By Kori Chen and James Tracy, guest contributors
August 3, 2010
Santa Clara voters recently approved a ballot initiative giving the city permission to build a $937 million football stadium for the 49ers. The team’s owners have been trying to move the team out of San Francisco for years, and poured $4 million into the campaign to get the initiative passed. While considerable hurdles remain before construction can even begin on the new stadium, chief among them being where the money is going to come from in a bad economy, the owners have made it very clear they intend to leave for the South Bay.
Across the Bay Bridge, the Oakland A’s are in a similar situation. The team’s owners have been disrespecting the fans for the better part of the last 15 years with constant threats and attempts to move the team elsewhere: first San Jose, then Santa Clara, then Fremont, and now San Jose again. None of these attempts have amounted to anything except increasing the anger the fans feel towards the ownership.
What is to be done? We can only say what is heretical, as two lifelong Bay Area residents and sports aficionados: Don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out.
It is common practice in professional sports for team owners to bully local governments into paying hundreds of millions of tax dollars to build sports stadiums. A majority of elected officials are often complicit in deal making with shady owners. And if cities don’t build a park, the owners move the team to a place that will, arguing that stadiums will be a boon for the local economy. In fact, DeMause and Cagan demonstrate in their book, Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit, that sports stadiums rarely ever live up to their purported benefits. Teams make money, not ballparks, so we tax payers subsidize a small group of billionaire owners, making them even richer.
The 49ers and the A’s both have rich legacies that are an exciting part of Bay Area history. Who can forget how the Niners dominated football by winning five Super Bowls and electrifying San Francisco throughout the 1980s and early ’90s? Or the 1989 World Series Battle of the Bay, when the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s faced off against each other and the A’s were led by Oakland hometown heroes like Rickey Henderson and Dennis Eckersley?
We love our teams, and the fact is that they should belong to us, the fans. How much longer are we going to take being held hostage by shady, out of touch owners who don’t care about the communities where the teams reside? It’s time to take our teams back. It’s time to talk about municipalization.
It’s been done before. Not in some far-off socialist country—but in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Green Bay Packers are the only non-profit, community owned major league sports team in the country, and it’s high-time they had some company. Or the Harrisburg Senators, a minor league baseball team in Pennsylvania. In 1995, the city bought the team for $6.7 million. The owners were planning to move the team to a new taxpayer financed stadium in Massachusetts. Instead of caving into demands to build a new park, the city, led by Mayor Stephen Reed, chose to buy the team and ensure that it become permanently rooted and owned in the community.
Oakland and San Francisco could run new major league teams as Municipally Owned Enterprises. Redirecting the outlandish profits made by league owners could be a windfall for things San Francisco and Oakland residents care about like raises for stadium workers, lowering bus fares, improving schools and healthcare. A successful team could break the tired debate about how we fund the public sphere in pieces. Before the owner of the Seattle SuperSonics, Clay Bennett, ripped the team from our neighbors up north and shipped them off to Oklahoma City a few years ago, progressive sports writer Dave Zirin wrote a rallying cry to the people of the Emerald City:
“The Sonics should get their new arena, but instead of the proceeds going to build another wing on Bennett Manor, the funds would go to rebuilding the city’s healthcare and educational infrastructure. Imagine seeing someone wearing a Kevin Durant jersey on the street and knowing that instead of draining the tax base of a city, it was paying for new textbooks in a public school classroom.”
Much of a city’s identity is often linked to its sports teams. If that is the case, then it’s time for a real rebuilding year in the Bay Area when it comes to who owns our teams. The 49ers belong to San Francisco and the A’s to Oakland. Let’s put them back in the hands of the communities they have demanded so much from.