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Does the NFL take taxpayers for a ride?

In this rendering released by AEG, the proposed football stadium to house a NFL team in Los Angeles is seen.
In this rendering released by AEG, the proposed football stadium to house a NFL team in Los Angeles is seen.

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It's the most popular, and profitable sport in America. The NFL has the best television deals, and the highest profit margins in professional sports. Total revenues are approaching $10 billion per year.

Yet the NFL itself, under a little known provision in a 50-year-old law, operates as a not-for-profit business. It's exempt from anti-trust laws, and it has a long history of convincing local and state governments to pay for much or all of the cost of constructing stadiums.

Sports writer and commentator Gregg Easterbrook loves the game, but finds the way the NFL operates to be distasteful. He's written about this in a new book, The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America. A section of it has been excerpted and published by The Atlantic.

Case in point: Two years ago, as the state of Minnesota was facing a more than one billion dollar deficit, it awarded the owners of The Vikings more than $500 million for a new stadium.

Easterbrook said the NFL and its owners (most of whom are billionaires, he notes) argue that stadium construction and the ongoing operation of football teams create economic opportunity. Easterbrook counters that many studies show the benefits of any economic boost almost never equals the amount of taxpayer money invested.

The tradition of soliciting taxpayer money to build football stadium goes back to the 1950's, and the beginnings of what became the NFL, said Easterbrook. "The owners of those teams were not billionaires," he says, and often needed public support to build sites for the clubs to play in.  

"Now, there's money flowing through the NFL like crazy," he said, "but we still use this 50-year-old idea that stadiums are like libraries or colleges and cannot exist unless the public supports them."

Easterbrook believes the real culprits in what he sees as a fleecing of taxpayers are the elected officials, in the U.S. Congress, state houses and city councils that cut deals with owners. He said he hopes the citizens of Los Angeles will reject any bid to bring an NFL franchise to the city that includes any form of taxpayer contribution.

His solution to the public financing of football stadiums: change the rules regarding television broadcasts, which are at the heart of the NFL's money-making machine. Easterbrook noted that teams make most of their money by copyrighting game performances, and licensing broadcast rights.

Just change the law so that games played in publicly funded stadiums can't be copyrighted. "The NFL will immediately negotiate to pay the full and proper cost of all its stadiums," said Easterbrook, "and then that problem will solve itself."