Vikings Stadium Kerfuffle

On April 10th, I attended a community forum where Minneapolis mayor RT Rybak made his pitch to citizens about the Viking stadium proposal. I use the word pitch, but it was more like a declaration. The mayor and the council had approved the measure with its $150 million price tag for the city.

(Since this forum took place, a State committee defeated the bill, throwing everything back up in the air. As I write this, more is being done to try and sew together the loose ends of the stadium deal including a visit to the Capitol by the NFL commissioner.)

Regardless of how this issue resolves itself, this night was important as crucial points about this debate surfaced and revealed themselves: points about policy, economics, and our love of sports.

I arrived wondering why the mayor willingly walked into the lion’s den of angry Minneapolis tax payers when the decision to approve the stadium was already made. I gave him props for giving citizens their say and facing their challenges. But now I suspect he agreed to do this forum as part of a deal to coax on-the-fence city council member, Sandy Colvin Roy (nervous about voter disapproval), over to his side. I can imagine the conversation going something like, “Sandy, you go along with the stadium, and I’ll appear in your ward to back you up and make the case for the stadium.”

Whatever the reason, there he was at the Lake Nikomis Community Center:

Stating his case

with those in attendance in favor of the stadium:

and those against:

Should the citizens have the chance to vote on the stadium?

Many communities in New England are known for holding lengthy town hall meetings where residents have their say on all aspects of the budget. Most of America, though, elects representatives to do this bidding for them—-though at the risk of giving politicians a longer leash. When it comes to this issue, Mayor Rybak’s favors the latter, claiming that it’s his and the city council’s job to decide how to spend city money—including this stadium—and that the time for public decision-making comes at the ballot box every four years.

That’s an easy claim for the Mayor to make as anyone on the DFL ticket wins in Minneapolis. But, it doesn’t mean his point is without merit. And many do agree with him. The stadium, though, straddles the line of who should be able to decide, and many in attendance wanted a chance to vote.

What are the economic benefits of building a stadium?

This was the dominant theme of the night. Indeed, this is the benefit advocates tout loudest—and in this case, very loud, as not building a stadium also involves the threat of losing an NFL franchise.

This point is an easy one to offer as everyone can picture the economic activity of builders building, players playing, and stadium employees working—all on account of building a stadium and the Vikings franchise. Conversely, we can feel the lack if the stadium wasn’t built, and especially, if the Vikings left town.

So it’s not surprising that economic and job claims are an effective argument and persuade people all the way up from citizen to city council to governor. And interesting is how even in a time of recession, the case to spend a huge sum of money can be bolstered on account of this argument.

More interesting, though, is that this argument—which can so clearly support the stadium supporters—has also been undermined time and again. It keeps getting used because it works to win the debate, but for the intellectually curious and honest, there’s really no need to keep retreading these points. This isn’t the first stadium ever built, and by examining all the stadium projects in the U.S.—dozens of them, as economists have done—the numbers show that a community doesn’t gain much from a sports franchise, let alone building a stadium.

One has to remember that tax dollars are a zero-sum game. If they aren’t spent on a stadium, they would be spent elsewhere, employing other—or perhaps even the same–workers doing something else. Regarding the franchise, if people didn’t spend money to see a game, they’d spend their money to entertain themselves another way. Did we feel a blip when the Northstars left town?

This isn’t to say that stadiums and sports teams don’t offer jobs–of course they do, but are these jobs better than what would have been? It’s also not to say that stadiums and teams don’t grow the economy. But the numbers tell us they largely tend not to. Economist and Freakonomics author, Steven Levitt, writes, “Sports do not create many jobs or generate much economic growth. And such evidence has proven to be quite persuasive. In fact, a survey of economists by Gregory Mankiw noted that 85% of economists agree that local and state governments should not subsidize professional sports.” See here. They also found that the studies that do that show significant job and economic growth are ones conducted by those with economic interest in seeing the stadium built. Neutral studies show insignificant gains.

So when getting down to nuts and bolts, we find that this debate is really about three things: status—having a flashy new stadium; revitalizing a neighborhood in Minneapolis; mostly, though, it’s about Purple Pride—fear of losing the Vikings to another city.

But what is this attachment to the Vikings worth?

