Municipal stadium rip-offs: A new direction for the Occupy movement?

I always thought that it was a problem for the Occupy Movement to begin in late summer (2011) and then basically close up shop as fall turned to winter. Demonstrations like those of Occupy Movement are more what we would call “fair weather sports.” It takes a great deal for a person to camp out in an urban center under the best of circumstances, and only the real pioneers among us can endure the hardships of winter camping.

Since the movement began, there has not been a massive flow of money from the very wealthy to poor and middle income citizens. If economic conditions have gotten better for those who were suffering in late 2011, it is primarily due to the “rising tide lifts all ships” phenomenon. The wealthy seem to have their status in our society well established, maintaining their so-called fair shares of the income and wealth pies.

I recently read a critique of the Occupy Movement, suggesting that what the movement lacked was a clear and definable goal. I’m not sure that I thoroughly agree with that contention. But if organizers were looking for an issue that is clear, definable, concrete and outrageous, they might want to focus on the way professional sports barons in America and the players who do the heavy lifting for them systematically screw communities in need all across America.

Nearly twenty years ago, the civic and state leaders of St. Louis, Missouri ponied with hundreds of millions of dollars to lure the Los Angeles Rams football team from the West Coast to the Midwest. It may seem odd, an aging rust-belt city like St. Louis out-bidding a fast and furious metropolitan area like Los Angeles, but the situation was complicated. St. Louis private financiers  who were willing to underwrite what Los Angeles’ leaders would not. The state of Missouri had fewer obligations than the state of California, and so the situation was ripe for Los Angeles’ loss to be St. Louis’ gain.

nfl-logo-aThe St. Louis consortium wanted the Rams so badly that they focused almost all of their attention on the front end of the agreement, feeling that, if they could perform magic for 1995, they would be able to duplicate it in the future. The tail end of the twenty year stadium agreement had a “killer provision” in it. It stipulated that the Rams were free to leave St. Louis if, in the team’s opinion,  the St. Louis stadium was not in the top 20% of all NFL stadiums. In another era, such a provision might not have been a problem. For instance, when the Astrodome opened in 1965, it was so far advanced compared to other facilities for both football and baseball that it was certain to be among the top 20% in 1985. It was, but then a plethora of new domed and outdoor stadiums were built for prosperous teams. The status of the Astrodome sank so quickly that by 1998 the Oilers football team left America’s fourth largest community and fled to Tennessee. A new domed stadium had to be built in Houston in 2002 to attract an expansion franchise.

Here’s a key thing about the St. Louis Stadium (currently named the Edward Jones Dome). Even if it’s somewhere in the bottom 80% of NFL stadiums, it’s in excellent condition, and it’s a fine place to watch football, as well as a number of other events. Presumably fans go there to see two teams compete against one another in one of America’s most popular sports. They can do that. No additional money other than for normal maintenance needs to be spent.

In Miami, the Dolphins football team is trying to get hundreds of thousands of public dollars to cover the cost of improvements to Sun Life Stadium. Again, the football team can play there for decades, and the fans can enjoy the game for decades without any major improvements.

What’s key is that the NFL is forcing perpetual “improvements” to existing stadiums of construction of new stadiums, all to bring in more revenue for the teams and its players. If St. Louis spends money to put its venue in the top 20% of stadiums, then some other city’s stadium falls out of the top 20%. The NFL will then push that city to put in improvements, needed or not. The public continues to get screwed and the wealthy become richer. The same is happening in virtually every other major sport in the United States and many other countries as well.

So if the Occupy Movement wanted to focus on an example of the top 1% getting richer while the poor and middle class citizens getting poorer, the National Stadium Subsidy Dance would be a good place to start. The more silent the public in any one city, the easier it is for teams in other cities to screw their fan bases, the residents of their community, and America at large.

If I ever was a decent organizer, those days are behind me. But I would love to see a community organizer in any of the three dozen or more U.S. communities with professional sports franchises come forward to network with like-minded people in other cities and get such a movement rolling. Maybe for the sake of theater, they could even occupy a stadium or two.