Edifice complexThis is the 10th season for the top division of US' Major League Soccer. The MLS administration has made it a priority to get as many teams as possible their own stadium. When the league first started, all teams rented space at mammoth stadiums designed for NFL and NCAA gridiron football teams. Many also had no control over parking, concessions and other incidental revenues. As a result, MLS teams have lost a lot of money. Getting as many clubs as possible into soccer-specific stadiums (as the lingo goes) has been an imperative. Besides, even when clubs drew crowds of 20,000, a respectable figure in all but a handful of the world's soccer leagues, it looked empty and completely lacked any atmosphere when spread out in an 80,000 or 100,000 seat stadium.
Right now, four clubs play in grounds designed primarily for soccer: Los Angeles, Chivas USA, Columbus and FC Dallas, which just opened its new Pizza Hut Park last weekend. Chicago and the MetroStars (in northern New Jersey) will build soccer-specific venues. Similar efforts are being pursued by many of the league's other teams.
The MetroStars recently announced plans for their new 20,000 seat stadium in Harrison, NJ, located about a dozen miles from Manhattan. Anshultz Entertainment Group (AEG), which owns the MetroStars, long lobbied state and local officials for financial help in building the stadium.
Eventually, AEG decided simply to build the ground itself; it will pony up the entire $80 million in estimated stadium construction costs. They will also be responsible for any incidentals like environmental reviews and cost overruns. As such, they will have the exclusive right to run the stadium.
The town of Harrison will issue municipal bonds to purchase the land for the stadium and the county will build a parking garage.
This story is interesting for two reasons. First, it's an important statement by AEG of its confidence in the long-term future of American soccer in general and Major League Soccer in particular. They wouldn't spend $80 million (at least) of their own money on this project if they didn't expect it to be a net moneymaker in at least the medium-term future.
The other important message is that taxpayers do not necessarily have to subsidize the construction of sporting venues.
The last half century has littered with unseemly bidding wars between North American cities to keep their professional sports franchises or to steal them away from other cities. This process usually goes like this.
1) Team owner decries outdated stadium. The stadium doesn't need to be ancient. Minneapolis teams have been complaining about their Metrodome since the late 1990s; it opened in 1982.
2) Team owner demands city build a new stadium with lots of expensive luxury boxes, the revenue to which would revert to team owner. He promises to stamp his feet, throw a tantrum and move the team if he can't get what he wants.
3) City says it can't afford such a grandiose structure.
4) Team owner blasts city's selfishness and anti-[insert sport] attitude.
5) Another city offers team owner a new stadium WITH luxury box revenue and promises to throw in the blood of all the city's first born children as an extra incentive.
6) Team owner says 'arrivederci' to the only city his team has ever known.
7) In 20 years, revert back to step 1.
As a result, cities are either extorted into building an expensive stadium (or multiple ones) or they do so to steal a team from another city.
In some cases, cities are bullied into building multiple stadia to replace a single one. In the 70s and 80s, many venues hosted both baseball and American football teams. In recent years, clubs in different sports have been demanding their own stadium. For example, from the early 70s until a few years ago, the Pirates (baseball) and the Steelers (football) shared Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium. When that was no longer deemed adequate by whomever, the city was pressured into building two stadia to replace one... at twice the cost: PNC Park for the Pirates and Heinz Field for the Steelers. Seattle followed the same path.
Who loses? The taxpayer of course. And anyone who uses the social services that are inevitably cut to fund the sports venues built to line the pockets of rich businessmen. Construction which has exorbetant costs and the trickle-down benefits to the local economy often cited by politicians to defend this pyramid scheme are dubious at best.
Or perhaps I should say that cities let themselves be bullied. And in many cases, it's the citizens themselves who put pressure on elected officials to do anything to keep the team. For many cities, having a major league sports franchise is an important ego boost, even if venue construction bleeds the city dry.
After all, Montreal only this year finished paying off bonds for the disastrous albatross of a stadium built for the 1976 Summer Olympics. And now, it's so decrepit (and without a tenant) as to be useless. It's an example of what happens when municipal ego gets in the way of rational analysis.
Forcing owners to build their own venues also makes far more sense to municipalities than self-destructive bloodletting between cities. Walter O'Malley, however infamous he may have been in Brooklyn, built Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles with his own money. Built in 1963, Dodger Stadium still houses the team... even though it was constructed a decade before all the stadiums of the 1970s that were years ago declared 'outdated.'
What's the difference? The Steelers didn't own Three Rivers Stadium and they knew the taxpayers of Pittsburgh would either subsidize a new stadium or the taxpayers of some other city would instead. But as long as the people that own the Dodgers club also own the stadium, you can bet they won't be leaving Los Angeles for greener pastures any time soon... in stark contrast to the former Los Angeles Rams football team, who didn't own the Anaheim Stadium they played in before moving to St. Louis.
And you can bet the MetroStars will remain in Harrison, NJ for a long time too.