Commentary

Colt Following

A version of this article appeared on Techcentralstation.com, January 5, 2005.

Just as the Washington D.C. city council finished carrying a good half billion dollars worth of water for major league baseball this winter — by promising to underwrite the cost of a shiny new stadium — another city with a more fiscally prudent reputation is also bowing down before professional sports.

Indianapolis (disclosure: my hometown) is about as hearty a sports city as you’ll find. The fans are generally polite and knowledgeable. They adore their good-example guys — Reggie Miller and Peyton Manning own the town — but they’re also loyal to the more troubled athletes — Conseco Fieldhouse was bedecked with “Free Ron Artest” t-shirts for the Pacers’ Christmas Day game with Detroit last month.

The state hasn’t won a professional championship of any kind since the Pacers dominated the ABA in the early 1970s, yet you can’t spit downtown in December without hitting a Colts or Pacers sweatshirt.

Which is why it’s so aggravating to see a goodhearted city get bamboozled by one of the teams it adores. Apparently, the 20-year old Hoosier Dome (now called the RCA Dome) isn’t bringing in enough money for the NFL and the Irsays, owners of the Colts. So they pressured Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson to have the city build one of those sweet, newfangled, retractable-roof stadiums. The mayor was more than happy to oblige them.

What’s funny is that Mayor Peterson built his blue-dog Democrat political reputation as something of a scold. Before becoming mayor, he was a vocal critic of pornography and violent video games. His first mayoral campaign involved a lot of “clean up the city” talk, referring in particular to porn shops, seedy neighborhoods, and other undesirable elements. Now Peterson wants to fund the new stadium with tax revenue generated by pull tabs, cousins to slot machines.

The gambling idea came along after Peterson floated the possibility of a commuter tax, a popular idea among mayors eager to keep or lure sports franchises, in that it’s an easy sell as a tax that will fall largely on outsiders, not on voters. A hotel tax increase is still part of Peterson’s overall plan, as is funding from the state and federal government.

Of course, the fungible nature of state accounting means it’s unlikely that the gaming revenues will be unalterably married to the stadium deal. Fifteen years ago, the Hoosier Lottery was sold to a skeptical, conservative Indiana populace on the premise that its proceeds would fund education. Hoosier Lottery revenues now go to the state’s general fund to pay for the pet pork projects of Indiana legislators.

Nearly every aspect of the Colts-Indianapolis negotiations is aggravating.

  • Immediately after the mayor announced his plan, the often-quoted price tag of $500 million grew to $687.5 million.
  • Meanwhile, city residents and visitors still pay a motel/hotel sales tax implemented specifically to finance the RCA Dome, which was built over two decades ago. There are no plans to revoke the sales tax once the new stadium goes up and the RCA Dome comes down.
  • This comes at a time when critics are charging that the city’s firefighter and police pensions are woefully underfunded.

But the worst part of these deal is so ridiculous, it borders on parody: In order for the city of Indianapolis to build a new stadium for the Colts, it will need to tear down the RCA Dome. That will require the city to break the lease it signed with the Colts on the dome.

According to the language in the lease, the city will be required to pay the Colts $48 million to break the lease, even though the city is breaking it solely to build the new stadium the Colts demanded! More galling yet, the Colt owners typically include the $48 million in the amount they say they’re chipping in to help pay for the stadium. In the end, Indiana taxpayers will underwrite 90 percent of the price of the new stadium.

The problem, of course, is that if Peterson doesn’t capitulate, the Colts can easily pick up and move. The NFL is itching to put a team in Los Angeles, and the league has historically been the least hesitant of the four major professional sports when it comes to snatching franchises from cities that don’t cooperate.

Much as I loved growing up with the Colts, and much as I’d cringe to see Peyton Manning in Los Angeles, nothing would fill me with more pride than to see my hometown be among the first to stand up to the NFL and the way it forces the taxpayers to subsidize millionaires.

Radley Balko is a policy analyst for the Cato Institute.