Question: I have a sports law question for you. So the Sacramento Kings tried to leave the city for Seattle earlier this year, but now they’re staying. But as I understand it, they’re staying only because the city promised to pay something like $258 million to help build them a new sports arena. The Kings are a private corporation, aren’t they? Aren’t there laws against handing out taxpayer money to convince a basketball team not to move to Seattle? And if there aren’t any laws against this, what’s to stop me from forming a kickball team and demanding money from, say, the Davis City Council to build me a kickball field in my backyard? For $10 million, I’d totally promise never to move my kickball team out of Davis.
I also don’t understand the cost. If I’m remembering SimCity correctly, it costs $30,000 to build a stadium. Then they pay back $10,000 every year thereafter, in addition to raising property values and preventing citizens from being unhappy. (Casinos, on the other hand, pay out more. But they also raise the crime rate.)
Answer: I’ll give some background for those who do not pay attention to local sports. This is the nutshell version without the details:
The Kings are Sacramento’s NBA team. A couple rich guys were trying to move the team to Seattle, where they were promised a fancy stadium. The NBA and the team’s new owners were upset that the Kings did not have a fancier stadium. But a lot of people in Sacramento really like the Kings. And those people vote. In March, the Sacramento City Council tentatively agreed to shell out $258 million to subsidize the cost of a new $448 million arena (private backers would fund the rest). Most of these millions would come from the money the city normally collects from parking meters and tickets. This new arena convinced the NBA that there’s a good market for the Kings in Sacramento, so the Kings can stay in the area.
Other people think that the city should not spend public money on a sports arena or, at the very least, the voters (not the city council) should decide whether to fund the arena. These people call themselves Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork, or “STOP,” and they are gathering signatures on petitions to call a special election. Their goal is to pass a measure through the special election preventing the city from spending public funds on private arenas without a public vote. They are still gathering signatures. (Incidentally, signature gathering is a great job during times like this. They’re paying petition gatherers between $2 and $5 per valid signature last I checked.)
On to your question. Nothing’s legally stopping your kickball team from enjoying the same public largesse as the Sacramento Kings. Assuming your kickball team carries the same emotional weight with the Davis citizenry as the Kings fans have imposed on the City of Sacramento, you’ll have no problem getting public funds. Of course, you’d want to form a corporation and create a business checking account so it is clear to the city council where the money is going. And the city council is going to want public testimony from your fans asking them to save your team. They will ask you for attendance figures showing that your backyard games regularly sell out, and you’ll need a market analysis attesting to your economic impact on the region. Get those papers together, and you can start slurping at the public trough just like the big leaguers.
There are a few insurmountable obstacles, however. Your primary roadblock is your irrelevance to the citizenry. In short, no one cares about your kickball team.
But a lot of people do not care about the Kings, either. Or the Chargers, or any of the other teams that have convinced their host cities to subsidize them to keep them from moving to another city with a more pliant public treasury.
In 1995, San Diego’s city council passed a “ticket guarantee” bill to keep the Chargers around. They guaranteed the Chargers that they would sell 60,000 tickets for each Chargers game. If the seats did not sell, the city would make up the difference out of its own pocket. And according to a 2010 New York Times article, the cities of Houston, Kansas City, Mo., Memphis and Pittsburgh are still paying off millions in stadium debts from sports teams that skipped town before their bills were paid.
Sports teams do this all the time. Anything outside of baseball, basketball, football or hockey is going to be a tough sell. Good luck with your kickball team.
Daniel is a Sacramento attorney, former Davis City Council candidate and graduate of UC Davis School of Law. He’ll answer questions sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweeted to @governorwatts.