Monday, February 06, 2012

The Giants' Owners, the Georgia Dome, and the NFL as Crony Capitalism

Sometimes, my column ideas come as the result of days of thought.  Other times, the idea comes to me in the shower.  This column is the latter, so I'm interested in your thoughts on whether I'm off the reservation.  Here is the gist:

Last May, FC Barcelona won the Champions League for the third time in six years. On the two previous recent occasions that the club won the title, the trophy was presented to team captain Carles Puyol. Puyol is an iconic figure, a native Catalan who came up through the team's youth ranks and is noted both for being a great leader on the field and for looking like a caveman (or at least a Dokken roadie). When Barcelona won the title last May, Puyol gave the honor of lifting the trophy to Eric Abidal, the team's French left back. Abidal had had an excellent season for Barca, playing both left and center back because of injuries, before he was felled by a liver tumor early in 2011. Abidal recovered in time to play in the Final, where he shut down Manchester United right-winger Antonio Valencia. Thus, there were few fans around the world who weren't a little touched by the scene of Abidal receiving the Champions League trophy from his countryman Michel Platini, himself a French legend who led the French side that won the European Cup in 1984 and made the semifinals of the World Cup in 1982 and 1986.

Forgive me for sounding like a Eurosnob* for a moment, but the presentation of the Lombardi Trophy last night didn't quite have the same flair. (Watch trophy presentation video here.)

Instead of a football icon handing the trophy over, we get Roger Goodell, a life-long NFL suit who is most noted for giving himself the power to suspend players for any reason he sees fit and for persuading Peter King to write the most sycophantic cover story that I can recall reading in Sports Illustrated. Instead of a club totem like Puyol or a cancer-survivor like Abidal accepting the trophy, we had the New York Giants' owners getting the honor. Puyol and Abidal got the right to hold the trophy aloft because they established themselves as some of the best players in the world at their positions; John Mara and Steve Tisch got the right to hoist the Lombardi Trophy because they inherited the team from their parents. On the list of individuals about whom Giants fans were feeling very strong affection last night, I doubt that the team's owners were in the top 20.
This leads to a complaint about the Falcons having the gall to ask for a new stadium to replace the Georgia Dome, a facility in which they have all of twenty seasons under their belt.  The overall point is that the NFL is a perfect illustration of crony capitalism, an entity that socializes profits by extorting concessions from local government and minimizing the incentives for good management.  Somehow, the awarding of the Lombardi Trophy to the Giants' owners and the Falcons' chutzpah in asking for a $700M new stadium seem linked in my head, although I'm not sure that I properly explained why.

Other thoughts for the director's cut:

1. You'll notice that there is an asterisk with no footnote.  That was going to be a paragraph where I list all of the reasons why the US is better than Europe, including the fundamental contradiction that is the EU (putting Greece and Germany under the same roof isn't a recipe for stability) and our bad-ass technology for blowing things up.  (Generally speaking, I could have just said "our technology.")  When I was done with the footnote, it read like a loyalty oath, so I took it out.  But, just in case you are concerned, G-d bless the USA! (HT: Lee Greenwood.)

2. I was also going to include a footnote to the effect of "I'm not saying that everyone should love soccer because of the way the sport is structured in Europe.  I grew up playing and watching the sport, so I'm not offended by a nil-nil.  Your mileage may vary.  In the old days, I would get mad at Americans who didn't like soccer because that sentiment kept it off of TV.  With the Internet and digital cable, that's no longer an issue, so if you find the sport desperately boring, that's your choice and I respect it."

3. Is there anyone out there who thinks that the Georgia Dome needs to be replaced?  Seriously.  I know the selling point is going to be that the new stadium will be funded by a hotel tax, but a significant number of Georgians will end up paying that tax.  Additionally, if we are going to raise $700M, then I can think of 20 better ways to spend the money.  For starters, how about a moratorium on plunking metal plates down on our roads?  $700M would pay for some pretty smooth surface streets.  The public gets this, hence the significant opposition to a new stadium.  If there are any Polisci students out there, this issue would make for a really interesting thesis.


Robert said...

To me, the pragmatic question in public funding of a stadium is, are you going to lose the team if you don't fund it? So Cincinnati ponies up, because they know that if they don't, the teams will be gone forever. But replacing the GA Dome is a different story. Maybe I'm naive, but the Falcons aren't going anywhere, so this is a good opportunity for the people to stand up and say no to a new building. Renovations, fine, and the Falcons can play at Tech for a year.

JTjarks said...

Hey man, loved your stuff at SB Nation Atlanta. Totally agree w/you about how the owners have turned the NFL, NBA and MLB into glorified slush funds. FC Barcelona, and the Packers too, have a far better economic system:

Ryno said...

Blank has every right to ask for a new stadium, but if the city and its taxpayers foot the bill, they have every right to set the terms of the agreement.

They can begin by making the roof retractable and by making assurances that its MARTA accessible. Blank gets his luxury seats and the city gets a multi-purpose facility that it can use for large events.

Certainly less of a horrid boondogle than the downtown trolley running from Olympic Park to the MLK Center.

Robert said...

No one is saying that Blank can't ask for anything he wants, but the city already has a multipurpose facility. It's less than 20 years old.

And the retractable roof version you're talking about is, what, approx. 20 times more expensive than the streetcar? I'll take 20 or so investments in transit in Atlanta, you can have your multipurpose facility located next to another multipurpose facility that makes Arthur Blank happy 10 times a year.

4.0 Point Stance said...

The NFL owners are able to make these demands because the league artificially keeps the number of franchises low. I don't think there's any doubt that this country could support double the number of NFL franchises it currently has, but by keeping supply low the NFL is able to keep prices up (prices here meaning price to the city that wants the team, not price to fans, TV networks, etc.)

In Europe there are many, many soccer teams. For instance Spain supports 42 teams with a population one-seventh as big as America's. Supply meets demand, so the teams can't wield this great threat of moving over the city's head.

And here's an irony for you. For all the NY Times dilettantes who bemoan how NCAA football takes valuable money away from education, I guarantee you the average NFL team takes in way more in direct yearly government subsidies compared to the average NCAA team. And that doesn't even count indirect subsidies like the antitrust exemption.