Facebook promised this map of NFL fan bases that shows much of Virginia falls outside the market of the Washington Football Team. Note: This was done before the Rams moved out of St. Louis, the Chargers moved out of San Diego and the Raiders moved out of Oakland, but those shouldn't have any bearing on the Virginia market.

Blame Milwaukee. In 1950, city officials did something that no other city at that time had done: They paid to build a baseball stadium.

At the time, stadiums were something team owners built. Only four in the whole country had even a modest amount of government financing involved. Furthermore, Milwaukee didn’t even have a Major League team, but it hoped to attract one – so the city built a stadium and offered it free to any team that would relocate there. Some derided the facility as “a lunatic asylum with bases,” but the ploy worked.

Three weeks before the 1953 season started, and before the stadium was even officially finished, the Boston Braves – the second team in a city dominated by the Red Sox – announced they’d be moving west (on what turned out to be a temporary waystation on the way to Atlanta).

Three weeks before the 1953 season started, and before the stadium was even officially finished, the Boston Braves – the second team in a city dominated by the Red Sox – announced they’d be moving west (on what turned out to be a temporary waystation on the way to Atlanta).

Milwaukee thus became not just the first city to fully pay for a professional sports stadium, it became the first city to lure a team from somewhere else as a result.

And that is why nearly all stadiums and indoor sports arenas today are publicly financed. And that is why the Virginia General Assembly now faces the question of whether it should create a Virginia Football Authority that would finance the construction of a stadium – possibly a domed stadium – in Northern Virginia that could serve as the new home of the Washington Football Team.

For all the commotion over mask mandates, this is the only real surprise that has come out of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s young administration so far. Everything else he’s done he promised on the campaign trail so nobody should be surprised. But this one he didn’t. However, he used his first address to the General Assembly to endorse the concept and now there are bills pending before the legislature that would make it happen.

(I feel compelled to point out that he said nothing about school construction and modernization. I spent four years flogging Ralph Northam for not doing enough about the “crumbling schools” that he mentioned in his inaugural address. Must I now spend four years flogging Youngkin for not even doing that much? Thank goodness there are now legislators – from Democrats such as Jennifer McClellan of Richmond to Republicans such as Bill Stanley of Franklin County and Joe McNamara of Roanoke County and Israel O’Quinn of Washington County and others – who are stepping into that void of gubernatorial non-leadership. The Virginia Mercury even reports that Republicans will try to dedicate revenue from a future legal cannabis market to school construction.)

But back to the stadium deal. Details matter: This would not involve writing a check, blank or otherwise, to the team. In theory, it may not even involve any outright expenditure of tax dollars at all. The Washington Post says the two bills create a state authority that “would have the ability to issue debt backed by a share of the state sales and income tax revenue created by the stadium portion of the project to offset the cost of construction bonds.” If you’re favorably inclined toward this, you might even claim that the project pays for itself – authority issues bonds to raise money for the construction, and then the taxes generated by the project pay off those bonds. See, we’re not reaching into your wallets at all!

That might even be true.

Still, there is something unusual about all this: It’s very common these days for cities to pay for sports stadiums. It’s less common for states to get involved.

According to the Buffalo News (where the question of whether to pay for a new stadium is a current issue), 18 of of the 21 most recent stadiums were partially paid for their host city, with public percentages of financing ranging from 9% for the San Francisco 49ers stadium in Santa Clara to 100% for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers stadium. The average public share has been just under 59%. The three exceptions are the New England Patriots stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts; the stadium for the New York Giants and Jets in East Rutherford, New Jersey; and the stadium that Washington Football Team owner Daniel Snyder reportedly wants to duplicate, the massive entertainment complex in Inglewood, California, that is home to the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles Chargers.

Even those three were not devoid of some kind of public participation, though. Inglewood has created tax breaks for the stadium that could add up to $100 million, the Buffalo News reports. In New Jersey, the state provided the land and built surrounding roads and other infrastructure. In the case of the Patriots, the state also paid for roads, sewer and infrastructure, about $72 million worth. Those expenditures don’t seem out of line, though, with how other developments work. If a developer builds a subdivision with hundreds of houses, some government somewhere is going to be on the hook for paying for the traffic and school children that will come with the development. In cases where localities are seeing their populations decline and age, those localities would cheerfully accept those expenses as a trade-off. In the case of the proposed Washington Football Team stadium in either Loudoun County or Prince William County, even if team owner Daniel Snyder paid for the whole thing out of his own pocket, the state would wind up paying for the roads around it, so that shouldn’t concern us anymore than any other mega-development would.

Instead, we should focus on what other role the state might be expected to play in this project.

Of the 21 most recent NFL stadiums, states appear to be involved in only six of them (beyond the aforementioned road construction), according to the Buffalo News. Those six are the stadiums in Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, Minneapolis, Nashville and Seattle. In Minnesota, the state put up $348 million for the stadium. In Baltimore, the state put up $200 million. In Seattle, the state put up $127 million. At least nobody’s proposing that here. The Virginia proposal appears more in line with Atlanta, where a stadium authority sold $200 million worth of bonds, with those bond payments paid for through stadium revenue and a portion of the hotel and motel tax. (The state of Georgia also donated $14 million worth of land.)

