The recent building of two new major league sports stadiums in Cincinnati is one of the most egregious, appalling, and destructive examples of public money being used for private gain in the history of the world. It is probably the most extreme example of the 'publicly-funded stadiums for private teams' craze that swept American cities in the 1990s.

By the 1990s, both of the major league teams in Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Reds of Major League Baseball and the Cincinnati Bengals of the NFL, were threatening to move to suburban locations or other markets due to the condition of Riverfront Stadium, an uninspiring 70s era venue shared by both teams. Riverfront had the smallest seating capacity of any major league stadium and was devoid of revenue-earning ‘luxury boxes.’

There was a general consensus in the city that the stadium had to go, if for no other reason than the aging Riverfront Stadium and its acres of parking lots were a blight on the downtown. The effect of Riverfront Stadium was to entirely cut off downtown from the river, and planners decided to remedy this with any new stadium. The idea was that the riverfront was the most valuable land in the city and ought to become something other than a bunch of parking lots. Perhaps the new stadium, or at least one of them if there were going to be two, ought to be located in an urban neighborhood that could use some revitalization. It was also suggested that the teams ought to pay for at least part of the construction of a stadium that was for their use and that would generate profit for them. Then the teams weighed in.

Their demands were as follows:

  • Each team would have its own stadium
  • The stadiums were to be built by Hamilton County entirely with public money, then ‘leased’ in perpetuity to the teams for a trivial annual fee
  • The stadiums were to be maintained entirely with public money.
  • Both stadiums and all parking lots were to be on the riverfront, with the cost of acquiring the land to be paid by the county
  • The Bengals would get three full sized practice fields next to their stadium, along the river, for their exclusive use, with the cost of acquiring the land and construction to be paid for by the county
  • Each stadium, although built and maintained with public money, would be for the exclusive use of each team, respectively. Other events could only be held with the express permission of the owners of the teams.
  • All profits from vending concessions regardless of the event would belong to the teams
  • The Bengals would be reimbursed, by the county, from public money, in perpetuity, for every seat not sold at every home game

The total initial cost of the proposal was about 500 million dollars, and it was to be paid for with increases in the county sales and property taxes. In return for its largesse, the county would get the proceeds of a small ticket tax. If the plan was not agreed to, both teams would leave Cincinnati, most likely for other cities. Supposedly, negotiations were already underway with various cities. However, many people thought these were hollow threats and that both teams intended to remain in the Cincinnati area.

It should also be mentioned that the Bengals had spent about 12 years as consistently the worst team in the NFL, finishing with a 1-15 record two years in a row including the year the stadium plan was proposed, and the Reds were and routinely eliminated from playoff contention by the all-star break. Nevertheless, in 1997, the Hamilton County Commission, a body of three people representing 800,000 residents that usually tackles such issues as when to repave which road, approved the above $500,000,000 Bengals/Reds stadium plan by a simple majority (2 votes to 1).

As you can guess, there was some opposition to this even in sports-obsessed Cincinnati. A ballot referendum to repeal the tax increase that would fund the new stadiums was set for the next election. Unfortunately, the laws of the state of Ohio are such that a county has to have a charter to allow ballot referenda to affect policy, and Hamilton County didn’t have one, so the referendum also called for establishing a county charter. This put the knee-jerk conservative anti-tax ideologues that dominate politics in the Cincinnati area in a pickle, because they opposed the new tax on principle, but also opposed the expanded powers of jack-booted thugs and UN helicopters that would come with the county having a charter. In the end they sided with the teams, because hey, $500,000,000 from the public treasury for something like schools or public transportation is pinko commie talk, but $500,000,000 from the public treasury to build new profit-generation landmarks on the most valuable land in the city for the private use of two businesses is free enterprise.

Still, the election was going to be hotly contested. The local Chamber of Commerce funded an ad blitz with the slogan that ‘In order to be a major league city you have to have major league teams.’ Their argument, as is usual for these situations, was that businesses would choose to locate in Cincinnati based on whether local major league sports were available. This makes perfect sense, because businesses never gravitate to cities that don’t have major league teams, cities like Austin, Madison, and Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, for instance.

Along the way a compromise was proposed which would have at least moved the Reds’ stadium away from the riverfront to a revitalization location called “Broadway Commons.” The reply of the Reds ownership was ‘no way,’ and their stated reason was that if the stadium was in a neighborhood, people could spend their money for food and drinks before and after the games at local businesses, whereas having it isolated on the riverfront surrounded by parking lots would make it so all of the food and beverage revenue would go to the team. They didn’t even beat around the bush with that one, they just came right out and said it.

In the end, the referendum failed, and the stadium plan, exactly as demanded by the two teams, was official. Ground was broken shortly thereafter, and now, in 2002, the Bengals’ stadium, named Paul Brown Stadium after the first owner of the team, has been operational for two seasons. The team has failed to sell out all but two home games, and so the county has had to reimburse for all the rest. The new Reds Stadium is scheduled for completion in time for the 2003 season.

The stadiums, the accompanying tangle of parking lots and ramps, and the three fenced practice fields do exactly as intended - they fully isolate themselves and therefore the riverfront, from downtown. The Cincinnati Stadium plan has been hailed by urban planners around the world as exactly what not to do with potentially valuable waterfront urban real estate.


Beigs brings up the point that Austin, Madison, and the Tri-Cities area do have big local teams, the Longhorns, the Badgers, the Longand the Tar Heels respectively

VT_hawkeye says that Raleigh has the Carolina Hurricanes.

Caknuck says Las Vegas is pretty booming and has only rather small-time UNLV basketball.

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