Monday, August 1, 2011

Some Historical Perspective on Sports Facility Referenda (and Plan Z??)

In the last hours before the polls open, I thought would try to bring some historical perspective to bear on sports facility referenda in the America and perhaps speculate as to a way forward if things don't go well tomorrow.

First, a personal note. Islanders fans are mostly immune to the abuse our team receives in the media. However, I have found the lead up to the referendum particularly harrowing. It’s one thing to bear derision and dismissal – usually based on ignorance – of the team we root for when it is in the context of day-to-day sports coverage. It’s quite another when that derision and dismissal is used as part of an argument as to why our team doesn’t deserve an arena and may be better off moving out of town. Yes, I realize that the business side of sports can’t be ignored, but fandom should not have to include constant uncertainty about whether your team will continue to exist or play within driving distance. That’s asking too much. And what’s particularly galling is local sports journalists like George Vecsey and Larry Brooks being perfectly blasé about an event that will rip the hearts out of thousands of their readers. George and Larry, keep in mind that were it not for the passion of us fans regarding grown men and women engaged in sport, you would be out of a job. Don’t worry – Islander fans have very long memories and we are taking names.

Fans have been subjected to this process for years. Referenda regarding sports facilities are quite common – there have been close to 50 of them over the past 25 years or so – and there has been a surprising amount of scholarship regarding what influences the outcome. Here are some of the key conclusions of the research, nicely summarized in this article:

  • Passage rate: While the overwhelming majority of the public are opposed in principle to the notion of subsidizing arenas and stadiums, the research has shown that they are approved close to 60% of the time.
  • Turnout: Turnout for sports facility referenda are very high -- over 40% -- even when presidential and congressional elections are excluded (it is unclear how turnout is for referenda that do not take place on Election Day).
  • Factors impacting passage: The most important factor influencing the success of sports facility referenda is the existence (or absence) of opposition to the referenda by elected officials. Other important factors include the existence or absence of support by elected officials and the percentage of the public subsidy for the project. Factors such as campaign spending and support or opposition by civic or business groups have minimal impact.
  • If at first don’t succeed… On several occasions, referenda that were rejected were subsequently re-proposed and were successful.

Turning to tomorrow’s referendum, it appears that, whatever the result, the most significant development in the referendum campaign was the decision by the Nassau County Democrats to actively oppose it. Early on it was unclear whether they would oppose and if so whether they would be vocal about it. But over the past couple of weeks, Nassau County Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs has become the face of the opposition and the party has run ads and organized phone banks opposed to the referendum. While Jacobs is not an elected official and is largely unknown to Nassau voters, his criticisms have been echoed to various extents by Democratic legislators. Accordingly, Democratic opposition should significantly lower the chances of the referendum passing. On the other side of the margin, County Executive Ed Mangano’s vigorous advocacy of the referendum is sure to help the “Yes” side. Say what you will about Mangano, he is fairly popular and well liked. However, there are very few elected officials aside from Mangano who have advocated on behalf of the referendum (e.g., where has Kate Murray been?). Finally, the fact that the public subsidy amounts to only around 40% of the total cost of the project – assuming Wang’s minimum required payments under the lease only – should also suggest a strong chance that the referenda passes (in contrast, the average size of the public subsidy in sports referenda is 70%) . However, it does not seem that Mangano effectively communicated this fact to the public as much of the press coverage suggests that the county is bearing all of the costs.

What does this mean if No wins tomorrow? The history of sports facility referenda shows that rejection should not be the death knell of a proposed project. And forgive me in advance for indulging in sheer speculation, but if the parties are willing, why can’t the proposed arena plan be revised and a second referendum be proposed to the voters later this year?

If this is feasible, the research provides a couple of takeaways for Plan B (or C…):

  • Lay groundwork for more support and less opposition from elected officials. Obviously easier said than done, but did Mangano make efforts to secure support from other elected officials with respect to current referendum?
  • Restructure the deal to improve the “optics.” The reason why many do not see the proposed plan as involving only a 40% subsidy is that the county is funding the construction in the first instance. Is there a way to structure the deal so that the economics are identical (60% Wang/40% County) but that Wang finances his share up front so that the County would be borrowing less?

Let’s hope that it doesn’t come to this. But I am having trouble coming to grips with the notion that a bad result tomorrow means the end of the New York Islanders on Long Island.


  1. Let's hope you are correct.

    -Big Van Vader

  2. If this doesn't go through Isles fans better not take this lying down!