The Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers—even before a team name is introduced, is prepended by its geography. So much of a team’s identity is interrelated with the city, region, or state that it occupies. This relationship is often framed as a symbiotic one, a team helps create a sense of community, brings in tourism, and assists in developing a neighborhood or an area—in exchange, the community makes the team (and especially the owners) a ton of money.
Between the challenges of courting all-stars to a smaller city and trying to satisfy team owners always eyeing larger markets, small-market teams probably know better than most that this relationship is a tenuous one at best, and an exploitation of public resources at worst. In mid-2019, the Indiana Pacers agreed to stay in Indianapolis for 25 more years in a deal that includes $295 million in public subsidies for renovations and expansions planned on and around the Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where the Pacers currently play.
No new taxes will be levied to pay for this, but as AP reports, “the tax revenue related to the hotels will be diverted from the state, city and local schools.” Since the stadium is owned by the city via the Capital Improvement Board (CIB), they’re able to funnel the money into these endeavours and sell it as a public good. CIB’s pitch is that pumping money into supporting the team and its expansion helps grow the metropolitan area, bringing in businesses—like the proposed Hilton hotel, and creating a stronger tourism economy. All three of these factors mean more taxes, and thus, it pays for itself and then some. Spend money on these expansions now and there will be more money down the line to fund schools, parks, and other public needs and wants. But many of these services and goods have been hurting for a while and have immediate needs. “Since 2000, Indiana has seen the largest decline in teacher pay adjusted for inflation of any state,” says the WFYI.
The promise of economic growth here is one that’s hard to measure, but it’s not as surefire as presented, studies promoted by the builders intentionally muddy together gross and net economic gains (thereby overstating the impact of these athletic investments). Existing hotels are skeptical that demand will grow as projected. Plus, verbiage that emphasizes compromising on other public services for a bigger pay-off down the line often just leads to perpetually moving the goal post by a few years as short-term profits are continuously prioritized. This is all on top of questions about what it means to use public money and goods for an endeavour that consistently and continuously funnels profits to the already rich owners.
The move is hardly exceptional though, Indianapolis has spent the past few decades reinventing themselves into a sports capital, setting up the Indiana Sports Corp, the nation’s first sports commission, in a bid to attract more events, games and organizations to the city. The scale of the current Indy 500, the many facilities and event centers that’s made Indianapolis a popular convention city, and the NCAA Headquarters relocating to downtown are all testaments to a city successfully—by some metrics—adapting to a cratering auto and manufacturing industry in the past few decades.
Any large-scale transformation is challenging, and these successes do prove the value that sports can provide for a community. But when these economic successes come hand-in-hand with reports of Indiana’s continued struggling economy, and more specifically, Indianapolis' widening gap between the rich and the poor—a gap that points to these large public investments helping a few, while most continue to struggle—it requires re-thinking what and who is really being invested here.