30 years later, taxpayers still on the hook for White Sox stadium
While the name of the home stadium for the Chicago White Sox has changed over the years, its status as a tax burden has not.
June 30 marks the 30th anniversary of the Illinois General Assembly passing a bill to publicly fund the construction of a new baseball stadium for the Chicago White Sox.
And Illinoisans are still paying the price today.
Efforts to publicly finance the stadium were the product of threats by White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf to move the team to Florida. Prompted by Reinsdorf’s threats, then-Gov. Jim Thompson and then-Chicago Mayor Harold Washington collaborated in drafting a measure to create a special-purpose government authority for the construction of a new baseball stadium. The bill failed to make it out of the General Assembly at first. But lawmakers passed a similar bill months later, creating the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, or ISFA, through which officials issued $120 million in revenue bonds to fund the construction of a 45,000-seat baseball stadium.
Reinsdorf, however, was unsatisfied with the $120 million package and continued to weigh a Florida relocation. And by 1988, Florida lawmakers had already approved a deal to accommodate the team – “Florida White Sox” merchandise even started to appear on the market. But in June 1988, Thompson made an 11th-hour push to keep the White Sox in Chicago. Under pressure from the governor, state lawmakers approved a $150 million subsidy for the new stadium in the final hour of spring session – purportedly unplugging the clock on the House floor to cheat the midnight deadline.
The White Sox remained in Chicago, and the new Comiskey Park opened in 1991. The stadium was renamed U.S. Cellular Field in 2003, and Guaranteed Rate Field in 2016.
According to a 2017 financial report, ISFA’s combined fund deficits stand at $207.5 million. And taxpayers are still on the hook for debt repayments following a series of renovations at Guaranteed Rate Field and an overhaul of Soldier Field completed in 2003.
Through Chicago hotel tax revenue and a combined $10 million in annual state and local subsidies, taxpayers can expect to continue shouldering these costs for decades. More recently, a cancelled concert at Guaranteed Rate Field cost taxpayers more than $1 million in 2017, when ISFA failed to obtain a full refund for the $1.6 million spent on the event.
Chicago taxpayers are also picking up the tab for stadiums outside ISFA’s purview. For example, the recent construction of Wintrust Arena, home to DePaul University’s basketball teams and WNBA’s Chicago Sky, cost taxpayers $82.5 million.
Taxpayer-subsidized stadiums aren’t limited to the Windy City. Despite years of substantial debt, the village of Rosemont created its eighth Tax Increment Financing district in 2016 to fund the construction of Impact Field, a $60 million stadium for the Chicago Dogs, the village’s independent baseball team. The Chicago Dogs were the fourth independent-league baseball team in the Chicagoland area to receive a publicly funded home field, following the lead of Crestwood, Joliet and Schaumburg.
With the Chicago Dogs still in their first season, it’s too early to bring Impact Field’s attendance trends into account. However, subsidized stadiums in Crestwood, Joliet and Schaumburg have each seen inconsistent attendance trends over their teams’ tenures. Attendance at Chicago’s Wintrust Arena and Guaranteed Rate Field have been similarly disappointing.
This pattern of lackluster attendance among taxpayer-subsidized stadiums should call into question the merits of publicly funded sports venues. Many economists have demonstrated that the costs of taxpayer-funded sports stadiums far outweigh the benefits.
It’s discouraging that state and local lawmakers have continued to allocate taxpayer dollars toward sports venues, despite the waste and inefficiency of such ventures. Lawmakers should learn from their dubious track record and leave the funding of private amusements to private investment.