Field of Schemes‘ Neil deMause has an intriguing article at VICE Sports today positing the idea of teams buying teams via eminent domain. It’s not an entirely original idea. You see it on a message board every so often, and the City of Oakland famously tried to use ED to keep the Raiders from moving to LA (it failed). deMause doesn’t consider any eminent domain proceedings to be a slam dunk, as their efficacy could vary wildly based on jurisdiction. Instead, deMause looks at the ED threat as a cudgel to use against another threat, the move threat teams often wield over cities. Whether or not teams actually talk about moving to other markets, the possibility of being tied up in court, having to open the books, etc., might make team owners think twice about it.
As for eminent domain actually having teeth, it’s difficult to argue for it. California already has two cases on the books that support teams and leagues over cities, and of the teams that have recently built or are looking to build new venues, none are using that extortion weapon – except perhaps for Arte Moreno against Anaheim.
The Green Bay Packers are often touted as the model for publicly-owned sports franchises. The franchise was stabilized nearly 90 years ago when they became run as a public corporation, with real stock sales. Once issued, shares cannot be resold except back to the franchise, and the stock doesn’t offer any sort of dividend or significant voting rights, so they’re mostly for stadium improvements or for financially supporting the team, which struggled through the Great Depression.
Let’s say Raiders fans wanted to try such a model in Oakland. They’d have to raise $1 billion, or 10 million shares at $100 each. A new stadium would also cost around $1 billion, so make that 20 million shares. If the NFL was amenable to the idea (they have disallowed publicly owned franchises except for allowing the Packers to be grandfathered in), it might work. 20 million shares at $100 with no tangible returns is pretty hard sell, though cheaper than Coliseum City when you think about total costs. deMause floated the idea of cities using eminent domain, then raising bonds for the team purchase. Cities don’t have the cash to competitively outbid private parties in today’s escalating franchise sales wars. If eminent domain were considered legal for this purpose, it’d probably be the only way a city could buy a franchise.
You may consider the concept of cities attempting to own sports franchises a serious overreach of government power and responsibility. On the other hand, you might see it as a reasonable alternative to the increasingly money-driven, greedy ownership model we currently see. A third way might be the public stock offering, which worked in Green Bay and is also in use to a much greater degree in European soccer. Whatever your take, the very rich men who plowed nine or ten figures into their sports franchise investments have zero desire to change the current ownership model. If that is legitimately threatened, you can be sure that they’ll fight to the bitter end to protect those investments. While I wouldn’t expect it to happen, challenging the status quo can often be a good thing. I’d like to see what happens. It’s not my retainer, after all.