The Real Deal

Once a point of civic pride, the stadium could end up being another mistake on the lake.

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That question was largely settled after teams like Cincinnati and Tampa Bay used the threat of a Cleveland relocation as leverage to get new stadium deals. NFL officials finally green-lit an expansion team for Cleveland in in 1998. Al Lerner stepped up and paid the $530 million expansion fee.

But the team needed a new stadium.

The facility was paid for by a package of taxes, including a sin tax on alcohol and cigarettes; a two percent admission tax on all city events; an 8 percent parking tax; and a $2 fee attached to car rentals. This was combined with chunks of cash from the Browns and the NFL, who as part of its settlement with the city kicked in $48 million -— money that the league immediately recovered from Lerner's expansion fee.

In the end, the cost of a new stadium ran to an estimated $314 million. The split came down to roughly 75 percent public funding, and 25 percent private money.

According to the new deal, the city owns the structure, but derives no taxes from the facility, nor any profits from what the Browns pull in on game day. And the city pays the debt service. At last count, the city will be making payments until 2027 totaling near $141 million. In return for all this, the Browns pony up $250,000 a year for the nearly exclusive use of a facility.

"Obviously, it was one-sided," says Polensek. "As I said publicly at the time, the team, and the NFL, they got all the profits. We got all the bills. We have the liability."

John Vrooman, a sports economist at Vanderbilt University, agrees.

"The public/private split probably should have been more like 25/75," he says. "But try telling that to a city government and electorate that had just lost their beloved Browns."

A lot of books have been pushed into print recently unpacking the long-con that is stadium construction. The timing isn't coincidental. The first stadium building bonanza kicked off in the mid-'90s, and by now sports economists and researchers have finally put their arms around enough data to box the phenomena into trend analysis that cuts through the fog of boosterism usually attached to such projects.

In the hierarchy of money sinkholes, NFL stadiums tend to be deeper than baseball stadiums and basketball and hockey arenas because they're used so seldom, thanks to the brevity of the football schedule. "It's really hard to do worse than spend your money on a stadium, especially a football stadium," says deMause. "It's only in operation 10 days a year, so you're getting zero economic spin-off from it."

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