In Stadium Building Spree, U.S. Taxpayers Lose $4 Billion
New York Giants fans will cheer on their team against the Dallas Cowboys at tonight’s National Football League opener in New Jersey. At tax time, they’ll help pay for the opponents’ $1.2 billion home field in Texas.
That’s because the 80,000-seat Cowboys Stadium was built partly using tax-free borrowing by the City of Arlington. The resulting subsidy comes out of the pockets of every American taxpayer, including Giants fans. The money doesn’t go directly to the Cowboys’ billionaire owner Jerry Jones. Rather, it lowers the cost of financing, giving his team the highest revenue in the NFL and making it the league’s most-valuable franchise.
“It’s part of the corruption of the federal tax system,” said James Runzheimer, 67, an Arlington lawyer who led opponents of public borrowing for the structure known locally as “Jerry’s World.” “It’s use of government funds to subsidize activity that the private sector can finance on its own.”
Jones is one of dozens of wealthy owners whose big-league teams benefit from millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies. Michael Jordan’s Charlotte, North Carolina, Bobcats basketball team plays in a municipal bond-financed stadium, the Time Warner Cable Arena, where the Democratic Party is meeting this week. The Republicans last week used Florida’s Tampa Bay Times Forum, also financed with tax-exempt debt. It is the home of hockey’s Lightning, owned by hedge-fund manager Jeffrey Vinik. None of the owners who responded would comment.
Tax exemptions on interest paid by muni bonds that were issued for sports structures cost the U.S. Treasury $146 million a year, based on data compiled by Bloomberg on 2,700 securities. Over the life of the $17 billion of exempt debt issued to build stadiums since 1986, the last of which matures in 2047, taxpayer subsidies to bondholders will total $4 billion, the data show.
Those estimates are based on what the Treasury could have collected on interest from the same amount of taxable bonds sold at the same time to investors in the 25 percent income-tax bracket, the rate many government agencies assume. In fact, more than half the owners of tax-exempt bonds pay top rates of at least 30 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office. So they save even more on their income taxes, a system that U.S. lawmakers of both parties and President Barack Obama have described as inefficient and unfair.
Including the Cowboys’ Jones, there are 21 NFL owners whose teams play in stadiums built or renovated in the past quarter- century using tax-free public borrowing. Such municipal debt helped build structures used by 64 major-league teams, including baseball, hockey and basketball. The new generation of publicly owned stadiums was designed to increase revenue from high-priced seating as well as concessions and retailing. The venues have helped double the value of sports franchises since 2000, according to W.R. Hambrecht & Co., a financial services firm.
That growth occurred even after Congress tried in 1986 to bar cities and states from building stadiums with tax breaks originally set up to help local governments cut their borrowing costs for building roads, sewers and schools. Lawmakers’ revisions instead unintentionally encouraged local officials to borrow even more for pro sports, according to Dennis Zimmerman, a retired Congressional Research Service economist who analyzed the act’s effects.
“You have the costs spread out, with small losses to hundreds of thousands -- maybe millions -- of people,” said Zimmerman, who lives in Falls Church, Virginia. In a 1996 government study, he put the annual cost to taxpayers of 21 publicly financed stadiums at $24.3 million.
In the case of Cowboys Stadium, opened in 2009, the subsidy to bondholders will be $65.3 million over 29 years. The 40-year debt issued by the New York City Industrial Development Agency to help build the new Yankee Stadium for owners Hal and Hank Steinbrenner will cost taxpayers $321.5 million. Similarly, a football stadium for the Indianapolis Colts, owned by Jim Irsay, benefits from $209.3 million in tax exemptions, and one for the Arizona Cardinals, owned by Bill Bidwell, $125.9 million. None of the teams would comment.
Stadium finance has changed dramatically since the early 20th century, when baseball’s Chicago Cubs began playing in the privately financed Wrigley Field, writes Judith Grant Long, a professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After World War II, prosperity spurred a wave of municipal stadium construction as cities considered them an economic boon.
