Who Needs the NFL?

John Seiler
Former Editorial Writer at the Orange County Register

One of the few ways California governments are more reluctant to spend money than in other states is for professional sports stadiums. The state isn’t perfect. The new stadium for the Rams was granted a special CEQA exemption by the Legislature. And in 2015 the city of Sacramento floated $272 million in bonds for the Kings NBA team.

But it’s a big state. And in November San Diego voters turned down a subsidy for the Chargers of the NFL, who just announced they will pass their team up to L.A. and the Rams’ new stadium. Meanwhile, the NFL reportedly “cleared a path” for the Oakland Raiders to move to Las Vegas after Oakland just said it would work to keep the team if the Vegas deal fell through. Rumor has it the Raiders just signed an elusive running back named Elvis.

The fact is the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL just play on fans’ loyalty to extract money from taxpayers. It’s billionaire owners and millionaire players extorting money from us. I call it the Pro Sports Ripoff.

As Stanford University Professor Roger Noll has been documenting for years, pro sports teams do not add to a local economy’s prosperity. All they do is shift around entertainment spending. If people go to a Rams or Chargers game, they just forego a movie or Disneyland.

The idea of sports teams bringing more money here is especially absurd given the state’s plethora of leisure and entertainment centers, from the incredible beaches and national parks, to Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm and Six Flags Magic Mountain.

As Noll has written, the economic growth “arguments contain bad economic reasoning that leads to overstatement of the benefits of stadiums. Economic growth takes place when a community’s resources—people, capital investments, and natural resources like land—become more productive. Increased productivity can arise in two ways: from economically beneficial specialization by the community for the purpose of trading with other regions or from local value added that is higher than other uses of local workers, land, and investments. Building a stadium is good for the local economy only if a stadium is the most productive way to make capital investments and use its workers….

“A new sports facility has an extremely small (perhaps even negative) effect on overall economic activity and employment. No recent facility appears to have earned anything approaching a reasonable return on investment. No recent facility has been self-financing in terms of its impact on net tax revenues. Regardless of whether the unit of analysis is a local neighborhood, a city, or an entire metropolitan area, the economic benefits of sports facilities are de minimus.”

The best illustration of the Pro Sports Ripoff was the late Raiders owner Al Davis grabbing a $10 million, no-refundable deposit from Irwindale taxpayers in 1987 for a potential move there. If you drive by Irwindale, there’s still a big hole in the ground, from mining, where the stadium would have been. Davis kept the dough.

The NFL especially has become a TV sport. The action is so fast now it’s hard to see it unless you’re on the sidelines. For other stadium seats, you might as well watch the action on your iPhone. After almost every play, the guys stand around for a couple minutes while the TV networks run commercials. Unending replays make it all worse.

No wonder NFL TV ratings fell in almost every demographic in 2016. Part of it was a reaction to the political protests begun in the preseason by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. But that’s probably a passing problem.

It also hasn’t helped that NFL play this year has been lackluster, including in the first series of playoff games. And the move to more passing has distorted the natural balance between passing and running.

People also are “cutting the cord” on cable TV. I did it in 2015, saving $75 a month, retaining only my Internet connection. Where I live in Huntington Beach, the “free” TV reception is terrible, so that’s out. My motto: If it’s not on the Internet, it didn’t happen. I watched the last Super Bowl via the Internet.

I enjoy a good sports game as much as anyone. But I don’t want to be forced to pay for it through higher taxes. And if those good environmentalists Gov. Jerry Brown and the state’s Democratic Legislators want to reform CEQA, fine; that’s long overdue. But they should do it for every project, not just those of sports teams owned by their oligarchical campaign donors.

California needs to return to, and strengthen, its policy of no special aid to billionaire owners and millionaire players. Let them score their own financial touchdowns.

29-year Orange County Register editorial writer now writes freelance. Email: [email protected]

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