The Louisiana Superdome, sponsored by sports betting behemoth Caesars, is holding the biggest event on the U.S. spring sports calendar this week, the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four. But the Big Dance isn’t alone in boosting the New Orleans venue’s revenue. The stadium is getting $27 million in pandemic aid, too.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards announced renovations to the Superdome in August 2019, shortly after tossing a football with New Orleans Saints icon Drew Brees. The $450 million work on the home of the NFL’s Saints would “create a tremendous atmosphere for the fan experience and make sure we keep the Saints here for decades to come,” the governor said at a press conference at the team’s practice facility. Work began with tearing up the artificial turf on Jan. 15, 2020, fully seven weeks before COVID-19 would be detected in the state. Now, some $27 million in federal funds earmarked for pandemic recovery is going to help pay for the renovation, which includes installation of field-level luxury suites and a more translucent roof.
“It’s really squinting at things to make any sort of argument that fixing up the roof of the Superdome is a pandemic-related thing,” said Victor Matheson, an economist at College of the Holy Cross.
The Saints aren’t the only ones benefitting from Coronavirus State and Local Recovery Funds, a batch of the $350 billion earmarked in last year’s American Rescue Plan. The funds are “to support families and businesses struggling with [the pandemic’s] health and economic impacts, maintain vital public services” and “build a strong, resilient and an equitable recovery,” according to the Department of the Treasury.
The full picture of how the $350 billion is being spent isn’t clear yet. Only some reports, filed to the Treasury Department as of August 2021, have been disclosed, covering just 5% of the funding—$18.5 billion—spread across 2,300 projects, according to data compiled by the Brookings Institute.
Among the uses disclosed so far: $11.6 million to build an addition to Dutchess Stadium, the home field of the Hudson Valley Renegades, an A-ball affiliate of the Yankees. The minor league club is owned by Endeavor Holdings, the UFC parent with an $8 billion market cap. Dutchess, a relatively affluent New York county that owns the stadium, classifies the purpose as benefiting public space. The 66 home games the club plays are reported to the Treasury as “an economic engine … attracting thousands of visitors from throughout the region,” according to information gathered by Brookings. The team drew 148,000 fans in 2019, good for 64th highest in minor league ball that year, according to Ballpark Digest.
In Ohio, Franklin County, which owns the Columbus Clippers, the AAA affiliate of the Cleveland Guardians, gave itself $3 million to “offset negative impacts of the pandemic” on the team’s stadium, which it also owns. Overall, a review of the Brookings data found about three dozen sports-related project, totaling $80 million, out of what’s been disclosed to date. Most of those projects don’t directly seem to benefit one entity, such as expanding municipal pools ($25 million, by Buffalo, N.Y.) or building new public basketball courts in Lexington, Ky. ($400,000).
With others, the pandemic-related purpose is harder to discern. Onondaga County is taking $25 million to build 10 lacrosse and soccer fields to make the area around Syracuse, N.Y., a sports tourism magnet. Meanwhile, the nation’s capital is spending $300,000 to, in its words, “identify opportunities to establish Washington DC, as a nationally-recognized locale for competitive high school and post-secondary sports.”
Reporting by the Associated Press has found a number of other deals not yet reported or disclosed by the Treasury, including the Superdome funding, which was redirected by the Louisiana legislature late last year. The AP reported some large deals, like $5 million of pandemic relief funds for the 2022 World Games, an International Olympic Committee-affiliated event in Alabama this year, and some small, such as $100,000 to build a new high school football weight room for the Roland-Story Community School District in Iowa, where voters had previously rejected bond efforts to improve athletic facilities.
The new batch of pandemic money comes after the sports sector previously collected some $1.7 billion in funding from the Payroll Protection Program, including multiple Major League Soccer franchises and Fenway Sports’ Roush Fenway Racing.
“Sports is part of the whole leisure and hospitality sector, which is the sector that was decimated by the pandemic,” said Matheson. “We had about a 50% drop in employment in the spectator sports industry between February and April [in 2020]. The industries were crushed… so that was all probably pretty reasonable. Now we have a bunch of leftover pandemic money that they’re figuring out how to try and spend, and we’re getting much faster and looser with the rules.”