Maybe it comes from growing up in Los Angeles and living among the glitterati. But I’ve always been immune to the whole celebrity thing.
I had friends in school who were sons and daughters of actors. I worked at a jewelry-and-trinkets stand in Venice Beach, where movies and television shows were filmed almost daily. My father and I were in a group called the Indian Guides — think: Boy Scouts with headdresses — and one of the other dads was the late Werner Klemperer: aka “Colonel Klink” in “Hogan’s Heroes.” (I always asked him to wear his costume to meetings. He always said no.)
I bring this up now because it strikes me how often local politicians, and sometimes fans, view sports owners as relative cinematic heroes, willing to do anything to please them. We’ve seen it here in Atlanta. Public funding measures for a new Falcons stadium were pushed through at the speed of an ATM withdrawal, even as polls indicated the majority of residents were against it.
The same thing happened in Charlotte, where the city council approved $87.5 million in public money to upgrade the Carolina Panthers’ mere 18-year-old stadium, and only for a six-year commitment from owner Jerry Richardson.
This came following a council session that was closed to the public and the media, but curiously not to Richardson. Maybe he was just there to discuss a new street light or something.
Florida last week balked at committing $379 million over 30 years in public money for Dolphins’ stadium upgrades. Give it time. There was media panic in south Florida when the Dolphins played the, “Los Angeles needs a team” card. They’ll fold. Nobody wants to make a billionaire mad. We want billionaires to like us — and, if possible, pose for a picture.
When asked why politicians are so quick to please owners such as the Falcons’ Arthur Blank, often committing hundreds of millions of dollars in public money, William Perry of Common Cause Georgia said, “I think it’s the celebrity element and the fact that they’re famous people. Politicians almost always want to please those who have the money and the name recognition. When Arthur Blank was down at the capitol, legislators were tripping over themselves to have their picture taken with him.”
We get drunk on sports celebrity sightings. We’re romanced by the talk of new stadiums and their comforts. It resonates more than complaints about police layoffs or teacher salaries. Sports owners know this. The NFL has a Ph.D. in this.
Like any business, the NFL’s primary mission is to make money. It sees new stadium revenue sources as the best way to achieve that. Build or renovate with other people’s money is the league’s sole mission statement.
It would be nice if the NFL showed the same urgency to studying the ramifications of concussions or testing players for human growth hormone. But the bottom line is a higher priority.
Whether it’s Atlanta, Charlotte or Miami, no matter what NFL city is having a stadium issue, commissioner Roger Goodell reads from the same playbook. It goes like this: 1) (your team) needs a new stadium to compete; 2) (your city) needs a new stadium to get a Super Bowl; 3) (your city) needs a new stadium to lure other events.
And did we mention Los Angeles needs a team?
This is the same $9 billion industry that claimed relative poverty and laid off or cut the pay of low-wage office workers during a lockout in 2011. Then owners flew in private jets and rode in limos to their next meeting.
Blank and stadium supporters downplay the significance of $200 million in public money toward construction, citing that it’s a fraction of the overall cost ($1 billion) and it comes from a hotel-motel tax. “Sadly, the public, in a general sense, is not as educated on the structure and nature of a deal. This is a billion-dollar asset that will be owned by the state …” Blank said at the Super Bowl.
I’m not a business guy. But I thought an asset was something you can reap a financial benefit from. Blank/Falcons get all the revenue from all events in the new stadium. That effectively makes it his asset. As for the economic impact of hosting big events, the Georgia Dome, in its present form, hasn’t struggled in that department. I believe the Final Four was just here.
The $200 million figure also has been misunderstood. That’s for the stadium’s construction, not maintaining and operating it. By law, 39.3 percent of the city’s 7-cents-per-dollar hotel-motel tax must go to the project. Even if the tax only matches the recent $18 million annual contribution to the Georgia Dome, that equates to $540 million over 30 years. If that same revenue grows at 2.65 percent annually, according to one study done for the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, it would reach $900 million.
Even taking inflation into account, we’re way past $200 million. Stadium proponents argue that this is like comparing what you pay for a house over the life of a mortgage. OK. But it is my house, my asset — and I didn’t have a hotel-motel tax to tap into when I bought it.
Perry has been one of the more vocal opponents of the stadium deal. Until the bonds are finalized, he’s holding out hope for the public to have a voice in this, against all odds.
“This is a lot of public money. People should have a seat at the table,” Perry said. “But we got the door slammed in our face.”
Only the privileged can get in the door.