King Kaufman's Sports Daily

On Election Day, billionaire team owners looking for taxpayer handouts had it just as rough as the GOP.


Salon Staff
November 9, 2006 10:00PM (UTC)

What a great Election Day!

Oh, I don't mean the Democrats sweeping into power or the state where I live not outlawing medical research that might save my life someday on the basis of other people's religious beliefs. That was all nice.

But I'm talking about the cannawhoopass voters opened up on billionaire sports team owners looking for welfare to build stadiums and arenas.

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Seattle voters overwhelmingly passed Initiative 91, called the anti-Sonics initiative in some circles. It requires that any city tax dollars invested in a stadium or arena yield a profit at least equal to the return on a 30-year U.S. Treasury bond, which at the moment is a little under 5 percent.

City officials had opposed the measure, of course, saying it went too far.

"We are not in the business [with the city's] opera or symphony or ballet or sports to make money for the city treasury," Mayor Greg Nickels told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "What we're trying to do is have a high variety of cultural activities."

That's rich, if you'll pardon the pun. When politicians are trying to sell stadium welfare to the voters, they're always yammering on about how the new place will be a boon to the local economy, that every tax dollar invested will yield, say, $3 in profit.

But when the voters say, "OK, let's put it in writing -- nothing spectacular, just a nice little 5 percent profit," all of a sudden the issue becomes cultural enrichment. Sorry, voters, you looked under the wrong cup. The pea's under "cultural enrichment" this time, not "profits."

Funny. You play that same game on the sidewalk outside the arena and the beat cop runs you in.

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The measure does go too far. A major sports team in a city does provide benefits to the populace, and shouldn't have to guarantee a 5 percent profit to get any civic support at all.

But I believe it was the philosopher Spinoza who put it best when he said, "Oh well, dude" ("Oh goed, saletjonker"). The scales were tipped so far in the other direction -- ask Seattlites about those sweet packages the Mariners and Seahawks got -- for so long that what we have here is a good ol' fashioned backlash. Deal with it, billionaires.

Clayton Bennett, the Oklahoma City investment banker who's the new owner of the Sonics and WNBA Storm, says he and his partners will fulfill their lease at Key Arena, which runs through 2010, and will keep looking for a new, taxpayer-financed arena in King County, but outside of Seattle. As my friend Mike Seely wrote in the Seattle Weekly, "We'll see how long it takes for the county Oklahoma City's in to change its name to King."

There's nothing preventing the Sonics and Storm from staying in Seattle other than the desire to soak the taxpayers. Bennett and his partners can finance a new arena themselves, and the new law says nothing about county or state taxes, though Chris Van Dyk, who leads the group Citizens for More Important Things, which spearheaded the I-91 campaign, all but dared the teams to try that route.

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Meanwhile, Sacramento voters soundly rejected a quarter-cent increase in the sales tax that would have paid for a new arena for the Maloof brothers and their team, the Kings.

As in Seattle, the idea of public funding for sports stadiums lost by about 3-1.

If you can't sell Sacramento taxpayers on the idea of handing money over to the Kings, good luck elsewhere, although this time the Maloofs, the popular, handsome, dashing young owners, appeared to try to sabotage the measure because they reportedly didn't like the downtown arena deal it would have led to. A commercial for a fast-food chain showed them washing down burgers with a $6,000 bottle of bubbly -- while they had their hands out to taxpayers.

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But Sacramentans, who have been ape-crazy bananas for the Kings since long before the only major-league team in town started winning games, have given no indication they will ever pay for a new arena with their tax dollars. Civic leaders -- to use that term loosely for people so out of touch with the populace -- say they'll try again in 2008.

In other good news, Pasadena, Calif., voters rejected a plan that would have funded renovations to the Rose Bowl to get it ready for an NFL team, although much of the opposition appears to have been to the idea of having an NFL team in town, with the attendant traffic and infrastructure issues, more than the public funding of the renovations.

And voters in Johnson County, Kan., in suburban Kansas City, said no to a bond issue to build a 24-field youth soccer complex, which sounds kind of mean, but opponents said the complex looked more like an overpriced first step in the process of building a public-money home for the Kansas City Wizards of Major League Soccer than like a youth soccer project.

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It looks like the billionaires and the hundred-millionaires are on the run in the stadium blackmail game. There was a time not so long ago when public-funding ballot measures like the one in Sacramento passed routinely. When they failed it was usually in some weird place like San Francisco, which spent decades telling the Giants and 49ers no until the Giants finally built their own park. The 49ers now say they'll try Santa Clara, down the freeway.

More and more stadiums and arenas are being built with private funding. Taxpayers are getting smarter and smarter about ponying up the dough to help billionaires get richer just so the billionaires won't follow through on their usually empty threats to move the team.

Tuesday was a great day, a decisive victory for ordinary people, sports fans or no, though most sports fans are ordinary people.

The billionaires took a thumpin'.

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Previous column: Voter's guide

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