When voters reject new stadiums, what do professional sports teams do?

Jefferson City — Like a playoff loss, voter rejection of a stadium tax idea will compel the Royals and Chiefs to rethink their strategy. A three-eighths cent sales tax to fund a new downtown Royals baseball and repair Arrowhead Stadium was defeated Tuesday, but the issue was far from over. Other clubs and cities have suffered similar setbacks, but stadium building continues across the U.S.  

According to West Virginia University sports stadium economist Brad Humphreys, “The next page in the playbook, if they lose this referendum, would be to threaten to move.” That doesn't indicate moving is imminent or likely.  

Moving to a new stadium in the same region or state is one option. Teams could revise and re-ask voters. Stadiums could be built or renovated privately. They could even request public subsidies from a municipal council, county commission, or state legislature without a vote.  

Geoffrey Propheter, an assistant public finance professor at the University of Colorado Denver, said team owners usually find a new means to collect money and go legislative. Rarely do team owners quit.”  

DECADES OF DECISIONS Propheter data shows that voters approved 35 of 57 stadium and arena plans from 1990 to 2023. Oklahoma City voters easily passed a 1% sales tax for six years in December to construct a $900 million downtown Thunder arena.  

Last May, Tempe voters rejected a $2.3 billion entertainment district that would have featured an NHL arena for the Arizona Coyotes. The hockey team, which filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and plays in a 5,000-seat facility with Arizona State University, lost again.  

The Coyotes are still after Phoenix. The club is considering bidding on a 95-acre north Phoenix property. Stadium and arena subsidies are often authorized by elected officials without a poll. Last year, the Nashville City Council approved $760 million in local bonds and $500 million in state bonds to finance a $2.1 billion Titans stadium. Neither referendum was held.  

A new Buffalo Bills stadium worth over $1.6 billion began construction last year. New York and Erie County are providing $850 million without a referendum. Because the Missouri Constitution needs local tax votes, the Royals and Chiefs' plan went to voters. Only Jackson County voters had a say because the tax only applied to sales there.  

If teams can finance stadiums without taxes, voter approval may not be needed. Brent Never, assistant public affairs professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said privately backed bonds would need a financing source for repayments.  

END RUN Some clubs bypass voters to get new stadiums after losing elections. Voters in 11 southwestern Pennsylvania counties rejected a half-cent sales tax in 1997 to replace a Pirates-Steelers stadium with two separate stadiums and support a convention center expansion. A regional development district approved public finance for the additional facilities without voter approval the next year.  

Similar mid-1990s scenarios occurred abroad. Owners threatened to sell the Seattle Mariners after King County voters rejected a tax package for a ballpark. Within a month, state lawmakers approved a new baseball stadium finance proposal.  

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