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A Looming NFL Lockout Is Rooted in Stadium Hypocrisy

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In case you weren't aware -- and far too many people are -- there's a strong chance there won't be an NFL season next year. The wheels were set in motion on May 21, 2008, when the NFL decided not to renew its collective bargaining agreement with the players. NFL owners felt that players were getting too high a percentage of overall revenues under the existing agreement.

Among other things, the owners claim that the lavish new stadiums they have built -- or demanded be built -- are too expensive. "We are facing different economic realities than we have in prior years," said Greg Aiello, an N.F.L. spokesman, adding, "For the most part, these new realities reflect a significant increase in costs, including the cost of building, maintaining and operating stadiums."

They have only themselves to blame.

Since 1990, 28 of the 32 NFL teams have either opened a new stadium, done major renovations to an existing stadium, or are currently in the planning and negotiation stages for a new stadium.

Were all of these lavish new stadiums necessary? No. Take Denver, for instance. Completed in 2001, Invesco Field at Mile High wound up costing taxpayers nearly $400 million. Nevermind that Mile High Stadium was popular with fans -- it was consistently sold out -- and in fine shape. In fact, in order to build the new stadium, the city of Denver actually had to release the Broncos from their lease with Mile High Stadium which was not set to expire until 2018. So not only did the owner of the Broncos swindle Colorado taxpayers into building him a new stadium, he actually convinced them to break one of the strongest lease agreements in professional sports.

Here's how Field of Schemes author Neil deMause describes what happened:

Next door to the Nuggets, Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen chimed in that his football's home, Mile High Stadium, was rusting and might fall down. "This is a serious, serious question," said Bowlen in asking for $180 million in state money toward a new stadium. "Where do we play in 1998 or 1999 if that stadium is condemned?" As in Detroit, independent engineers countered that Mile High was in fine shape; one declared that the stadium could "last indefinitely" if properly maintained. What was not in perfect shape, it turned out, was Bowlen's bank account -- the owner had sold the rights to Mile High's luxury boxes some years earlier to raise some quick cash, and hoped that a new stadium would restored the millions a year in luxury-box revenue that he had sold off.

And Bowlen wasn't even demanding the city fully pay for his stadium as other owners have done. At least 10 NFL stadiums are 100% publicly financed and at least 19 are 75% publicly financed.

By investing in these stadiums, taxpayers have shown their loyalty to their teams -- and the owners. To then turn around and use the cost of these stadiums as an excuse for plunging everyone into an ugly labor battle is an insult to NFL fans everywhere.

At the very least, the owners argument should effectively put the quash on any plans for Minneapolis' new stadium. Despite Minnesota's $6 billion -- with a capital B -- budget shortfall, the Vikings are pushing for the public to pay at least $500 million of a proposed $800 million stadium.

"Why not? The Vikings are a public asset," said Lester Bagley, the Vikings' vice president in charge of stadium development. "This is going to create an economic boost."

Consider the implications of Bagley's comments. If the Vikings are indeed a public asset, is he saying that the public has some ownership of the Vikings? That they should have some say over whether the Vikings can leave town? Because elsewhere Bagley has said this: "The clock is ticking, and the lease is coming due.  The state can't afford to have us become free agents."

In other words, give us a lavish new stadium, but nevermind that we may not have a 2011 season because of how expensive new stadiums are. And the Vikings are a public asset, but nevermind that 65% of Minnesotans don't want public funding for a new stadium.

The owners of the Vikings want the people of Minnesota to continue with stadium financing as though it's all business as usual even as the league threatens put an end to next year's season. The people of Minnesota should join together to say that no to any stadium proposal at least until there's a guarantee there will actually be NFL games played in it.

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Brian Frederick is the Executive Director of Sports Fans Coalition. He holds a Ph.D. in Communication and lives in Washington, D.C. Email him at brian@sportsfans.org.

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