By Daniel J. McGraw

Last week,  the Coalition Against the Sin Tax (CAST) held a press conference to propose an alternative to the Cuyahoga County sin tax: a $3.25 facility fee on tickets. Since 60 percent of people who attend sporting events live outside Cuyahoga County, CAST argues their proposal is more equitable and less punishing to Cuyahoga County residents, as upkeep for the stadiums would be paid only by those who actually use the facilities. 

CAST leaders, entrepreneur Alan Glazen and attorney Peter Pattakos, came up the $3.25 fee by doing basic math. The sin tax will raise an estimated $13 million a year if passed by voters May 6. The facilities draw a little more than 4 million patrons a year. So Pattakos and Glazan divided 4 into 13 and figured a fee of about $3.25 per ticket would fund new scoreboards and air-conditioning ducts and whatever else the teams say they need to keep the games going.

None of this was very controversial or even newsy. But the reaction by government officials, business leaders, and sports teams promoting the sin tax—“Keep Cleveland Strong” is their campaign name—was so fierce that you’d  think Pattakos and Glazen had suggested that the Browns move to another city and have professional soccer replace football at First Energy Stadium.

According to Keep Cleveland Strong, the facility fee “is simply the latest in a steady stream of wobbly ideas this group has trotted out in a misguided attempt to replace the existing tax on cigarettes and alcohol,” said Cuyahoga County Council member Dan Brady in a retaliatory press release following the CAST proposal.

Brady’s comment is a head scratcher. CAST hasn’t put out a “steady stream of wobbly ideas,”—in fact, the facility fee has been their main alternative from the beginning. The media has explained the facility fee alternative for many weeks now, including stories in Belt and The Plain Dealer.

[blocktext align=”left”]If that family of four were to attend five each of the baseball, basketball, and football games, their cost under the Fan Cost Index would be $3,888.90. [/blocktext]Beyond misrepresenting CAST, the Keep Cleveland Strong press release outrageously claims a facility fee would “punish families” and cause unemployment. District 8 County Cuyahoga Council member Pernel Jones, Jr. said “By pricing families out of games, this would result in smaller crowds—which means less business for those businesses that depend upon fans. That puts jobs at risk.” County Council President C. Ellen Connally added “it’s confusing that they now want to enact a new, large tax that hits families the hardest.”

The logic of Keep Cleveland Strong is terminally flawed. They state that families will not be able to afford Browns tickets if prices were raised $3.25. But the fact is that most already can’t afford to go to games—because the tickets are already incredibly expensive.

It’s like someone arguing that people will stop going to a fancy steak place if the restaurant started charging $5 for a baked potato a la carte. Truth is, most people don’t ever go to fancy steak places because they can’t afford $50 steaks, not because they don’t want to pay for the $5 baked potato. And those who can afford a $50 steak are unlikely to notice those five extra bucks.

Keep Cleveland Strong claims “if a mother and father take their two children to a game, it would cost them an additional $13 for one game. To generate the same amount of revenues under the existing tax plan, they would have to drink 866 beers or consume 289 packs of cigarettes. Imagine what those numbers would be if that family went to
five or 10 games a year.”

No need to imagine! I can do math, too. Here is how the numbers break down. According to Team Marketing Report, a publisher of sports business data, if a family buys four tickets, four hot dogs, four sodas, two beers and a few small souvenirs, it will cost them $162.24 for a Cleveland Indians game, $271.74 to attend a Cavaliers game, and a $343.80 for a Browns’ game.

If that family of four were to attend five each of the baseball, basketball, and football games, their cost under the Fan Cost Index would be $3,888.90. The facility fee proposal would tack on only $195 to that very upper-middle class bill, or about a five percent increase.

So the issue is not that adding $3.25 per ticket will harm families and cause Mom to be laid off and force the cool restaurants on E. 4th Street to shut down. That’s slippery slope logic from the powers that be. The issue is this: who can afford $4,000 per year to go to sporting events?

The average Ohio household annual income in 2012 was about $44,000. A family of four would be spending about one-tenth of their annual income if they went to 15 games a year. It gets worse if you only include Cuyahoga County residents. Pernel Jones, Jr., who  argued that families would not being able to go to games if the facilities fee was implemented, represents District 8, where the medium household income is $30,740.

[blocktext align=”left”]It used to be that going to a sporting event was a spontaneous decision, sort of like going to a movie or out to eat at a mid-priced restaurant with friends. But that is no longer the case.[/blocktext]District 8, which runs from the Cedar/Central neighborhood just southeast of downtown Cleveland out to Maple Heights, and comprises 100,000 or so residents, has a lower median income than the average for Cuyahoga County, which is $43,603. That district also has 28.2% of all persons below the poverty level, about double the county rate. A total of 36.2% of families in District 8 with children under age 18 had incomes that were below the poverty level in comparison to the countywide rate of 19.9%. How many families of four in Jones’ district do you think are spending $400 to see the Browns lose?

The Keep Cleveland Strong folks fail to grasp basic economics. They think Cleveland is full of people who go to games and make make lots of money, and that the city a big-time market, not one of the five poorest cities in the country. Those who can afford just one nosebleed ticket to one game a year are the select few—if not the one percent, the ten percent, maybe.

Yes, it used to be different. It used to be that going to a sporting event was a spontaneous decision, sort of like going to a movie or out to eat at a mid-priced restaurant with friends. But that is no longer the case. The teams decided to price most Americans out of going to games, so the high cost has now shifted pro games to a planned event for the most part, usually a business-related gathering or a special family function. Since most people don’t go out and
spend four hundred bucks to take the kids to the game on a whim, a small fee on tickets isn’t going to sneak up on people and prevent them from attending.

Why is Keep Cleveland Strong trotting out this aggressive, arrogant retort to a reasonable alternative to the sin tax? Maybe because the polls show they are losing. When one side dismisses their opponent as a generator of “wobbly ideas,” it usually means things aren’t looking too good. You keep quiet when you are ahead, and you make noise when you are behind. But this noise makes no sense, because they are telling people they can choose to pay more for beer or more for their sporting event tickets. That choice is easy for most people, because they are able to buy one, but they can’t buy the other.

Daniel J. McGraw is Senior Writer at Belt.