Local Media Push Public Subsidies for Private Stadiums
The day after voters in King County, Washington, had apparently approved a plan to hike the local sales tax by a tenth of a percent to fund a new ballpark for the Seattle Mariners baseball team (9/20/95), the Seattle Times got right to the point with its banner headline: “Stadium Leads by 4,000 Votes.” A photo showed exultant baseball fans raising their fists in glee at the early returns.
As it turned out, the stadium-tax referendum was defeated by a slim margin. But stadium backers needn’t have worried: As has been the case in cities across the country, the Washington state legislature would override public opinion and fund the stadium. And as has happened in city after city, the stadium drive would get a crucial assist from the local media.
The push for new facilities by sports franchise owners, along with threats to bolt town if their demands are not met, is one of the most heavily covered local stories in these cities. Yet, though these plans almost invariably require hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds, paid for largely by new taxes—and despite often massive public opposition to these schemes—these stories are predominantly reported as tales of civic pride or sports fandom, with the economic effects of the decisions a distant second in media emphasis.
A complex web of reasons has been proposed for why stadium coverage is so slanted: the home-team boosterism of sports reporters spilling out into metro coverage; the readership and ad revenues that come from covering local sports; and media owners’ inherent sympathies for the sports barons who are, after all, their fellow corporate leaders. “It’s typical that [the medial join in with the people who set the agenda, and sell it with their news coverage,” says Roldo Bartimoie, editor of Point of View, a newsletter that watchdogs Cleveland’s media and political establishment.
Cleveland is on the verge of seeing its third new professional sports structure built in this decade. After the construction of a new $400 million home for the baseball Indians and basketball Cavs, the Cleveland city council recently authorized the expenditure of another $220 million —most of it in tax money—to fund a new stadium for a still non-existent replacement for the Cleveland Browns football team, which left town this past winter after the city of Baltimore offered Browns owner Art Modell a 30-year rent-free lease in a brand-new stadium.
The Browns’ exodus was the biggest story in town from early November through final city council approval of a new stadium in March. And with rare exceptions, the coverage by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the city’s lone daily, swallowed the definition of the “problem” put forth by the team’s owner, even as it vilified him for pulling the team out.
Rumors of Modell’s pullout came just days before a scheduled vote on extending the local “sin tax” on cigarettes and alcohol to fund renovations to the existing stadium. It was a campaign that
received almost uniformly positive coverage from the Plain Dealer—perhaps not surprisingly, since Alex Machaskee, the paper’s president and publisher, sat on the pro-tax Go Cleveland! Committee, and provided free ad space to that group’s efforts.
The Plain Dealer “was the largest contributor to the campaign,” reports Point of View‘s Bartimole. “It made in-kind contributions which amounted to [it being] the largest campaign donor.”
“Mayor Fights Browns Move” (11/5/95) was one of several giant headlines in the Plain Dealer in the run-up to the sin tax vote, referring to Cleveland’s “feisty and determined” Mayor Michael White’s efforts to fund stadium renovations. Beneath that article, a front-page editorial urged voters to vote for the sin-tax extension: “They [voters] can send a message they understand that, from a financial standpoint, keeping Cleveland an NFL city makes sense because of the tens of millions of dollars annually the Browns’ presence here generates for the local economy.” Off to one side of the enormous Browns spread, a smaller article reported the other news of the day: “Rabin Slain.”
The Cleveland coverage illustrates how team owners have been able to almost seamlessly frame the issue in their own peculiar vocabulary: Professional sports teams are an urban necessity, and the need of owners to make unlimited amounts of money, often straight from the public coffers, is just part of the game.
“To Clevelanders, Art Modell may seem like the Grinch Who Stole Football, but he had some compelling reasons for losing faith in Cleveland,” the Plain Dealer reported in a front-page story (11/19/95) headlined “How Cleveland Lost the Browns.” “Cuyahoga County commissioners could have extended the excise tax on liquor and cigarettes in July, after state authorities gave them the authority to do so.” As in other articles, the onus is on the local government for failing to jump quickly enough at the opportunity to buy the team’s loyalty with public funds.
Free Ads, Soft Coverage
Similar themes were struck in Seattle, where the Seattle Times and local radio stations also granted free ad space to the pro-stadium campaign. Five days after the vote (9/24/95), Times executive editor Michael Francher assured readers in his column that the free full-page ads had no effect on the paper’s editorial coverage —pointing out, as one example, that the Times had broken the story of the free ads themselves (surely not a hard scoop to catch). That story, asserted Francher, never “would have been published in a newspaper whose reporting is affected by the publisher of the editorial page.”
Analysis of the Seattle Times‘ actual coverage, though, reveals a different picture. Though stopping short of being advertisements for the stadium campaign, story after front-page story treated the drive for a new stadium as an unfailingly positive “hurdle” to be cleared, with hardly a mention of the taxes that would pay for it.
