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Milwaukee’s Billion Dollar Gambles

One of the biggest philosophical debates in sports is whether a team is a business or a public good, and the answer tends to be whichever suits the person talking at that specific time. As a rule, though, governments tend to think of their city’s organizations as goods, while the team owners think of them as businesses. Discussion of this contrast has been circulating for the last few years as public funds have been allocated to stadiums or sporting events rather than to other areas of society that need money as well.

Jack Moore already covered this topic in depth as it relates directly to Miller Park, but the question of public funding remains an issue for the people of the city of Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin. However, there is no way to remove the Brewers and Bucks deals from the context of what is happening across the country, and those other stories do provide hints as to what may occur in the next decade or two in Milwaukee.

The people in the greater Milwaukee area began paying for Miller Park in 1996; twenty years later, that debt is still not paid off. Per Don Walker of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, “the district still owe[d] $195 million” as of March 2015, and this debt will simply grow with the recent decision by the state government to provide public funding for the Bucks new arena. While the stated cost to taxpayers is $250 million, a key lesson we should learn from the Brewers story is that interest and unexpected building costs can raise that number unexpectedly.

An additional factor when considering public money being spent on Milwaukee stadiums/arenas is that Miller Park is now twenty years old, and a vast majority of major league baseball stadiums are under twenty-five years old. So while Miller Park is not yet on the chopping block, seeing a push for a new stadium in the next few years would by no means be a surprise.

Local governments agree to finance these events for a few major reasons, some more altruistic than others. The primary motivating factor for agreeing to fund stadiums for teams that the public owns no part of is fear of relocation. This is exactly what happened with the Bucks; new ownership threatened to leave, and—rather than risk losing the area’s only professional basketball team—the state agreed to funnel a quarter billion dollars towards a sports team.

Other possible factors are either extremely optimistic or extremely cynical. On the one hand, officials can actually believe their cities are better off by having a professional sports franchise because those teams can provide economic benefits or public morale and cohesion. But, at least economically, that argument has been proven invalid repeatedly. And on the other, far more cynical hand, city officials can simply be greedy, expecting that supporting these billionaires plans will have positive impacts for them personally without any regard for the city’s financial health. We almost certainly saw this happen this past weekend in San Francisco for the Super Bowl, when the city paid for an extravagant celebration despite the fact that the game was in Santa Clara.

The relocation fear is probably most real, and it has to hit Milwaukee hard. Because they play in the second-smallest market in baseball, the Brewers are a prime candidate for relocation should a city such as Portland decide it wants to make itself available for a major-league team.

And they need look no further than St. Louis for an example of what can happen when an owner decides to leave. The Rams left for Los Angeles because it offered the owner a chance to make more money, establishing once again that owners view their teams as for-profit businesses and generally do not feel beholden to the city that pays them millions. There is clearly no market open for baseball as attractive as Los Angeles was to the NFL, but that won’t prevent Brewers (or Reds, or Rays) ownership from holding their cities hostage should the opportunity arise for them to milk the public for extra money.

Funnily enough, the flip side of the Rams move may provide the key to this dilemma. The Rams’ new stadium in the Los Angeles area will reportedly be entirely privately financed, thus saving the city millions of dollars. Perhaps, if other owners see that a member of their exclusive club is willing to pay nearly $2 billion without any public help, they will follow suit.

And, make no mistake, this is an issue that needs to be addressed. While many arguments about sports center around public discourse—of which there is more than enough to go around—this one centers on government money, of which there is not enough. Money that is being spent on sporting events could be going towards other, more generally useful causes. And while your definition of “generally useful” undoubtedly depends on your political leanings, one thing we should all be able to agree on is that a quarter of a billion dollars would be better served on a larger group of people rather than to save billionaires a relatively small percentage of their wealth.

Like all other major cities (and most minor ones as well), Milwaukee has some issues. A March 2015 article from the Journal-Sentinel mentions that Milwaukee’s black unemployment rate is nearly twice the national rate. A September 2015 article from Time reports that Milwaukee is one of the poorest big cities in the United States. It would be naïve to suggest that the $250 million that is going to the Bucks arena or the estimated $1 billion that has been (and will be) spent on Miller Park would solve all the city’s problems. Some of that money would undoubtedly have been diverted to other useless projects, and money alone can only do so much, so not all of it would have been put to good use.

But all of that billion dollars was allocated to sports stadiums, which leaves less for solving the other issues. And spending that money did ensure that both the Brewers and Bucks would be in Milwaukee for the foreseeable future, but at what cost? Again, without a clear alternative like the NFL had with Los Angeles, the Bucks and/or Brewers leaving wasn’t even a certainty. Ultimately, though, the state and city decided it wasn’t worth the risk. And as a result, Milwaukee remains among the poorest cities in the country, and is that worth keeping your professional sports teams?

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2 comments on “Milwaukee’s Billion Dollar Gambles”

Blair Engles

You cite that Miller Park is 20 years old??? It is going its 15th season….It is the 11th oldest ball park in baseball. Only one time in the last 44 years has a team relocated in MLB and that was the Montreal Expos. I just find your dooms day scenario a little too early. A major renovation needed to the ball park in 20 years now that would make more sense to me. But alas I do agree the political landscape is crazy in these parts.

Blair Engles

My mistake you said the started paying for it in 1996, my apologies!

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