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Opinion: No taxpayer handouts for pro stadiums

A general view of a game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Cleveland Browns on Oct. 24, 2004, at Cleveland Browns Stadium in Cleveland
Ronald Martinez
Getty Images
A general view of a game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Cleveland Browns on Oct. 24, 2004, at Cleveland Browns Stadium in Cleveland

Professional sports teams can be multibillion-dollar enterprises that employ multimillion-dollar athletes, and charge families hundreds of dollars for seats, then sell them $7 hot dogs and $15 beers.

And teams still have their palms out.

The Cleveland Browns, the Chicago White Sox, and the Capitals and Wizards in Washington, D.C., are among those teams asking their city and/or state governments for taxpayer assistance to improve their current stadium or arena — or build a shiny, state-of-the-art new one.

The unsubtle suggestion is that if local governments don't come across with the cash, those teams will move: to a suburb, or another city, that will grant their wish for public funding. The Oakland A's have already announced they're leaving town for the promise of a brand-new ballpark on the Las Vegas strip, financed by the state of Nevada.

Public funding for sports stadiums is founded on the hopethat games will draw fans, who spend money, and bring business to restaurants, stores, hotels, bars, and these days, sports betting operations. They hope a new arena brings in more tax revenue.

But a taxpayer might wonder: can't the owners of, say, the Cleveland Browns pay for their own stadium upgrade if they have enough money to give Deshaun Watson a $230 million contract to play quarterback?

Lucas Daprile of recently discovered that for the $300 million Cleveland taxpayers might be asked to pay to upgrade their stadium, the city could build new playgrounds in every one of its 172 parks. It could fund its entire Department of Recreation for 16 years. Or it could build 39 public pools and aquatic centers.

Taxpayer assistance for stadiums doesn't come directly out of the playground budget, of course. But there are so many strains on city funds, between roads, schools, police, fire, transit, public housing, and other concerns that seem more vital to the public good than having the biggest Jumbotron and most opulent locker rooms.

I am a sports fan. I know how teams can unite a community. I've seen ballparks invigorate a neighborhood, lend it character, and bring in visitors who spend money, spark investment, and enliven a city.

But safe, clean public parks might help a city, too. They could encourage people to spend not just more money in that city, but their lives.

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Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.