As we enter the drama-filled final week of the regular college football season and the final month of the National Football League’s schedule, forget about GM and Chrysler, Solyndra, or even cowboy poetry readings. Fact is, nothing is more profitable, more popular, and more on the public teat than good old American football. That’s right. You, dear taxpayer, are footing the bill for football through an outrageous series of giveaways to billionaire team owners and public universities that put pigskin before sheepskin.
It’s just not right when governments shovel tax dollars at favored companies or special interests, even when those firms are called, say, the Minnesota Vikings or the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers University. The NFL’s Vikings are lousy at scoring touchdowns – they have the worst record in the NFC North – but they’ve proven remarkably adept in shaking down Minnesotans for free money. Next year they’ll be playing ball in a brand-spanking new $975 million complex in downtown Minneapolis, more than half of whose cost is being picked up by state and local taxpayers. Over the 30-year life of the project, the public share of costs will come to $678 million. The team will pay about $13 million a year to use the stadium, but since it gets virtually all revenue from parking, food, luxury boxes, naming rights, and more, it should be able to cover that tab. Not that the Vikings were ever hard up for money: Forbes values the franchise at nearly $800 million and the team’s principal owner, Zygi Wilf, is worth a cool $310 million. When the Minnesota legislature signed off on its stadium deal for the Vikings, the state was facing a $1.1 billion budget deficit. Priorities, priorities.
The Vikings deal isn’t the exception, it’s the rule. It might even be kind of a bargain. The Atlanta Falcons, owned by a billionaire co-founder of Home Depot, are getting a $1.2 billion pleasure dome built with hundreds of millions of tax dollars. The team gets to sell seat licenses and naming fees and keeps all revenue generated by the facility. In The King of Sports: Football’s Impact on America, Gregg Easterbrook writes that public dollars have covered about “87 percent of the total capital cost of NFL stadia” even though there is zero reason to believe that publicly funded sports facilities ever pay back their costs by increasing overall economic activity or putting more tax revenue in government coffers.
At the college level, the subsidies take different forms but are just as misguided. In a recent interview, Easterbrook told me that Rutgers’ athletics programs get a subsidy from the university of about $29 million a year, the lion’s share of which goes to the Scarlet Knights football team. As the flagship state university of New Jersey, that money is not only coming out of tuition and fees paid by students but out of the pockets of Garden State taxpayers.
As with NFL stadium deals, such lavish, publicly financed gifts are the norm for college football. With the exception of a tiny handful of programs – Ohio State, University of Texas, LSU, and perhaps three or four more – virtually every athletic program at every public NCAA Division I school is subsidized even as administrators plead poverty when it comes to resources for faculty and, as you know, education. Especially in an age of busted government budgets, even the most rabid sports fan should agree that it’s an outrage that the highest-paid public employee in a majority of states is a college football coach (in another 13, it’s a basketball coach). It’s far better to be broke and have a cellar-dwelling NFL franchise, right?
If you watch football this weekend, recognize that most of the drama and meaning is taking place off the field. The way the college and pro games are built on subsidies and giveaways neatly encapsulates crony capitalism at its worst – and helps to explain why taxes go up even as it seems there’s never enough money for basic government functions.