Editor’s Note: This is another installment of our intermittent collaboration with Cleveland Frowns, published by Peter Pattakos. 

by Andrew Scheid

During the final minutes of last month’s World Cup match between the US and Belgium, I joined an army of bodies crammed into a tiny gelato shop near my office in downtown Chicago to watch the end of the game. Naturally, every set of eyes in the café was locked on the screen. Individuals who previously failed to utter a word to each other during regular encounters in elevators and hallways were laughing and sharing stories, instantly united by the national team playing on a global stage. But of course, not everything on the ground in Brazil was fun and games, with FIFA’s corporate machine having ushered in policies of massive housing displacement and police brutality in the name of the soccer tournament, along with the allocation of billions in public funds for stadiums with severely limited use.

Days later, the announcement of LeBron James’ return to Cleveland offered another reminder of the unparalleled capacity of sports to unite strangers into a community, as well as the danger created by corporate exploitation of this unifying power. Naturally, the basketball superstar’s decision brought out a collective euphoria in Northeast Ohio residents, with massive crowds gathered in downtown Cleveland to celebrate the prospect that the Northeast Ohio native would return home to lead the nation’s longest and most suffering sports town to a long-awaited championship. Yet after 4 years of “petulance and poor planning,” for reasons apparent to no one, the biggest financial beneficiary of James’ return is the Sultan of Subprime himself, Dan Gilbert.

Gilbert, of course, has already gotten plenty of leverage out of James’ talent, especially since 2009 with the passing of the Ohio Casino Initiative after a number of similar ballot measures had been rejected by Ohio voters. Absent the public clout of owning the then-historically-successful NBA franchise, it’s doubtful that the Cavs owner would have been handed a legally monopolized casino market as he was.  Thus, the man who gravy-trained the cache of “owning” the athletic brilliance of LeBron James used the city’s goodwill to profit off of its misery. Which is how your favorite athlete’s superhuman talent can lead to grandma blowing her retirement savings at the slots.

Beyond grandma’s pension and social security checks, Gilbert will use his bully pulpit to sell her Option ARM mortgages from Quicken Loans along with whatever else his sponsors are hawking to his captive audience. And he’s already into her alcohol and cigarette budget until at least 2035 via the recently passed Cuyahoga County Sin Tax, another $260-plus million to add to a $1B-plus and counting pile that County taxpayers have given to Cleveland’s sports owners since 1993, despite that these owners already take untold millions in profit each year from operating the franchises without ever having to open their books to the public. Needless to say, it’s a sound business model.

[blocktext align=”left”]It’s hard to find better proof of the uselessness (if not the parasitic nature) of team owners under the current model than there is in the arc of LeBron’s relationship with the Cavaliers, not least in the media hysteria surrounding his recent free agency.[/blocktext] For the owners, anyway. But what about everyone else? Dennis Coates, Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland echoes the unanimous opinion of academic scholars on this issue in concluding that: “Residents of cities with professional sports teams pay a high cost for the privilege, both in terms of large public subsidies and in terms of lost income and employment.” In a paper co-authored by Professor Brad Humphreys of the University of West Virginia, the pair states further:

“There now exists almost twenty years of research on the economic impact of professional sports franchises and facilities on the local economy. The results in this literature are strikingly consistent. No matter what cities or geographical areas are examined, no matter what estimators are used, no matter what model specifications are used, and no matter what variables are used, articles published in peer reviewed economics journals contain almost no evidence that professional sports franchises and facilities have a measurable economic impact on the economy.”

No one has ever been able to explain why closely-held private ownership of publicly cherished professional sports franchises is necessary at all, let alone why the public should bear so much of the costs of these franchises when all the profits end up in the pockets of plutocrats. Yet during the recent Sin Tax campaign, Council President Kevin Kelley fawned to the media about what great “partners” the city has in its professional sports owners. Of course, Mr. Kelley could only have been referring to the unholy matrimony of campaign cash and legislation bought and paid for by financial elites, an arrangement that’s become a staple of American electoral politics. There’s no more apt sign of the times than Kelley and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson having declared “victory” over the allocation of $260 million in public money to three billionaires who outspent a grassroots opposition group by three million dollars to essentially none.

The owners’ pro-Sin-Tax campaign was based on little more than a baseless threat that one of the three teams would leave town if the measure didn’t pass, and it’s easy enough to understand why this worked. Beyond the vast sum of money spent to convince Clevelanders that a subsidy for these billionaires would “Keep Cleveland Strong,” sports fandom is one of the last enjoyments left for the common man in this era of runaway industrialization and inequality. “Elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc.” David Foster Wallace once asked why “war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s” when it comes to sports. The cultivation of blind allegiance to the current system by the ownership class must be a significant part of the answer. More than just manipulation, it’s the deliberate targeting of a specific weakness. But if you’re lucky enough to afford to attend a game in person, you might catch an ill-fitting t-shirt with a Sherwin Williams logo on it, a frozen pizza launched from an air-cannon, or a lottery ticket falling from the rafters on a parachute. Would Dickens’ worst villain have dropped lotto tickets down onto scratching and clawing masses?

