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FitzGerald Says Cleveland’s Teams Should Compete for Chunk of Sin Tax Dollars

Thursday, June 5, 2014 at 5:26 PM

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Cleveland’s pro-sports teams would have to play – and play well – in order to get a portion of the funding for stadium repairs and upgrades, if a proposal by Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald is approved and enacted. ideastream’s Nick Castele explains.

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Ed FitzGerald outlines his proposal in a news conference, saying Cleveland fans have waited too long for a championship. The stadium, field, and complex where the Browns, Cavs, and Indians play before regional sports fans (pic: Brian Bull)

Last month, local voters extended a tax on alcohol and cigarettes for 20 more years. There’s been talk about splitting evenly the $13 million generated annually between the Indians, Cavaliers and Browns.

But FitzGerald, the Democratic nominee for governor, said the teams should have to compete for one-fifth of that cash by actually playing well, what he calls a “win tax.” He said five decades is too long to wait for another championship victory.

“We love these teams, we’re loyal to these teams, and we’re committed to maintaining these facilities,” FitzGerald said. “But we can try to demand a little bit better than what we’ve been getting for 50 years.”

Neil deMause writes about professional sports stadium deals nationwide. He took note of FitzGerald’s idea on his blog, Field of Schemes.

“My first thought was, well, that’s kind of wacky,” deMause said in a phone interview. But he added that it might at least spark a discussion about holding teams accountable for the taxpayer money they’re getting. “It’s an interesting concept. I’m not sure that it’s necessarily the best way of getting at it, but it’s an interesting conversation to start having at least.”

But University of Michigan professor Mark Rosentraub—who helped renegotiate the city and county’s agreements with the Cavs and Indians—said the market already rewards teams for playing well.

“People have to remember, when the Indians were far more successful, they sold out 455 games consecutively,” Rosentraub said. “When teams don’t perform as well, attendance declines.”

Cleveland officials have yet to warm up to FitzGerald’s idea.

Maureen Harper, communications director for Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, wrote in an email that the mayor hasn’t budged from his position during the sin tax campaign.

“There was a legitimate assumption during the campaign that the proceeds would be split evenly between our three public facilities to meet the capital improvement obligations for all three,” Harper’s email read.

And Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley said in a phone interview it was too early to take a position on how to divide the money, but said he leaned toward backing an even split. Kelley said he wasn’t sure how FitzGerald’s idea would work, as the lease agreements with the teams require the public to pay for certain repairs—and those payments are what the sin tax was designed to fund.

“If there are legitimate capital needs that are presented and our engineers agree upon them—and it’s contemplated in the lease and it’s stated in the lease—we can’t not make that repair or that improvement because the Browns had a bad year,” Kelley said.

FitzGerald said under his proposal, the teams would still receive all of the sin tax dollars for repairs.

A press release from the Ohio Republican Party dismissed FitzGerald’s idea as a “media stunt.” FitzGerald replied preemptively while speaking with reporters, saying that he was exercising his duty as county executive, and Republicans would criticize him no matter what he did.

Ultimately Cuyahoga County Council will have to decide how to split up the money—and they haven’t even seen legislation yet.

This post has been updated to correct quotes by Neil deMause and Mark Rosentraub.

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