No more Stupid Bowls, Stupidomes

Long before kickoff, we know two things about Super Bowl XLVII. A coach named Harbaugh will win, and taxpayers will lose.

The Super Bowl, like major golf and tennis tournaments, big races, and many other high profile sporting events, has become a corporate junket haven. Big business splashes out millions of tax-deductible dollars to entertain itself and its best customers. Even the famed Super Bowl commercials that some TV viewers anticipate more highly than the game that this year cost $4 million per 30 seconds, are paid for with advertising funds written off against profits. But that corporate welfare is just a sideshow when it comes to picking taxpayers’ pockets.

The New Orleans Superdome, this year’s Super Bowl venue, has been the beneficiary of hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds. Its original construction cost of $165 million in the 1970s translates to more than a half billion dollars at current prices. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, another $156 million in public money went to repair the stadium.

The Superdome is hardly the biggest or most questionable recipient of government funding among sports venues. The extraordinarily profitable New York Yankees received more than $1 billion in public financing, plus 22 acres of public parkland to build a monument to themselves, the new Yankee Stadium. Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the Yankees’ self-proclaimed number one fan, spearheaded the sweetheart deal for his favorite team.

The family that owns the Yankees, the Steinbrenners, also got a half-billion dollar windfall when my old pal Boss George Steinbrenner died during the estate tax holiday. There’s no evidence the Steinbrenner family or Giuliani were involved in the timing of Boss George’s death.

Aside from capital investment, stadiums deals generally include years of tax abatements and exemptions that add up to hundreds of millions of dollars, plus tens of millions in additional spending for related infrastructure, such as roads and other transportation connections. Stadiums are the gift from government that not only keeps on giving, but keeps on costing.

As a city planner, I often heard the case that stadiums are good investments of public money because they generate economic activity. But those benefits are virtually impossible to prove. Except for construction costs, additional economic activity generated by these projects largely represents shifting discretionary spending from one use to another, say from shoes and dinners out to game tickets and hot dogs. Even where there may be added economic activity, the so-called benefit goes to the ballclub and everyone else has to cross their fingers to hope something trickles down to them. Particularly in times of concern over government spending and debt, that’s hardly seems the best investment of public money.

But if politicians insist on indulging their edifice complex and building stadiums, then they should ensure that taxpayers get something real out of it. As a condition of accepting public funds, stadium developers should be required to offer a number of seats, say 100, for every event to taxpayers, chosen by lottery, for a nominal fee, say $5. Imagine if 100 lucky fans from the state of Louisiana could rock up to Super Bowl XLVII with the corporate bigwigs, or if average New Yorkers could get Yankee tickets at a substantial discount to their average price of $86.

A few dozen tickets at knockdown prices aren’t enough to justify using taxpayer money for stadiums; that question needs to be vigorous debated on a case-by-case basis. But where the decision is made to use public funds, taxpayers deserve a sure thing to show for it, a guarantee that the regular people footing the bill, not just moguls, come out winners, just like a Harbaugh will in Super Bowl XLVII.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.