The Georgia Dome in Atlanta remains a perfectly fine building for professional football. Still a teenager, it is nowhere near long in the tooth. Capacity is enough to accommodate nearly every Atlanta Falcons fan willing to buy tickets.
Arthur Blank, the team owner, craves a new stadium. That seems akin to trading in your car after it has logged only 20,000 miles, but he can well afford it. Blank, the former owner of the ubiquitous American home improvement store chain called The Home Depot, has a net worth of $1.2 billion, according to Forbes, and the franchise value has risen 52 per cent since he bought it in 2002 for $545 million.
But wait. Blank expects the quasi-public agency that operates the Dome and the proposed site of a new stadium to issue bonds that would pay some of the costs. That should be 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct, sticking it to taxpayers at the same time that funding for public schools in Georgia is being cut.
This sickness is spreading among NFL team owners. In Minnesota, the Vikings’ Zygi Wilf has capitalized on the collapse of the Metrodome’s inflatable roof amid a once-in-a-lifetime snowstorm and the fear of the franchise relocating to Los Angeles in his campaign for a replacement stadium. Of course, citizens would contribute to the project. Never mind that Blank might expect Wilf, worth $1.3bn, to pick up their lunch bill.
The shameless nonchalance of these folks who seem detached from reality has generated a shifting of the winds. We have already experienced it here in New York and New Jersey.
The public, which normally sides with management during labor disputes in American sports, is sympathetic toward the players in a stand-off with owners that has pushed the league to the brink of a lockout. In a poll conducted by Seton Hall University, 35 per cent who participated backed the players, compared to 22 per cent for their bosses. This, even though the same study found that most contend the players are overpaid.
Taxpayers are increasingly fed up with being forced to become stadium-erecting partners with Rolex-wearing, yacht-sailing jet-setters. Economists nowadays agree on little, but one belief they share is that public support of professional sports offers almost nothing financially in return.
The Giants and Jets grew tired of their shared arena and convinced the government to pitch in for a new-and-improved one. The old Giants Stadium was torn down despite carrying more than $100m in debt that must be paid off by the good people of New Jersey. Plus, the season ticket holders are also helping flip the bill on the new one with PSL’s. Isn’t that double dipping? The nerve!
Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, stands complicit in this wasteful building boom. From his office comes a wink-nod promise of the ultimate in ego gratification for owners: host your own Super Bowl! Just throw up a stadium and you will get the big game. How you bankroll it, that’s your business.
Which explains why the 2014 Super Bowl was awarded to New Meadowlands in a region where the average low temperature in February is -2°C. Which also explains why 22 of 32 teams have moved into fresh digs or had their existing ones totally made over in the last two decades.
In that time, teams have been blessed with more than $7bn in taxpayer subsidies for construction and renovation, according to the NFL Players’ Association.
The players union reports that, on average, taxpayers put up 65 per cent of the financing for those projects. Owners found a way to avoid putting in any money for 10 of them; for nine others, their contribution amounted to less than 25 per cent.
Further driving public sentiment toward the players are reports on the sport’s inherent physical risk, particularly for victims of post-concussive syndrome that has ravaged retirees. Fans are looking beyond the average salary of $1.9m and discovering other statistics:
$770,000, the median yearly pay. ŸThree-and-a-half years, the average length of career. Eleven, the average number of players per team on injured reserve this past season.
While many of us might trade places with the players, the figures show that most of them accumulate more aches and pains than enough wealth to last them a lifetime.
For team owners, it is a different story. Admittance into the club all but guarantees going from rich to richer, experienced from the comfort of a stadium luxury suite.
Fine. That is the American way. But those who knock on government doors seeking handouts to finance mostly unnecessary arenas should instead heed the marketing message aimed at customers of Blank’s old home improvement stores.
Do it yourself.