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How to swindle a stadium deal: “Throw A Billion Dollars From The Helicopter” film explains

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A recent documentary shows how the sausage gets made, Globe Life Field style.

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And, in 20 years, they’ll probably want another one.
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Down in a suburb of Dallas, Arlington
Several grifters were planning a scheme.
They hoped to buy low and sell high on baseball
New stadiums prop the value of teams.

In 2016, Arlington’s new mayor announced his intention to partner with the Texas Rangers on a new, mostly publicly-financed baseball stadium, replacing one built in 1994. After an extremely brief interval, the city council voted unanimously to put a financing referendum on the November election ballot. A great deal of money was spent promoting the referendum, using misleading-to-dishonest information about where financing would come from. Despite passionate, mostly volunteer activism from opponents, the referendum passed, and the resultant new building is hosting World Series games in 2020.

That’s the overall gist of filmmaker Michael Bertin’s recent documentary, Throw A Billion Dollars From The Helicopter. The phrase comes from University Of Chicago economist Allen Sanderson, who observed that if the intention of public stadium funding is economic growth, a more effective method would be dropping money at random from the sky.

The film features interviews with Sanderson, brilliant sports economics journalist Neil deMause, and several other outside experts. But most of it’s focused on various forces in the stadium battle; primarily mayor Jeff Williams and the opposition organization Citizens For A Better Arlington.

One thing that will immediately stand out to anyone who’s watched recent documentary films or television shows is the lack of a narrator; in a brief, informal email exchange, Mr. Bertin wrote me that he was trying not to “hand-hold and explicitly say things.” It works, because the footage speaks for itself, especially as the viewer gets to know some of the principal characters.

Mayor Williams, in particular, grows from “slightly smarmy” to “someone you earnestly hope is dumped with a ten-gallon bucket of live eels.” He’s eminently slappable; he chums up to supporters like they’re fraternity brothers at the University Of Telemarketing, and wears a smug smile of satisfaction when lying to/insulting opponents. It’s the kind of smile you get from a company executive who knows you know he’s lying, and is supremely confident that you can’t do anything about it.

He was elected in 2015 on the brilliant platform of removing traffic-ticket cameras. Because while traffic cameras are very effective, well, you know, Freedom! Williams didn’t mention a new stadium in his run for office, yet made it a huge issue within his first year.

On the other side, you have the Citizens For A Better Arlington, a non-profit political action committee that agreed with Williams about those dangnabit cameras, but sure as heck didn’t want a new stadium. They range from calm, persuasive business attorney Warren Norred to some more colorful down-home types like the trusting Faith Bussey and fiery Kelly Canon (see what I did there?) Ms. Canon has some, ah... interesting other aspects to her story as well, but they aren’t stadium-related, so they didn’t go into the movie.

Several of the anti-stadium crowd are also members of the Arlington Tea Party, which, like most similarly-named organizations, is ostensibly anti-tax and anti-government spending. (A rift occurs in the group, partially because of Rangers lobbying money involved.) So here’s your dilemma; how do you end up with a referendum campaign largely featuring conservative, small-government people on either side? Well, when it comes to stadium funding, that seems to happen often.

For the most part, sports teams don’t cry “poverty” anymore when pimping new buildings. (OK, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg is, but nobody really believes him or cares, since he probably can’t get out of his existing stadium lease). Instead, what they’ll do is tout the supposed “economic benefits” of a stadium. In every case, the building will theoretically generate enough economic growth to pay for itself. Yet, strangely, they never do.

This is how you end up with ostensibly anti-spending politicians on the side of sports stadiums; they’re not against all spending, not if it creates Growth! And, somehow, shooting a fire hose of money at a sports team is going to do so (even though public subsidies for much larger employers don’t always work out so well; ask Richfield about that Best Buy headquarters sometime, or Wisconsin about FoxConn).

That’s where consulting firms come in (we’ve talked about one the Vikings hired here before). Much like accounting firms magically found the finances of Enron or Bear Stearns to be rock-solid, consulting firms can always promise a sports stadium will actually raise, not lower, the public treasury. More money for fire trucks, roads and schools! Who doesn’t want that?

