Last season, the Minnesota Vikings paid a man named Jared Allen more than a million dollars per game to maul opposing quarterbacks. The "market"— meaning us, the fans—has determined that Allen's value is roughly $18.5 million per year. The State of Minnesota pays an elementary school teacher an average of $38,000 per year. Paramedics make $42,000; cops, $28,000. That makes one quarterback mauler worth 474 elementary school teachers.
Or 440 paramedics. Or 661 police officers.
Let us pause in astonishment and torment.
The closer you look, the worse it gets. Consider that in 2013, lawmakers in Minnesota voted to allot $506 million in taxpayer money to the Vikings to help them build a new stadium—despite facing a $1.1 billion state budget deficit. They did this because Vikings ownership had made noises about relocating the team, a tactic routinely used against politicians who live in terror of losing a franchise. The new stadium increased the value of the team by an estimated $200 million. The owners, who are multi-millionaires, pay $13 million per year to use the stadium, which sounds like a lot until you consider that they earn hundreds of millions in TV revenues, ticket sales, concessions, and parking. This helps explain why teachers and social workers get paid what they do in Minnesota.
Here's the totally nutso part: the Vikings' ownership actually underperformed. Based on research done by Judith Grant Long, a professor of urban planning at Harvard, taxpayers provide 70 percent of the capital cost of NFL stadiums, as well as footing the bill for "power, sewer services, other infrastructure, and stadium improvements."
The perfect example: Seven of every ten dollars spent to build CenturyLink Field in Seattle came from the taxpayers of Washington State, $390 million total. The owner, Paul Allen, pays the state $1 million per year in "rent" and collects most of the $200 million generated. If you are wondering how to become, like Allen, one of the richest humans on earth, negotiating such a lease would be a good start.
In New Orleans, taxpayers have bankrolled roughly a billion dollars to build then renovate the Superdome, which we are now supposed to call the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Guess who gets nearly all the revenues generated by Saints games played in this building? If you guessed all those hard-working stiffs who paid a billion dollars, you would be wrong. If you guessed billionaire owner Tom Benson, you would be right. He also receives $6 million per annum from the state as an "inducement payment" to keep him from moving the team.
That's the same amount Cowboys owner Jerry Jones would pay each year in property taxes to Arlington, Texas, where his fancy new stadium is located. Except that
Jones doesn't pay property taxes because, like many of his fellow plutocrats, he's cut a sweetheart deal with the local authorities.
In the old days, NFL owners were rich men who accepted the risk of losing money as the cost of doing business. Thanks to the popularity of the game, the NFL and its owners—with the collusion of politicians—have created what amounts to a risk-free business environment. According to Long's data, a dozen teams received more public money than they needed to build their facilities. Rather than going into debt, they turned a profit.
Let's take another big step backward.
Okay, so taxpayers have funded 70 percent of the construction costs of the stadiums in which NFL teams play, for which they receive a return of pennies on the dollar. But consider the economic impact if taxpayers were to receive 70 percent of the profits generated by those facilities: that is, a proportion equal to our investment. Given that the NFL is projected to earn in the neighborhood of $10 billion this season, that amounts to $7 billion from TV, tickets, parking, etc. (Again: no stadiums means no games.) Think about how much social good $7 billion would do in cities such as Detroit and Cleveland and St. Louis, where bright new stadiums rise above crumbling schools, closed factories, and condemned homes.
Or let's say, more conservatively, that cities demanded a 50 percent share of the profits as rent. Or simply demanded that the owners remit to the taxpayers the sum required to build and maintain these stadia. This would still represent hundreds of millions of dollars.
This is not some socialist "redistribution of wealth" scheme. It's not charity. That's Fox News math. This is asking an immensely profitable business to pay investors (taxpayers) our rightful dividend.
The traditional line put forward by boosters is that a sports franchise generates prestige and jobs and economic growth for a particular city. It would be more accurate to characterize teams as parasites on the local economy. They suck money from local tax bases then send the gigantic profits generated by these expenditures back to the league office for disbursement to the owners.
Think about how insane our cultural priorities are that we're allowing so much money to be siphoned from the public till and funneled directly into the private koi ponds of the nation's wealthiest families. That arrangement isn't even capitalist. It's feudal.
Please try to imagine, if you would, what other industry could perpetrate such financial chicanery and still be considered a model corporate citizen? Think about this the next time the NFL ballyhoos one of its PR charity giveaways.
This is not a matter of politics, by the way. Conservatives who rail against government debt and liberals who lament the decline of social services should be equally outraged. Better yet: they should recognize that their loyalty to the NFL is what makes this ongoing confidence game possible. We are the ones who give the league its tremendous leverage over politicians. We shouldn't be surprised that it uses this leverage. That's what capitalists do.
Steve Almond spent seven years as a newspaper reporter in Texas and Florida before writing his first book, the story collection My Life in Heavy Metal. His non-fiction book, Candyfreak, was a New York Times Bestseller. His short fiction has been included in The Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies, and his most recent collection, God Bless America, won the Paterson Prize for Fiction. Almond writes commentary and journalism regularly for The New York Times Magazine and The Boston Globe. A former sports reporter and play-by-play man, Almond lives outside Boston with his wife and three children.
[Image by Jim Cooke]