Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Who Will Blink on Brewers Subsidy?

Vos wants a local contribution and Milwaukee officials oppose this. The issue could get very ugly.

By - Aug 28th, 2023 03:08 pm
American Family Field. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

American Family Field. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The demographic problem for the Milwaukee Brewers was dramatized by Gov. Tony Eversannouncement that he wanted to give the team a $290 million subsidy back in February.

“I’ve been watching baseball in Milwaukee since the County Stadium days when I had the chance of a lifetime to watch Warren Spahn’s 300th-career game there way back when,” said the 71-year-old governor. As a “livelong” Milwaukee Braves and then Milwaukee Brewers fan, he noted, “I’m so excited about the historic opportunity we have today to keep Major League Baseball here in Milwaukee for another twenty years.”

Legendary pitcher Spahn won his 300th game in August 1961 — 62 years ago. That was back when Major League Baseball was truly the National Pastime, the most popular sport in America. Today it ranks far below football, more people say basketball rather than baseball is their favorite sport and soccer may soon pass baseball as well. “With an average age of 59, MLB has the oldest fans among the major sports,” noted the sports publication LWOS. “Those below the age of 35 say they find the game boring.”

Total TV viewership for the MLB has been steadily declining for three decades, plummeting from 21.98 million in 1992 to 7.51 million in 2022, as the Michigan Journal of Economics reported.

Voters typically oppose any subsidies of pro sports teams, but that’s become an even tougher ask for baseball, when the majority of voters aren’t watching MLB games. Back in the mid-1990s, when the first subsidy for the Milwaukee Brewers was passed, both Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist and Milwaukee County Executive Tom Ament supported a stadium subsidy. (Norquist did maneuver behind the scenes for a downtown stadium without success.)

The situation could hardly be more different today. The Milwaukee County Board voted unanimously to oppose any Brewers subsidy, with the no vote coming from both the board’s two socialists and two conservatives. And Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley signed the resolution. As for the city, Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson released a statement saying “We currently have no available resources that could be directed to stadium improvements,” and a statement by five Milwaukee aldermen declared that “We believe firmly that NOT A DIME of the funding should be footed by City of Milwaukee taxpayers.”

Evers knew how difficult sports subsidies are politically, and thus came up with his $290 million subsidy by grabbing money from the huge $7 billion state surplus and throwing it into the state budget bill. But Republican legislators, led by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, condemned and threw out the plan, with Vos insisting that there must be a contribution by Milwaukee taxpayers.

That’s what happened with the Milwaukee Bucks arena subsidy, he noted. Back in 2015 Republican Gov. Scott Walker announced a deal where the state would pay almost the entire subsidy for a new Bucks’ arena. But legislators balked and pushed for more money from Milwaukee. Under his original plan, the state would have paid 88% of the public subsidy. That dropped to just 23%, with the rest coming from the county, the city, and an increase in the metro Milwaukee hotel, motel and car rental tax levied by the Wisconsin Center District.

But at the time Mayor Tom Barrett was receptive to some contribution to the arena by city taxpayers, and County Executive Chris Abele, a Bucks season ticket holder with court-side seats, was happy to volunteer a significant county donation while supporting the Wisconsin Center tax.

Eight years later the county is still paying $4 million a year for the arena subsidy, the Wisconsin Center tax is already too high to add a baseball stadium subsidy and it’s not clear how the city or county can afford to pay the $135 million Vos has suggested Milwaukee taxpayers must contribute to the Brewers. It’s all part of a GOP proposal for a longer, 27-year deal for the team which would also include a $463 million contribution from the state.

Crowley has already begun negotiating for the county to get more flexibility in how it can spend the sales tax money it recently gained as part of any stadium bill. Mayor Johnson may also be putting out feelers for something the city must get if he is to support a city subsidy.

But Milwaukee Alderman Bob Bauman says he is hearing that “it’s going to be crammed down our throats” by the Legislature regardless of how the Common Council or county board votes. “The funding would just be taken out of our state shared revenue.”

That may not be as easy to do as it sounds. Such a dictate would destroy the relationship that Republican legislators have recently cemented with Crowley and Johnson. It would also be opposed by Democratic legislators, and the Republicans may need some of their votes, because the gerrymandered Assembly has many radical conservatives who may oppose any subsidy. (The Koch-financed Americans for Prosperity group opposes any “bailout” for the Brewers.)

And a mandate that simply bulldozes Milwaukee into submission seems a likely target for a veto by the governor. Evers, after all, can note that he supported a plan that solved the issue and that Vos has turned into a mess. The governor, moreover, has time on his side: the stadium district has put aside enough money for pay for future stadium repairs and upgrades for many years and the Brewers have also made investments in the stadium that make it harder to leave for another city. And the next state budget is likely to have a large surplus to play with and another opportunity for tucking in a budget item for the Brewers.

The reality is that Vos made the task far harder by insisting on a separate piece of legislation that is much easier than a state budget for lawmakers to oppose. The best way to pass a sports bailout for wealthy owners that most voters oppose is to give them as little information or input as possible during the process of making the sausage.

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5 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Who Will Blink on Brewers Subsidy?”

  1. tornado75 says:

    vos obviously doesn’t know how much the milwaukee taxpayers have contributed to the stadium already. hate it when people who don’t like and are scared of milwaukee make decisions for us. evers is at least saying the state should contribute as, i guess, people who don’t live in milwaukee go see games here.


    Like most other Milwaukee attractions & amenities, people outside of the city want to believe their ticket should cover all the expenses of maintaining a giant facility like the stadium. And if it doesn’t they expect somebody else to pay for it. Something like “MKE should be grateful we even come to your hellhole of a city.”

  3. 45 years in the City says:

    Regarding the demographics of Brewer fans: What percentage of game attendees are city residents? What percentage are non-city county residents? I sense that the team largely attracts an exurban/out state audience, making it even more unfair to ask for a city and/or county contribution.

    Will these pro-sports shakedowns ever end? The White Sox are making similar, not too subtitle, threats as the end of their lease approaches.

  4. says:

    Will these pro sports shakedowns ever end? Nope- until we, the taxpayers, say ENOUGH ALREADY! No more subsidies for sports franchises.

  5. BigRed81 says:

    Hell No! Vos is acting like a Mafia Boss. Let him shakedown his donors. I’m a lifelong Milwaukee an.

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