Chris Lehmann has the right idea, but he’s going about it the wrong way.
The good idea? It’s time to get Philly’s major pro teams—the Eagles, the Phillies, the Flyers, and the 76ers—to pitch in and help fund the city’s financially drowning school district. The problem? Lehmann, founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy, is asking nicely, using a petition at Change.org.
“The kids need your help,” the petition pleads.
Here’s a better idea: Instead of begging the teams for a handout—instead of hoping for a feel-good moment that might or might not come to fruition—let’s tax them.
Really. Philadelphia and Pennsylvania taxpayers have been subsidizing the city’s professional sports teams for years. It was taxes that largely paid for the building of the Linc and Citizens Bank Ballpark—and those subsidies helped the Eagles and Phillies, respectively, reach new heights of profitability in recent years. Taxpayers put up the money for the construction costs, but who profited from the sale of the naming rights? The teams.
The Eagles made $140 million off their naming deal; the Phillies $95 million. Philadelphians? We got bupkiss. (Well, OK. We got a pretty sweet parade down Broad Street in 2008. That was OK.)
It’s true that untangling the financial relationships between the city and its pro teams can be pretty difficult. And it’s true that not every team in town is sucking at the public teat: The Wells Fargo Center, where the 76ers and Flyers play, was built mostly with private funds. What’s more, it’s also true that the teams do generate some revenue for City Hall’s coffers: The Phillies rise to the World Series helped grow the city’s “amusement tax” revenues—a 5 percent tax on tickets to sporting and other events—From $16.9 million in 2006 to $21.6 million just three years later.
But it’s also true that sports leagues tend to operate outside the normal, or expected, parameters of the law. Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn—a Republican!—pointed out last week that the NFL and NHL, which generate billions of dollars a year, are organized as non-profit charities, and therefore out-of-bounds for tax collectors. (Apparently promoting the general welfare of a violent game is considered a “good work” under our tax laws; I wonder if I can get a writeoff on my taxes for playing Halo for three or four hours a day.) Coburn has filed a bill to force those leagues to begin paying up.
Whether we’d see any tax dollars from the NFL’s reported $9.5 billion in revenues is an open question. But it’s one that provokes a second question: Are we seeing enough revenue just from the local teams? As Lehmann notes in the petition, they combined last year to take in $800 million; Forbes says the Eagles alone make $24 per year each fan they have. “The entire athletics budget of the School District of Philadelphia was $7.1 million this year. Less than one percent of your revenues would fully fund athletics for the students of Philadelphia,” Lehmann writes.
That sounds like a good start, not an ending. There would probably be a fair amount of legal and political hoop-jumping to extract even more money from the pro teams. But the school district is facing a $300 million hole.
The sports teams bring a lot of joy to Philadelphia. They could do more. City schools need the help. It’s time to collect.