I am a sports fan, but I don’t love all my teams equally. Here is my hierarchy of devotion:
1. The Green Bay Packers.
45. The Badgers men’s basketball team.
46. The Milwaukee Brewers.
47. The Badgers football team.
I left out numbers 2 through 44 as an indication of the drop off in my loyalty and enthusiasm after the Packers. The Green and Gold is the closest thing I have to a religion. (Okay, so this time of year I might move the Badger buckets team to a full-fledged number two.)
But even with the Packers I can fall away pretty quickly. During the dark days of the Forrest Gregg era I stopped watching or even reading about the games altogether. The team was terrible, and some of the players were just thugs. I didn’t miss watching football at all. I found other stuff to do on autumn Sundays.
And you’ll notice that the Milwaukee Bucks professional basketball team doesn’t even make my list. That’s because I do not care about professional basketball in general or the Bucks in particular. And I would bet that’s how most Wisconsin sports fans feel.
Moreover, if any of my favorite teams — pro or college — were to fold or leave, I’d be sad for about a day. Then I’d move on to other things the way I did when the Packers were bad. And that’s not just how I feel about it. That sentiment is backed up by the predominant amount of academic research into the topic. The argument that we need to spend public money to keep our professional sports teams because the subsidy pays itself back in increased economic activity just doesn’t hold water. If we weren’t going to sporting activities we’d just be spending our entertainment dollars someplace else.
So, when the Bucks and the National Basketball Association demand that state and local taxpayers pony up for a new arena to replace the perfectly serviceable BMO Bradley Center, my strong feeling is that we should tell them to just take their round ball and dribble off to whatever town will be dumb enough to give them a better deal.
Or, as others have suggested, we could subsidize the arena but then demand our fair share of team ownership. Or the public could build and own the basic shell of the arena, the Bucks could add tenant improvements at their own cost, and the Bucks, the Marquette Golden Eagles and any other tenants could pay the public an annual lease amount that covers debt, operating costs and a little something extra for the taxpayers. If the tenants break the lease they would get hit with a big penalty that would make the taxpayers whole.
That’s exactly the kind of deal the Bucks’ owners would demand of anybody else in their business world. But this is supposed to be a “public-private partnership.” Whenever you hear that phrase, reach for your wallets. It usually means the private partners will benefit at the expense of the public.
The Legislature is now debating Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to give the Bucks $220 million in taxpayer money for their arena. His argument that somehow that will get paid back through taxes on the wages of the players is just so much smoke and mirrors. Make no mistake. You and I will pay for it.
But too many legislators oppose the deal for the wrong reason. They actually think the state should pay less and local governments in Milwaukee should pay more. That’s ridiculous. With so many basic local needs in Milwaukee, it would be a huge mistake for leaders there to cave in to demands that they spend even more on a sports palace. I would be proud of them if they’d tell both the state and the Bucks that they’re not playing their game.