Direct Democracy as the Solution to Corruption in Publicly Funded Sports Stadiums

In 2002, billionaire Jeffrey Loria purchased the Miami Marlins, a Major League Baseball team, for $159 million. In May of 2017, Luria agreed to sell the team for reportedly $1.3 billion, earning a profit of over $1.1 billion. Some of that profit can be explained by the increased valuation of all sports franchises in the last decade, but a large reason for the eye-popping jump in value is the Marlin’s new, privately owned—but largely public funded—stadium. In 2011, Miami-Dade County agreed to contribute more than $400 million for the stadium. Including interest, the estimated total cost to the county is $2.4 billion dollars. Prior to reaching a deal for the new stadium, Mr. Loria donated various amounts to local government officials, including $40,000 to the county commission chairman in 2008, and $50,000 to Mayor Alverez.  (The SEC conducted a four-year investigation into whether Loria’s donations were unlawful bribes, but ultimately dropped the investigation.)

Such a story is common in sports stadium construction. In the past 15 years, more than $12 billion in public money has been spent on privately owned stadiums. The loans used to pay for such construction, typically tax-exempt municipal bonds, will also cost the federal government at least $4 billion in taxpayer subsidies to bond holders. There’s an ongoing debate about whether taxpayer dollars should be used to fund privately owned stadiums, but that’s not my focus here. Rather, I want to focus on how this system creates opportunities for corrupt deals between team owners and local government officials.

Before government officials vote on whether to approve public funding for a new stadium, the team’s billionaire owners often make “campaign contributions” to the responsible government officials. It is difficult to prove that these donations are unlawful bribes, as doing so would require proving a quid pro quo exchange. Yet when billionaire owners donate to local government officials, who then happen to approve hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding for the billionaire’s stadium—which directly increases the value of the owner’s assets by hundreds of millions of dollars—it looks a lot like bribery. The example of Mr. Loria making donations to Miami-Dade officials is hardly unique. Consider the following additional illustrations Continue reading