When a city bankrupts itself on the debt service of municipal bonds that were issued to keep some local pro team from bolting, residents and fans get the worst of both worlds. Losing teams and crippling interest payments are the signatures of bad deals in Cincinnati, Miami, Phoenix, and Cleveland, which collectively have taken on more than $1 billion in stadium debt to keep the Bengals, Marlins, Cardinals, and Browns in their loss columns.
Nor, nationally, is the debt burden more manageable. According to Bloomberg, American taxpayers are on the hook for $4 billion in stadium subsidies of the total $17 billion outstanding in bonds, which only mean jobs for ushers, investment bankers, parking lot attendants, and team owners.
The major-league losers are the municipalities. Hostage to the private fortunes of professional teams, these cities are saddled with billion dollar white-elephant stadiums that, in some cases, get used 20 days a year.
Most new billion-dollar stadiums do nothing for city neighborhoods. For example, the new stadiums of the Yankees and Cowboys (price tag $3 billion) might as well be on offshore islands, for all that they contribute to neighborhood development.
Nor can most local fans afford the prices to the big-league games. In many venues, tickets and hot dogs for a family can cost hundreds of dollars. Major league baseball publications say a family of four can go to a game for $62, although it must define “go to” as the cost of parking.
To level the playing fields of major-league oligopoly, here are few ideas for professional sports that put fans and cities first:
Create a city league: Given that the World Series is named after a New York newspaper, not the globe itself, I propose a City Series that will group each city’s sport franchises into a formula that can be ranked alongside the results of other cities.
For example, into this formula for New York would go the results of the Mets, Yankees, Giants, Jets, Rangers, Islanders, Knicks, and Nets, and each time a team won or lost a game, the city ranking would change. Newspapers and web sites could track the city standings (with appropriate credit to New Geography, of course).
The calculation would have to take into account that Cincinnati only has the Bengals and Reds, and that Los Angeles is without a football team. Green Bay and Milwaukee might pool their resources. Divisions could be created around the number of teams in a city.
One simple way to rank each city might be according to the average winning percentage of each professional team (weighted by the number of games they play each season). This would prevent big cities from being favored over smaller ones. Perhaps the Super Bowl could be awarded to the winning city?
Handicap the standings in each city according to population size, so that New York is not given an unfair advantage over Kansas City.
The goal would be to show at the end of each year which American city is the best at professional sports, and to give incentive to teams, such as the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Charlotte Bobcats, that otherwise find little reason to try at the end of their dismal seasons.
Imagine the enthusiasm in September if the Cleveland Indians needed a few wins to boost the city average, and its opponent was the Houston Astros. Normally, such a game would draw about 4,000 fans on a cold autumn night on Lake Erie. Maybe now each game would count.
Repeal antitrust exemptions: The reason sports teams can hold their home cities hostage — for sweetheart cable and stadium bond deals — is because Congress made the mistake of giving football and baseball exemptions from antitrust legislation. Are they such precious commodities that we need to limit competition? Under the outdated laws, the leagues, as opposed to the fans, decide which cities deserve a pro team.
Supply and demand ought to govern the number of baseball teams, not the guild of MLB owners determined to limit supply and drive up the prices of sky boxes. Without this cabal, would the hapless New York Jets be worth an estimated $1.2 billion?
Let the market play: With an increased supply, it would not be necessary for cities like Oakland to fear the departure of the A’s to the warmer climes of San José. The team would be free to join whichever league suited their budget and aspirations.
Ideally, many leagues would operate like European soccer, which “relegates” those franchises at the bottom of the tables and allows improving teams to “move up” to the next level.
In such a federation, the Houston Astros and Kansas City Royals might be relegated to Triple A, while the Indianapolis Indians and Durham Bulls would move up to the majors. Right now in most major leagues, losing has no consequences, especially when revenues are shared.
Allow pro sports to be covered as news: Because of the antitrust exemption, teams own their own broadcast rights, which they flog off to friendly networks or use to create a cable empire, as in the case of the Atlanta Braves (Turner Broadcasting, but now owned by Liberty Media).
Under the current system the leagues regulate the video supply, which explains the monopolistic pricing that allows the Yankees to pay Alex Rodriquez $27 million a year for hitting on more starlets than fastballs.
If, however, the results of sporting matches were treated as news (not unlike elections or town meetings), all media would be allowed to cover the games. Without the closed shop of the current arrangements, anyone with a hand-held camera could upload the action.
In this unregulated market, team revenue would collapse in many sports, but the same money would, I believe, be spread more equally among a greater number of players and teams. All we have now is professional oligopoly.
Flickr photo by John Dalton: The Bronx from left field at Yankee Stadium, August 2009.
Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine, is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays. His next book is Whistle-Stopping America.