The most recent building boom began in the 1980s, as teams sought more premium suites and other ways of amplifying revenue, she writes in an academic paper tracing the history of stadium finance from 1890 to 2005. Team owners covet income from luxury seating, naming rights, retail, parking and concessions because it is generally exempt from league requirements for pooling and sharing revenue from television broadcasts and ticket sales, according to Grant Long.
During the past decade, studies by Grant Long; Robert Baade of Lake Forest College near Chicago; Victor Matheson, an economist at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts; and others have found that stadiums are poor municipal investments. Nonetheless, political leaders are still willing to offer taxpayer-funded aid to team owners -- including muni-bond financing -- to lure or avoid losing a franchise and the civic pride and event-related jobs that go with it.
Without the NFL’s Vikings, Minnesota is in “flyover” country, said state Senator Geoff Michel, an Edina Republican, in an April discussion of financing a $975 million stadium. “This is one of the things that puts us on the map,” he said.
Because leagues control the supply of teams, the threat of relocation has proved powerful and credible. In March 1984, the Colts left Baltimore one snowy morning for Indianapolis and a new $95 million stadium built partly with public debt. Baltimore lured the Browns from Cleveland after the 1995 season with a $229 million muni-bond-financed structure. To land an expansion team in 1998, Cleveland provided a $315 million publicly financed building. The tax-exempt bonds for the new Baltimore and Cleveland venues cost federal taxpayers $69.3 million.
In Detroit, Tony Pivetta says he quit going to Tigers baseball games after the team moved into Comerica Park in 2000. The team’s billionaire owner, Mike Ilitch, tapped Detroit-area taxpayers for $115 million of the $361 million cost of building the stadium. Tax-exempt bonds totaling $86 million will cost U.S. taxpayers $36.5 million through 2027. Ron Colangelo, a spokesman, declined to comment.
“It’s another transfer from the working people to the rich,” said Pivetta, a 55-year-old pension manager in Royal Oak, Michigan. “I’m against any sort of property redistribution, particularly for the richest guy in town.” Ilitch, 83, made his fortune as founder of the Little Caesar’s chain of pizza stores and also owns hockey’s Detroit Red Wings.
In Texas, Cowboys owner Jones started shopping early last decade for a new stadium. The team’s lease was about to expire on Texas Stadium, built in 1971 in the Dallas suburb of Irving. The building had a distinctive partial roof with a hole in the middle “so God can watch his favorite team play,” the former Cowboys linebacker D.D. Lewis once said.
Jones, now 69, bought the Cowboys in 1988 for $140 million. The wealthy oilman from Arkansas hired his old University of Arkansas football teammate Jimmy Johnson as coach and turned the franchise into a Super Bowl winner by the mid-1990s. The Harris Poll found that the Cowboys were still the most-popular club in the NFL each of the past five years.
After Jones failed to line up a new stadium deal with Irving, Dallas and other area cities, Robert Cluck pressed Arlington to bid, according to a history prepared by the city of 373,700 people. Cluck, then a member of the City Council, said he would run for mayor “if I have an opportunity to bring something big to Arlington.”
Located between Dallas and Fort Worth, the city was already a tourism and entertainment center, with the Texas Rangers baseball stadium and the Six Flags Over Texas amusement park.
Cluck won his race for mayor in 2003. The former obstetrician soon met with Jones, who said he wanted to build a $650 million stadium. The city agreed to contribute about half of that, Cluck said in an interview. Jones declined to be interviewed for this story.
“We offered them money to come here and build their stadium,” said Cluck, now 73. “We were just trying to help them out.” He knew after the first meeting that Arlington was “going to get the Cowboys,” according to the city history.
Cluck had to get the council and voters to approve revenue bonds backed by city taxes. To repay the proposed borrowing, voters had to accept a 0.5 percent sales-tax increase, a 2 percent hotel levy and a 5 percent rental-car tax.
In the 2004 referendum campaign that ensued, the Cowboys ponied up $5.1 million spent by a group called “Vote Yes! A Win for Arlington.” An opposing organization called the “No Jones Tax Coalition” raised about $43,000, according to an Oct. 26, 2004, article in the Dallas Morning News on campaign finance reports. The spending mismatch made the fight hopeless, says opposition leader Runzheimer.