Fortunately, even despite the recent setback in Cleveland, the tide is turning against the current model of public subsidies for privately owned professional sports. In a paper titled A History of Public Funding 1890-2005, Dr. Judith Grant Long detailed the evolution of American cities’ financial and civic justification for funding the cost of pro sports stadium construction:

“In this era, (the 1960’s and 1970’s) sports facilities were commonly perceived as civic infrastructure, like spending on education, municipal services and highways. Voters consistently approved bond issues to pay 100% of costs for new pro sports facilities throughout the1960’s and 1970s. In urban areas, the federal government also decreed that sports facilities—arenas mainly—constituted civic infrastructure, permitting their financing and construction under the urban renewal program.

By the 1980’s, governments were less willing to foot the bill as they had done in the past, especially in light of soaring franchise values, lucrative broadcast and naming-rights deals, and the unprecedented relative size of salaries for professional athletes. In addition, team owners were finding it more difficult to market sports facilities in elements of civic infrastructure, as they had done in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Academics, and soon taxpayers, rejected the notion that public funding for sports facilities could be rationalized as pure public good akin to traditional infrastructure.”

[blocktext align=”left”]But if you’re lucky enough to afford to attend a game in person, you might catch an ill-fitting t-shirt with a Sherwin Williams logo on it, a frozen pizza launched from an air-cannon, or a lottery ticket falling from the rafters on a parachute.[/blocktext] The momentum that Dr. Grant chronicles can be seen all over the country: In Miami, where voters rejected a $400 million stadium subsidy to see the Dolphins owner Stephen Ross shortly admit that he could pick up the tab himself; In St. Louis where city leaders were forced to admit that they couldn’t afford an absurdly owner-friendly stadium deal; In Pittsburgh, where Mayor Bill Peduto bragged about $40 million in Heinz Field improvements to be “completed without any public dollars”; And most recently in Atlanta where Mayor Kasim Reed refused to shovel $250 million dollars to the Braves’ new stadium proposal, stating that he’d rather put the money into Atlanta’s suffering neighborhoods.

All of which adds to the sublime comedy in the timing of LeBron’s return to Cleveland, following as it does on the heels of the complete whiff by the city’s leaders in standing up to the outdated and unjust demands of its team owners in the Sin Tax renewal. It’s hard to find better proof of the uselessness (if not the parasitic nature) of team owners under the current model than there is in the arc of LeBron’s relationship with the Cavaliers, not least in the media hysteria surrounding his recent free agency — headlines about “nervous” billionaires who could only sit and wait to hear where the superstar would “take his talents” next. Thanks to James, the Cavs became instant NBA title contenders and the best story in sports, even despite four years of degenerating into an unimaginable laughingstock in his absence. That Gilbert, when LeBron left town in 2010, infamously issued a “guarantee” that he would somehow lead Cleveland to a championship before the star basketball player ever won one in Miami — only someone who’d been openly stealing millions for years would have been able to summon the gall for that.

If it goes to show the power of the home team, it should show just as well that there’s no such thing without the community that makes a place its home. Everything else in the pro sports equation is replaceable, with the exception of singular athletic talents like LeBron. It would be easy enough to imagine community-owned sports franchises even if the Green Bay Packers didn’t exist. And it’s absurd to think that pro athletes wouldn’t be able to hire their own business managers to competently run a player-owned league. A partnership between pro athletes and the community is even easier to conceive; one that would be glad to use its own profits, instead of billions in tax dollars, to pay for its own facilities. While these aren’t likely changes that could happen overnight, there’s no better place to pick up the conversation than Cleveland — where Art Modell left, and where LeBron gloriously returned despite Dan Gilbert.

To quote Dave Zirin, “[t]here is a rich history of athletes using their hyper-exalted platforms to say something about the world.”

It’s hard to imagine an athlete with as much to say and as much power to say it as LeBron with the Cavaliers, and the superstar certainly hasn’t been shy about using hyper-exalted language:  “The Chosen One.” “Global Icon.” “Bigger than basketball.” “Strive for greatness.”

Words, though, are easy. Saying something is different. A sports fan can only hope.

Andrew Scheid, a Northeast Ohio native currently living in Chicago, is a Cleveland sports fan, paralegal and playwright.

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