Civic blackmail, NFL (MLB, NBA, NHL) style

There’s no evidence-based reason why cities shell out hundreds of millions of dollars to build new sports stadiums for teams that are owned by billionaires. The economic benefits that are supposed to accrue to a city from the presence of big league sports franchises and from the crowds they attract to their games almost never actually manifest themselves; people usually drive to games, which means they require massive amounts of parking around the stadium (drastically limiting opportunities for nearby commercial development), and most people want to get home after the game ends, which means they’re unlikely to stick around and patronize whatever businesses do crop up. The return on football stadiums, which are used at most about 12 times a year apart from the occasional concert (which the football team will try to prevent, by the way, because they’re damaging to the field), is even worse than the return on baseball stadiums (still pretty lousy) and arenas (which can almost be worth the investment if they’re booked 250+ times a year).

Study after study shows this to be true, but city governments still regularly spend massive amounts of money that they don’t have in order to build new stadiums, inevitably because they’re being extorted by the team. The political reality is that any city leader who presides over a pro sports team leaving that city is probably going to find himself or herself in hot water in the next election cycle, so they’re only too happy to spend the city’s money to keep team owners happy.

Tales of Pittsburgh sports history, below.

When I was in college in Pittsburgh in the 1990s, both the Steelers and the Pirates decided that they couldn’t continue to play in the city’s old, ugly multi-purpose stadium (which was built to accommodate both sports and thus couldn’t really accommodate either). City and county leaders put a sales tax increase to the county’s voters via referendum, with the idea being that the increase would finance the construction of a baseball park, football stadium, and a major expansion of the city’s convention center. You can imagine how the voters in Allegheny County felt about being asked to raise their own taxes. When the referendum failed the politicians went back to the drawing board and hatched a scheme, “Plan B,” to use the county sales tax that was already in place to fund the new facilities, basically by swiping the money from its intended purpose (to help fund and improve smaller regional attractions like museums, the arts, parks, etc.). There was a lot of public opposition to the new plan but not much anybody could do about it, and so the projects all went through. Today the city has what is in my opinion the best baseball park in the country, and a decent football stadium, which are mostly surrounded by a sea of parking lots and a handful of bars. Oh, and a casino. The area where the stadiums were built was supposed to be the engine for a new retail and residential boom in the city, and while it’s more developed than it was when the old multi-purpose stadium was standing there, it’s still nowhere near what was promised.

Here’s the thing though, and the reason why politics drives new stadium construction even though the research says they’re not worth it: people love sports. When the Plan B stuff was going on I was in a grad program and then employed in a job where I was supposed to be researching the key factors in goosing a city’s economic development. The research I was aggregating for that job was uniformly in agreement that sports stadiums didn’t help very much if at all, but I still wanted the Pirates and Steelers to get their stadiums so they wouldn’t leave the city. I was looking at the relevant research telling me that both teams should be allowed to walk, and I didn’t care. I would have been livid if either of those teams had left Pittsburgh, and I would definitely have taken it out on whoever was in city and county office at the time. Years later, after the Penguins were bought by Mario Lemieux and declared that they needed a new arena in order to stay in town, I absolutely wanted that arena to be built, again despite the economics, and I didn’t even live in Pittsburgh any more by then.

I don’t really have a point here, except that this makes an interesting case for the limits of rational policy-making in an irrational human existence. Cities are forced to make irrational investments in sports stadiums because the voters are irrational, and so the politics are irrational, which means city leaders have to act irrationally. You occasionally see a city or state whose leaders are gutsy enough to tell their team owners to take a hike when they come looking for a new facility, but it’s exceedingly rare.

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