Debate over soccer stadium funding highlights divisions in St. Louis

The promising, cynical, deeply unfortunate campaign to bring Major League Soccer to St. Louis

It’s standard practice for cities to embellish their soccer heritage when trying to land an MLS expansion team, but in St. Louis’ case, it’s not just bluster. The city’s industrial heyday in the late 19th century attracted Irish and Italian immigrants in droves, and long after the country’s early embrace of the game had worn off elsewhere, it remained a soccer hotbed. Five members of the U.S. men’s squad who famously upset England at the 1950 World Cup were Italian-Americans recruited from St. Louis’ robust semi-pro circuit. The 1960s saw Saint Louis University dominate the NCAA men’s game, and in recent decades the prep academies of the city’s tony western suburbs have become reliable producers of MLS, NWSL, and occasional national-team talent.

One thing St. Louis has never had, however, is an MLS club of its own. On Tuesday, city residents will vote on whether or not to change that — by approving or rejecting a ballot measure that would funnel $60 million in new tax revenue towards the construction of a soccer-specific stadium.

“This city has everything but the final piece,” said ESPN analyst and St. Louis native Taylor Twellman at a press conference in support of the stadium proposal last week. “But this city will be left behind if this doesn’t go through.”

In a city still reeling from the Rams’ departure last year, still navigating the fallout from the unrest in Ferguson long after the world’s cameras turned away, and still trying to reverse decades of economic decline, the fight over the stadium’s high public price tag has been predictably bitter and deeply sad. Soccer could have been a unifying and galvanizing force in this community like in few others. Instead, it may have only deepened St. Louis’ divisions and dysfunction at a time when the city can least afford it.

For a long time, it looked as if that dysfunction would prevent the city from getting anywhere close to landing an MLS team — a quixotic series of efforts by asbestos-litigator-turned-soccer-executive Jeff Cooper notwithstanding. After being snubbed by MLS in 2008, Cooper played a central role in the founding of the new North American Soccer League, but his would-be NASL club folded after just one season in the USSF’s temporary division-two league in 2010. A more stable and successful USL side, Saint Louis FC, began play in 2015, but by then local fans had come to fear that division-one soccer in St. Louis was a pipe dream.

The opportunity created by the Rams’ exit changed everything. Saint Louis FC chairman Jim Kavanaugh soon partnered with Boston investor Paul Edgerley and others to form an ownership group, SC STL, and after years of empty promises and inaction, the momentum was palpable. By November, the group had announced an all-but-official verbal agreement with MLS for an expansion franchise and laid out plans for a 20,000-seat stadium just west of downtown St. Louis’ historic Union Station.

They would just need the city to kick in, oh, about $80 million.

If $80 million strikes you as an awful lot of money for a smallish, struggling Midwestern city to fork over to a wealthy group of private investors, you don’t know the half of it. The St. Louis metropolitan area is home to around 2.7 million people, but only some 300,000 of them — nearly a third of whom live at or below the federal poverty level — live within city limits. The much richer and more populous St. Louis County isn’t being asked to contribute a cent, despite having chipped in for other stadium projects in the past. Consider D.C. United’s highly controversial extraction of $150 million in public funds for the under-construction Audi Field — now imagine if that burden were being placed only on Southeast D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods while sparing the likes of Georgetown and Capitol Hill. That’s essentially the equivalent of what SC STL is asking St. Louis to approve.

The group eventually lowered the public contribution to $60 million in order to gain approval by the city’s Board of Aldermen, and stadium proponents claim that because that money would come from new tax revenues, it wouldn’t drain existing resources from city services. They’re half right; I’ll spare you the municipal tax code arcana, but there are actually two measures on Tuesday’s ballot, and three possible outcomes. If both measures fail, no new funds will be raised and the stadium proposal will be dead in the water. If both pass, the additional $4 million raised annually by a business tax increase would be directed towards the stadium cost. If the first passes but the second fails, however, that $4 million would go towards what a city ordinance currently mandates it to be spent on: affordable housing grants, public health services, and other social programs.

There exists an intellectually honest and not entirely unconscionable case to be made for the stadium proposal: Soccer is fun. We like soccer. This stadium will not be a good investment for the city in a purely monetary sense, because publicly-funded stadiums never are, but it will provide intangible benefits that justify adding $4 million annually to a billion-dollar budget. A statutory quirk stipulates that these potential new funds are to be put towards specific social programs, but there are countless alternative courses of action through which the city could materially improve the lives of the underserved, and we should pursue them vigorously.

Unfortunately, if predictably, no one in the pro-stadium camp is interested in making this argument. Instead, SC STL and its supporters have resorted to the same discredited playbook employed by stadium hustlers since time immemorial — conjuring cherry-picked studies and paid consultants to promise economic growth, job creation, and tax-revenue windfalls in the face of decades of research that has concluded that stadium projects produce none of those things on a scale that justifies public investment.

As the vote nears, the ownership group has put on the high press—trumpeting a “Community Benefits Agreement” with local nonprofits, teasing the possibility of a NWSL franchise, and bringing Twellman and MLS commissioner Don Garber to town to make the case to local media and energize supporters at a pro-stadium rally. The passionate support SC STL has received from local soccer fans, led by STLFC supporters’ group the Louligans, is no surprise—nor is the vitriol directed towards any and all skeptics of the stadium deal.

In a city with St. Louis’ history, though, there are ugly undertones lurking in what might seem like typical sports-fan boorishness. St. Louis has its share of soccer-mad immigrant communities, including a big Bosnian population, but there’s no denying that the region’s existing soccer fanbase is predominantly white. With the fate of MLS expansion in the hands of city residents, 47 percent of whom are black, the stadium vote has made for a deeply unfortunate spectacle: white fans from affluent St. Louis County suburbs furious that city voters might torpedo a stadium plan to which their much richer communities aren’t contributing at all.

The disconnect between these would-be MLS diehards and the working poor of the city’s North Side runs deep, and it often makes the arguments marshaled by SC STL’s boosters in the media ring hollow. When local sports columnist Benjamin Hochman expresses his fear that without an MLS team, St. Louis could become “complacent and plain,” he’s writing it in a city that is already a cruel, desolate dystopia for its permanent black underclass. When stadium proponents deploy platitudes about being “progressive” and “building a better St. Louis,” they’re doing so in a city that simply cannot afford to be confused any longer about what real progress looks like.

Soccer fans in St. Louis don’t face an easy choice on Tuesday. The promise of an MLS franchise is real, and Twellman and others aren’t entirely out of their minds when they talk about the city being a potential top-five market for the league.

But SC STL’s eagerness to extract such a large public contribution from a community still going through Rams withdrawal, and the air of entitlement with which their supporters have defended the plan, would make a victory on Tuesday much less than the triumph it should have been. Whatever the voters decide, it’s a tragedy that St. Louis didn’t get the kind of expansion effort its poorest residents deserve, and which the city badly needs.