American taxpayers have spent more than $12 billion on pro sports stadiums over the last 20 years, yet the billionaire owners of those facilities somehow keep all the profits.
A blistering report on Sunday's edition of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver took a deep dive into the racket that professional sports franchises are running as they extort public funds to finance arenas and stadiums. Oliver began the segment with a riff on inspirational coach speeches from movies and TV shows before exposing the over-the-top features of these new stadiums including party cabanas, swimming pools overlooking NFL games, and a fishtank that runs along the perimeter of the Miami Marlins home field.
"Most stadiums today look like they were designed by a coked-up Willy Wonka," he joked.
In one of the ultimate examples of corporate greed illustrated in the report, Mike Ilitch, the billionaire owner of the Red Wings, who made his fortune in Little Caesars Pizza, asked the bankrupt city of Detroit for $283 million to build a new rink. Oliver explained that while schools are closed and public employees are laid-off in cities like Detroit because of budget gaps, providing owners like Ilitch public funds for a new arena is hard for citizens to swallow.
"Not as hard as a Little Caesars Crazy Bread with an assortment of Caesars dips," Oliver argued, "but still pretty hard."
Perhaps the greatest injustice amid the billions of dollars rich sports franchises are taking from taxpayers is that they never give any of it back. Teams reap all the rewards from selling naming rights to the stadiums they build with public money, they keep all the profits from the concession stands, luxury boxes, and other events, like concerts, held there.
Oliver then goes on to explain how monetizing stadiums has become so ingrained in the culture that even the Madden video games feature "owner" modes that allows players to set ticket prices, upgrade stadium amenities, and even relocate your franchise.
Threatening to leave town is not a tactic limited to video games. Real-life sports teams that make piles of profits routinely cry poor and demand public funds to build new arenas and ballparks. If those funds don't come through, owners threaten to move their team elsewhere. In the NFL, Los Angeles could potentially land three franchises, with the Raiders, Rams, and Chargers all looking for new state of the art homes.
According to a study cited in Oliver's report, pro sports stadiums are replaced at a rate of more than 90 percent. Many teams promise economic windfall for the cities that finance their stadiums, but Oliver referenced studies that found just the opposite, that new stadiums sometimes even negatively impact surrounding small businesses.
"Rather than spend $1 billion on a stadium," Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation, quoted an economist as saying, "you're actually better off flying a plane over a city and dumping $1 billion on the populace and just letting them pick up the money and spend it."
Oliver closed the report by conducting his own inspirational halftime speech in which he urged viewers to put an end to the practice of publicly financing private sports facilities.
"The next time a team comes around asking for a new stadium," he shouted, "I want you to make them pay. What are you going to do? What are you going to do?!"
What we should have all done a long time ago: "Make them pay!"