It is all but certain that the Kings basketball team will move from Sacramento to Anaheim, where the Kings will rebrand themselves as the Royals.
Considering how awful the Kings have been during their stay in Sacramento – 8 winning seasons in 26 years – rebranding is in order. Getting some decent players and a competent coach seem like good ideas, too, but I digress.
The owners of the Kings, the Maloof brothers, are moving their team to Anaheim for one simple reason: Taxpayers won’t build them a new arena in Sacramento. The team’s likely new home, the Honda Center, is owned by the City of Anaheim, which is willing to issue bonds to fund tenant improvements for the Kings.
I say good riddance.
While writing about stadium and arena development over the years, I have plowed through stacks of studies and academic literature. Their conclusions are nearly unanimous: Publicly funded stadiums and arenas are money-losers for the public.
The argument from stadium boosters is that the new structure will generate new economic activity and additional tax revenue, plus various fees and paybacks, that will more than cover the public’s investment. Study after study has found this to be a false argument. (The New York Times summarized things nicely in its 2009 examination of Cincinnati’s stadium and arena debacle.)
A region has only so many dollars available for entertainment. What a new stadium does is redirect that spending to the stadium and its immediate vicinity. Economists call this the “substitution effect.”
Basketball and hockey arenas are a bit different from baseball and football stadiums, because arenas are cheaper to build – roughly $350 million to $500 million for an NBA arena, compared with $600 million to $1 billion for an NFL football or pro baseball stadium. (Those are general numbers. The extravagant new basketball arena in Brooklyn for the Nets will cost an estimated $900 million.) And arenas might appear to be better investments because they may be used for many things, such as high school and college sports, concerts, conventions and various exhibitions.
But let’s be clear: What you get with a stadium or an arena is entertainment. What you do not get is economic development. A new stadium rearranges money that’s already in the region. It doesn’t expand the size of the pie.
That’s the analytical argument against a publicly funded arena. The emotional argument goes like this: Why should taxpayers subsidize the activities of extremely rich team owners and athletes who make more in one year than most of us can dream of making in a lifetime? When you’re laying off teachers and cops, closing fire stations, shutting down parks and cutting aide to the sick and elderly, you cannot justify investing hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenue in professional sports. Actually, even when the public purse is healthy, I don’t see why the public should subsidize professional sports leagues controlled by some of the world’s wealthiest men and funded by billion-dollar television contracts.
In the right circumstances, public investment in stadiums and arenas may be justified. But the contributions should be strategic, limited and, ideally, no more than a loan. The Maloofs, who made their money as owners of a Las Vegas casino, for years have tried to blackmail Sacramento into building an arena. Their proposed move to Anaheim feels like a last-ditch ransom note. It hasn’t worked.
I probably sound like I’m not a sports fan. While it’s true I’ve never been much of a Kings fan and I’ll have nothing to do with pro baseball, I’ve been a sports diehard since the heydays of John Brodie, Nate Thurmond, Willie McCovey and Johnny Miller. I appreciate the social value of spectator sports. I lived in Sacramento when the Kings came to town from Kansas City in 1985. The excitement was genuine. Fans filled every seat, game after game, for years, even when the team on the floor was a laughingstock. When the Kings had their one run of success in Sacramento and challenged the Lakers’ dominance about a decade ago, the home team was a huge source of community pride in river city. Since then, the Kings have returned to their doormat status, a situation the owners have blamed on Sacramento itself, which has no fancy arena or large collection of corporate fat cats leasing luxury suites. I find that contention offensive, but it has a ring of truth in the money-obsessed NBA.
My point is that a region’s wellbeing, economic or otherwise, does not depend on big-time sports. It’s not the Trailblazers or a new soccer team that make Portland, Oregon, a great place to live. As my colleague Adam Mankoski said recently, Portland is “like this huge melting pot of the most energized, creative people from everywhere. I haven’t had a bad meal yet. I haven’t been in my car in six weeks – that’s how good the public transportation system is. There is too much to do – theater, arts, music, classes, offerings from the Parks and Recreation Department. I didn’t even mention the Saturday Market.”
Sacramento can do fine without the Kings. Portland’s revival from a moribund port and timber town had nothing to do with pro sports. Look there for lessons about city-building and economic development. And celebrate the plentiful sports that remain in Sacramento – the River Cats minor league baseball team, the Mountain Lions minor league football squad, college sports at Sacramento State and UC Davis, the college rowing championships at Lake Natoma, the California International Marathon, the Tour of California bike race, the high school basketball championships, motor sports at Sacramento Raceway and Prairie City. Bring back some track meets, which thrive in Sacramento. These minor league and allegedly second-tier sports are more fun – and far cheaper – to attend than a Kings game, because they are not irreversibly contaminated by greed.
Finally, Sacramento can have the last laugh over the Kings. The Maloofs are moving into an extremely crowded and competitive market. The Lakers own Southern California, and the L.A. Clippers have one of the league’s most celebrated young players in Blake Griffin. Anaheim is home to the Angels and the Ducks, two well-established franchises that have won championships in recent years. The Kings are about to go from being the biggest fish in a small pond to being bait fish in the ocean. They’ll be lucky to outdraw Fullerton State’s powerhouse baseball team.
If the Kings are truly going to play the 2011-12 season in Anaheim, many things need to fall into place quickly. The relocation could get delayed. There’s even a chance Sacramento could “save” the Kings.
I say help ’em load the moving van.
Paul Shigley is senior editor of California Planning & Development Report, a frequent contributor to Planning magazine and is, gulp … a Warriors fan. He lives in Centerville. Paul Shigley may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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