This past week I’ve been discussing plans to write a $60 million taxpayer check to potential owners of a Major League Soccer (MLS) team in Saint Louis. Proponents of the subsidy claim an MLS stadium will breathe new life into downtown, attract millennials, and grow the economy. I’ve written about why I believe these claims are misguided (see here and here). But there are smart, reasonable people who disagree with me, and they’ve made their cases recently as well.
Dr. Patrick Rishe of Washington University in Saint Louis argues the current MLS stadium deal is one of the best he’s ever seen, as it includes numerous safeguards for the city and taxpayers and doesn’t use sales taxes to fund construction. Moreover, only 39% of stadium costs will be paid for by the public, compared to the usual 65% to 70%. Therefore, it’s a good public investment—and it certainly isn’t “corporate welfare.”
While his premises are true, the conclusions Dr. Rishe draws are not.
- Rishe states that this deal protects taxpayers in ways previous stadium deals did not. For instance, the ownership group must pay for cost overruns from construction, and the team has to stay in Saint Louis for 30 years (if the MLS doesn’t fold before then). These are reasonable provisions, but they don’t have anything to do with whether a stadium will grow the economy or redevelop downtown. The contractual safeguards simply manage the city’s risk; they don’t guarantee any of the glitz and glam proponents are promising. The stipulation that taxpayers won’t cover cost overruns doesn’t mean the benefits used on to justify the public expense, like economic growth, will be realized.
- Rishe points out that use taxes, which are paid by businesses, will go toward funding the stadium—not sales taxes paid by all city residents. Supposedly, it follows that residents won’t pay for the stadium unless they own a business or buy tickets. But while sales taxes won’t go directly to the stadium, city residents must increase their sales tax rate to get the stadium. That’s because use tax revenue can only be diverted to the stadium if voters first approve a sales tax hike for the MetroLink expansion. So while your sales taxes won’t pay for the stadium, you have to pay extra sales taxes for the stadium.
- If 39% is a breathtakingly low public contribution for a private venture, I’m in the wrong business. Cities across the country have been scammed by sports teams for decades, and the fact that other cities have agreed to worse deals than this one is hardly reason to celebrate. If $60 million is such a negligible contribution, why doesn’t the ownership team simply pay it themselves? Only cash-addicted millionaires would look at an offer to pay 61% of the cost for their own pleasure-dome as a selling point. (As for the $150 million expansion fee the ownership group is coughing up, recall that when the MLS announced the fee would be $50 million less than originally announced, stadium boosters didn’t reduce their ask for public assistance.)
- Rishe contends that giving away $60 million in handouts isn’t corporate welfare because MLS teams don’t turn a good profit. First, the profitability of an enterprise doesn’t bear on whether or not its receipt of subsidies counts as welfare. And second, if the teams currently in the league aren’t turning a profit, what does that say about the long-term prospects of a franchise in Saint Louis? We already have one stadium without a team downtown—do we want to risk adding another?
Joe Reagan, head of the Saint Louis Chamber of Commerce, notes (along with others) that the ownership group will invest $5 million over 20 years in youth sports programs. Moreover, an economic analysis shows the stadium will generate $77.9 million in taxes for the city over the next 30 years. Mr. Reagan presents these factors as evidence that the stadium deal is worthwhile. But here too some perspective is in order:
- The ownership group’s commitment to youth sports is commendable, but this is still a $5 million commitment in the context of a $60 million subsidy.
- The analysis stadium boosters rely on makes rosy assumptions and must (at the very least) be taken with a grain of salt. For instance, it assumes every man, woman, and child will spend roughly $50 on tickets, concessions, and food each time they attend a game, and that spending will increase faster than inflation for 30 years.
- More importantly, most of the economic activity at the hypothetical stadium won’t be “new,” but simply redirected from elsewhere in the city and region. This isn’t money that people were planning to keep hidden under the mattress—much if not most of it would be spent on other entertainment options if there were no soccer games to attend. And let’s not forget the $60 million that businesses are losing because of the use tax. But even assuming proponents’ analysis is correct, the stadium would only bring the city an average of $2.4 million annually—less than a quarter of a percent of the city’s $1 billion annual budget!
The history of stadium deals in Saint Louis and across the country shows these projects fail to make good on the promises made by their promoters. If sports stadiums were such lucrative investments, private investors would be flocking to Saint Louis to get their cut. Despite its supposed virtues, the facts and history indicate that the MLS deal is a bad one for taxpayers.