Football stadia of this era were conceptualized as being akin to libraries and parks: College teams would be performing for the public’s benefit, and tickets would be cheap so anyone could attend. Bearing in mind that all money figures in this book are stated in today’s dollars, 50-yard line seats at the 1939 USC-UCLA contest cost $38. Through the 1930s, football facilities such as Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium were built in large part to create construction jobs to counter the Depression, and were priced as public goods. When I attended Bills games at War Memorial as a boy, the bleachers were $7 per head, and the best seats in the house were $45.
After the 1930s came World War II, with all economic activity diverted to military materiel. During the 1950s, the primary concern of nearly all levels of government was building housing and highway infrastructure for returning veterans; the secondary concern, expansion of state university systems.
By the 1960s, interest was growing in a new wave of stadia for professional football. There still was relatively little television money in NFL coffers: Most owners could not have afforded to pay for a field on their own, and lacked the clout to arrange financing. Government help was required. This situation—the NFL can’t afford to build a new stadium on its own—persisted through the 1970s or into the 1980s, depending on the franchise in question.
By the current generation, every NFL owner could pay for his or her new stadium, and now capital markets can arrange financing unassisted. Yet the many-decades-old assumption that taxpayers should support football stadium construction continues. Owners take advantage of the belief, on the part of taxpayers, that public money ought to be employed to build or upgrade NFL stadia. In the 21st century, this belief is archaic nonsense. But so long as politicians act as if the assumption were still valid, why should NFL owners dissent? Local pols and civic leaders are more to blame for the situation than NFL owners.
Taxpayer subsidies for NFL fields are offensive both because the league can now afford to pay its own way, and because ordinary people are paying to build facilities so nice that they’re priced out of ever using them. In September 2014, when Fox staged its initial 49ers telecast from the gleaming new Levi’s Stadium, the play-by-play man Joe Buck marveled, “They spared no expense on this stadium.” They being California taxpayers who were watching on TV because they couldn’t afford to come in, with 2014 season tickets selling for $2,850 to $14,000 per seat.
In 2014, the average NFL ticket cost $85, twice the inflation-adjusted cost of a generation ago. Parking at $25, beer at $12, and soft drinks at $9 are common, with nearly all concession revenue kept by NFL owners. Team Marketing Report, a Chicago consultancy, calculated that in 2014 a family of four spent $635 to attend a Dallas Cowboys home game sitting in regular seats, not in a suite or on a premium concourse; $625 for the same family to attend a Patriots home game; $600 for a Washington home game. That typical people are taxed to fund NFL facilities, yet only the expense-account set can afford to enter, ought to be a source of populist uproar.