San Francisco Eyes Pro Sports Tax To Pay for Interscholastic Athletics

By Peter Schmidt — May 29, 1991 6 min read
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The San Francisco Board of Supervisors was expected to give final approval this week to a unique tax on professional-sports tickets that would avert a proposed shutdown of the city school district’s interscholastic-athletics program.

The measure would apply to the San Francisco 49ers football team, whose stadium-admissions tax would increase by 75 cents a ticket, and to the Giants baseball team, whose per-ticket tax would rise by 25 cents.

The tax increase, to apply only during the 1992 seasons for both teams, was expected to raise some $1.06 million--enough to cover the San Francisco Unified School Dis6trict’s interscholastic-sports budget for the coming school year.

Superintendent of Schools Ramon C. Cortines, facing a $16-million deficit in the district’s budget for 1991-92, had proposed suspending the sports program for one year. Academic programs are also threatened with cuts.

The board of supervisors unanimously approved the ticket-tax increase on a preliminary vote last week, and Mayor Art Agnos has said he would sign the measure into law.

But officials of the Giants and the 49ers “have been caught between a rock and a hard place on this one,” according to Supervisor Terence T. Hallinan, who wrote the legislation.

Although the teams do not want to see ticket prices raised, Mr. Hallinan said, “they recognize the importance of school sports, not only to the youth of our community but to their own business.”

Officials of the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and the Council of the Great City Schools said they were not aware of any other city that had taxed professional sports to pay for specific school programs.

“It is an interesting wrinkle, that is for sure,” said Samuel B. Husk, executive director of the city-schools council, which represents 47 of the nation’s largest school systems.

State-Aid Crunch

San Francisco school-district officials interviewed last week generally were supportive of the proposal for rescuing the sports program. But they expressed frustration at the city’s having to make up for a lack of adequate state funding and voiced concern for other programs the district may have to cut.

“The city feels that they should not be supporting schools, and we agree with them,” said Thomas J. Sammon, executive assistant to Superintendent Cortines.

“But we are in a fiscal crunch,” Mr. Sammon said. “Without this, we would not have sports programs for the coming year.”

Mr. Sammon expressed concern that it would be “very tough” to rebuild the interscholastic-sports program once it was eliminated for a year or more. He noted that 10,000 middle- and high-school students are involved in interscholastic athletics in the 64,000-student district and maintain grades above the minimum level required for participation.

The elimination of athletics would be “a disaster,” Supervisor Hallinan said. He said he came up with his ticket-tax plan because the financially strapped state of California appeared unlikely to provide enough aid to keep the program going.

“The state is responsible for school funding, and I don’t want to completely take them off the hook for this,” Mr. Hallinan said.

According to school officials, the city contributes only about $5 million in funds and services to the district, which has a total budget of $425 million.

Mr. Cortines said he had proposed cutting all interscholastic sports because the programs cannot be run safely on less than a full budget and “the purpose of schools is not competitive athletics.”

“People don’t get in a furor when you cut science or close libraries,” the superintendent said. “Someone had to put things in perspective.”

The district also is considering reducing the number of electives and eliminating extracurricular activities and advanced-placement courses in high schools. Other measures being weighed include cutting out music and all other electives in elementary schools, where the school day would be reduced from six to five periods.

Spokesmen for the National Football League and Major League Baseball declined to comment on the substance of the San Francisco proposal.

Corey Busch, executive vice president of the San Francisco Giants, said he was concerned about the impact of the tax on ticket prices and would have preferred to see the proposal broadened to include surcharges on golf courses, court fees, and other recreational activities.

But, Mr. Busch added, his organization chose not to come out in opposition to the one-year tax, because “we clearly recognized that there was a need to do something to save middle- and high-school sports programs in San Francisco.”

“There was no way were were going to sit on the sidelines and see sports discontinued,” he said.

Murlan C. Fowell, director of stadium operations for the 49ers, said his organization opposed the additional tax, and had suggested voluntary fund-raising efforts instead.

“Our fans are already being taxed $1.50 per ticket,” he said, “and we did not feel this was fair.”

“It is targeting a very few individuals when the problem was that of the entire community,” Mr. Fowell said. “We would have been in favor of a more broad-based tax.”

But he acknowledged that the 49ers had softened their resistance to the proposal because “it is too sensitive an issue to fight.”

Currently, the city charges a $1 surtax on 49ers tickets to pay for new stadium seats. It also charges a 50-cent admission tax on all Giant and 49er tickets, although the Giants are exempted from paying the tax unless crowds reach a certain size.

The additional tax, which would allow no exemptions, would add 25 cents to the $2.50 to $12.75 now paid for Giants tickets, and 75 cents to the $35 price of a ticket to the 49ers.

‘Gimmick Taxes’ Growing

Mr. Husk of the Great City Schools said the use of such “gimmick taxes” to pay for school programs distracts public attention from the fact that schools are not being provided with enough funding to maintain essential educational and extracurricular services.

“As more and more cities have gone into more and more budget crises,” he said, “more of them have begun to rely on gimmick taxes.”

In San Francisco, even as the board of supervisors moved toward enacting the tax for school sports, its members were also mulling over informal proposals to impose taxes such as a surcharge on concert tickets to pay for school music programs.

“Maybe we can move it in another direction, since we have it started,” said Supervisor Willie B. Kennedy, who has previously advocated an entertainment tax.

“Taxing sports to keep sports alive in our schools is certainly a good thing, but it certainly does not do anything for the academic side of it,” Ms. Kennedy said. “We’ve got schools closing in this city, and we need to look at what to do.”

San Francisco’s city charter prevents the supervisors from passing legislation stating which programs must receive the money raised by a new tax. Revenue from the added stadium-admissions tax, therefore, would be placed in the general fund.

Ms. Kennedy noted that Mayor Agnos would legally have the prerogative of spending the additional revenue as he wished.

But Mr. Hallinan, saying “we are gentlemen of good faith,” called the expenditure of the proposed new revenues for interscholastic sports “a done deal.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 29, 1991 edition of Education Week as San Francisco Eyes Pro Sports Tax To Pay for Interscholastic Athletics


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