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Indianapolis Mayor Proposes "Municipal Alliance for Taxpayer Equity in Sports"

As the NFL lockout soldiers on, the natives are starting to get restless. No, I don't mean the fans or the owners or the players or even the media. I mean the politicians. This coming weekend, Baltimore will host the 79th Annual Conference of Mayors, and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard is using the occasion to put forth a proposal that cities with professional sports teams join forces as the Municipal Alliance for Taxpayer Equity in Sports.

In a letter (.pdf) Ballard is circulating among his fellow Mayors, he says his objective is: create an alliance of cities with professional sports franchises – particularly in the four major sports (NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL). Via the Alliance, member cities could work cooperatively to (1) protect capital investments and income interests associated with the teams and (2) retain teams on economic terms that equitably balance contributions from municipal taxpayers, player compensation and returns to team owners.

Ballard also maintains that he has had this idea for some time and that it wasn't inspired by the NFL lockout, but in my ever-so-humble opinion, that's baloney. Of course it was inspired by the lockout, or more specifically by the chance that the loss of the 2011 season will mean communities with NFL teams will get no return on big public investments made over the last two decades.

As Ballard notes in his letter, more than $6 billion in taxpayer funds have been used to build or refurbish 29 of the 32 NFL stadiums since 1992. When we talk about the way that the game has changed over the last couple of decades, the focus tends to be inside the box: bigger paydays for free agents, bigger contracts for top draft picks, soaring revenues from TV deals. But there's also been a big investment of public dollars on the NFL's equivalent of infrastructure that's helped make it possible for the league to make mountain after mountain of money.

And for Ballard, the situation is especially acute, since his city is supposed to host the Super Bowl next February, and so stands to lose not only the fruits of a regular NFL season, but those of the sports world's biggest event as well.

Ballard also sees his proposed Alliance as a vehicle to help communities avoid being used as leverage against one another by professional sports teams. One of his proposed "short-term action items" is "[d]eveloping and reporting recommendations to the members on how to preserve and protect municipal investments against loss from league or team actions (team insolvency; team movement, etc.)." And then there's this:

A municipality’s relationship with its professional sports franchises can be of great financial and emotive importance. Professional sports franchises can lead to urban development, financial opportunities and city pride. They can also attract and retain potential employers and employees. Conversely, however, there may be opportunity costs associated with public spending on sports-franchises, especially in environments where a city’s investment in a stadium or other infrastructure can become unbalanced over time or be threatened by unanticipated events.

"A city's investment in a stadium...can become unbalanced over time." This caught my given the long-simmering controversy over the Bengals' "sweetheart" stadium deal that's been the subject of not one, not two, but three of the first nine Whodey Perspectives. In other words, it's obviously a sore point with the Cincinnati front office. And of course the deal has been a favorite target for local politicos as well. So a head's-up for this weekend to see if Ballard's idea gains any traction, and if Cincinnati officials are interested in joining the cause.