Editorial: The joy of sports without tax dollars

They make for infuriating reading, these e-mails between 49ers officials and the City of Santa Clara. In the view of Mayor Gavin Newsom, they show bad faith on the part of the team’s ownership, which all along pretended it was committed to a sports complex at Candlestick Point.

The Niners defend themselves by claiming they were just probing The City’s greater geography for comparisons, attendance possibilities and all the other exercises businesses perform in the name of sober responsibility. And the mayor himself is said to have fumbled the deal, so naturally — even while he toured the Philippines — last week his office produced the damning electronic communications so that team owner John York would be forced to share some of the rap.

Forgive the gridiron metaphor, but we can understand why the mayor needed to regain some yardage. We, too, felt our enthusiasm blocked just an inch or two beyond the line of scrimmage. When, last summer, the Niners announced they’d forego voter-approved bonds and finance the complex themselves, we applauded. It’s a sound principle, keeping these athletic diversions private.

Disappointed, hurt, angered as we all must feel, this newly opened wound begs us as a community to reconsider why we subsidize professional sports in the first place. The joys, the heroics, the virtues of football notwithstanding, it’s time to ask: Has the game grown into a civic religion? Are the economics really that beneficial?

In truth, all this acrimony, especially bitter after the loss of the 2016 Olympic Games, was predictable — all part of stadium politics known to too many cities. As Doug Bandow, then a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, wrote back in 2004: “The only reason more franchise owners decline to construct their own stadiums is because taxpayers so often relieve them of the need to do so.”

Over the last few years, however, taxpayer resentment against such corporate welfare has mounted. Just last month, for example, Sacramento voters rejected a sales tax hike designed to build a new arena for the Kings basketball team, whose owners, the hotel- and casino-owning Maloof family, could have done it themselves. Tellingly, it was the city’s political class, not the taxpayers and the fans, who most wanted the arrangement.

We’d guess York knew he could structure the necessary financing privately. Indeed, he announced to the world last summer that he would do so — at Candlestick. But the politicians still insisted on being part of the action.

The best current thinking among economists holds that publicly-financed stadiums seldom if ever approach self-financing, as fans would spend the same recreational dollars elsewhere without them. In other words, those dollars are “substitutional.” There’s no “multiplier effect.”

It’s time the Niners, however much we love them, live or die without the taxpayers.

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