After a week off, John Oliver and his award-worthy HBO program Last Week Tonight are back, and this time, they’re targeting one of America’s favorite pastimes: pro sports. But first, a disclaimer. “I love sports. In fact, the only times I’ve cried as a grown man have been while watching actors playing coaches deliver inspirational speeches set to stirring music,” announced Oliver.
Then the Brit launched into a fascinating segment targeting the stadiums of professional sports teams, which he said “nowadays look like they were designed by a coked-up Willy Wonka,” pointing to the Jacksonville Jaguars’ in-stadium cabanas and swimming pools, and the Miami Marlins’ massive aquariums behind home plate. Unfortunately, taxpayers are footing the bill for these extravagances.
“The vast majority of stadiums are made using public money,” said Oliver, citing a report from 2012 stating there’s been “$12 billion spent on the 51 new facilities opened between 2000 and 2010.” “Which begs the question: Why?” he asked. “Sports teams are wealthy businesses with wealthy owners and they still get our help. Two years ago, Detroit got approval to spend more than $280 million in taxpayer money for a new arena for the Red Wings just six days after the city filed for bankruptcy—even though the Red Wings owner is Mike Ilitch, the founder of the Little Caesar’s pizza chain, who’s worth an estimated $5.1 billion. That’s a little hard to swallow.”
To make matters worse, the sports teams get to keep all the revenue the stadiums produce—including naming rights—and the replacement rate for stadiums is more than 90 percent. Many teams “get their stadiums funded through tax-exempt municipal bonds,” said Oliver, including the Miami Marlins, who were granted $500 million in public money toward their new stadium in 2008 after claiming they couldn’t afford to build it themselves. The Major League Baseball team refused to open its books when questioned by city officials, and leaked documents later revealed the team had generated $50 million in profits over the previous two years.
“Pretending you’re poor is wrong. It wasn’t OK when Mary-Kate Olsen went through her hobo phase, and it’s not OK now!” screamed Oliver.
This chicanery is so thoroughly ingrained in sports culture that it’s even featured in the “owner” mode of the Madden NFL 15 video game. In real life, NFL teams the Oakland Raiders, St. Louis Rams, and San Diego Chargers are all threatening to leave their cities unless they get new stadiums, and in Madden NFL 15, the easiest way to get a new stadium is to choose to relocate your team—and the best city choice for stadium relocation is Los Angeles since, according to the game, “they’ll pay for $783 million of your stadium costs.”
Pro sports teams have even manipulated the public into believing the onus is on the city to keep these pro arenas in town, with rapper C-Siccness going so far as releasing the rap song “Save Our Bolts,” pleading to keep the San Diego Chargers in town, and the Milwaukee Bucks’ recent TV ads explaining how much economic prosperity a new stadium would bring to the city. But the theory that building a new stadium boosts a city’s economy is, according to an economic study cited by Oliver, a total myth. “A major review of almost 20 years of studies shows economists could find no substantial evidence that stadiums had increased jobs, incomes, or tax revenues,” he said.
Recently, Hamilton County, Ohio, spent more than $50 million on stadium debt service and other costs in 2014 for the Cincinnati Bengals and Reds, even though the county has had to sell a public hospital, cut 1,700 jobs, and delay payments for schools because of budget gaps. The NFL’s Bengals even have a deal whereby if 14 other teams’ stadiums introduce a new feature, they must, too—no matter how unnecessary it is or how exorbitant the cost.
“The Bengals have a deal whereby if someone invents holographic instant replay in the future, the county has to buy it for them,” said Oliver. “Teams get these deals because they know politicians will capitulate and give them whatever they want.”
“We have to come to our senses and stop signing these deals.”