Now if a city wants to spend its money for a stadium, that may still be controversial, depending upon the city, but there’s also a potentially good argument to be made in favor of it. That argument is quality of life. Professional sports are part of our cultural landscape and if a city feels it needs a professional sports franchise to be considered a “major” city, that seems quite understandable. That was certainly the case with Las Vegas issuing $645 million in bonds to make its football stadium happen. It’s not alone, either. Quebec City certainly feels poorer for not having a National Hockey League team, so it followed the Milwaukee model and helped pay for a $370 million arena to attract one. Unlike Milwaukee with baseball, Quebec City has yet to land an NHL team. Landing an NHL team, though,would certainly help underscore Quebec City’s role as a rising technopolis – think of it as the French-speaking Austin of the north. Cities often underwrite other facilities that aren’t intended to make money but that serve as venues for entertainment – the Berglund Center in Roanoke is one case in point. I’m not persuaded by the argument that a football stadium would simply be a playbox for millionaires working for a billionaire. The rock stars who take the stage at the Berglund Center are making plenty of money, too, and no one seems to begrudge them. (Gordon Lightfoot, who plays there Feb. 8, is said to have a net worth of $40 million, so maybe not quite in Dan Snyder’s $4 billion territory.)

But why should the state of Virginia get involved in a stadium? This isn’t a case of the Washington metro area not having a team at all and somehow feeling empty in its soul. It already has a team. Youngkin and other backers seem to think it will be a point of prestige if the Washington Football Team plays on our side of the Potomac and not the other side. House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, told The Washington Post that “Virginia is a football state. We deserve a football team … both as a source of shared pride and of state revenues.” The revenues are a good argument – more on them to come – but I question the “shared pride” part.

Who would run this authority?

One curiosity in both bills before the legislature, one from state Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax County, in the Senate and one from Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, in the House: Both would effectively give four of the nine seats on the authority to the team.

The governor would appoint all nine members but four must come from a list approved by the stadium’s primary tenant. At least the state retains a bare majority, but is it really a good idea to give the tenant such control over the landlord? If we weren’t talking about a billionaire tenant, that might even sound like a mild form of socialism.

By that principle, should four-ninths of the seats on a university board of visitors be reserved for appointees nominated by the student government? (Hmm, maybe that’s not such a bad idea.) In any case, is this good public policy?

Here’s an inconvenient point that stadium backers overlook: Much of Virginia falls outside the Washington team’s market area and/or fan base. Draw a line through Roanoke and Lynchburg and Hopewell. Below that line, more radio stations broadcast the Carolina Panthers than the Washington Football Team. Far Southwest Virginia falls under the TV market of the Tennessee Titans. Facebook, which knows more about us than we sometimes know about ourselves, has put together its own map of team fan bases, as determined by how users interact with that team on social media. Its map shows the Washington Football Team is the dominant team only for those in Augusta County and Albemarle County and north – Interstate 64 appears to be the dividing line, with a few exceptions here or there, such as Montgomery County, Appomattox County, Prince Edward County and Brunswick County. It says the dominant team in far Southwest Virginia is the Pittsburgh Steelers (despite being in the Titans TV market). The localities in between? Umm, the favorite team is the Dallas Cowboys. Ouch. Maybe team owner Jerry Jones should have asked Southside to help underwrite the palatial AT&T Stadium.

My point here: This isn’t our team. That’s not me speaking as a fan (I’m actually a marginal fan of the burgundy-and-gold team, despite its persistent weakness at the key position of owner). That’s the free market speaking, something that conservatives, of all people, should pay heed to. If the state of Washington wanted to help pay for the Seattle Seahawks stadium, well, all of Washington falls under Seattle’s fan base so I can understand the political sentiment that Spokane would rather see the team in Seattle and not, say, San Antonio or St. Louis or Toronto or some other city that might like an NFL franchise. (Or London!) Virginia, though, is a divided state. I can understand if legislators in Northern Virginia want to vote based on sentiment, but legislators in Southwest and Southside ought not be swayed so easily. Their votes should be based strictly on a cold-eyed reading of the bottom line and some old-fashioned deal-making: What’s in it for us? It’s hard to spend prestige, especially prestige that won’t accrue to this part of the state.

Kilgore’s reference to “state revenues” is a good one. This project, as envisioned, would generate a lot of revenue. It’s particularly in the interest of Southwest and Southside to want to see an increase in state revenue – most of our school funding comes from the state. That, though, is also a definition of “trickle-down economics.” If our legislators are being asked for their votes for this stadium authority, it seems fair to ask for some guaranteed revenue stream in return. I see a lot of legislative enthusiasm around the state for a sports and entertainment complex in the most affluent part of the state. I wish I saw similar enthusiasm around the state for addressing the economic problems of a part of Virginia where some schools are literally held together by duct tape.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.