Why Sen. Chap Petersen is right: Va. shouldn’t build Dan Snyder a stadium

February 21, 2023 12:04 am

LANDOVER, MARYLAND – FEBRUARY 02: Team co-owner Dan Snyder speaks during the announcement of the Washington Football Team’s name change to the Washington Commanders at FedExField on February 02, 2022 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Thirty years ago, Washington’s pro football team commanded unparalleled loyalty in the Old Dominion and commensurate deference from its elected officials, its mascot named for a slur against Native Americans notwithstanding.

That was then.

That was when the team was a perennial in the NFL postseason and won Super Bowls – something that hasn’t happened in 31 years.

That was when the organization played in the cramped, outdated but cozy and collegial confines of RFK Stadium, which was actually in Washington. That was before the organization lost its identity — literally — and became the subject of investigations by Congress and the National Football League.

Before I go further, a word of self-disclosure: I root for the New York Giants, Washington’s longtime in-conference rival. Plenty of folks who know that would impeach these words on that alone. (If it’s any consolation, I do root for Washington over the Dallas Cowboys.)

My point here, however, is the public policy issue of governments using taxpayer money to erect opulent new arenas for lucrative private professional sports/entertainment franchises and the plutocrats who own them. Neither Washington’s NFL team nor pro football broadly are unique in working that hustle.

To that end, Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, is to be applauded for stiff-arming Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s request to include in the state budget half a million dollars for a “study” on building a new stadium in Virginia for the Washington team, known of late as the Commanders.

What’s to study? If a stadium just 26 years old is not to the liking of Commanders owner Daniel Snyder, he can amass the wherewithal to build one for his team, among the most valuable in the NFL. And what are the odds that the study turns out to be a work of advocacy done by and/or for the very interests who want Virginia (and Virginians) to pay for the team’s cushy new digs?

If the proposed research is to assess whether it’s in the commonwealth’s interest to finance – in whole or in part – top-end infrastructure for the Commanders, study after national study has examined the issue of using public money for private arenas and reached the same conclusion: no.

Independent analyses show that taxpayer financing and incentives for privately owned professional sports teams across America yields, at best, negligible economic benefits to the community’s economy. Sometimes, such deals play out to a community’s detriment.

Economic research in 2017 by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis showed that economists overwhelmingly disapprove of public subsidies for sports venues as a way to foster growth within communities. Eighty-three percent of economists in a poll done that year agreed that “providing state and local subsidies to build stadiums for professional sports teams is likely to cost the relevant taxpayers more than any local economic benefits that are generated.”

One economist cited in the St. Louis Fed’s research, Michael Leeds, said that if every pro sports franchise in Chicago — baseball’s Cubs and White Sox, the NFL’s Bears, hockey’s Blackhawks and  basketball’s legendary Bulls — were to suddenly vanish, the hit to Chicago’s economy would measure a fraction of a percent.

Sports franchises have deep emotional attachments in the markets they serve and the owners of those teams have no qualms about threatening to move them if a state or local government won’t allow them to socialize their costs yet privatize the profits. That was among the findings reported in 2019 by the University of California at Berkeley’s “Berkeley Economic Review.”

Public financing, the report said, helps billionaires pay less for a service that they can afford, calling it “an unnecessary privilege rather than a necessity.”

“The owners will be compensated handsomely through the profits received through ticket sales, corporate advertising, and concessions over the next several decades,” the Review said.

The NFL — the most popular and successful of America’s pro sports empires — and its franchises are among the most aggressive in strong-arming the public sector, often under an implied or even explicit threat to decamp for other cities more willing to avail the public purse to them. The only NFL team not held by high net worth individuals or families is the Green Bay Packers, collectively owned for 100 years by a nonprofit corporation’s 537,000 Cheesehead shareholders. This explains why it has thrived in the smallest city of any major pro sport, using the same hallowed stadium the past 66 years.

The most pitiable example is St. Louis. The NFL’s Cardinals called St. Louis home for 28 years before moving in 1988 to Arizona. In 1995, the Rams left Los Angeles and its 72-year-old Coliseum, twice an Olympic venue, for a domed stadium in St. Louis. The Rams moved back to LA in 2016 and now share posh, new SoFi Stadium with the city’s other NFL team, the Chargers.

No city wants to be St. Louised.

SoFi is one of just three NFL stadiums built without public funding, according to reporting by the Buffalo News. The other two are MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, home to the New York Jets and the Giants, and Gilette Stadium near Boston, home to the 21st century’s most successful NFL team, the Patriots.

Petersen recognizes the proposed Commanders’ stadium study for what it is: the camel’s nose beneath the tent. 

Petersen recognizes the proposed Commanders’ stadium study for what it is: the camel’s nose beneath the tent.

– Bob Lewis

Washington’s football team has gorged at Virginia’s public trough before. In 2012, the team’s then-general manager, Bruce Allen (brother to former Gov. George Allen) joined then-Gov. Bob McDonnell and Dwight Jones, Richmond’s mayor at the time, to announce a sparkling new preseason training facility in Richmond’s Scott’s Addition neighborhood.

Richmond, in a Rube Goldberg deal with regional hospital giant Bon Secours, plowed millions of dollars into the enterprise, betting that local lodging and hospitality industries would reap a windfall from fans flocking to a couple of weeks of summer training camp in late July and August, the peak of Richmond’s suffocating summer swelter.

It was a losing bet. The team used the facility from 2013 through 2019, and in each of those years, Richmond paid the franchise $500,000 to cover the expenses of trucking its operations from its home base in Ashburn to Richmond and then back up Interstate 95 when camp ended. The NFL’s COVID-19 protocols kept the team in Ashburn for 2020. It last used the Richmond facility for a handful of drills in 2021. It has since sat idle on 17 acres of prime real estate.

Since 1997, Washington has played its home games at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, nearly 50 miles east of its Loudoun County practice facility. At age 26, the stadium is hardly ancient, but it’s the NFL’s ninth-oldest because of a building boom in which 17 new stadiums came online since 2000. During that span, the burgundy and gold posted the league’s sixth-lowest winning ratio — 41.9%.

To be fair, Washington isn’t alone in shaking down communities fearful of being St. Louised. The Buffalo Bills extracted nearly $1 billion in public support from New York for a $1.4 billion stadium expected to open in 2026. In Nashville, public officials are balking at the Tennessee Titans’ demand for a $2.1 billion domed stadium to replace 24-year-old Nissan Stadium.

Virginia can refuse to be dictated to by a wealthy sports franchise. It’s why Chap and the Senate should stand firm.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]