British comedian John Oliver is known for his passionate and educated rants about topics ranging from civil rights to politics, but on this week's episode of Last Week Tonight,Oliver tackled taxpayer funded sports stadiums. Few issues get him as passionate as sports. Yup, sports, or as Oliver says, "the thing you weren't quite good enough at for your dad to love you." Oliver's rant highlighted the frustration and massive financial strain that stadiums put on cities and the underhanded ways that sports team owners get contracts for new facilities.
Most sports fans are aware of the fact that the billionaires who own their favorite team aren't paying for the fancy new stadiums they enjoy. But casual sports watchers most likely don't realize that they are paying for these intricate and insane stadiums themselves.
The vast majority of stadiums are built using public money. One analysis found that between 2000 and 2010 we spent $10 billion building new facilities for professional teams. Which begs the question, why?
One notorious example is Detroit, who gave approval the Detroit Red Wings approval last year for a $283 million stadium... days after the city filed for bankruptcy. And, according to Oliver, despite being funded by taxpayers, the owners keep all the income from the stadiums, including tickets, concessions, gear, and even profits from selling the name — such as with the New Orleans Pelicans, who now play in the Smoothie King Center.
You have to feel a bit for the Pelicans players. It can't be easy to protect your home court when it's named after a slop of yogurt and kale ejaculated from a blender.
But the issue of taxpayer-funded stadiums is actually overwhelming, especially considering that they average a replacement rate of 90 percent. "We replace stadiums faster than we replace Spider-Men," Oliver joked. Despite being owned by billionaires, many of these stadiums get funded by city government through tax exempt municipal bonds, which according to Oliver, are typically used for roads or schools. Sports teams take advantage of these options and lock cities into tight contracts. Sometimes they claim poverty, like the Miami Marlins, who had received $500 million for their aquarium-filled stadium before it came out that they make $50 million a year in profit.
So why do cities agree to these overwhelmingly expensive contracts? According to Oliver, extortion. Sort of. The teams threaten to leave, such as the NFL's Oakland Raiders, St. Louis Rams, and the San Diego Chargers, who are all currently threatening to move to Los Angeles unless they receive new stadiums.
The teams are shameless in exploiting cities' fears. In 1997 the Minnesota Twins ran a controversial TV ad saying 'If the twins leave Minnesota, an 8 year-old from Willmar undergoing chemotherapy will never get a visit from Marty Cordova.' Which is less like the Make A Wish Foundation and more like the Make A Threat Foundation.
The teams also make large promises about how funding new stadiums will improve the city's economy and create more jobs. Oliver cited one ad by the Milwaukee Bucks promising that revenue from a new stadium would go so far as to revitalize all of Wisconsin. "But stadiums rarely revitalize their surrounding areas or create new jobs," Oliver said.
A major review of 20 years of studies show economists could find no substantial evidence that stadiums had increased jobs, incomes, or tax revenues.
Another troubling aspect of taxpayer-funded stadiums is that the cities are locked into these contracts and have to pull the money from somewhere else, such as Hamilton County in Ohio, the home of the Bengals.
Hamilton County in Ohio was estimated to spend $50 million last years on debts and other costs for the Bengals and Reds stadiums, even though since building them they've had to sell a public hospital, cut 1,700 jobs, and delay payments for schools because of budget gaps. And it might not even end there. Because there's a clause in the contract that says in 14 other NFL stadiums have something, then taxpayers must buy the stadium that thing.
These clauses are ridiculous, and help further construction on projects such as aquariums behind home plate at the Marlins' stadium, or large swimming pools for Jaguar fans to enjoy while they watch a game. According to Oliver, there's even a clause for the Bengals that if someone ever invents a holograph replay machine, Hamilton County has to buy it. But it's okay, because Oliver has a suggestion for American sports fans to help them solve the problem: Just say no.
I'm not saying we should have giant aquariums in ballparks full of terrified fish. Of course we should. This is America. If we don't have them, no one else will. But we should not be using public money to pay for them. And yeah, teams might threaten to leave you. That might happen. But I happen believe your cities are more than just the teams that play there. ... I want you to look deep down inside your hearts. I want you to dig in there, and I want you to find something. And it's going to seem tiny, but it's the most powerful thing in the world. And it's the word no.
You can check out the full segment and Oliver's emotional half-time speech below.
Images: Last Week Tonight With John Oliver/YouTube