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NFL Sponsorship Is a Thankless Trap

At least they get some credit from the league for doing so. Midwest grocery chain Meijer shouldered the load of the Indianapolis Colts' potential playoff blackout on its own by paying for roughly 1,200 unsold tickets to that team's wild-card matchup. Another grocer, Kroger, had to lend Procter & Gamble a hand in Cincinnati to keep the Bengals on the air. The NFL does not recognize either as sponsors, but maybe it could consider them valued donors just for this postseason. Just take the PBS approach: "This NFL telecast is sponsored by Kroger, Meijer and viewers like you."

Maybe the league's backers are just like the rest of us: Sponsors, but reluctant ones. A full 30 of the NFL's 31 stadiums have had a portion of their costs paid for with tax dollars. It cost an average $525 million to cover each of 20 NFL stadiums built since 1997, according to a Minnesota study looking into the likely costs of a new stadium for the Vikings. It says that 56% of those stadium costs, or roughly $238 million per stadium, were paid for with public funds. That's nearly $4.8 billion in tax dollars spent on NFL stadiums alone, but Harvard professor Judith Grant Long estimates that continued costs including maintenance, infrastructure and renovations dip into more tax money and force the public to pay upward of 70% of a stadium's cost.

She also estimates that a dozen teams (the Buffalo Bills, Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, San Diego Chargers, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennesee Titans) have received more in stadium subsidies than they needed to build stadiums. Simply put: They profited on their fans' tax dollars. That includes the Bengals, who threatened to move in 1995, got surrounding Hamilton County to kick in $540 million for a new stadium and then blacked out games as the county dealt with $30 million budget deficits and $34 million stadium costs.

At least when organized crime extorts its victims, it promises some kind of protection. The NFL owners' racket requires no such thing. The Chargers are one of those teams in the taxpayer profit pool, but refused the league's offer of an optional 85% sellout threshold to prevent blackouts. Chargers ownership wants a new stadium and is willing to punish fans and partners including ESPN until it gets one. Naturally, one of the league's two blackouts this year happened in San Diego.

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