April 2017Campaigns

Local officials unite against NFL stadium extortion ploy

The fate of RFK Stadium and the land on which it sits were put in play earlier this year when DC and Maryland political leaders, wary of a giveaway to the local NFL football team (whose nickname is a racial slur that will not be mentioned in this article), went on the offensive.

The aging ballpark is about to be abandoned when DC United, the local soccer team, moves to its new stadium at DC's Buzzard Point, which is expected to be completed next year.  Daniel Snyder, the football team's famously money-grubbing owner, has made no secret of his interest in leaving Fedex Field, his own past-prime home in Landover, and returning the team to its historic neighborhood and site of all of its Super Bowl seasons, as distant as their memory might be.  He'd like to return, that is, if the price is right.  Which is a brand-new stadium, paid for by the DC government.

Owners of sports franchises around the country have become skilled at shaking down their municipalities to build publicly financed stadiums for them.  These owners and their boosters argue that the stadiums, and the teams they house, provide not only fun and games for the fans but also contribute to the economic development of the surrounding community and the city at large.  However, study after study has shot down this thesis, and evidence shows that stadiums can actually be a drag on the local economy, both due to direct costs to local governments as well as the "opportunity costs" -- land used for a stadium can't be used for housing, or parks, or industries that employ the local workforce year-round.  In their book Field of Schemes:  How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit, Joanna Cagan and Neil deMause cited a report by the Heartland Institute which found that "professional sports teams generally have no significant impact on a metropolitan economy."  The report looked at 30 cities with new stadiums; of those, 27 had no impact on the economy, and three -- including FedEx Field -- actually harmed the economy.  (One might think Heartland, a famously conservative think tank, would be sympathetic to the athletic-industrial complex, but in this case they stuck by their principles of limited government).

Armed with this information, DC At-Large Councilmember David Grosso and Maryland Delegate David Moon of Montgomery County introduced bills in their respective legislatures to form an interstate compact to prohibit the use of public funds or lands for a stadium for the team.  The idea is to unite DC, Maryland and Virginia in opposition to public financing, which would prevent Snyder from playing divide and conquer.  Both Grosso and Moon also cited the team's racist nickname, with Grosso, interviewed by the Washington Post, citing his difficulty in "cheering for a team that's so disrespectful to indigenous people."

Both the Maryland and DC bills have steep hills to climb, and both jurisdictions have stadium boosters to overcome.  In DC, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans has led the cheers for football in DC, on the city's dime if necessary.  Mayor Muriel Bowser came into office talking about bringing football back to DC, but lately she has been hedging her bets.  A factor in her evolving thoughts might be vociferous opposition from the neighborhoods surrounding RFK, which have been clamoring for parks and recreation facilities that benefit the neighborhood, not a hulk that sits empty in a sea of parking for all but eight home games a year (plus a handful of special events), and when it is being used offers the neighbors little but crowds, trash and parking headaches.

DC, of course, already has opened up its wallet to sports franchises on a number of occasions.  Nationals Park was built with public money, as is the under-construction home of DC United.  The Verizon Center, on the other hand, was largely funded by Abe Pollin, the late owner of the Washington Wizards.  This arena, the home of both the local basketball and hockey teams and close to transit hubs in the center of DC, is a rare example of a local sports stadium contributing to economic growth, helping turn once-blighted Chinatown into true destination for locals and tourists.  Growth around Nats Park, however, has come in fits and starts since it opened in 2008, and the promised renaissance of the Half Street gateway to the park remains unfulfilled.  FedEx Field, largely inaccessible to transit in suburban Maryland, did less for the local economy -- at least in terms of developmental impact -- than a maximum-security prison would have (a prison would have at least provided better-paying jobs).

No sponsors for the Grosso-Moon bill have come forward in Virginia.  And that could be Snyder's ace in the hole.  In the unlikely event of a DC-Maryland compact coming together, the team would be Virginia's -- if the state would be willing to pay the price, i.e. to soak taxpayers for the cost of construction, land and infrastructure. For the rest of this year at least, the state has a football booster-in-chief in the form of Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

Meanwhile, Rebrand Washington Football (RWF), a grassroots organization that has been pressuring Snyder's team to drop its racist nickname, sent a letter asking the DC Council's Committee of the Whole to hold a hearing on Grosso's proposal.  It asks members of the public to do the same by writing Council staffer Evan Cash at ecash@dccouncil.us.  And since the Interior Department controls the land under RFK, which it leases to the city, RWF has urged Ryan Zinke, the new interior secretary, to refuse to renew the lease – which expires in 2026 -- unless the team changes its name, a stand taken by Sally Jewell, Obama's last interior secretary. So far, Zinke has been mum on the issue.

In the end, the team might wind up decamping to Virginia.  Or, a happier ending would be all three jurisdictions balking at a giveaway to a multimillionaire team owner, and Snyder having to pay the cost of the stadium himself, wherever he builds it.  But more communities around the metropolitan region are coming around to the position that they're not going to pay for it, and neither will they shed any tears if it gets built somewhere else.

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