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Sports Stadiums May Be Striking Out On State Money

St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field has been receiving public money since 1994

Getting the state to come to the rescue of sports teams trying to build or refurbish stadiums could soon become a thing of the past.

The bill, sponored by state Sen. Tom Lee of Brandon, would repeal the Sports Development Fund. It was put into state statutes in 2014, but lawmakers have declined to appropriate any money for it.

Lee told members of the Senate Committee on Commerce and Tourism that owners of sports teams never had to justify why they needed public money.

"Every economic development interest in this state that wants to come and bring jobs to our state has to go through a process over at the Department of Economic Opportunity," Lee said. "And we have to scrub those applications for incentive programs, and they have to prove that there's a return on investment. But sports teams just come here and they get an appropriation out of the budget without having to prove anything."

Lee says sports team owners can be entitled for up to $2 million each year over 30 years - for a total of $60 million.

Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg and Amalie Arena in Tampa, both drawing money since 1994 with deals that expire in 2024, have each received more than $47 million through the program.

The stadium funding program makes available $13 million a year for stadium work, which Lee described as “found money” for the wealthy owners of professional sports franchises.

However, regardless of the fate of Lee’s bill and a House version (HB 233) by Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Lithia, no money will be awarded for stadium work this year.

No applications were submitted during the annual filing window at the end of 2018, an apparent sign that organizations have learned that money isn’t moving through the program.

In past years, House leaders have blocked efforts to dip into the funding pool, which has also tempered efforts to repeal the program.

The first year the program was in place, requests to fund improvements at TIAA Bank Field (formerly EverBank Field) in Jacksonville, Daytona International Speedway and Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens and to help build a soccer stadium in Orlando made it through a review by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

Lee noted work on those four stadiums was not derailed because lawmakers didn’t go forward with the funding.

“They’ve done the best job of anybody to make the point that these aren’t really economic development incentives,” Lee said. “Every one of those projects has been built exactly as they were originally intended to be built with private-sector capital and no economic support from the state.”

Along with facilities involving the National Football League, the National Hockey League, the National Basketball League, Major and Minor League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the North American Soccer League and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the program is open to promoters or hosts of events administered by the Breeders’ Cup Limited and NASCAR.

Before Monday’s meeting, the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity-Florida repeated its support for the repeal of the fund, which it considers a “corporate welfare slush fund” that “puts sports teams ahead of Florida citizens.”

“We hope all lawmakers come together to eliminate cronyism and focus on the essential priorities of the state,” Skylar Zander, state director of the organization, said in a news release, which also advised lawmakers that their votes on the stadium funding proposal would be factored into the group’s annual session grades.

Still, eliminating the 2014 program wouldn’t end Florida’s participation in stadium funding.

Currently, eight facilities in Florida continue to receive money more directly through legislative appropriations --- up to $2 million a year for as much as 30 years --- that were awarded before the funding pool was created.

As an example, funding for Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, which was awarded under a former tenant, the Miami Marlins, expires in 2023. Since 1994, the stadium has received $51.3 million through the program.

Similarly, TIAA Field in Jacksonville, with a deal that expires in 2024, has received $49.5 million since 1994.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.