In 2013 the city of Atlanta lost its baseball team to one of its suburban neighbors, the more prosperous and populous Cobb County. The Braves won’t move for two more years, but in the meantime, one Georgia state senator from Atlanta has come up with a crazy idea: Expand Atlanta’s municipal boundary by nearly 2 miles into unincorporated Cobb County, and annex the 60 acres where the team is building its stadium.
The proposed land grab is about as likely as 81-year-old Hank Aaron starting this season in right field, but it might not be any less reasonable than the proposal from the Braves that Atlanta rejected: Hand over $77 million in real estate and float a $200 million municipal bond issue to rehabilitate a ballpark still in its teenage years.
What happened in Georgia was a lesson in the business of American pro sports. Like the San Francisco 49ers—the ones now playing in Santa Clara—the Braves took advantage of a highly fragmented metropolitan area to pit city and county against each other in a kind of prisoner’s dilemma. After more than a year negotiating with both governments, the Braves got what they wanted from Cobb: $397 million in public money for stadium construction.
At the center of such stadium bidding wars are government bonds, which, in Cobb County, will be paid off mostly by homeowners. For a ballpark in their backyard, they’ll fork over $8.6 million in property taxes every year for the next three decades. They’d better hope the Braves stick around longer than the 20 years they will have spent in Atlanta’s Turner Field.
Or better yet: The next time the Cobb County Braves decide they’re ready to spin the Wheel of Taxpayer Subsidy, we should all hope the whole practice has become illegal.
That’s what the Obama administration proposed in its budget last month: to end the issuance of tax-free government bonds for professional sports facilities, a practice that has, according to research by Bloomberg, siphoned $17 billion of public money into arenas for NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL franchises over the last 30 years and cost Americans $4 billion in forgone federal taxes on top of that. It’s too late for residents of Cobb County, but Congress might yet save the rest of us some dough.
Extortion at the hands of our sporting oligarchs is, of course, a popular source of outrage. The U.S. has enough major league sports stadiums built with public money to fill an NCAA bracket. The ascent of stadium costs and the financial myopia of public officials ensure that the contest will stay lively for some time to come.
So how did we wind up in this situation? Local authorities have long used tax-exempt bonds to raise money for certain private uses—whether factories, train stations, or home mortgage loans—in addition to schools, sewers, and other infrastructure projects. In most cases, the ensuing economic growth was at least intended to pay back the municipal investment. Sports stadiums were no different: Governments could raise money in exchange for a share of future revenue.