Heinz Field is 12 years old. It's still in great shape, even if its playing surface never was. The Steelers have a waiting list for season tickets that stretches as far as the eye can see. But the stadium's capacity is just 65,500, one of the smallest in the NFL. So the Steelers would like to add another 3,000 seats. And, like most other
corporate welfare recipients NFL teams, they want the public to pick up most of the tab.
The Steelers have designated the seating expansion as a capital improvement, which sounds a lot more palatable than saying "easy additional revenue stream" when you're angling for space at the public trough. The Steelers claim a clause in their lease with Heinz Field's owner, the city-county Sports and Exhibition Authority (SEA), requires the authority (read: the same public that paid for most of the stadium's construction) to pay for two-thirds of any "designated expansion" of up to 10,000 additional seats. The estimated tab for the SEA's share: $20 million. (And the seating expansion is only part of a larger, $40 million upgrade the Steelers want that includes a new scoreboard.)
The SEA's position is that the seating expansion is a "modification" rather than a capital improvement. According to the SEA's reading of the lease, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, for any changes to be capital improvements, they must be installed in at least half of all NFL stadiums, with government funding accounting for up to a quarter of the cost. The SEA thus wants the Steelers to foot the bill themselves.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review says the Steelers' lawyer claims the SEA's position is a "smokescreen" because the SEA doesn't have the money to cover its share. Which appears to be true: The SEA's executive director told the Trib the authority has just $4 million in capital reserves.
The Steelers and the SEA had an agreement in place to fund the expansion by passing the cost on to those who attend games. The plan called for raising an existing surcharge on ticket prices in addition to implementing a parking surcharge. When the deal fell through, the Steelers took the SEA to court. There was a hearing today in front of a county judge—who happens to be a Steelers season-ticket holder, natch—and a ruling is expected within a week.
Mark Hart, the Steelers' director of planning and development, stressed to the Trib that the hearing was vital because the Steelers are really the ones being civic-minded here:
“If this matter is not resolved in the near future, another year of increased fan attendance and increased tax revenue will be lost.”
That "increased tax revenue" won't come close to paying for the cost of the expansion. But that's the point. Hart's comment is a variation of the same theme we've seen play out lately in NFL cities like Miami, Oakland, Buffalo, St. Louis, and Charlotte. It's what teams always say whenever they pass the hat for their profitable playgrounds: Fuck you, pay me. Because you need us a lot more than we need you.
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