Well, back at the neighborhood forum, Mayor Rybak thought the stadium was a money saving proposal. He thought it was smart for Minneapolis citizens to go along with the plan because this plan also included an agreement for the city to retain more of the entertainment tax dollars that the state usually absorbs. The city, then, could use that money to do things that property taxes are normally used for. So his warning to us in the audience was: if we don’t build this stadium, your property taxes will go up.

Even stadium backers, I assume, need to scratch their heads at that rationale.

But maybe not.

Because despite using this same kind of child-like monetary logic when justifying my need for a new car some years back, today it’s radical to oppose this stadium at the expense of the Vikings leaving Minnesota. People love the Vikings. Plus, the momentum of this national conversation has normalized subsidization in almost every case. But rising up 10,000 feet we can look down and see that our whole perspective and behavior regarding stadium building in this country has been skewed as the NFL leverages people’s addiction to football to its utmost.

Truths have been twisted. The onus isn’t on us to come up with a plan for a stadium. Zygi Wilf can enjoy our market and take advantage of our team and state pride, but not exploit that pride by having us plan and pay for their place of business. The NFL wants a team here as bad as we want one. Yet right now our governor is doing the NFL’s bidding no matter the expense to our state and communities.

People go broke trying to keep up with the Joneses and last I checked, we were in a recession. We ought to be demonstrating some Minnesotan common sense and tightening our belts. Instead, we’re buying luxuries when we can’t pay for essentials, building a billion dollar stadium with the idea that it will save us money, and banking on building it on the back of gambler’s losses.

The house that gambling built.

Yet it’s considered radical to oppose this stadium—“Are you crazy?! Do you want to see the Vikings leave!?”

At this monetary and moral price—and if that is the ultimatum—then yes.

That’s not to say we don’t welcome a franchise, of course. I’d just like to know why the stadium can’t be built privately, like the baseball park in San Francisco or Gillette Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots. Or why can’t there be a system where the public can donate on their own accord? I grew up loving the Vikings and might just chip in if given the opportunity.

The reason these two points aren’t seriously considered is because they haven’t needed to be. Why wouldn’t the NFL and owners take taxpayer money since taxpayers are willing to give it? In large part, this is about a drug dealer squeezing all they can from their sports junkies.

Let’s sober up, Minnesota.

As someone who disapproved of the Twin’s stadium, I admit being impressed that first home-opener. I remember walking around First Avenue and the energy in the air was palpable with Twins fever and Minnesota spirit. I heard the ‘ding ding’ of the light rail cars go by as Twins jersey-wearing fans ate outside their favorite sportsbar under a gorgeous sunny day. More fans walked the sidewalks, and one lady said to me, “It finally feels like a real city.”

So putting the brakes on this stadium effort would be a serious buzzkill, I know. It would also seem awkward to be the stick in the mud while all these other cities in the U.S. regularly cough up their dough for billionaire’s stadiums. But in time, cooler heads prevail and studies show that these “highs”—economic and physical—wear off.

America’s radicals: the Tea Party, the Occupiers—ever-distancing themselves from one another—are, in a strange twist, in agreement in their opposition to this stadium. Tea Partiers dislike taxes; Occupiers hate giving more of their money to the 1%. In today’s America, these “radicals” aren’t that radical anymore. In St. Paul, who’s left supporting the stadium, so far, is our DFL Governor with support from Republican representatives.

It is my hope that these moderates realize that all that we’re forfeiting with this stadium deal is much greater than the benefit of watching the Vikings play.

8 Responses

  1. Katie

    This debate has gone on for ages, and the NFL keeps insisting that building a stadium will be so beneficial to the Vikings and our community. But I wholeheartedly agree that the money is a zero-sum game – if we don’t spend it on the Vikings, we will spend it for entertainment elsewhere. Same as for the construction money – if we don’t spend it building a stadium, we can get the same benefits constructing other things in MN. (Last I heard, there were some bridges that needed some work? Or what about rebuilding aging schools – some are in absolutely horrid shape and it’s hard to argue that professional athletes need a shiny up-to-date space for 8 games a year more than students need an up-to-date learning space for 3/4 of the year.)

    Bottom line, if the NFL thought building a new stadium for the Vikings was such an overwhelmingly good investment, they’d do it themselves. Instead they want MN to pay for most of it. That speaks volumes to me.

