Eminent Domain and Professional Sports Worlds Collide Again

by: Anthony F. Della Pelle
27 Feb 2023

The SoCal city of Inglewood is back in the news, as it appears likely that it will be seizing private properties again in connection with its new sports and entertainment district which includes a $2 billion basketball arena that will become home to the LA Clippers professional basketball team.  In early 2021, Inglewood first authorized the use of eminent domain to acquire about a dozen private properties which were needed for the land to build the arena itself.  These actions sparked local pushback, as some questioned whether there was a public purpose for the takings, and instead preferred that the land be utilized to provide low and moderate-income housing.  This article in The Daily Breeze from January 2021, questioned whether the future use of the properties for “amusement, enjoyment and recreation” was adequate to satisfy the constitutional limitation of the use of eminent domain for public uses or even public purposes, especially when the project was being privately funded and would benefit the privately owned sports team(s).

Despite public resistance, the acquisitions occurred and construction of the sports arena commenced later in 2021.  The target date for the opening of the “Intuit Dome” is anticipated for the 2024 National Basketball Association season, and it will be located adjacent to the football stadium which hosts the National Football League’s Rams and Chargers home games.

More recently, as the arena construction has progressed, another round of concerns has arisen, as members of the public query whether there is adequate parking for the monstrous existing and forthcoming sports and entertainment venues.  This article, “Inglewood Businesses Are Being Relocated to Build Parking Lots”, reports on the parking deficiencies which already exist, even before the arena is completed, and suggests that plans exist for the seizure of more local businesses.

In recent years, many new professional sports facilities have been built on property that was taken by government agencies using their power of eminent domain.  But the intersection of this awesome power of government and professional sports is nothing new, as it goes back at least to the 1950s when the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles to occupy their new Dodger Stadium “home” in Chavez Ravine, which used to be called home by many local residents.  Some of the issues raised by these projects, which typically question whether the government’s power to take private property should be stretched so far as to permit takings for sports-related purposes, were explored in detail in a 2005 law review article in the New York City Law Review.  More recent controversies surfaced about possible eminent domain abuse in connection with the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, which now contains the arena that the Brooklyn Nets NBA team calls home but had faced a series of court battles until NY’s highest court ruled that the takings were authorized in 2009.  Like many others, the Atlantic Yards project was touted as one that would promote economic development in the area, including residential and commercial private development in addition to the sports venue, but also raised questions about whether it ultimately was a fiscal success or failure because it included tax incentives at the public expense which were sought by the private redevelopers involved to “make the numbers work”.

Should eminent domain be used in order that professional sports teams, often owned by billionaires, can occupy privately owned property in instances where the private owners are unwilling to sell?  Does the benefit provided to the public by the sports venues qualify as a public use, or public purpose justifying the use of eminent domain?  Ultimately, these questions are answered by looking at state and local laws that set forth the ways in which government agencies are able to seize private properties and, in most cases, the laws will be and have been found to allow these projects to occur.  In New Jersey, eminent domain has been used in connection with the Prudential Center Arena in Newark, home to the NJ Devils hockey team, and for various minor league baseball stadiums around the state.  These are probably not the last of their kind but, for those of us that are sports fans, we wonder if having more and better sports to watch in person can ever make it fair to the property owners who had their private property “taken for the team.”