On Nov. 2, 2004, as former Texas Rangers owner George W. Bush was re-elected president, the Jones and Cluck families waited out the local results in a suite at the Arlington Sheraton Hotel. They celebrated when voters approved the bonds by 55 percent to 45 percent, according to city election records.
The financing plan relied on the city’s ability to issue bonds paying interest that is exempt from federal income taxes. Almost 20 years earlier, U.S. lawmakers from both parties set out to block muni bonds for municipally financed stadiums as part of an attack on public borrowing for private businesses, according to former Senator Bob Packwood, the Oregon Republican who was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
“We wanted to limit it,” Packwood said in an interview. “It was one of the most egregious uses of the part of the tax code that allowed for industrial development bonds. It was clearly not what the tax code had in mind when tax-exempt bonds were authorized.”
The Tax Reform Act of 1986 removed sports facilities from the types of projects that could qualify for the subsidy. It required such bonds to become taxable if more than 10 percent of the debt for a facility built mainly for nongovernment use was to be repaid with revenue from a private business. The lawmakers who thought this would call a halt to tax-exempt stadium financing were wrong, according to Zimmerman, the economist.
The wording of the law encourages cities and states to offer more-favorable terms to pro teams wanting financial assistance while preventing the borrowers from using stadium revenue to pay off the bonds, he wrote. The measure functions as “an open-ended matching grant” for stadiums, he said. Cities and states borrowed more money backed by tax revenue, not less, to make sure that no more than 10 percent of a stadium’s debt payments came from a private business, Zimmerman said.
“They have to take it out of the pockets of their taxpayers,” Zimmerman said. “It forces a bigger subsidy, if you’re going to use tax-exempt debt.
In the case of Cowboys Stadium, Arlington has borrowed about $300 million by selling muni bonds since 2005. A 29-year portion maturing in 2034 yields 4 percent. Arlington owns the field, and the Cowboys pay $2 million a year under a lease that expires in 2038. Over 30 years, the rent comes to $60 million.
Jones covered the rest of the stadium’s cost, as the final price almost doubled from his initial plan. The building helped the Cowboys generate an NFL-best $119 million in operating income in the 2010 season, its second straight year at the top, according to Forbes magazine. It said the team tied with the New York Yankees as the nation’s most-valuable sports franchise.
The voter-approved sales-tax increase and levies on hotel rooms and rental cars have to raise enough to repay the principal and cover an initially estimated $343 million of interest to bondholders, before some of the debt was refinanced, according to Bloomberg data. As structured, the deal ensures that revenue from the Cowboys amounts to well under the 10 percent limit. The city’s operating budget this year is $383.3 million, according to its website.
Because interest paid on the bonds is free of federal income tax, the buyers accepted lower interest rates -- at least 1 percentage point less than on taxable corporate debt sold at the time. In the case of Arlington’s 29-year tax-exempt bonds yielding 4 percent, the saving to the city at the time of the sale worked out to 20 percent, or $18.5 million over the life of the borrowing. Initial estimates show the lower yields resulting from the tax-free status would save Arlington about $85 million.
Not all of the subsidy goes to the city, based on a 2009 report from the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation. Researchers found that just 80 percent of the amount the Treasury gives up because of the exemption serves to reduce a municipality’s borrowing costs. The remaining 20 percent amounts to “a federal transfer to bondholders in the higher tax brackets,” according to the report.
That’s because people paying the top marginal rate get a disproportionate benefit from the exemption. Take the 29-year Arlington bonds. For an investor in the 25 percent tax bracket, the securities’ 4 percent yield would be equivalent to a taxable return of 5.33 percent. But for someone at the 35 percent level, the comparable figure would be 6.15 percent, meaning the wealthier investor is getting a 15 percent higher return.
That aspect of tax-exempt debt has drawn attacks from the Obama administration and Democratic lawmakers including Max Baucus of Montana, the Senate Finance Committee chairman. Peter Orszag, Obama’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget, says the tax break has problems with “both efficiency and fairness.” Obama has proposed limiting deductions of tax- exempt interest in the $3.7 trillion municipal bond market to narrow the budget deficit.
