Despite opening their current, retro-modern ballpark in 1994 – only five years before Safeco Field – the Rangers want a new $1 billion facility and for the public to approve financing half of it.

Share story

Inside sports business

The Texas Rangers made news last week by writing a new chapter in the book on how team owners can hit up taxpayers for new sports venues.

Despite opening their current, retro-modern ballpark in 1994 – only five years before Safeco Field – the Rangers want a new $1 billion facility and for the public to approve financing half of it via vote.

Much knee-slapping and guffawing ensued across the nation by anybody who’s spent two minutes gauging the economic value of committing public dollars to sports facilities. To get the city of Arlington, Texas, to pony up, the ballclub had made noise about moving to neighboring Dallas.

Particularly amusing was their claim they need a new facility with a retractable roof because the current ballpark is too hot in summer.

Over at his Field of Schemes blog, author Neil DeMause could barely contain his laughter as he typed.

“Arlington taxpayers, assuming this is approved, would be shelling out ($500 million) to not to have to drive 20 miles to Dallas to see Rangers games,’’ DeMause wrote. “Plus to get air conditioning.’’

The sports website Deadspin was equally uncharitable.

“New stadiums are always a bad deal for taxpayers, but this reported proposal is especially rotten,’’ wrote Tom Ley.

The biggest bone of contention is there’s nothing wrong with the current taxpayer-funded facility other than team owners apparently not realizing in the 1990s that Texas has hot weather.

This would be akin to Seahawks owner Paul Allen claiming he wants a new roof-enclosed football stadium because it can rain here.

Of course, the Rangers could correct their oversight by paying for a new park themselves. But why do that when they have a municipality throwing boatloads of tax dollars their way?

The literature about how bad an idea taxpayer funded sports venues are dates to the 1994 study by economist Robert A. Baede for the Heartland Institute titled “Stadiums, Professional Sports, and Economic Development: Assessing the Reality.’’ There’s also the Brookings Institution’s “Sports, Jobs and Taxes” study from 1997 by economists Roger Noll and Andrew Zimbalist, DeMause’s “Field of Schemes’’ book from 1998 and “The Stadium Gambit and Local Economic Development’’ study from Dennis Coates and Brad Humphreys at the University of Maryland in 2000.

More recently, there’s the Journal of Sports Economics study from 2007 by Kaveephong Lertwachara and James J. Cochran on the economic impact of sports franchises., and a plethora of papers from Holy Cross economics professor Victor Matheson over the past 20 years.

One reason such studies have become less frequent is there’s nothing new to write about. Virtually every economist not being paid by a team or municipality agrees public funding of sports venues is a terrible idea because it brigs no net economic gain.

“It is essentially one of the only things that we know of that economists actually agree on,’’ Matheson told me in an interview Friday.

And yet, myths persist about the economic benefits of tax-funded venues.

“The real issue is that there are definite winners and losers in this,’’ Matheson said. “And it’s the taxpayer that’s generally the loser, but there’s obviously huge money to be made by team owners and heavy construction and folks like this that have a vested interest in propagating that myth.’’

Sports leagues want taxpayers footing the bill so other owners can later hit up their municipalities for financial handouts.

And that’s where this Rangers proposal goes beyond mirth to actual concern.

After all, the Atlanta Braves already pulled a similar stunt by announcing they’ll ditch 19-year-old Turner Field for a taxpayer-financed park in the suburbs. The Braves claim they wanted out of their inner city digs because their fans live elsewhere – which rates as only a slightly less flimsy excuse than the Rangers produced.

The worry is MLB cities nationwide will soon be replacing 1990s retro-parks en masse despite them being perfectly good facilities. And excuses for using tax money on new venues won’t change.

We’ll hear about the “economic impact” and the “civic pride’’ of stadiums and teams. Or, that it’s for the comfort of fans.

Here in Seattle, the Mariners and Seahawks invoked similar arguments to land a combined $700 million from taxpayers for new venues.

We heard economic benefit arguments during the debate over a Sodo District arena.

That Chris Hansen plan does not involve direct taxation of all residents like in Arlington — where they’d extend a half-cent local sales tax that’s already helped pay for nearby AT&T Stadium.

But Hansen would get up to $200 million in bond funding from Seattle and King County residents. Those bonds would be repaid by taxes collected off arena patrons and he’d also forego property tax by turning arena ownership over to the city.

So, the public would still be partly financing that facility. It’s up to the public to decide whether that can be offset by the civic pride of having new teams.

Something worth remembering as Seattle’s arena quest continues. The stalled Sodo venture opens the door to arena pitches from suburbs like Tukwila and Bellevue. That could create additional pressure to get an arena deal done here, not dissimilar to those used to leverage new parks in Arlington and Atlanta.

The names and places may change, but the tactics and arguments surrounding sports facilities do not. The better versed we are in those arguments — and the facts used for decades to refute them — the more likely we’ll have an honest debate about any potential merits.