The methodology used by these consulting firms is pretty simple. You basically assume that all money spent in some location with a stadium is money that would disappear if the stadium did. So, for example, every hotel room booked in Phoenix on the day of a Diamondbacks home game is there because of travelers who want to see Eduardo Escobar, not the Grand Canyon. Every dollar spent on tickets is a dollar consumers would otherwise put in an old mini-fridge and bury out back, not money they’d find another way to entertain themselves with.

(Bertin has a great news clip from Toronto during the 1990s baseball strike; other business owners were thrilled by it, as people spent more money in their stores. One tells the camera he hopes the Maple Leafs will strike, too. That’s enough to get you excommunicated from Canada!)

Why did the Rangers need a new building, anyways? Their old one was well-liked (and the Rangers promise it will remain, to be converted as offices or something). They have a ginormous local-broadcast cable package. Their stated reason was “we need air conditioning,” but deMause was doubtful.

Turns out he was right to be. The real sweetener here for the Rangers is a thing called “Texas Live,” basically a mini-mall surrounding the building, with condos, bars, restaurants, shops, you name it. Wrigley has one, Atlanta has one, St. Louis, several others. And as we saw in the 1990s/2000s push to install new buildings with more luxury boxes, once one team has all that cash-grabbing infrastructure, every other team wants theirs, too.

So let’s add this to the irony – even if new stadiums sometimes benefit nearby bars & restaurants (by diverting money from other bars/restaurants), well, in the case of these stadium mini-malls, all of that benefit goes right to the same owners!

Throw A Billion has tons more other juicy tidbits, as well. Is there oil-fracking money involved? Naturally! (It’s just not Texas if there isn’t a little oil money in the mix.) I particularly liked the clip where mayor Williams claims other cities are “coming for the Rangers” and his questioner replies, “name one.” Dallas is frequently mentioned as a potential vulture, even though when it came time for the new Cowboys stadium, Arlington won that bidding war – with less money than they’d spend on the Rangers later. Essentially, as deMause observes, Arlington was getting into a bidding war with themselves. (Guess how much “economic development” the Cowboys building generated. Go ahead, I’ll wait.) Williams just keeps stepping in it, whether defaming opponents or mentioning lynching at a council meeting. Did I mention wanting to cover this guy in eels? Let’s add a few gallons of roaches to that Bucket Of Shame.

He’s still mayor, having been re-elected handily, by the way.

What of the ballpark, now that it’s in use? Well, the exterior seems to be an architectural eyesore rivaling other skyline disasters such as US Bank Stadium (Bertin said he almost made the movie about that stadium battle instead). And, at one point during construction, the roof, the roof, the roof was on fire. Fans at the 2020 “playoff” games are enjoying its state-of-the-art seating so much that they’re utterly ignoring virus safety rules, so that’s Fun.

How can you see Throw A Billion Dollars from the comfort of your home? Assuming your home is comfortable. If not, clean it.

The film is available for streaming on Amazon Prime and Vimeo. It’s cheaper on Vimeo, the filmmakers get paid a little more if you use that instead, and they’re not the biggest tax-evading corporation in US history. Just saying.

You can watch the trailer on the movie’s website (that page also has the appropriate Vimeo/Amazon links), and some neat extended interviews with sports economists here. If you don’t think sports economists sound all that neat, well, this isn’t the movie for you. (They are smart and funny, though!) Plus you probably bailed on this article about fifteen paragraphs ago.

As to that little rhyme at the top? It’s from a game preview I did back in 2015, which was about the stadium shenanigans involving Texas’s previous ballpark swindle. It’s a whole thing, meant to be a parody of Marty Robbins’s 1959 hit “El Paso,” because this is the kind of quality material you pay subscription fees to TwinkieTown for.

In trying to find that old preview, I came upon this phone cover you can buy that has Marty Robbins shooting lasers out of his eyes. Don’t say I never gave you anything. You will want to purchase that cover the moment you see it, even if you hate smartphones.

But spend that money to stream Throw A Billion Dollars From The Helicopter first.