This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 8 The Big Money Issue. Subscribe today!
WASHINGTON RESIDENTS DON'T get to vote on whether the city will help fund a $287 million D.C. United stadium, the most expensive project in MLS history. In fact, they didn't even hear the City Council members' views on the deal before they headed to the ballot boxes in November. At the last moment, the chairman -- who was up for re-election -- delayed the release of a study on the hot-button issue until the day after the polls closed, even though the report had been finished for weeks. The officials' opinions, like so many factors that enter into the screwy calculus of stadium financing, remained a mystery.
For the better part of a century, politicians from both parties have siphoned taxpayer money into sports teams' coffers, clawing at the chance to prostrate themselves before billionaire owners. The process is repugnant -- and recently more shrouded than ever. Since 2005, North American municipalities have allocated more than $8 billion to stadium projects without so much as a public vote, says Tim Kellison, an assistant professor at the University of Florida studying stadium financing. "A lot of it happens under the radar," he says. "Decisions can be made very quickly."
Consider Cobb County, Georgia, which is planning to issue $400 million in bonds to fund a new stadium for the Braves. The county commission announced the project last November, then spent a grand total of two weeks discussing the deal, often covertly. Atlanta magazine reported that the commissioners met privately with Braves executives, rotating in and out to avoid forming a quorum, which would have forced them to convene in public. The controversy came to a head in May when 12 stadium boosters showed up hours before an open meeting so they could snag all of the speaking slots and prevent opponents from being heard. Then, in a scene that more closely resembled the Politburo than a public hearing, several dissenters were forcibly removed from the room.
Incredibly, the shenanigans didn't end there. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote in August that the commission's chairman, Tim Lee, secretly hired a lawyer to negotiate with the Braves before the deal was announced. When Lee disputed the allegations, arguing that it was an informal arrangement, the paper unearthed an email that confirmed its findings. The county's ethics board is investigating Lee.
A similar scandal is unfolding in Arizona. On Oct. 30, the state's attorney general launched an investigation into four Glendale council members over their roles in the city's decision to award the Coyotes' then-owner, IceArizona, a $15 million-a-year contract to manage the team's arena. In May 2013, Glendale officials met to discuss the contract with executives from IceArizona and the NHL, staggering their meetings in a way seemingly designed to avoid a quorum (sound familiar?). Further reports suggest the council might have broken the law when one member emailed another to say he had spoken with IceArizona's lawyer, a "trusted friend," then instructed his colleague to delete the message.
When asked about these Orwellian operations, politicos spin an array of semi-coherent excuses. Some defend the need for secrecy; Glendale's mayor said meeting in public would have put IceArizona at a competitive disadvantage to other bidders. Others claim they're acting in the best interest of voters, a rationale Kellison calls "civic paternalism."
But the flip side of paternalism is fear -- of exposure, criticism and above all, resistance. Unsurprisingly, the rise of secrecy has coincided with a groundswell of skepticism. Polls show voters don't want to pay for new buildings for the Bucks, Chargers and Bills. And although a slim majority of Cobb County residents favor the stadium for the Braves, 78 percent believe they should've been able to vote on the deal.
So the powerful circle the wagons, praying they'll never have to face real consequences. In May, the Braves' president, John Schuerholz, spoke with unusual candor about the team's furtive dealings with Cobb County. "If it had gotten out, more people would have started taking the position of, 'We don't want that to happen,' " he said. Elected officials might crave the spotlight, but they loathe the glare of public scrutiny. It's easier when everyone else lives in the dark.