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NHL commissioner defends funding stadiums with taxpayer dollars

Daniel Roberts

The issue of sports stadium financing is back in the fore this month, courtesy of President Donald Trump. The president tweeted on Oct. 10, “Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks?” The question suggested a misunderstanding, since the NFL voluntarily relinquished its tax exempt status in 2015.

But soon enough, the Trump administration appeared to pivot toward focusing on the tax-exempt municipal bonds frequently given these days to new NFL stadiums. Trump’s initial tweet made no mention of stadiums, but later the same day, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “Billions of taxpayer dollars continue to subsidize the construction and renovation of professional sports stadiums.”

Indeed, more than half of the NFL stadiums built since 1997 have received some amount of public financing help. The thinking is that a new stadium will be a boon to the local economy. But that is usually “vastly overblown,” says sports economics professor Andrew Zimbalist.

Nonetheless, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, speaking at Yahoo Finance’s All Markets Summit on Wednesday, defended the practice of financing sports arenas with public money.

“Having a professional sports team as your anchor tenant in a facility, if you do it the right way, can literally transform a city,” Bettman said. “When you’re creating new taxes that wouldn’t otherwise exist but for the development of an arena and the surrounding area, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to devote some or all of those taxes to paying off what’s been created, and which otherwise wouldn’t exist.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman at Yahoo AMS.

Bettman directly acknowledged the arguments made by experts like Zimbalist, who say that a new stadium doesn’t typically bring a positive economic impact: “There are academicians who agree with this and disagree with this in theory, but I disagree with them.”

In hockey, the Calgary Flame lobbied for financing help from Calgary to build a new arena, but faced opposition, and announced in September that the team has given up on the project.

“They’re no longer pursuing a new building, which it is unfortunate because they are playing in what I believe is the oldest building in the league,” Bettman said. “And at some point their sustainability gets jeopardized if they don’t have the same types of facilities, amenities, revenue-producing opportunities that other franchises have.”

Translation: The NHL wants its teams to play in nice stadiums; when a team needs a new stadium, the NHL commissioner believes it’s fair to get public financing for the stadium; when a team doesn’t get the new stadium it wants, the NHL commissioner believes it jeopardizes the team’s very existence.

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwriteSportsbook is our sports business video and podcast series.

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