An editorial after the losing referendum vote (9/24/95) called it “a striking affirmation of the region’s commitment to baseball. Even in its post-strike Year of Shame, half of King County voters would tax themselves to keep the team there.” Actually, slightly more than half of King County voters would not tax themselves to fund a baseball stadium— which is supposed to be the point in a democratic society.
But neither the Mariners nor the Times gave up: “Stadium Not Yet Dead” declared a front-page headline two days later (9/26/95), suggesting ways that the state government could circumvent the popular will and finance the ballpark regardless. (The legislature followed suit a month later.) A week later (10/5/95), the Times ran a front-page story on Home Town Fans, the pro-stadium lobbying group, describing in detail their phone-banking efforts and plans for a rally at the state legislature.
Missing in this coverage was a serious look at the numerous local groups that were mobilizing popular opposition to the stadium tax. In one typical story, out of 31 paragraphs only the final two quoted Citizens for More Important Things, an anti-stadium-tax group. “The mainstream media has pooh-poohed our case,” attorney Shawn Newman, who has sued the state to press for another referendum, told EXTRA!. “They’ve said, “Ah, they’re a bunch of nuts. They’re going to get their ass kicked anyway so there’s no use in even covering it.”
Similar tales are told in other cities beset by new-stadium pushes. Milwaukee Supervisor Dorothy Dean, a prominent opponent of the Milwaukee Brewers’ demands for a new baseball stadium, says that in the four years that the issue has been under discussion, she can’t remember ever being interviewed by the Milwaukee Journal (the city’s only remaining daily). One possible explanation was the fact that the journal’s parent company was a registered lobbyist for the stadium-funding bill.
More glaringly absent than stadium opponents is their message: that new sports facilities are a form of corporate welfare that brings little or no economic benefit to the cities that build them. Several major studies, in fact, have borne this out—among them one by the Palatine, Illinois-based Heartland Institute, a market-oriented think tank that found no evidence of any positive benefit in 30 cities that built new facilities over a 30-year period. The Plain Dealer acknowledged this report in a front-page story (1/14/96)—two months after the vote that extended the sin tax, and after its own front-page editorial asserting the “tens of millions of dollars” allegedly generated by the Browns.
Instead, the media continue to profess that sports teams are a necessary part of a local economy—the only debate being exactly how many hundreds of millions should be forked over. When New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani proposed a new $1 billion-plus stadium for the New York Yankees, the New York Times’ reports seemed somewhat leery of the mayor’s grandiose schemes. But the Times was too kind in assessing other cities’ stadiums: The paper (4/3/96) cited the Milwaukee Brewers’ proposed new park as a sign that “the concept of having an owner share stadium financing is gaining currency,” when in fact this came about only after the Brewers forced the state to chip in $250 million for what was to have originally been an entirely privately financed stadium.
In fact, the only proven benefit of publicly funded stadiums is to the team owners, who have seen their franchise values soar by tens of millions of dollars each time a new stadium is built. Financial World magazine, in its yearly report on sports franchise values (5/20/96), reported that the Yankees’ value would soar by S147 million (to a total of $356 million) if the city were to build a new ballpark for the team. The magazine’s news was picked up by Long Island Newsday (5/2/96)—yet neither publication found fit to comment on (or find a spokesperson to comment on) the propriety of a private ballclub increasing its value via public funding.
To aid their cause, team owners also have a built-in media network of sportscasters and game announcers that are either on the team payroll or dependent on the team’s presence for their livelihood. Thus WABC-AM radio announcers John Sterling and Michael Kay interviewed New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani on the benefits of a new Yankee stadium during radio coverage of the team’s opening day (4/9/96).
In Milwaukee, Supervisor Dean says that sportscasters and radio talkshow hosts were pressed into action to promote a bill calling for a tax hike to raise money for a new home for the Brewers. “Anyone who dared criticize the team or question the financing package was subject to daily harassment on their programs,” she says of two particularly fanatic boosters.
While on other urban planning issues activist voices take a back seat to economic analysis, here the opposite holds true—so long as the activist voices are those backed by media and owners alike. It’s difficult to imagine any rally or demonstration receiving the positive and extensive coverage that efforts to save the Browns did in the Plain Dealer. “Rally a Bright Spot on Glum Day,” was one Plain Dealer headline accompanying a photo and a large front-page story about a Save Our Browns rally (11/27/95).
“There’ve been some [Browns] rallies where I was salivating for that type of attention,” says John Ryan, president of Local 4309 of the Communication Workers of America, Cleveland. “We had a rally with 1200 people [against the GATT trade agreement]. 1200 people at a UAW hall…. The Plain Dealer had a reporter there and still didn’t cover it. Absolutely no reason.”
“The actions of the media, especially the Plain Dealer, are just tremendously disgusting,” says Ryan. “Here is a paper that moved out of the city—they moved their production plant out of the city because they got a better deal—who would sit back and criticize, actively criticize in every way possible, Modell for doing the same thing.”
Joanna Cagan and Neil deMause are on the editorial collective of Brooklyn Metro Times, a quarterly political zine.