Column: Beware, America, stadium arms race coming to preps

In this wackiest of election seasons, here’s a result that should really leave us all aghast.

A city in Texas has approved the building of a nearly $63 million stadium — for high school football, no less.

Yep, the stadium arms race, which has been used so masterfully by professional sports to siphon off billions of dollars from the public coffers, is creeping its way down to the prep level.

“It’s all about ego. It’s all about who’s got the most toys. It’s all about power,” said Curtis Rath, one of those who led the unsuccessful fight against the stadium measure in McKinney, Texas, a suburb about 30 miles northeast of Dallas.

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Sound familiar?

It should. High schools — at least those in Texas — have turned to the same playbook that works so well at the higher levels, even though it’s not like they’re trying to prevent their team from moving to another city (the most familiar tactic used by the pros) or they need the latest state-of-the-art facilities to keep up in recruiting (the general refrain in the college ranks).

While the argument can be made that cutting-edge educational facilities lead parents to pick one district over another when deciding where to live, there’s no justification for spending this sort of money on a 12,000-seat football stadium, essentially for the benefit of a very small minority who participate in one extracurricular activity.

“They use the excuse that they’re doing it for the kids,” Rath said. “But it just defies logic that we have to have the fanciest stadium.”

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Rath knew something was up when, about a year ago, he noticed a sign on a vacant corner about a mile from his home.

“Future Site of McKinney ISD Stadium,” it said.

At that point, Rath went on, there had been little public discussion about the stadium proposal. But the idea was hastily pushed through a citizens’ committee, included in a $220 million bond issue, and approved by 62 percent of the voters last weekend.

In sporting terms, it was a rout.

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That’s even more troubling.

Of course, the leadership of the McKinney Independent School District sees things differently. They point out that the stadium part of the bond issue — some $50 million, with the remaining funds left over from an earlier plan — was less than 25 percent of the overall spending proposals, which will go toward things such as upgrading schools, expanding fine-arts programs, and enhancing safety and security.

“We’re visionaries,” Superintendent Rick McDaniel told The Dallas Morning News as the results rolled in. “And we believe we have a vision for McKinney ISD that will propel us forward for a long time.”

Actually, this is the same ol’ flim-flam game that those higher up have been playing for decades now. All the other bells and whistles were crammed into the bond issue to assuage potential opponents, when all along the stadium was the main priority.

It’s no coincidence that McKinney officials decided to act after neighboring Allen built its own little high school palace, a $60 million stadium seating 18,000. And not far away, Frisco is kicking in $30 million toward a new $250-million-plus indoor stadium that will serve as the Dallas Cowboys’ training facility and also host high school games.

“It looks like they’re sort of creating a mini-arms race down there to see who can be the biggest and the best,” said Michael Veley, a professor in the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics at Syracuse University.

While acknowledging that football is essentially a religion in Texas, Veley warned that others could seek to follow the lead of those in the “Friday Night Lights” state. School administrators are certainly aware that one sure-fire way to get parents on their side is to build a top-level athletic program. They are surely looking at the developments in Texas with more than a bit of envy.

While some stadiums and arenas have spurred economic development — see Camden Yards in Baltimore, or Coors Field in Denver, or the Staples Center in Los Angeles — they are generally a money-losing proposition for local governments that provide the bulk of the funding.

At the high school level, that reality is even more apparent, according to Veley. McKinney officials say the stadium, set to open in 2017, will be not only used for football by the district’s three high schools, but for other sports as well. In addition, they’re hoping the stadium and an attached events center will help to lure other events to suburban Dallas.

Veley is skeptical that the huge investment — which works out to more than $2,700 for each of the district’s 24,500 students — will come close to paying off in the end.

“I cannot see a high school stadium generating a lot retail areas — restaurants, bars and so forth,” he said. “In a baseball stadium, you’re playing 81 games a year. At the Staples Center, they have over 250 event dates a year. They can afford to build ancillary revenue areas around those stadiums to make it a destination spot.

“I know Texas is big for football,” he added. “But that’s biting off an awful lot.”

Beware, America.

Your school might be next.