Column: Your Tax Dollars at Play

Subsidizing stadiums means fewer dollars for schools
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

With tax day just past, it’s a good time to ask where our money should go – and where it shouldn’t. I don’t have all the answers, of course – but I’m convinced one expenditure should end immediately: stadium subsidies.

Two years ago, the New York Yankees signed third baseman Alex Rodriguez to a contract that will pay him $275 million dollars in exchange for 10 years of catching, throwing and hitting a baseball. That puts him ahead of his teammate, Derek Jeter, who has to get by on a mere $189 million for his decade of duty. Sucker.

Whenever teams sign contracts like that, the player’s agent always justifies it by saying, “Well, that’s what the market will bear.”

If that were true, it would still be insane, but at least there would be a logic to it. After all, if any team is dumb enough to pay someone that kind of money, and if a family of four wants to pay $200 to see that guy play – well, then, so be it. That’s how free markets work.

But the free market doesn’t come close to paying these guys’ salaries. Who picks up the gap? You do – every time you pay your taxes.

When teams spend money like that, they suddenly realize they need a fancy new stadium with luxury skyboxes to generate the kind of revenue necessary to pay those ridiculous salaries. So, they demand state and local governments build them one – and most of the time, that’s exactly what those states and cities do.

The United States is home to 99 major league baseball, football, basketball and hockey arenas and stadiums. According to Judith Grant Long’s research at Rutgers University, the teams that play in those places have received subsidies totaling $21.3 billion. That’s billion, with a ‘b.’

To pay for the Silverdome, the Palace and Comerica Park, Michigan taxpayers have coughed up $616 million – which is about average.

Rodriguez’s team, the New York Yankees, just built a shiny new stadium for $2.3 billion – and had the nerve to ask the taxpayers to pony up half of that, over a billion dollars. But the Yankees get to keep all the team’s profits, which is how they pay guys like Rodriguez hundreds of millions of dollars to do something your kid does in the backyard for free.

What do the taxpayers get? The bill, that’s what – while New York City’s school system is facing a $4 billion deficit, and a massive layoff of 15,000 teachers.

It doesn’t have to be this way. And, just across the border, it isn’t. Canada is home to eight major league teams. But Canadian taxpayers don’t pay for their stadiums. Their teams do – just like they should – and the taxpayers spend their money on their schools. It’s a novel concept.

Somehow, Canada ranks second worldwide in student literacy, and the U.S. ranks 15th. Fine. But we lead the world in sports salaries. U-S-A! U-S-A!

More good news: Rodriguez is doing just fine, thank you – except for the steroid scandal, that is. He’s already hit two home runs this season, and since he gets paid about $800,000 per homer, he’s already made more than 30 New York City school teachers will this year – combined. Provided, of course, they don’t get laid off.

Taking candy from a baby may be immoral – but taking money from students, and giving it to sports stars, should be illegal.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.


  1. By Rod Johnson
    April 23, 2010 at 10:40 am | permalink


  2. By Jay Barth
    April 23, 2010 at 11:32 am | permalink

    How can you be so cruel? If sports teams had to foot these bills, guys like A Rod would have to get by on say 20 Mil a year instead of 27…the guys who make 16m would be reduced to 12…It’s enough to bring a tear to glass eye…
    On lighter note, just imagine…this is peanuts compared to what we waste in Washington…:-)

  3. By Anon-U-Are
    April 23, 2010 at 1:11 pm | permalink

    John, Good points all.

    But don’t forget college stadiums. The non-profit U-of-M is building a $226 million stadium and will reap the benefits of people buying luxury suites, and then writing them off on their taxes.

    Close the loophole that allows 80 percent of cost of buying a suite to be tax deductable.

  4. By David
    April 24, 2010 at 8:34 am | permalink


    Could not agree with you more, but you are barking at the moon.

    Even were sports teams and stadiums to come off public welfare, it will have little impact on school funding, as it is an article of faith among the teabaggers that all teachers are overpaid, underworked, and lazy, and that school districts are a huge waste of taxpayer dollars.

    If you doubt this, just check the rantings and ravings by “readers” (their comments indicate they seldom actually read the article on which they are commenting) anytime there is an article about school funding and/or teacher layoffs