Wednesday’s Book Review: “Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit”

ProductImageHandlerField of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit. By Joanna Cagan and Neil deMause. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1998; rev. ed. University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

Many writers have explored the subject of how owners of sports teams persuade, cajole, threaten or otherwise intimidate state and local governments into building them at public expense magnificent sporting arenas. This is a fine example of this genre of muckraking journalism. It focuses on the large number of sports specific arenas built at public expense around the nation in the 1980s and 1990s to the tune of some $1.5 billion dollars. Since this book first appeared in 1998, this trend has continued as virtually every major league city has been held up by owners for new stadiums and indoor arenas.

Like most journalism “Field of Schemes” is best in the specifics of telling stories of individual efforts to oppose inititives to build new sports complexes. It follows the stands made against the owners in such cities as Detroit, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Seattle. I should add that in every case a new stadium eventually was built with significant taxpayer involvement. The only small success in these fights was in San Francisco, where the Giants actually paid for the stadium but not before the city made many internal infrastructure improvements to the area.

The best part of the book is Cagan and deMause’s delineation of the steps taken by the owners to obtain new stadiums. The playbook goes like this:

  1. The Home Field Disadvantage: the assertion that the current stadium is so old and in such poor shape that it simply must be replaced.
  2. Faking a Move: claiming that unless the situation in the local city is remedied the owner will have no choice but to move the team.
  3. Leveling the Playing Field: claims that the team is unprofitable and cannot compete effectively without a new stadium to draw fans to the game and raise revenue.
  4. Playing the Numbers: commissioning one or more reports that argue that investment in a new stadium will yield a tremendous return through the creation of jobs, rise of investment in business near the stadium, and the like.
  5. The Two-Minute Warning: owners setting a deadline for a decision to build a new stadium or a move of the team to another city will take place.
  6. Moving the Goalposts: As agreement seems to be reached, even sometimes when the agreement is already signed, the owner demands more concessions from the city; cost overruns, technological add-ons such a retractable roof, and the like.

As my father used to say, when someone robs me, I want them to use a gun. Regardless, city after city has placated the designs of owners rather than employ the slogan from the Reagan anti-drug crusade, “Just Say No.”

It’s an interesting problem. This book is cathartic for those of us frustrated by billionaire owners sucking dry the local government, but doesn’t do much to resolve the problem. Cagan and deMause do offer two suggestions that I liked. First, force the leagues to allow public ownership of teams. The Green Bay Packers have been publicly owned by the city of Green Bay for decades and it has worked out quite well. But when Ray Kroc’s widow tried to give the San Diego Padres to the city, along with an operating trust, Major League Baseball prohibited it. Now that Donald Sterling is going to be forced to sell the Los Angeles Clippers NBA franchise—good riddance Donald—why not allow the city to become majority owner?

Second, before any deal is to be done anyplace, anywhere, with any governmental entity, force the team in question to open its books for audit. Is it really losing money; is it really unable to compete? Don’t take what the owner says at face value. Make the franchise prove it. Until elected officials grow some backbone and stare down the owners the situation will not improve and ordinary Americans will continue to subsidize these activities even as our schools and our roads and bridges and other elements of our nation crumble around us.

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