Joseph Louis Barrow was one of the twentieth century’s greatest sporting heroes, reigning as boxing’s heavyweight champion for almost a dozen years. But perhaps his greatest accomplishment was to prove, in knocking out the German fighter Max Schmeling in1938, (like Jesse Owens winning four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics) that brown-skinned Americans were superior to members of Hitler’s “Master Race.”
In 1979 Detroit, Michigan opened a new sports facility (built mainly to house the Detroit Red Wings of the National Hockey League) and named it after its favorite son: The Joe Louis Arena.
This past Sunday the Red Wings played their last game at The Joe (as it’s known); the team will be moving to a new home next season Perhaps fittingly, the end of the team’s stay at its old home was also the end of the team’s successful run of a quarter-century of appearances in the league’s Stanley Cup Playoffs (they finished one point out of dead last in their division). After a few more music concerts, The Joe will be demolished.
A brand-new facility, Little Caesars Arena, will be the Red Wings' next home. The Ilitch family (the paterfamilias, Mike(1), died earlier this year), who own the team (not the arena, but paid for the arena’s naming rights), made their original fortune selling pizzas under the Little Caesars name (though somehow they couldn’t afford an apostrophe).
Publicly Financed Sports Stadiums Are A Game That Taxpayers Lose(2)
Arizona City Lays Off Workers While Handing Millions To Its Professional Ice Hockey Team(3)
New Minnesota Vikings Stadium A Boondoggle Before It’s Even Built(4)
Record-Breaking Public Subsidy Lures Hated Football Team to America’s Gambling Capital(5)
One thing that the Ilitches can’t brag about is that their arena deal is the country's worst public-financing rip-off. That dubious honor, according to Roger Noll, a Stanford economist, belongs to the Las Vegas subsidy cited above. Noll called it the “worst deal for a city” he had ever seen. According to Henry Grabar, the author of the slate.com article,
Clark County taxpayers will contribute $750 million to the new arena, a record for a sports facility—about $354 per resident, taken from an increased tax on hotel rooms. That tax currently pays for schools and transportation, in addition to tourism-related expenditures.
Like the Vegas deal, the Detroit deal diverts tax money away from public uses:
If no DDA TIF district existed, the property taxes would go to the city's general fund, Detroit Public Schools, Wayne County, Huron Clinton Metropolitan Authority, Wayne County Intermediate School District, Wayne County Community College District, and the state (bold type in original).(6)
And Detroit could use that money. It’s a city that had to declare bankruptcy in 2013, the largest city to do so. What happened a week later? The Red Wings “secured $284.5 million in public money for their new arena.”(7)
As Deep Throat, the whistleblower in the Watergate scandal famously declared, “Follow the money.” Somehow it always seems to flow one way: into the pockets of the rich.
The wrecking ball will soon demolish The Joe, which honored one of the icons of the twentieth century;(8) it will be superseded by a venue that is named after a purveyor of baked dough whose logo features a cartoon character.
(1) Bill Bradley: "The truth is, Mike Ilitch was a rich old man who owned a bunch of stuff and never saw a tax break he didn’t like." http://deadspin.com/mike-ilitch-was-no-saint-1792480558
(8) Sportswriter Jimmy Cannon (speaking of Joe Louis in response to another person's characterization of him as "a credit to his race") "...he is a credit to his race, the human race.”
UPDATE (April 13)
The day after I posted the above, the Guardian (UK) published a story by Jerald Podair about the controversy in Los Angeles between 1957 and 1962 over the construction of a new baseball stadium in Chavez Ravine to accommodate the transplanted Brooklyn Dodgers. Podia writes:
I highly recommend Podair’s article.Opponents of the stadium objected to what they viewed as a giveaway of public property – the land at Chavez Ravine on which the stadium would be constructed – for the personal gain of a private individual, Walter O’Malley [the most reviled man in Brooklyn history]. . . .Supporters argued that the public benefits derived from the stadium in the form of property tax revenues, jobs, entertainment, and civic improvement justified O’Malley’s profits. . . .But stadium critics rejected the idea that a great American city required a central core studded with civic monuments. They argued instead for a Los Angeles that performed the basic tasks of urban life: concentrating tax resources on neighbourhoods in need of schools, streets, sanitation and safety.(9)