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The MLS Versus the City


Yesterday, the city of St. Louis voted to reject a proposal that would have paved the way for a new soccer stadium. Judging by the frantic hyperbole being thrown around by soccer fans on social media, you could be forgiven for thinking the city voted against planting a money tree underneath the Arch, rather than nixing an expansion team for a league that is slightly more popular than the WNBA and hasn’t turned a profit in twenty-one years. I’ll say it plainly: I’m incredibly proud of this city for shooting down Prop 2, it was absolutely the right thing to do, and the deal the MLS2STL ownership group proposed was rotten from the very beginning.

“One of the group’s central claims is that city residents will pay nothing unless they go to a game because the stadium will be funded by a use tax paid primarily by businesses. Of course, this convenient factoid neglects to mention that revenue from the use tax currently goes towards “public safety, public health and affordable housing.” So rather than fund these essential services, the city will instead spend $4 million annually over the course of fifteen years for its stake in the stadium.

No need to worry about that, says MLS2STL, because the stadium could ultimately generate as much as $17 million in new tax revenue. The only problem: This shiny heap of money will take at least 30 years to accrue. And that’s only if everything goes according to plan and the stadium remains packed with fans and free of any larger issues.

Then there’s the matter of how the two stadium-funding ballot measures came about. The MLS2STL leadership originally wanted $80 million from the city to fund the stadium, a deal so bad that the alderwoman who originally sponsored the bill began to urge her colleagues to oppose it. Eventually the Board of Aldermen settled on two measures: one that raises the use tax along with another tax increase that’s ostensibly meant to fund Metrolink expansion. As city officials readily admit, though, it could take as long as a decade before they’re ready to start laying track for a new route. In the meantime, money that unsuspecting voters think will be spent on Metrolink will almost certainly go towards building the soccer stadium.

Finally, I’m of the mind that funding a professional stadium with money drawn from a city as poor as St. Louis is an immoral act, plain and simple. Although some neighborhoods have made great strides in recent years, thousands upon thousands of people continue to live in impoverished areas where basic services are already scarce. Our business and government leaders should be working to lift these communities up rather than straining them further by removing $60 million from the city’s coffers in the name of “civic pride.” [RFT]

Two of the main MLS2STL talking points, here, are flatly proven to be untrue. It was a tax increase. It won’t create new taxable revenue for at least thirty years. Lest we forget, the city of St. Louis is still making payments on the now-vacant Edward Jones Dome, and will continue to do so until 2021: 

“At the beginning of 2015, city and state taxpayers still owed more than $100 million in debt on the bonds used to finance the Edward Jones Dome, the stadium St. Louis put $280 million in public funds behind in 1995.

It isn’t scheduled to pay off that debt until at least 2021, and that could be more difficult without the Rams and the $500,000 rent payment the team made each year. The city itself owes $5 million per year over that period, and the loss of the Rams could increase costs in the short-term.” [HuffPost]

These MLS proposals were nothing more than a shakedown of the city taxpayer, and a shameless one at that. They started the haggling at $100 million, then $80 million, and finally settled on $60 large in a brazen attempt to subsidize yet another county-playground.

“In January, St. Louis officials and Missouri’s new governor rejected forking over $80 million in city money to an investment group known as SC STL so that they could build an MLS stadium. Undeterred by the rejection and the strong anti-publicly funded stadiums stance from Gatling gun-toting governor Eric Greitens, SC STL pushed ahead and got the St. Louis Board of Aldermen to approve voting on stadium funding by lowering their ask to $60 million.

There were two propositions on the ballot tonight. Proposition 1 called for a half-cent increase to the city’s sales tax, while Proposition 2 allocated $60 million of that new money to the construction of a new stadium for the rich bozos of SC STL. As Chase Woodruff pointed out for Howler, the tax increases were hikes to the city’s tax rate, which means that the poorer 300,000 residents within the city limits would have shouldered the tax burden while the richer suburban bulk of the metro area’s 2.7 million people would have gotten to enjoy the new stadium without paying for it.

Many powerful people endorsed the plan, including Taylor Twellman and MLS commissioner Don Garber, who essentially promised an expansion spot if St. Louis passed Props 1 and 2. Soon-to-be-former mayor Francis Slay even wrote a breathless op-ed for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch where he called the proposition a “moral and economic imperative.” That’s a really lofty way to say “I want you to pay these assholes $60 million for a building.” [Deadspin]

According to the prospective ownership group, there’s money to made around their tax-payer-funded stadium. You can make money after we get it first. Eat the crumbs from underneath our table. Reaganomics strikes again! Of course, they would have seen to it that the economic playing field wasn’t level. Small business owners wouldn’t have had the benefit of pillaging the public treasure chest to subsidize their own private ventures. It’s one set of rules for the wealthy, and another for the rest of us. In case I haven’t convinced you just yet, take it from John Oliver:

 

I’ll paraphrase (loosely) the interview that appears in the video above; who gets the revenue from the naming rights? The owners. Who gets the revenue from the concessions? The owners. Who gets the revenue from the ticket sales? The owners. Who gets the revenue from merchandise and memorabilia sales? The owners. How, exactly, does the economy get stimulated when all of the profits go directly into the pockets of billionaires?

Rest assured, soccer fans, if there is a truly insatiable hunger for the MLS in St. Louis, the MLS will come. One of the benefits of free-market capitalism is that supply is usually driven by demand. Starbucks doesn’t buy real estate and erect buildings out of the kindness of their hearts; they expect to make a healthy return on their risk and investment. If soccer in Missouri was a gold mine just waiting to be tapped, as MLS2STL would have you believe, then wealthy white dudes from all corners of the globe would be jostling for position to fund it privately.

