Why Seattle Needs a Stupid New Sports Arena
And Why All the Lefty Non–Sports Fans Who Are Going to Fight Against It Are Wrong This Time
If "City of Crappy Stadium Deals" is not Seattle's official motto, it should be, considering how thoroughly local taxpayers have been reamed by wealthy team owners over the past couple decades.
Taxpayers spent $384 million in 1997 building Safeco Field after the Mariners threatened to move, followed by another $300 million for CenturyLink Field after the Seahawks threatened the same. In both deals, taxpayers picked up the bulk of the cost but almost none of the revenue from these purportedly publicly owned facilities.
Meanwhile, after the city and state refused to give in to the Sonics' demands for a half-billion-dollar publicly funded hoops palace in Renton, the team left for Oklahoma City.
And more than a decade after its implosion, we still owe $69 million on the Kingdome, while losing millions of dollars a year on KeyArena, thanks in part to a $75 million refurbishment in 1995 that was financed by 20-year bonds but secured by only a 15-year lease.
Like I said, crappy deals. And I opposed them all. Especially the Sonics' most recent attempted extortion.
But honestly, truly... this time it's different.
That's not to argue that our national obsession with freakishly large millionaires shooting hoops, slapping pucks, and otherwise throwing, hitting, kicking, and heading balls isn't stupid. It is. But then, much of what makes life worth living is stupid and irrational, from the entertainingly dreadful TV shows we watch to our willful conflation of love with the hormone-fueled urgings of sexual desire. Even my oh-so-mature adult obsession with politics is stupid and irrational, focused as it is on an exercise that in both practice and coverage is virtually indistinguishable from professional sports, but for the occasional political contest that has actual consequences.
But to those of you who would say that government should have absolutely no role in incentivizing, facilitating, or (gasp) subsidizing a new sports arena, I say: Get over yourself and your hippie/hipster faux-libertarian fiscal moralizing. Cities vie for professional sports teams because people want them. They fill some basic (if stupid and irrational) human need. Even if you have no interest, the addition of NBA and NHL franchises would arguably improve the collective quality of life in our region... particularly for our 11-year-old boys.
The question has never been whether taxpayers should subsidize sports facilities, but rather by how much, to what end, and at what cost to other services? And by those metrics, the public/private proposal announced last week by Seattle mayor Mike McGinn and King County executive Dow Constantine looks to be a helluva deal.
Under the terms outlined at a jam-packed press conference, the city and county would jointly contribute no more than $200 million to a new $490 million facility, the remainder coming from a private ownership group headed by Seattle-born mystery-moneyman Chris Hansen. Unlike previous arena proposals, the public contribution would be capped, with the private investors responsible for picking up the tabs for all cost overruns, maintenance, and future enhancements.
Also unlike previous arena proposals, the public investment would pay for itself, with little or no risk to taxpayers. The city and county would issue $200 million in construction bonds, on a 30-year term, with the annual debt service met through taxes on the arena (admissions, concession sales, B&O, property) plus rent paid by the teams and the facility operator. The teams would also set aside millions of dollars in a capital expenditure fund and a debt service reserve fund, and in years when even the latter fell short of meeting debt service, the teams would be obligated to pay additional rent to make up the difference.
And what if the teams were to attempt to break the lease? The proposal calls for a 30-year lease to match the term of the bonds, with a binding nonrelocation clause. Even in bankruptcy, county and city taxpayers should be covered, with their contribution representing a "senior tier obligation," meaning we would be the first creditors paid. Essentially (if indirectly), the franchises themselves—worth hundreds of millions of dollars—would serve as collateral on the public bonds.
The entire deal is structured to protect taxpayers and general-fund services. No bonds would be issued until the teams were acquired and the private investors ponied up, and only tax dollars generated by the arena—tax dollars that wouldn't otherwise exist—would be used to service the debt. Over 30 years, the arena pays for itself, entirely within both the spirit and the letter of the allegedly anti-arena Initiative 91. "I voted for it as well," McGinn offered of the 2006 city initiative that required professional sports teams to pay "fair value" on publicly financed facilities.
No other city in recent memory has negotiated such a favorable arena or stadium deal; these are far better terms than taxpayers got on Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field, not to mention the half-billion-dollar freebie for which the Oklahomans ransomed the Sonics.
Sure, there's that libertarian Cato Institute study that shows zero net economic benefit from sports teams and their arenas—I myself relentlessly cited it in opposing previous arena proposals. But we all know that discretionary spending isn't really a zero sum game, and we've apparently little problem with taxpayers subsidizing other entertainment venues, like parks, playgrounds, opera houses, zoos, community centers, and the arts.
Indeed, for knee-jerk liberals to attempt to rigidly value all public expenditures purely in terms of dollars and cents that might otherwise be spent on schools or potholes or feeding the poor is to argue so far to the left as to come full circle to the right, embracing a market perspective that can't value anything without a price tag.
And this is not the talk of an eager season ticket holder. I say all this as someone who roots against all of Seattle's professional sports teams. I grew up in Philadelphia during an era of unmatched futility in professional sports. By 1974, the Phillies had not had a winning season since 1967, the Eagles since 1966, and the 76ers were setting new marks for awfulness, having finished the previous season with an all-time NBA worst record of 9–73. By the age of 11, I had no conscious memory of what it was like to root for a winning team, let alone a champion.
And then the expansion Flyers came out of nowhere to beat the crap out of the rest of the NHL on their way to two consecutive Stanley Cups. It is hard to explain what something like this means to a young sports fan, unless you once were one. For example, I couldn't personally give a shit about the late, great Seattle Supersonics, but I don't need to imagine the euphoria their 1979 NBA championship must have brought to my adopted city.
I know. I've been there. It's unforgettable.
You can't put a price on the sense of civic pride that sports teams can engender.
So while I couldn't give a rat's ass about Seattle teams, because I am a Philadelphia fan—a loyalty forged through years of disappointment, plus a few moments of glory-by-proxy—I understand the stupid and irrational pleasure of professional sports. It's one of the things that make a great city great. And if we want our children to grow up as loyal to their hometown as I did to mine, we'd be stupid and irrational not to take advantage of a deal that appears to be as good as any city will get.