ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons didn't have a pick in the first round of the NFL draft.
Not to worry.
They're on the verge of landing something far more valuable than some stud running back or fearsome-hitting linebacker — a new stadium costing nearly a billion dollars.
The economy may be wobbling along, struggling to break free of the worst downturn since the Great Depression, but the stadium business is doing just fine, thank you.
A few days ago, they broke ground on a new palace for the San Francisco 49ers. The good folks in Los Angeles are just clamoring to plop down $800 million or so if the NFL will give them another chance. And now, it seems, the Falcons are all but assured of getting a retractable-roof stadium in the not-so-distant future.
Never mind that the Georgia Dome is just two decades old.
"I used to think, 'This had got to be the end of it. Everyone has a new stadium now. We don't need anymore,'" said Rick Eckstein, a professor of sociology at Villanova University who wrote a book about the public financing of privately controlled stadiums. "But the life span of these places just keeps getting shorter and shorter."
What should be getting shorter and shorter is our patience.
It's time — way past time, actually — for this fiscal insanity to end. If an owner such as Atlanta's Arthur Blank (estimated net worth: $1.3 billion) wants a new stadium, he needs to pull out his checkbook and pay for it himself.
In case he hasn't noticed, the rest of us are busted.
Forget the obvious, that the last thing a city or state needs to be doing in these tough times is chipping in to build a new stadium. We won't even bring up that it might be more useful to repair all those potholes that have grown to the size of craters, or hire back some of the laid-off police officers who kept those bumpy streets a little safer, or reopen schools that had to be shuttered because there wasn't enough money to turn on the lights.
Instead, we're going to talk about the cold, hard numbers: stadiums and arenas are bad for business.
The next economist who says that building a new sports facility makes financial sense to the public at large will be the first. There seems to be unanimous consensus among those who aren't on the payroll of some owner or politician that no matter how you crunch the numbers, a stadium will drain more dollars out of a community than it ever pumps in. The only real benefit comes right at the beginning, from the flush of the construction dollars that are needed to throw the place up. After that, it's a wash at best, and probably a net loss.
There's only a handful of people — owners, players, team employees, maybe a few businesses around the new facility — that get any real benefit. For the most part, whatever dollars are being spent at the game are coming out of the same entertainment pot. Money that might've been spent on a nice dinner or to take in a movie winds up in the team's pocket.
That's why owners are unwilling to build their own stadiums or arenas without at least some government assistance. They know it's a money-losing proposition, camouflaged behind vague promises of how it will help the community in ways that can't be measured with pure numbers.
"If the objective of spending public money is to induce economic growth, or increase per-capita income, or raise employment, building a stadium is not a good idea," said Jonathan Willner, a professor of economics at Oklahoma City University who specializes in the business of sports. "It just doesn't pay off nearly as well as much less sexier things like, how good is the school system? How good is the highway system? How good is the airport? Those are things that actually show up in the studies."
Still, local politicians keep falling all over themselves to spend millions of our dollars to replace stadiums that are still perfectly useful (such as the Georgia Dome) or have truly have outlived their usefulness (we're looking at you, decrepit Candlestick Park, soon-to-be-former home of the 49ers).
"The infrastructure is crumbling, schools are shutting down and taxes are going up, but there's still this culture and mystique about sports," Eckstein said. "It's got a grip on us. People are able to manipulate that to make us do things, some crazy things."
There are pockets of hope. In Minnesota, resistance to building a new stadium for the Vikings has been fierce — so much so that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell popped in the other day to deliver a not-so-subtle message. He surely let it be known that he's got Los Angeles on speed dial, ready to send them another team if the Land of a Thousand Lakes won't agree to pay for more than half of a $1 billion stadium that owner Zygi Wilf (estimated net worth: $1.3 billion) just has to have.
Here's how Minnesotans should respond: Hey, Zygi, you come up with the bulk of the money. After all, you're going to be the prime beneficiary of a new stadium, which will surely send the value of your franchise — along with your net worth — soaring even higher. If you see things differently, take a hike.
While plenty of loyal fans would undoubtedly be heartsick over losing their beloved Vikings, they'll survive. Just ask the city that now has its eye on your team. Los Angeles lost not one but two NFL franchises (the Rams AND the Raiders) in one swoop during the 1990s. Did L.A. fall apart? Hardly. Same for Seattle, which hasn't missed a beat since its NBA team, the Sonics, bolted to Oklahoma City because they didn't get a new arena.
This is the great ruse that owners, politicians and a few very influential people in most of our major metropolises have been able to pull off. They've persuaded us that we'll be less of a city, and therefore not quite as important as people, if we don't have a big league team in our midst. Over the last 20 years, the tab for building and renovating facilities for the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA stands at roughly $27 billion, much of it our money.
Well, it's time for the gravy train to stop.
If our favorite team wants to leave because we won't hand over the keys to the city vault, good riddance.
Most of the games are on TV anyway.