Why Cities Are Bad at Bargaining With Sports Teams
Don’t look now, but there’s a land rush for the Los Angeles pro football market. Saint Louisans will already be familiar with Stan Kroenke’s plan to move the Rams to a stadium in Inglewood. But now the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders, unhappy that their localities are not coughing up public funds for new stadiums, are also publicizing a plan to move to L.A.
Three teams will not be playing in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, but it allows all three franchises to simultaneously frighten local politicians into spending public dollars on a stadium. From an owner like Stan Kroenke’s point of view, it’s a win-win scenario. If the NFL allows him to move the Rams, his team will instantly gain $1.5 to $2.5 billion in value. And if he can’t (or never wanted to), Missouri has already planned to fund half the costs of a new stadium without any negotiation at all.
For Missourians, local officials have essentially locked residents into two possibilities: 1) approve around $400 million in public dollars for a new stadium, or 2) lose the Rams. Of course, the Rams might move regardless and Kroenke might demand more than $400 million to stay, but that’s what comes from committing the state to half the costs as the opening offer.
This situation is a perfect example of how poorly local officials fare when they bargain for taxpayers against billionaire-owned sports franchises. Where Stan Kroenke can credibly appear ready to leave the Saint Louis market without firm public subsidies, local officials declare how necessary the Rams are to the state. While Kroenke can strengthen his position and fail to negotiate, local officials need to be seen as trying their hardest to make sure Saint Louis is an “NFL city,” even when that means negotiating against themselves.
In essence, Stan Kroenke can look at this like a business negotiation. But local politicians are not spending their own money and have to be concerned about portraying an image of effectiveness and bolstering civic pride, making them poor bargaining agents for regional economies.
Even when there is no threat of a team leaving a lucrative market, pro teams can still reap public subsidies by threatening to move to different municipalities in the metro area. While it might not hurt the Chicago regional economy one bit if the Bears played in Rosemont (a nearby suburb), it would hurt the city’s tax revenue as recreation dollars flow to a different part of the region. Whether the team’s option is moving across the country or the county, pro franchises almost always have the best alternative to a negotiated agreement vis-à-vis local governments.
The best bargaining tool local officials can have is a skeptical voter base that understands that pro franchises do not create economic development or urban regeneration. Residents can vote against public dollars for entertainment venues. That constrains the local officials and sends a clear message to the NFL that Saint Louis is a great sports market, not a great mark.