When the Saints go marching out

November 16, 2005|By SCOTT WALLSTEN

WASHINGTON -- Immediately after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Big Easy, Saints owner Tom Benson indicated that the National Football League team would remain loyal to New Orleans.

Apparently he's had a change of heart. Rumor has it he's now considering moving the team to greener pastures in Los Angeles or San Antonio. Not only that, but Mr. Benson has an escape clause that lets him void his Superdome lease without paying any penalties or repaying any subsidies the team has gotten so far. Mayor Ray Nagin, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and the good citizens of New Orleans are shocked.

They shouldn't be. Major-league sports are big business. And one of the things this business does best is fleece cities.

Other cities and states thinking of pouring taxpayer dollars into these millionaires' coffers should take note. Cities think of teams as theirs, but subsidies don't buy loyalty. A team will drop its so-called hometown in a heartbeat if someone hands it a bigger wad of cash.

Owners get these handouts by employing a strategy worthy of inclusion in an NFL playbook.

First, they complain about existing facilities and demand that taxpayers build a new stadium. Second, they court other cities and threaten to leave if their current hometown refuses to bend. They complement these demands and threats with promises of economic revitalization, studiously ignoring solid research that finds no net positive economic benefits from public investments in stadiums.

Finally, they pretend to be good citizens by offering a few free tickets for poor kids and creating a community fund. Those giveaways are dirt cheap: A few million dollars for parks and playgrounds sounds great but is barely a rounding error compared with the hundreds of millions handed out in government subsidies.

The city typically caves in and builds the stadium, complete with massive cost overruns. Then the team plays in its new digs for a few years and starts the process over again.

Although Mr. Benson has raised fans' ire with his threats, it looks as if this time-honored strategy is working just fine in Louisiana. Apparently, even with only the threat of moving, the state is considering paying for improvements to the Superdome.

The NFL now appears to be backtracking somewhat, with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue claiming that the league's commitment to New Orleans is "very strong," though he won't say what that means.

Maybe the NFL and the Saints are just playing the old good cop (Mr. Tagliabue), bad cop (Mr. Benson) routine to trick the city into giving the team what it wants.

But they might also realize that the current brouhaha over the Saints offers a real opportunity for cities to end the destructive cycle of threats and subsidies.

The strategy of playing cities against each other wouldn't work if cities refused to play the game.

Normally it would be impossible for cities to collectively swear off the subsidies. The seduction of the big leagues is just too tempting. But the situation with the Saints is different. All over the country, people opened their hearts and wallets to hurricane victims. After a record outpouring of donations, it shouldn't be too hard for politicians to agree to not spend taxpayer dollars luring the region's team away. After all, who wants to be known as the mayor who stole a team from a devastated city?

Imagine if nobody was willing to give major-league teams a penny in handouts and if they had to survive by playing sports rather than politics. The teams wouldn't disappear. Sports are profitable and can survive just fine without handouts. A national agreement among politicians to not lure the Saints away through subsidies might just be a first step toward eliminating this particular brand of unproductive corporate welfare.

Scott Wallsten is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior fellow at the AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies.

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