Why this matters
Though Americans remain torn on the idea of public financing of stadiums, the Kansas City Current's negotiations with the city over a small portion of funding for a stadium and ownership's hefty spend so far exemplify the relatively low cost and high impact that broader investment in women's sports facilities can have.
Last fall, news circulated that Kansas City could become the capital of women’s soccer in the United States. At the time, the Kansas City Current, an expansion team in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), had existed for only a single season in the league and was just about to settle on a permanent team name, crest, and colors.
But the force behind Kansas City Current’s rising status was neither a promising first-year performance nor the team’s final standing in the league. The Current actually finished last in the 2021 season. The team made headlines because it was about to do something that no other team had done before: build the first privately funded stadium for a professional women’s sports team at the heart of a major city.
The initial $70 million planned investment by Current ownership for the new facility was remarkable because there is strikingly little precedent for major investment in women’s sports stadiums.
While Current owners surely understood the significance of the announcement, they saw the investment as the logical next step toward building a top-class soccer club.
“World-class facilities have proven to be a catalyst in transforming all professional sports,” Current co-owner Angie Long said at the time of the announcement.
The benefits of owning a stadium, especially one with an appealing location, are obvious. Prestige and branding aside, owning a stadium allows teams to have control over their scheduling and revenue streams while sparing them from having to clash with other entities over a stadium lease.
Two other stadiums have seen women’s professional teams as their original tenants. WakeMed Soccer Park and Fifth Third Bank Stadium opened in 2002 and 2010 for the Women’s United Soccer Association’s (WUSA) Carolina Courage and Women’s Professional Soccer’s (WPS) Atlanta Beat, respectively. WakeMed in Cary, North Carolina, outside Raleigh was publicly funded, while Fifth Third Bank was built outside Atlanta near the campus of Kennesaw State University – and received considerable financial support from the university. But neither stadium had a spectacular location by most major professional teams’ standards.
While some universities have built facilities for their own women’s sports programs, they did so, at least in part, out of obligation to be in compliance with Title IX. Professional teams, on the other hand, are not subject to any similar federal law, which makes the KC Current decision even more significant.
Historically, local politicians in the U.S. have handed over mountains of cash and tax breaks to fund sports stadium construction and renovation for men’s teams, amounting to billions of public dollars in recent decades. As negotiations continue in Kansas City, no one questions the value of a facility that the team can call its own. History, though, shows that while men’s teams racked up record subsidies to help them construct and renovate their stadiums, women’s teams have been left out.
The Race for Public Subsidies Among Men’s Professional Teams
The first wave of the modern stadium boom started after the construction of Camden Yards in Baltimore in 1992, which ignited an arms race to build bigger and more elaborate venues. Wealthy owners asked cities, counties, and states to buttress the economics of the men’s teams they owned by putting tax dollars into new facilities – and sometimes made relocation threats or moved their teams to secure public funding.
By the time this wave ended with the Great Recession of 2008, state and local governments had contributed to the construction costs of two-thirds of the new stadiums built or renovated during this period – a total of 60 National Football League, National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, and National Hockey League facilities. (That number does not include property tax exemptions and other giveaways.)
A second wave of stadium construction took place from 2009 to 2020, a span in which 24 stadiums from the aforementioned leagues received 31 percent of their funds from taxpayers.
While proponents of public subsidies for men’s sports stadiums – often wealthy team owners or elected officials – tout new construction jobs, a tourism boost, and new sources of spending in the community as sound economic reasons to invest public dollars into stadiums, numerous peer-reviewed studies indicate that new facilities rarely, if ever, pay their own way, let alone create actual economic growth for cities.
But new stadiums, and the increased attendance and support they bring, do benefit a few private groups – in particular, team owners and players. Men’s sports organizations consistently have demanded and received cash injections directly from their communities to help make them more profitable. By contrast, women’s professional sports are often criticized for not generating as much revenue as their male counterparts, even though they largely have been cut off from public subsidies.
In turn, that raises a question: Why have women’s professional sports been cut off from public support, especially given that women are themselves taxpayers?
Sport Stadiums and the Economics of Women’s Sports
The two major women's sports leagues in the U.S., the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and the NWSL, were established in 1996 and 2012, respectively. Yet most women’s teams, especially in the NWSL, either play in shared multi-purpose venues with several tenants; use the facilities of universities and community colleges; play in old hand-me-down men’s stadiums; or, at best, share a facility with the Major League Soccer club in their city.
The sports facilities that women’s teams use often have suburban locations, are older, and have smaller capacities. Sometimes, teams do not even have a clear home stadium, because their games are split between facilities depending on what is available on any given matchday.
Ultimately, many NWSL teams have been turned into nomads, forced to switch stadiums due to lack of parking and proper public transportation. That, of course, complicates their fans’ ability to attend games, hurts a team’s potential to build a consistent brand image and identity, and casts a shadow of non-professionalism over their sport.
