By Scott Reeder | Watchdog.org
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The most miraculous baseball play of 1988 didn’t happen in a ballpark but in the Illinois Statehouse.
What occurred in the waning minutes of June 30 of that year marked one of the most unseemly displays of political gamesmanship in the history of a state known for its corruption.
It also marked a national milestone in government subsidies flowing to sports teams.
In the waning minutes of June 30, 1988, Gov. James Thompson was literally racing the clock to pass a $120 million subsidy for the White Sox before midnight, when the legislative session would go into overtime and a super majority would be needed to pass legislation.
“Back then, this whole idea of government providing money to build ballparks was a totally new concept. It had never happened in Illinois before, and I don’t know if it happened elsewhere in the country to any large extent,” said Charles Wheeler III, professor of public affairs reporting at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Wheeler covered the White Sox subsidy debate for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1988.
When the subsidy vote was brought before the House, a majority of lawmakers voted against the proposal but instead of counting the votes, the presiding officer left the roll call open as Thompson walked to the desks of each lawmakers voting “no” and persuaded them one by one to change their votes.
The last lawmaker necessary to make a majority switched his vote when the hands on the main clock in the House Chamber were a few minutes past midnight, but the presiding officer Majority Leader Jim McPike said it was a few minutes before midnight on his watch and declared the bill passed.
Thus began the modern era of subsidized sports stadiums.
According to an analysis by Bloomberg News, taxpayers have spent $4 billion on subsidies for sports structures since 1986.
Study after study has found little to no economic benefit to these types of handouts.
And yet communities large and small continue to subsidize the building of stadiums and ballparks.
“It’s not about economic development. It’s about civic pride,” Thompson said in an interview with Watchdog.org. “Ballparks should be viewed the same way one views a museum or an aquarium. It’s not about the economic impact on the community. It’s about the quality of life it brings to a community.”
Thompson, a longtime Chicago Cubs fan, said it should be a matter of pride for Chicagoans to know they are one of only a handful of American cities with two major league baseball teams.
“It’s the national pastime; we should take pride in it,” he said.
But that pride comes at a price, said Andrew Moylan, a senior fellow with the R Street Institute, who has written extensively on sports subsidies. The R Street Institute is a free-market think tank based in Washington, D.C.
“Are these deals a good idea? The short answer is no. The long answer is hell no. Any type of analysis that has been done on this subject shows that there is no benefit to the taxpayers to provide these type of subsidies,” he said. “There is really no disagreement among economists or academics on this. The only place you hear any positives is from advocates like team officials or elected officials. The record is clear, but unfortunately the record hasn’t been enough to stop these types of subsidies.”
Sports teams are beloved institutions with multigenerational followings and often with rich heritages intertwined with the community itself.
“Nobody wants to be the guy or girl who lost the team,” Moylan said. “Nobody wants to be the politician on watch when a team left because they couldn’t get a stadium deal done. There are people who live in fear of this.”
In fact, it was something Thompson dreaded.
“I grew up a Cubs fan and I still am, but I did not want to lose the White Sox. They are something we can be proud of as a community. We were the home of the 2005 World Series, because we kept them here,” he said.
But there were private interests that also benefited handsomely from the subsidy.
Among them was one of Chicago’s wealthiest residents, Jerry Reinsdorf who owns the White Sox and the National Basketball Association’s Chicago Bulls. For the first 18 years of U.S. Cellular Field’s existence, he didn’t have to pay any rent for the White Sox to play there.
Two years ago, the Sox began paying $1.5 million per year in rent. Still compared with the overall operating costs of the team, this is miniscule. For example, White Sox pitcher Jake Peavy is paid $17 million annually.
“Basically, these deals socialize losses and privatize profits,” Moylan said. “If the team is a failure and isn’t attracting fans, taxpayers are going to be eating the cost of these stadiums, but if the team is a wild success and it ends up in the Super Bowl or the World Series, the taxpayers don’t get to see any of that upside.”
Rather than viewing it as a subsidy, it should be looked at as a public/private partnership, Thompson said.
“Look we built the stadium. But they are doing their part too. The White Sox payroll has to be more than $100 million a year,” he said.
The leverage that teams use to get subsidies is to threaten to move elsewhere, but it is a threat usually not acted upon.
Thompson noted the White Sox stayed in Chicago, even though the $120 million subsidy Illinois initially offered was less than what Tampa was willing to give at the time.
“In reality, teams moving is a relatively rare event. We have these stadium fights all of the time, and we have people threatening to move all the time, and yet it is very infrequent when it happens,” Moylan said.
“There is always some marginal city out there that is willing to throw money at this. Oklahoma City lured the Supersonics from Seattle. Kansas City is always angling for a basketball team too. Unfortunately, these cities are willing to give money— and take the taxpayers for a ride.”
There are also hidden costs to these stadium deals that the taxpayers never learn of.
For example, what did Thompson offer those holdout legislators during the final minutes of the 1988 legislative session to get them to change their votes? It remains an enduring Illinois mystery.
“I’m not saying,” the former governor said recently. “I’m saving the answer to that for my memoirs — and I’m not planning on writing any.”