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Sport and public policy

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The election and subsequent tearing out of hair is over, and the Hockey Playoffs are in full swing. For Vancouver, this is an exciting time. With the Olympic experience still fresh, the Vancouver Canucks have reached the Stanley Cup Final. This is the nadir of Canadian spectator sport. As a long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs fan, I can only imagine the excitement, both positive and nervous, in the city right now.

I have viewed professional sports through different lenses. As a child, I watched Hockey Night in Canada with my dad, and the old theme song (rights now lost by the CBC) is a like a comforting hymn. Later, with youthful idealism, I railed against the injustice of paying professional athletes millions of dollars, more than teachers, more even than doctors. The Toronto Blue Jays World Series’ cured me of that. Watching the drama and sharing in the collective joy made me think of sport as a type of improvisational theatre on a grand scale, and of elite athletes as rare practitioners of high art who are uniquely accountable for their performance. Now I reserve my remuneration-related scorn for CEO pay.

High pay for unique skills earned from the fans (consumers) is one thing. But, sport, like art, often demands public financial support. And here I become more uneasy. Like the arts, sport is compelling, and creates its own soapbox from which to preach its virtues as a receiver of public largess. At some point, most people have heard one of the following adages: “Sport builds character.” “Sport leads to better physical health.” “Sport inspires.” “Sport provides role models.” There may some truth to all of these.

Although, if I have anything to say about it (and I likely won’t) my child will not be choosing professional athletes upon which to model himself.

Is sport deserving of funds that might be spent on education, health care, the environment or perhaps left in the pockets of citizens? To be sure there are some non-zero sum cases to be made. The promotion of physical activity for youth may very well have long term public health benefits that justify the investment. An Olympics may serve the national interest through increased tourism and greater international recognition. I have yet to see convincing evidence of this. I think we fund the Olympics because it gives us (fleeting) prestige and is a hell of a party. This may very well be worth it, but is far less noble than the sales pitch.

So, funding youth athletics and some big ticket programmes may be justified. My sympathy runs out, however, when professional sports franchises (or the prospective owners of said franchises) request or demand tax dollars to fund arena or stadium construction.

During the election, we had the Federal Liberals pledging funds for a new rink in Quebec City. Moving west, talks are underway in Winnipeg for who might pay for enhancements to the existing rink to enable more profitable operation of the recently announced return of NHL hockey. In Edmonton, the hand is out requesting federal and provincial money after the municipal government has already pledged their contribution to a new arena.

So, the taxpayers provide funds or assume risk on behalf of billionaires who own (or hope to own) professional sports teams. Often, there are sweetheart real estate deals that benefit those same billionaires. When things go wrong, the governments wind up holding the bag (see Phoenix Coyotes and the city of Glendale AZ). Is this not the kind of socialization of risk and privatization of profit that should enrage both the Left and Right?

And yet, time after time, governments make promises and give money. Maybe the municipal level can evaluate a business case and see a local gain from helping fund a franchise. Maybe there is a net economic benefit. More often though, I think owners and leagues simply play the “race to the bottom” game, and pit cities against each other to extract the maximum taxpayer subsidy for their business. 

For federal and provincial governments, there no case – this is simply not their jurisdiction. Rather than spending to further national or provincial interest, sports funding becomes “bread and circuses” to distract the masses. There is a long history of such activity, but our tax dollars can be spent more wisely.

So, as we settle in to watch the culmination of the playoffs, let’s enjoy it for what it is – artful and dramatic. Let us celebrate (or mourn) the result individually and collectively. But, when the next pro sports entity comes to our elected representatives with their hand out, let’s remember that we already pay for their performance with our patronage. 

Federal governments should be clear this is not their jurisdiction. The provinces should look after education and health care and a hundred other priorities. And, the cities should look after their citizens. Let the leagues, broadcast networks and billionaires pay their own way.

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