Moreover, despite improvements and the additions of safety regulations to the NWSL’s recently agreed-upon collective bargaining agreement, women sometimes play on hard and subpar turf pitches that cause excessive wear and tear and chronic injuries to their bodies.
The capacity, location, age, parking availability, access to public transportation, shared ownership, and surface quality of the stadiums that women use all impact the economics of women’s sports and the ability of women’s teams to generate revenue.
And this compounds the fact that women historically were discouraged or banned outright from playing sports in many parts of the world – a reality that also affects the current economics of women's sports. For example, women were not allowed to play soccer in many countries across the world until as recently as the 1970s and ’80s.
Understanding these histories and disparities is essential to breaking down the assumption that market preferences alone, and not longstanding misogyny, is behind unequal pay and access in women’s sports. The least society can do, arguably, to right the wrongs of the past is to support the women’s teams of today.
That progress can begin with KC Current’s new stadium.
To Pursue Public Dollars or Not?
The absolute absence of political and financial support toward the construction of women’s sports stadiums compared with the vast array of public subsidies that the wealthy owners of men’s professional sports teams have received in the past couple of decades speaks to the massive inequity between men’s and women’s sports in the United States.
Due to rising construction costs increasing the KC Current's cost estimate from $70 million to $135 million, as of June 2022, the owners have asked for $6 million in state tax credits to help cover a portion of their increased costs. This request still needs to be authorized by a resolution or an ordinance. If the team owners succeed in securing the tax credit they are seeking, they would miss out on being the first women’s team to privately fund a new stadium and instead become the first American women’s sports team ever to receive partial public financing to build a stadium in a major city – an equally important milestone.
Given the high costs and the low returns of sports stadiums for the communities that fund them, one might ask if women’s professional sports teams should strive to receive public funding for their stadiums. Recently, some members of Congress introduced a new bill labeled the “No Tax Subsidies for Stadiums Act” to eliminate federal tax breaks for the municipal bonds generally used to finance pro stadium construction. The bill seems to be targeting billion-dollar NFL stadiums, but its potential enactment could also affect women’s teams such as KC Current that ask for small amounts of public assistance.
If the proposed bill gets enacted, women’s sports could be cut off from a type of public subsidy that men’s sports have enjoyed for decades – thereby increasing the odds that women athletes will be left to continue playing in shared or hand-me-down facilities. Such facilities hinder teams’ success and competitiveness both on the field of play and in their local business communities. Perhaps the bill should include an exception specifically for women’s sports to compensate for decades of exclusion.
The future of the new bill is unclear, but, in the meantime, it is worth noting that if the burden of stadium construction or renovation is to be put on the public, then it is arguably women’s sports’ turn to reap the private financial rewards. The soccer stadiums and basketball arenas that women need are much smaller than most men’s stadiums such as those we see in the NFL or MLB, requiring smaller footprints and, as we see in the case of the KC Current’s $6 million request, a fraction of the cost of what has gone toward men’s professional sports stadiums.
To put the Current’s $6 million tax credit request in perspective, the state of New York agreed this year to spend $850 million to build a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills, a cost that, according to the sports economist Victor Matheson, will actually end up closer to $1.1 billion given the real estate tax exemptions and other benefits that the Bills are likely to receive. This is 183 times more than what the KC Current project seeks and over eight times the total cost of the proposed Current stadium.
Simply put, the public subsidies granted to a single NFL team in Buffalo could have built eight professional women’s soccer stadiums without a single private dollar being spent. Perhaps it’s time to stop subsidizing wealthy owners with billion-dollar stadiums in leagues with billion-dollar profits, especially when we know that they do not benefit the communities that fund them. Or, at least, demand more equity in who should benefit from public support.
Just ask the taxpayers themselves. In a recent Global Sport Institute poll that surveyed 2,400 people across the U.S., respondents were asked how they felt about state and local governments subsidizing the construction of professional women’s sports stadiums. Fifty-one percent were in favor of these subsidies, 32 percent were neutral or unsure, and only 17 percent were against public financing for women’s stadiums.
Given the poor return on taxpayers’ dollars put toward building new stadiums, it’s not easy in the abstract to advocate for building publicly funded stadiums for women’s professional sports teams. But it is easy to say that before the public spends another penny supporting men’s teams, it should give women’s sports the same treatment it has given men for the past 30 years – especially when taxpayers of all genders have been subsidizing men’s sports.
Publicly funded or not, the KC Current will have the first new major stadium built for a women’s professional team. It shouldn’t be the last.
You can see it from the skyline: Sport is a dominant part of any community where it is played. The economic relationship between professional organizations and these communities has always been fundamental to understanding sport, but as the industry grows, so too does the sway sport holds over cities and states.
How do fans and residents see this relationship? Do these private businesses owe the public more than they are giving? And what is the ideal role sports organizations should play in a community?