Wisconsin state senators struck a bipartisan deal yesterday and approved $250 million in public subsidies for a new arena for the National Basketball Association’s Milwaukee Bucks. The bill will now go to the state Assembly, where approval is likely. Just a few days ago, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed a state budget that includes cuts of $250 million to the University of Wisconsin system, among other cuts to public education funding. Marc Lasry, a Bucks co-owner, is estimated by Forbes to be worth $1.87 billion, while co-owner Wesley Edens was worth $2.5 billion in 2007 before suffering a downturn (though not so big of one to prevent him from owning an NBA team) in the Great Recession. Together, they will pay just $150 million towards the arena.
In other words, Wisconsin legislators have decided that rather than spending public dollars on educating citizens, they’d prefer to hand over the exact same amount to a couple of billionaires, whose sole interest is their own private profit. Supporters of the arena claim the project will revive the economy in downtown Milwaukee. Of course, $250 million could be used to revitalize the city in a slew of other ways than paying for an arena for billionaires. Besides, the near-unanimous opinion of economists is that arenas and stadiums don’t generate enough money or spur enough job growth to justify public subsidies. Most of the jobs created are temporary construction ones, and arenas simply shift where leisure money is spent—at the arena instead of at a local movie theater or at a restaurant.
But I guess if you’re not going to educate people you need at least to distract them with “bread and circuses,” or in this case basketball games. But given the price of an NBA ticket these days and the near-certainty that much of this money will go to luxury seating and other amenities for wealthy members of the “business community” to enjoy, even this rationale seems absurd. What we have here is really quite simple: a blatant money grab.
Face it, the billionaire owners of an NBA team just stole a quarter of a billion dollars from the University of Wisconsin, with the blessing of the state’s lawmakers. Disgusting!