The Winnipeg Jets (once the Atlanta Thrashers of the NHL) were moved back to Manitoba, in large part, because the minor league hockey team that sprang up after their original departure had terrific attendance figures (averaging 8,404 paying customers a game in 2010-2011). St.Louis’ current minor league football club averages about half that (4,923). Get the attendance up to 10,000 a game and the MLS would be tripping over its own feet to plant a team here. Literally, if the demand was that intense, the MLS couldn’t afford not to expand to St. Louis. This only serves to reinforce an uncomfortable truth for the MLS2STL crowd; this was far from a sure thing, and the proposal was a terrifically risky one, despite all of their assurances. Instead of trying to persuade us that if we build it, they will come, why don’t we build it if they come? 

When Robert Kraft wanted to cash in on the sports entertainment dollars that the New England market had to offer, he put his money where his mouth was and paid for the construction of Gillette Stadium privately. Why are the rules different for St. Louis? Because there was real money to be made in Boston, not here, and as result, some skittish millionaires wanted to hedge their very questionable bets in Missouri by gobbling up all of the tax dollars they could. Forget about what the city needs. Forget about the 90,000 people (out of a meager population of 300,000) living at or below the poverty line. Forget about our schools, forget about our crumbling infrastructure, (will it take a bridge collapse like there was in Minnesota or a highway collapse like there was in Atlanta to wake us up first?) what this city really needed was another stadium for another professional sports franchise.

“If you grew up poor — as this native of Compton, Calif., did — you might understand why I find it so disgusting to raise taxes on people living below the poverty level to fund professional sports stadiums.

On Monday, MLS ownership fraternity brothers Robert Kraft and Stan Kroenke, whom you may know, voted with the majority of NFL owners to approve the Oakland Raiders’ move to Las Vegas. As the New York Times pointed out, Las Vegas officials committed to giving $750 million in public subsidies to build the Raiders a new stadium even though “Clark County school officials voted last spring to increase public class sizes and to close a school for at-risk students. There was simply no money.”

The SC STL folks would point out that their request is more modest than what the Rams and Raiders sought before deciding to bail on the cities where they settled after leaving their previous Southern California homes.

They are right, but $60 million can still go a long way toward fixing the community. Let’s put the figures down for you, $60,000,000. Those are a lot of zeroes. That’s just one of the public subsidies SC STL partner Jim Kavanaugh seeks now from St. Louis voters. He’s also a part owner of the Blues, who are hitting up the city taxpayers for millions to upgrade Scottrade Center.

It’s important to note that I’ve yet to see an independent study that says communities get the economic return that teams claim when seeking financial help with stadiums.

Most of the local MLS supporters want you to take a leap of faith and believe their projections. It’s almost as though everybody forgets that Kroenke exploited the bad deal St. Louis made to lure the Rams from Los Angeles.” [Post-Dispatch]

The rhetoric before election day was already divisive and incendiary. When Mike McHugh – a columnist for the Riverfront Times and avid soccer fan who I cited earlier – wrote an article detailing his opposition to the proposition, the comment section devolved into menacing threats. I was able to read one such threat before it was moderated. The author mentioned how he enjoyed watching English Premier League games at The Amsterdam, a local sports bar. Let’s see you show your face in there again after writing that piece of trash, one angry supporter commented. When the city refused to take this leap of faith, the MLS2STL supporters expressed outrage and contempt. All over a game. All over a stadium. Imagine if they were this passionate about ending poverty, fixing our healthcare system, or paying our teachers a living wage?

The failed bid to build a home for an MLS expansion team exposed a nasty fissure between the city and the county. The county citizens (as is often the case, former city residents themselves that fled to the suburbs of the county long ago) wanted another entertainment facility on the city’s dime. Citizens of the city made it emphatically clear – both through their words and through their votes – that this was not a prudent plan, and would not have been a wise expenditure. What’s stopping these spurned county citizens from building their own stadium in the county? Missouri is as red a state as they come politically (only a handful districts voted for Mrs. Clinton in the last Presidential election), and a tax increase in the county would be about as popular there, as, well, Mrs. Clinton. A publicly funded stadium is good business for the city, but not the county. Well, surely, this begs the question: if it’s such a fail-safe idea, why isn’t it on the county’s to-do list? The answer is simple – the county views the real problems of the city, like crime and poverty, as an annoyance – and the city exists solely to entertain them. We should cough up when they say so. Is it any wonder city residents (like myself) balked?

Unlike some people on the political left, I genuinely love professional sports. Team sports taught me character, and the lessons I learned on the field of play have deeply informed my professional and personal life. They aren’t meaningless hobbies for jocks. Sports are important, and if you’re a massive soccer fan, I understand why the results yesterday must have felt like a kick in the teeth. Yesterday’s vote wasn’t a vote against soccer, however, it was a vote against forcing the city pay for a team it didn’t need. Forget about soccer for a moment; how does a stadium become a sane priority for a city with a $20 million dollar budget deficit?  How could St. Louis – a city in which 25% of its citizens live in poverty – have possibly justified another stadium when they are already paying on the bonds for an empty one?

To be blunt, this entire saga has been illuminating, and says a great deal about the county’s priorities. Additional money shouldn’t be used for frivolous things like public safety, public health, and affordable housing because St. Louis isn’t entertaining enough, says the county. St. Louis isn’t loose enough with the purse-strings for the county. St. Louis has problems that could really be improved by adding another sports franchise (even though it has already lost two NFL franchises before), says the county. The county was, and is, completely wrong. Crime, poverty, and income inequality are far greater – and crucially, more mature – concerns than adding more sports entertainment. Good job, St. Louis, on making a responsible decision.

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