    The debate should be about whether or not it’s important to MN to invest money in construction jobs and creating new jobs. If we decide it is, then we should determine whether the stadium is the best use of our investment, or whether we could get better value out of using it for other projects – such as public construction or business start-up incubators.

    I suspect the stadium wouldn’t even have a chance in that environment. Which is why the NFL is making it about the emotional aspect of potentially losing the Vikings.

  2. Becky

    Thank you. I have been saying this for a long time. How can Minnesotans–or the lawmakers whose job it is to be fiscally responsible with our tax dollars–even be _considering_ spending millions or billions of dollars on something as frivolous as a new stadium when in the same newspaper I see it reported that schools are having to _borrow_ money because the government still hasn’t paid what is owed. Let’s take care of our obligations first and then if and only if there’s money left over consider football stadiums. And, what is wrong with the Metrodome?

  3. Drew

    One quick money point, everyone keeps mentioning that if the NFL wanted the Viking in Minnesota so bad, they should build the stadium themselves. The NFL doesn’t build stadiums; the NFL is a business in charge of running all the franchises. And because of that the NFL doesn’t own any of the stadiums. If you want the NFL to build a new stadium for the Vikings, you will never be able to attend a concert there, play state championships there, attend a convention there, or do anything there other than watch the Vikings play football. That is all it will be allowed to be used for if the NFL owned it. If you buy a new car you don’t let every person you know take it on a road trip, if significant miles are going on that car, you’re putting them on there. In the last 12 years there have been 28 new major league stadiums built, totaling roughly 9 billion dollars. Over half of that money (5 billion) is public funded. Minnesota is not getting screwed on this deal, they’re not being asked to do anything every other city with a professional sports franchise has not already done. This is industry standard when it comes to new stadiums.

    If you take away the new stadium, the Minnesota Vikings will no longer exist. The NFL commissioner Rodger Goddell has pretty much came out and already said that. Money is the driving force but it can’t be the overall deciding factor. Your last line said “It is my hope that these moderates realize that all that we’re forfeiting with this stadium deal is much greater than the benefit of watching the Vikings play.” That statement is very narrow minded, it’s not as simple as “watching the Vikings play” like you make it sound. The Vikings are part of this community, Purple Pride is an understatement. What you’re taking away is far deeper than just watching them play. You’re taking away a chance for a Dad to take his son to his first Vikings game, the same way his Dad took him to his first, with the hope that his son takes his grandson to his first Vikings game someday. You’re taking away comradery, enjoyment from people. The average sports fan generally can’t afford season tickets; most get to one or two games a year. They save up just to go to one game, that’s gone now. Sports provide people an escape for a couple of hours. It lets people forget for 4 hours on a Sunday. Most of all, sports gives you moments, memories that last a long time. Go ask an 80 year old Red Sox fan about when they finally broke the curse of the bambino and won the World Series in 2004, then tell me sports is no big deal. I asked a 46 year old male co-worker “If the Vikings won the Super Bowl, would you cry” His answer: “Like a baby” That is what you’re taking away, not just “watching the Vikings”

    1. Thanks for writing, Drew. I do appreciate the tradition and attachment to sports we have. I was absolutely crushed when we lost in ’98. But at the cost to taxpayers and the reliance on gambling, this is not the right price to pay. Besides, we have three other pro teams already here. Lastly, if Wilf built his own stadium, he could use it for all those events you mentioned.

      1. It would be nice if in exchange for public money, shares in the team were exchanged. If the city, or state owned part of the team, like the Packers, the threat of leaving would disappear and people would feel less like they were funding private riches with public money.

        That being said, I’d like a stadium. I just wish they’d put it in a great vibrant location like the Twins. Putting it in an area where all there is around is a stadium is frightening. The great thing about the Twins stadium you pointed out — you can walk out or in and being in the nightlife of the city.

        I’m also not really a sports fan. The only games are see are for work.

    2. NathanWH

      Some people do dream of taking their sons to a game just as their father took them, and other people have other pastimes and family traditions. It’s subjective, and you’re trying to use the power of the government to gain special privilege for *your own* favored activity. Maybe instead of subsidizing the things that you value, people would prefer to spend their resources on the things which they value.

What say you?