.
Individuals who were most hurt except, of course, for Miami Heat and Carnival Cruises owner Micky Arison, who may have lost more than a billion dollars thanks to the collapse of the cruise industry, but who also lobbied the Trump White House to let them keep sailing even after it was clear that cruise ships were perfect Covid incubators. The cruise industry was notably left out of the stimulus bills, and while that’s more about the fact that they all registered as foreign businesses in order to duck U.S. taxes than their owners being money-grubbing jerks who prioritized profits over public health, I think we can all agree: Screw those guys.