How to stop billionaires from extorting taxpayers & stealing your local sports team
Earlier today, 30 billionaires decided to rip the Rams football franchise away from St. Louis and move them to Los Angeles.
To be fair, the Gateway City stole the team from Orange County back in 1995. Anaheim had jacked the Rams from L.A. in 1979, which had nicked them from Cleveland in 1946.
This is not the first time St. Louis has lost an NFL franchise. Founded in Chicago in 1898, the Cardinals winged south to The Lou in 1960 before flying on to Arizona in 1988.
Of course, the problem is not confined to football. In the last few years, my home city of Seattle saw its NBA franchise decamp to Oklahoma City, and Montreal lost its pro baseball team to Washington.
It’s almost always the same story: Like a masked highwayman, the team owner brandishes a figurative pistol and demands that taxpayers stand and deliver, lest he shoot them and take his team elsewhere. Typically, the extortion involves massive public subsidies to generate private profit: A fancy new stadium with big luxury boxes to boost the team’s bottom line beyond the league standard — an ever-escalating mark due to these scattered but consistent acts of highway robbery.
Like so many other injustices in life, this sort of thing can continue only as long as we allow it.
In fact, we can exercise substantial leverage in this matter. The NFL’s profits depend largely upon television revenue, which is a byproduct of the antitrust exemption that the federal government granted the league in the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961.
If Congress were to repeal that law, then professional football’s existing revenue model would become untenable. The antitrust exemption allows the NFL to negotiate television contracts as a league and share the revenue equally among teams; this and other measures ensure the competitive parity that helps make the pro gridiron such compelling entertainment.
Because it would be very difficult — if not impossible — for the NFL to develop a new revenue model on short notice, the league is strongly motivated to maintain its existing antitrust exemption.
Our elected leaders can and should use the leverage this gives them. At present, the only benefit the public receives in exchange for the antitrust exemption are provisions in the law forbidding the NFL from scheduling games on Fridays and Saturdays during the high school and college football seasons.
This is good, but not sufficient. As a condition of continuing the antitrust exemption, the federal government should extract one concession from the National Football League:
Congress should force the NFL to end its ban on public ownership of teams.
Ever wonder why a little town like Green Bay still has a pro team? It’s because the Packers are a publicly-held corporation. The Packers will never leave Green Bay because the team is owned by the people of Green Bay, as investors in a joint-stock corporation. This a freedom that the people of every city should be able to exercise: the right to own their local sports franchise.
Unfortunately, NFL rules expressly prohibit it. Green Bay is grandfathered in, but league rules require every other team to have a single majority owner, a fatcat plantation boss who can, when necessary, slap on a highwayman mask, stick up the city and steal the team if the taxpayers ever refuse to fork it over.
When public ownership of sports franchises becomes an option, the hero owner will not be the billionaire who keeps the team in town — it will be the benefactor who sells his majority stake to local people, ensuring that no one will ever be able to steal a team from a faithful fan base.