The Stadium Shakedown

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Casino mogul and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson is trying to bring the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas. But it’ll come at a price for taxpayers.

“We’re only talking about $750 million,” he recently told Yahoo Finance. Only.

This is far from the only time when the NFL came at a big cost to taxpayers and an enormous gain for team owners. Many Atlantic readers are outraged by the trend, including Lori:

In addition to not caring for the safety of their players (in particular CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy]), and the NFL’s response, or lack thereof, to domestic abuse and sexual assault, let me add that I stopped watching football because of the greedy owners who cozied up to public officials and raided the coffers to build lavish new, mega stadiums at the expense of real public goods—parks, schools, safe roads and bridges, small business and entrepreneurial investments, clean water, and more.

Here’s Billy, a former Bears fan in Chicago:

The end of the NFL for me came when I read your article on how the NFL fleeces taxpayers [Gregg Easterbrook’s Atlantic essay, “How Taxpayers Keep the NFL Rich”]. My disgust started with the school systems of Chandler, AZ, and Cincinnati suffering so those municipalities can make their bond payments on stadiums that sit empty for 350 days a year. Then you read about all of the different “deals” owners cut with cities to get new stadiums paid for by anyone but themselves.

And if a city won’t pay, like a 3-year old, the owner takes their ball and threatens to run to another city (L.A. until the Rams absconded, now Vegas). Speaking of the Rams, how does the city of St. Louis feel as it watches in horror as the NFL has ripped their financial hearts out for the second time in the last 30 years?

As Bill Simmons said, billionaire owners can build their own fucking stadiums.

A reader in Cleveland, Mark, goes into much more detail about the stadium issue:

The main reason I have given up is that as much as I love the game of football, I cannot stomach the wretched excess that is the National Football League. I am very familiar with the struggles of my Cleveland Browns. I, however, feel that though the helmet and name is the same, these are not my Browns. They were given to us by the NFL who approved the old Browns’ move to Baltimore with little opposition.

I always use the analogy that the original Browns are our mom while the new Browns are the woman who married your father. They’ll never be “Mom.”

I am not blaming the NFL for the fact the team sucks. They have made bad decisions and had some bad luck. The Browns’ mistakes are their own. And compared to how the NFL has treated cities like Baltimore and St. Louis, we got off easy. But this is not the litany of an unhappy Browns fan.

Specifically, my main issue with the NFL is their frequent and repeated habit of holding cities ransom for new stadiums. Trust me, cities like Cleveland cannot economically justify having a professional football stadium when their schools are struggling and their infrastructure needs attention. Yet time after time, elected officials and voters are forced to prioritize a game over other pressing matters. Our stadium was just renovated to add “state of the art” scoreboards, etc to better enhance the fan experience. All of that was paid for by the Cuyahoga County taxpayers every time they buy alcohol or a tobacco product.

But no elected official wants to be the guy who lost the Browns. The mayor who did lose the Browns was only redeemed because he got an expansion team. But St. Louis just lost their team because their owner created a better deal for himself elsewhere. The Oakland fans are likely to lose their team again. Do they deserve to? No, but Oakland cannot afford to build a billion dollar stadium and then just hand it over to the Raiders owner.

Does the NFL care? No, because Las Vegas will do whatever it takes to bring the NFL to town. They can afford to because there is a virtually insatiable appetite for football. And there must always be a city to use as a threat for relocation so current cities give the teams whatever they want. People want their football and are willing to excuse a lot to have it.

Between the stadium hustle and a dictator-like commissioner who receives over $40 million each year, the NFL has begun to resemble the old Standard Oil. It does as it pleases, and the only thing that matters to them is that each of their games get played. If a player is no longer of value, he can be easily replaced.

They do all of this because they know that we’ll be watching. That’s what’s so frustrating. We want our football fix and we’re willing to do just about anything to get it.