Election results: Even Texans think building $60m stadiums for high school football is dumb

One of the most consistent trends in sports stadiums and arenas is soaring price tags: When the state of Maryland built Camden Yards for the Baltimore Orioles in 1992, in many ways kicking off the new-stadium boom, it cost about $110 million; in 2020, the Texas Rangers‘ just-completed Globe Life Field came in at $1.1 billion, which even after accounting for inflation is a more than 400% increase. There are several reasons for this, but mostly it’s about sports facilities becoming far more lavish — when New York Yankees COO Lonn Trost in 2008 called his team’s then-under-construction stadium (cost: $2.3 billion) “a five-star hotel with a ballfield in the middle,” he was describing an overall trend in sports design: pack in as many high-end restaurants and lavish corporate suites as possible, to give you the maximum opportunity to sell fans as many expensive things as possible, plus allow you to brag about your new home’s bling.

This trend can be seen at its craziest in the world of Texas high school football stadiums, where we’ve seen headlines (okay, I’ve written headlines) like “Texas building $63m high school football stadium four miles from $60m high school football stadium.” Even when the resulting stadiums don’t develop giant cracks and have to be shut down for repairs, that’s still an awful lot of taxpayer money to spend on a place to watch high-school sports, even in a state where kid football is a religion.

If one thing is clear from this week’s election, though — and so far pretty much nothing else is, no matter how much one refreshes FiveThirtyEight — it’s that Texans’ appetite for crazy-expensive high school stadiums appears to be on the wane. From the Houston Chronicle:

Most residents in several Texas school districts signaled no appetite Tuesday for upgraded stadiums, swimming facilities and performing arts centers at the ballot box, where, for the first time, they were given the chance to vote on separate parts of a school bond package. In prior years, Texans cast a single vote on an entire bond proposal, with no opportunity to reject specific spending requests…

Several districts, including Dallas ISD and Lamar CISD, saw bond proposals totaling nearly $5 billion for campus construction and technology pass, while about $300 million for extracurricular activities failed. Other districts earned majority support for all of their bonds, but each reported lower support for sports and performing arts facilities.

“I think people were looking for belts and suspenders, not necessarily bells and whistles,” said Drexell Owusu, who co-chaired Dallas’ citizens bond steering committee. “I think that’s really an issue the electorate writ large is wrestling with. We recognize schools are important, but we don’t know that we need everything else around that.”

This was the first election since the enactment of SB 30, a 2019 law passed by the Texas legislature that requires bonds for sports venues, performing arts facilities, and teacher housing to be voted on separately from other school bonds. And while not every district voted “laptops yes, stadiums no” — in some places both kinds of bonds passed, in some they were both defeated — in general stadiums fared more poorly at the ballot box than actual education-related spending.

This shouldn’t be a huge shock, even in Texas. But it should be yet another nail in the coffin of the idea that lavish sports stadiums are just meeting fan demand: When given the choice, many voters would forgo paying for bells and whistles. (It’s a bit of an open question whether fans are willing to pay high enough ticket surcharges to pay for them that way, though many sports economists are skeptical.) It would be nice if voters were guaranteed the right to vote on pro sports stadium funding as well — neither Camden Yards nor the new Yankee Stadium were subject to a public referendum — but step by step the longest march and all that.

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