Pro Sports
& Subsidies
& Resources
or Power?
Professional Sports Facilities: Lots to Gain vs. Little to Lose?
A cartoon image of a sick stadium in a wheelchair with a politician by its side asking for money.
long description of image

Professional sports franchises provide a familiar and fascinating example of the politics of interest representation, especially where public funding is being sought for private ventures. The largest cities in Texas all host major professional sports teams – Dallas and Houston boast more than one. As a result, the residents of those cities share their communities with the big business of professional sports, and face the question of how much the public should pay to support these teams. While fans in these cities get the opportunity to cheer for a home team, they also get first-hand lessons in the politics of collective action – specifically, lessons in how small groups of citizens seeking valuable government support enjoy organizational advantages over larger groups of citizens attempting to avoid more widely distributed costs.

The changing economics of professional sports have motivated team owners to seek substantial public funding and support for new, larger stadiums with more features like luxury skyboxes, shopping malls, and restaurants. Citizens of the affected municipalities and counties are often asked to approve referendums that provide considerable public support. This support may take the form of direct cash investments in the stadium, tax abatements or rebates on ticket and parking sales made by the stadium owners, and the construction of supporting infrastructure like highway exit ramps, streets, drainage, and more.

The franchise owners and related businesses – construction and banking – typically form a unified front in support of distributing the costs of construction broadly among local taxpayers. Citizens tend to be less unified in either support of or opposition to such plans. Many love their teams, and are willing to let the whole community absorb much of the costs of a shining, new sports palace suitable to their hometown heroes. Others, including both fans and non-fans, oppose the idea of subsidizing private enterprises. Opponents sometimes form grassroots organizations to fight what is often a lopsided battle against the better financed and organized businesses seeking public support.

The political conflicts in these situations illustrate a common situation. On one hand, a small group of citizens is highly motivated to organize to achieve concentrated benefits – the lucrative returns that a successful sports facility generates. On the other hand, ordinary citizens have much less incentive to incur the costs of political action to prevent costs widely distributed among many payers – a few dollars here and a few dollars there in the form of fees and tax increases. In such situations, the few with much to gain often persevere over the many that, as individuals, have only a little to lose.

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