Arlington’s ownership of the stadium amounts to another subsidy for Jones. The Cowboys don’t have to pay property taxes on an asset appraised at $904.5 million. That saves Jones about $17 million a year at the current property-tax rate. Arlington’s levies on real estate, accounting for 37 percent of the city’s revenue, were expected to rise 2.3 percent to $74.5 million this fiscal year, the city said in a report.
Soon after voters backed the bond issue, Arlington acquired 73 acres (30 hectares) near the Rangers’ ballpark, Six Flags and the Tom Landry Freeway, connecting Dallas and Fort Worth and named for the Cowboys’ first coach. To make way for what the Cowboys call the “world’s largest domed structure,” Arlington demolished 162 properties, including 51 businesses, 927 apartments and 105 houses, according to the city.
The stadium can hold more than 100,000 spectators, including standing room. It has a retractable roof and massive glass doors on each end. A 600-ton, four-screen video structure hangs 90 feet (27 meters) above the middle of the playing field and stretches from one 20-yard line to the other. Tickets to tour the building, which also houses art exhibits, cost $17.50 to $27.50 for adults.
There are 15,000 club seats and 320 suites with polished marble floors and granite counters. The suites, arrayed over three levels, lease for $100,000 to $500,000 a season, according to a study by John Vrooman, a Vanderbilt University economist.
A double suite leased by T. Boone Pickens, the billionaire oilman and corporate raider from the 1980s, is part of a cluster known as the owner’s club, near Jones’s luxury box. Guests use a parking lot that costs $75 a game. They skip the general- admission entry lines and have access to a buffet featuring prime rib, ceviche, crab dip, baked chicken and dessert pastries. At halftime, caterers swap that fare for hot dogs with relish, fried chicken, chips and queso, pizza and cookies. The walls are lined with TV screens showing the game.
Surging revenue from the new stadium cemented the Cowboys and Jones in the NFL’s financial elite. In 2009, the franchise was worth $1.7 billion, according to Forbes magazine. By 2011, the venue helped boost the team’s value 12 percent to $1.85 billion, Forbes said, calling the building a “gold mine.”
The city has benefited from an increase in sales-tax receipts, Cluck said. The levy, generating a quarter of Arlington’s revenue, was expected to rise 5.4 percent from the previous year to $50.6 million in fiscal 2012, which ends Sept. 30, according to a city report. Tourism spending supported 10,500 local jobs in 2010, up 9.5 percent from 2008, bucking a 9.4 percent decline nationwide, the city said in a 2011 report.
Jones covered his share of the stadium’s cost with taxable debt or equity contributions, said Rich Dalrymple, a spokesman.
The venue has also brought in events such as the National Basketball Association’s All-Star game, a Super Bowl football championship and high-profile college contests such as a planned Final Four basketball tournament, Dalrymple said. While direct revenue for stadium use goes to the team, the city gets any increase in tax revenue from spending by visiting fans.
The Cowboys’ opponents tonight chose another path. The Giants partnered with the New York Jets to build a privately financed $1.6 billion stadium in suburban New Jersey, with each team borrowing $650 million. While the Cowboys haven’t won a Super Bowl since 1996, the Giants have won two in four years.
As the NFL’s reigning champions, the Giants will begin their title defense when quarterback Eli Manning leads them onto the field tonight against Tony Romo and the Cowboys. The New York team beat the New England Patriots, this year’s title favorite, 21-17 in the 46th Super Bowl in Indianapolis.
Like the Cowboys’ facility, MetLife Stadium contains martini bars, field-level clubs with leather chairs and HD video screens. The Giants and Jets also landed a naming rights partner, securing a 25-year deal with MetLife Inc. (MET) worth as much as $20 million annually, according to the New York Times.
Packwood, the former Senate Finance chairman, calls MetLife Stadium “the most expensive stadium built without public money” and said the private financing shows “it can be done.”
“You come back to this thin line of, ‘What is a legitimate municipal government undertaking?’” Packwood said. While he draws the line at sports venues, he said too many voters and local politicians don’t. “If the owner can get away with the public putting up part of the money, he’s going to do it.”