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Subsidizing the ‘Skins

Funding privately owned sports franchises and private sports initiatives with taxpayer dollars has been a source of drama for the past century, going at least as far back as Cleveland Stadium in the late 1920′s, but taking off (and getting more divisive) particularly during the fifties and ever since.  A municipality-driven battle over stadium expenses is usually the source of headlines, and this is especially true when the stadium won’t pull double-duty as an Olympic or college facility.  This week, though, the Washington Redskins reminded us that when it comes to one of the most valuable pro sports franchises around, there’s a little more on the line than stadiums.

The team headquarters and training facilities have been the subject of a bidding war between Maryland, Washington DC, and Virginia, each hoping to have the Redskins and their hundreds of millions of dollars of income relocate/remain in their respective environs.  The Redskins are essentially in the convergence of a tri-state metropolitan area (the wealth and status of the District makes it reasonable to include as a state) where they are the primary sport franchise for each said state.  Prior to the return of a franchise to Baltimore in ’96, there was no regional pro football presence other than the Redskins, no competing professional or college sport that came close to the Redskins in terms of history or draw, and an established melange of geographical association.

It’s an enviable set of factors unique to this franchise, and a large reason for its sheer value today.  The closest analog I can think of off-hand would be the New York football franchises and their shared stadium in New Jersey.  Of course, the Jets and Giants compete with each other for fanbase share (and with the Yankees and Mets in baseball, the Knicks in basketball, and the Rangers in hockey.)  They also are tied in name and sentiment to New York to the point where shopping around for suitors can be a public relations problem.

Getting to the details, Virginia’s Loudon County is the current (and now future) home of the Redskins headquarters, thanks potentially to the large incentive package put together by Bob McDonnell, Governor of Virginia and part of a long line of state executives who’ve made attracting and retaining businesses a priority for the Old Dominion.  The deal gives the Redskins $6.4 million to remain in Virginia, with $4 million coming from the state, $2 million from Loudon County, and $400,000 from Richmond (which hosts the team’s 2013 training camp.)

Not only is the item being subsidized a bit different from the norm, but so is the developing controversy around it.  While expected debate over whether these maneuvers represent savvy leadership or a small part of a larger epidemic of states racing to see which can kowtow most to large businesses (and whether the team was actually ready to relocate if not placated), what’s gotten more attention is the fact that the Governor seems to have raised the ire of the Virginia legislature to make this happen.

Piecing together comments from both sides, at some point the Virginia General Assembly was privy to a $12 million demand by the Redskins; multiple members of the Assembly (a group including appropriations and budget committee members from both parties) balked and recommended the demand be ignored.  Rather than coming back to the Assembly for guidance (or even informing them of his decision after the fact), McDonnell made an executive decision to accept a lower demand of $4 million.  As I noted earlier, state subsidies of private businesses are par for the course in general terms, but aren’t very common for already-established businesses that won’t add lots of local jobs.  There’s discussion of facilities upgrades that might inject about $30 million into the pockets of local contractors, which is helpful in the short-term, but not over time.

Given the proximity between the Republican Governor and the largely Republican Assembly, it almost feels like a case of friendly fire.  Of course, politics is an old game and without innocent parties.  Among the discontents in the Assembly is Delegate Lacey Putney, Chair of the House Appropriations committee, leader of a district not quite in the Beltway news stream, and a veritable institution unto himself.  At one point during a few years where I spent my professional energies talking to Virginia politicians, Mr. Putney personally recounted to me an unprompted tale regarding one of his own similar, less-orthodox achievements in which he outmaneuvered his own legislative body.

So who knows for sure what subtext, untold stories, and called-in favors are involved here?  Still this is one of the most interesting examples to date of the pressures in keeping big-money teams happy, and could be informative for whenever talk of an NFL team in LA heats up again.

Recap from the Roanoke Times:  http://www.roanoke.com/politics/wb/310361

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