52 Pro Sports Stadiums Benefit From Tax Breaks For Low-Income Neighborhoods

Those poor, poor billionaire team owners can take advantage of 'Opportunity Zones.'

The folks who own the New York Yankees, Detroit Red Wings, Houston Rockets, and D.C. United are not who should spring to mind when discussing government programs meant to aid the poor. However, they, along with dozens of other sports team owners, are eligible to take advantage of a tax break meant to bring investment into low-income areas, thanks to their stadiums being situated in what are known as Opportunity Zones.

Created by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, Opportunity Zones are supposed to entice investors to put money into neighborhoods that have traditionally missed out on development opportunities. Leaving an investment in an Opportunity Zone for 10 years means any capital gains earned will be tax-free; the program could increase returns to investors by up to 70 percent.

There are big problems, however. While Opportunity Zones are a federal program, governors decided which Census tracts qualified. And in many instances, they chose poorly. There are plenty of tracts in which development was already underway and didn’t need to be “incentivized” at all. Any Opportunity Zone benefits conferred there will just be a windfall.

Then there are zones that received designations as Opportunity Zones for dubious reasons that seem more connected to politics than economics. For instance, there’s already been a bit of reporting about NFL stadiums that are situated in Opportunity Zones.

But I went through and found that 52 stadiums and arenas in the five major men’s professional sports leagues — the NFL, MLB, NHL, NBA, and MLS — are in Opportunity Zones. That’s 52 stadiums for which owners can accrue benefits means to help transform low-income communities.

Here’s the full list:

NFL: 17

Centurylink Field, Seattle

Empower Field at Mile High, Denver

Fedex Field, Landover, Maryland

Firstenergy Stadium, Cleveland

Ford Field, Detroit

LA Coliseum, Los Angeles

Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis

M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore

Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta

Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans

Nissan Stadium, Nashville

NRG Stadium, Houston

Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati

Raiders Stadium, Las Vegas

Raymond James Stadium, Tampa Bay

Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, Oakland

TIAA Bank Field, Jacksonville

MLB: 13

Busch Stadium, St. Louis

Chase Field, Phoenix

Comerica Park, Detroit

Great American Ballpark, Cincinnati

Guaranteed Rate Field, Chicago

Miller Park, Milwaukee

Minute Maid Park, Houston

Petco Park, San Diego

Progressive Field, Cleveland

Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, Oakland

T-Mobile Park, Seattle

Tropicana Field, Tampa Bay

Yankee Stadium, New York

NHL: 5

Amalie Arena, Tampa Bay

KeyBank Center, Buffalo

Little Caesar’s Arena, Detroit

Prudential Center, Newark

Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul

NBA: 12

AT&T Center, San Antonio

Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis

Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City

Fedex Forum, Memphis

Golden One Center, Sacramento

Little Caesar’s Arena, Detroit

Moda Center, Portland

Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, Cleveland

Smoothie King Center, New Orleans

Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix

Toyota Center, Houston

Vivint Smart Home Arena, Salt Lake City

MLS: 10

Allianz Field, St. Paul

Audi Field, Washington, D.C.

Avaya Stadium, San Jose

Banc of California Stadium, Los Angeles

BBVA Stadium, Houston

Centurylink Stadium, Seattle

Mapfre Stadium, Columbus

Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta

Talen Energy Stadium, Philadelphia

Yankee Stadium, New York

Total: 52

To find out whether a stadium was in an Opportunity Zone, I entered its street address into the Economic Innovation Group’s OZ mapping tool. My total is somewhat of an undercount, as I did not include stadiums where an Opportunity Zone is immediately adjacent, such as Lambeau Field in Green Bay or Nationals Park in D.C. Both of those stadiums have OZs literally across the street, and they’re not the only ones.

Adding up the total number from each league above will get you to more than 52, but that’s because of shared stadiums: Centurylink Stadium in Seattle is shared by the Seahawks and Sounders, Little Caesar’s Arena in Detroit is shared by the Red Wings and Pistons, Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum is shared by the Raiders and A’s, Yankee Stadium is shared by NYCFC and the Yankees, and Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta is shared by the Falcons and Atlanta United.

I also included the forthcoming Raiders Stadium in Las Vegas, as that one is quite famously in an Opportunity Zone literally right next to the Las Vegas Strip.

Someday I’ll come back and add women’s pro leagues and maybe even college sports or minor league stadiums, but apologies, that day is not today.

Breaking Down the Big Stadium Lie

The only real restrictions on Opportunity Zone investments are that they not be in “sin” businesses such as casinos or marijuana distribution. As Samantha Jacoby at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explained to me in an email, “I don't see a reason why professional sports teams or their owners couldn't form an opportunity zone fund and use it to hold new assets, like improvements, buildings adjacent to a stadium (like bars, restaurants, hotels), or even intellectual property.”

So owners could build new amenities on their stadiums or buy up property around those stadiums on which to build new stuff, all the while benefiting from a program meant to help low-income communities.

This is absurd enough on its face. People who own sports teams are wildly, unfathomably rich — Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner is a billionaire, as is St. Louis Cardinals owner William DeWitt Jr., and Red Wings owner Marian Ilitch, and on and on and on — and they don’t need enticements to make new investments in and around their own properties.

But that so many Opportunity Zones were placed around sports stadiums also puts the lie to the story told regarding how stadiums, on their own, develop neighborhoods.

After all, the conventional wisdom about stadiums is that they drive economic growth and development, and therefore should be funded by the public. Billions upon billions of dollars in taxpayer giveaways have been put into private sports stadiums based on that belief.

But if those neighborhoods also need an additional federal tax break meant to help bring in investment, then clearly the stadium is not enough of an enticement. Either the tale told to wring stadium subsidies out of the public is a lie, or the story regarding why Opportunity Zones are where they are is a lie.

Or both, of course.

Whatever the rationale, taxpayers lose twice: In many places, they’ve paid for the stadium, and won’t even reap tax benefits when those stadiums and their surrounding environs are upgraded and improved. NFL stadiums receiving OZ designations is particularly insulting, since they’re almost always surrounded by huge parking lots that will blunt any smart development effort. And since the reporting requirements on Opportunity Zone investments are opaque to non-existent, taxpayers will have a hard time telling how many sports owners are receiving a tax windfall at their expense.

It’s not that none of the neighborhoods in which these stadiums sit are poor or underdeveloped, of course. It’s that owners need no incentive to spend money on facilities that are already there, oftentimes already paid for by the public.

Governors and other state lawmakers had a choice. Instead of designating communities that were truly starved for investment as Opportunity Zones, and finding out what the people in those communities wanted and needed, they decided to gift tax breaks to some of the wealthiest and most odious individuals in the country. Game on, I guess.

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