As owner of the Atlanta Falcons, Arthur Blank runs a class operation that represents the city well. And as such arrangements go, the proposal to build a $1 billion Falcons stadium downtown with $300 million in taxpayer subsidies is reasonable and probably fiscally sound.
But still ….
The NFL is easily the most profitable sports league on the planet. All 32 of its teams are included in Forbes’ magazine’s list of the 50 most valuable sports franchises on the planet. (The Falcons are listed at 35th with a value of $831 million, up from $545 million when Blank bought the team in 2002.) And because live sports programming is becoming more and more valuable to advertisers, lucrative new contracts will bring more the league more than $6 billion a year in TV revenue beginning in 2014. That represents a 50 to 60 percent increase.
Now contrast that prosperity with the fiscal plight of state and local government. Thousands of workers have been laid off in Georgia, including police officers, firefighters and teachers. We tell ourselves that education is the key to prosperity, but in many cases we can’t afford to keep our kids in school for the once-standard 180 days a year. Our transportation infrastructure is inadequate to meet the demands placed upon it, yet any attempt to raise taxes to generate the necessary money is rejected.
Overall, we’re told, government can no longer do the things we want it to do; it must do only those things that we need it to do.
Given those realities, why should the Falcons demand that the public subsidize their new stadium, particularly when the publicly funded Georgia Dome continues to serve that purpose admirably?
The short answer is also the honest answer — because they can. They don’t really need the money, or even a new stadium for that matter, but in a sports-mad world they can get it. So why not? Everyone else is doing it. It’s a “bigger is better” league, from quarterbacks that go 6-5, 275 pounds to stadiums that charge fans a five-figure fee just for the right to later buy tickets. And in that hyper-competitive world, it is considered unacceptable for the Falcons to be condemned to play in the 20-year-old Georgia Dome, the 10th-oldest stadium in the league.
Under the proposed terms, the Georgia World Congress Center Authority would supply the land for a new stadium, plus contribute roughly a third of the construction cost. That public contribution would be raised through a 30-year extension of the hotel/motel tax. Proponents of the deal argue that because the hotel/motel tax is paid by visitors to Atlanta, rather than by residents of metro Atlanta, it is somehow less of a tax. However, it is also money that by a simple act of the Legislature could be diverted to purposes more crucial than subsidizing a quite profitable sports franchise.
Under the terms of the proposal, the Falcons “will retain revenue streams from the new stadium, including tickets, premium seating, food and beverage, sponsorships, naming rights and certain parking revenue.” That’s for all events at the stadium, not just Falcons games. In return, the Falcons will pay the state authority $2.5 million a year. For the sake of context, that’s about what the team pays an offensive lineman.
And again, in the universe of such deals, the Falcons could perhaps have demanded even better treatment.
Assessed from a purely practical point of view, such a deal is still hard to justify. But this is the world of sports, in which rationality and practicality are often bench players to irrationality and emotion. If any other line of work inflicted the concussions, the crippling injuries, the long-term brain damage and shortened lifespans of football, for example, it would have been legislated out of existence long ago.
Instead, we pack stadiums and find ourselves yelling at our TV sets, driven by the human thirst for pride, glory and rushes of adrenalin, even if they have to be experienced second-hand and subsidized with money that would be much better spent elsewhere.
– Jay Bookman