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Cleveland “sin tax” campaign: a visual analysis

2014 April 6

The good voters of Cuyahoga County have been asked to renew a “sin tax” to fund “maintenance” expenses at stadiums located in Cleveland. I think it’s fair to assert that: 1) this is a controversial proposal, and 2) of multiple reasons for that controversy, one of the most prominent is the issue of whether or not stadium funding counts as a taxpayer giveaway to affluent professional sports franchises.

Critics argue forcefully that it is. Backers, including the Greater Cleveland Partnership and Northeast Ohio Media Group, have argued throughout the campaign that it is not. The latter reported the GCP stating that “FirstEnergy Stadium, Quicken Loans Arena and Progressive Field, are ultimately owned by taxpayers…” Followed by a quote from Councilman Jack Schron that “This is not the teams’ property we’re protecting. It’s our property.”

Schron and other renewal proponents seem, so far as I know, to have literal fact on their side. The argument that “this is public money going to public property” seems, nonetheless, like it’s meeting resistance; as a designer, I would like to suggest that contrary visual messages may be a large part of the reason.

Let’s have a look at the stadiums in question. What do you see?

Progressive Field exterior

Here’s another:

FirstEnergy Stadium

I submit that there’s a pattern emerging, here. How about the third of three?

Lots and lots of Cavs merchandise

Quicken Loans Arena

This last one is, perhaps, kind of a cheat, as I did not find an exterior image of Quicken Loans Arena quite on par with the first two photos… but this is one of just two photos on the Arena web site’s “About” page, which also describes the building as “Home to the NBA Cleveland Cavaliers…” Meanwhile, I submit that in all three cases what you don’t see is at least as important as what you do.

You do not see anything saying “publicly owned amenity.” You certainly don’t see “Cleveland Municipal Stadium” or “Cuyahoga Taxpayers’ Arena” or any variation on such, in any kind of literal format. Nor, I think, do you see anything that leaves much room for such a message to survive even by implication. Here’s another photo, from inside Progressive Field:

Key Bank, Sherwin Williams, Budweiser, Pepsi, Giant Eagle, etc., etc.

Progressive Field scoreboard

Let’s see, Progressive Insurance, the Cleveland Indians, Key Bank, Budweiser, Ford, Pepsi… this post is going to attract comment spam like a magnet isn’t it… I don’t see anything about the good citizenry of Cleveland or Cuyahoga County.

The relevant web sites aren’t much different. That of the Q does sport a box about “partnership” with Cleveland—which is not exactly “ownership” aside from the fact that it’s presumably just a temporary feature to promote the sin tax renewal. That of FirstEnergy Stadium clearly emphasizes its connection with the Cleveland Browns. I can’t find an independent web site for Progressive Field at all, meanwhile.

While I suspect that, if any sin tax proponents were confronted by these observations, shooting the messenger would be a natural reaction, my argument is not “ha, got you, you’re lying.” My argument is simply that, if the management and, let’s call them “foremost tenants” perhaps, of these stadiums want to emphasize the buildings’ status as public property… their own broader messaging is savagely undermining them. At any rate, to the extent that branding and visual identity do have any fraction of the importance implied by the money spent on them.

I think it’s a very tough sell to shout “SPORTS TEAM SPORTS TEAM CORPORATE SPONSOR TEAM SPONSOR SPONSOR SPONSOR” 365/24/7 for years, and then pause, briefly, to say in an earnest voice “you know, you the taxpayers are the real owners.” I’m not saying it’s untrue. Just that it seems like a very, very tough sell.

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