Monday, January 14, 2008

Oh, For Crying Out Loud

The Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer (MLS) have won the last two league championships, and they figure that that means that they deserve a new stadium. Or, more accurately, Oliver Luck, their president, thinks that a new stadium built with a hefty subsidy from the City of Houston could make the team more profitable and that the back-to-back championships and a threat by the team to leave Houston will get them that subsidy. And surprise, surprise: it looks like important members of the city government have fallen for it. Carolyn Feibel reports in the Houston Chronicle that the City is considering purchasing a six-block piece of land downtown east of US 59 for the team to build the stadium on:

The city could spend up to $20 million to buy six downtown blocks for a Dynamo soccer stadium, and it remains unclear if the team would reimburse the costs.

The blocks that officials are eyeing — just east of U.S. 59 in the warehouse district — have a total appraised value of about $5.1 million, according to the Harris County Appraisal District, or HCAD.

But local property owners who want to sell have been asking for triple or even quadruple the appraised values, as the area is seen as "hot" for development. ("Land considered for soccer venue in a 'hot' locale", Jan. 14, 2008)

Okay, okay. To be fair, the story says that it's unclear whether the city would be reimbursed for the cost of the land; but it doesn't really sound like it from the quotes from city officials in the story. Mayor Bill White says that "he doesn't want public funds used for the actual stadium construction;" and I think it's a reasonable presumption that he intentionally mentioned stadium construction specifically and did not rule out city funds being spent on other aspects of the stadium project. And Councilman Peter Brown says that the city can't take the risk that the Dynamo will go elsewhere: "It's important for us economically to have the Dynamo here because if we don't have a stadium for them, they're going to go somewhere else."

Frankly, Brown's statement is a complete non sequitur. I don't doubt that the Dynamo will go elsewhere if they can't get a stadium here and they think that some other municipality will pony up for one, but it doesn't follow that the Dynamo leaving would be an economic blow to Houston. In fact, it wouldn't. Even major sports franchises bring little new money into the metropolitan area that they call home -- they just redistribute the spending of entertainment dollars within that metropolitan area. But the Dynamo are hardly a major sports franchise. Despite the name of the league, MLS is hardly the major leagues of soccer. That distinction is held by the English Premier League, La Liga in Spain, and Serie A in Italy. MLS is probably the equivalent of the AA minor league teams in baseball, if that. And the residents of the Houston metropolitan area treat the Dynamo like they were a minor league team: the fact that they only want a 22,000-seat stadium indicates quite clearly what they think is the maximum number of fans that they can hope to attract on a regular basis.

If a new stadium for the Dynamo were truly an economically viable proposition, they would find private investors and build it themselves. The fact that they have to lobby for city subsidies illustrates that private investors wouldn't want to touch it with a ten foot pole. Frankly, I don't see what's wrong with them playing at Robertson Stadium on the University of Houston campus or at Reliant Stadium. If that's not good enough for them, then they should leave. I don't want them to, but I don't approve of government subsidies for a private business, especially one as economically unproductive as a professional sports team.

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