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by Howard Fienberg, Correspondent
There are many competing interests involved when it comes to public funding of new sporting stadiums. It often comes down to an individual deciding if he could forego lunch for a few days so his local team can have some fancy new digs. In the fall of 1996, when the jumbotron in Buffalo's arena came crashing to the ice, chicken little went running maniacally through town demanding a new stadium before the sky fell (chicken little not to be mistaken with his cousin, Chicken a la King, whom I ate for dinner last night). While most polls seem to indicate that Americans oppose public subsidization of pro sports, Joseph L. Bast of the Heartland Institute claims that such subsidies nationwide cost taxpayers $500 million a year, with $7 billion in the pipeline for new stadiums by 2006.
An article from the Washington Times (Apr. 17) by Joseph Perkins indicates that sports fans who vote to subsidize sports arenas with their taxpayer dollars quite possibly could be denied entry at the gate. The new San Diego Padres stadium, due in 2002, will seat 19,000 less fans than their current stadium. All this and more at the low, low, low price to the taxpayer of only $411 million. A bargain AND a simple way to reduce crowds at the games. Why the lower capacity? Our favorite invention, the luxury box. It is obviously only fair that if corporate executives can watch the game from their living rooms (i.e., luxury boxes), Joe Schmo should have to watch from his living room (i.e., home) as well. Because the market value of the remaining non-luxury box seats are now hence more expensive.
There is much economic study of the impact of these publicly funded arenas, and virtually none of it is positive. Stadium promoters don't seem to be spinning their economics very well.
What some of the studies say: (1) North Carolina State University economist Michael Walden claims that cities with major league sports teams actually grew at a slower rate from 1990 to 1994; (2) Dennis Coates and Brad Humphries, economists at the University of Maryland, found that cities with new ballparks showed a $100 decrease in per capita income; (3) In 1994, Lake Forest College economist Robert Baade conducted a study of 48 cities over a 30-year period, concluding that sports facilities derail economic development towards labor-intensive, mostly unskilled and low-wage part-time jobs. (Just the thing for us LCS staffers!); (4) The Brookings Institution (a Washington, DC think tank) in 1997 concluded that a new sports facility "has an extremely small (perhaps even negative) effect on overall economic activity and employment"; (5) And a Heritage Foundation (another think tank) study comparing Maryland counties that built pro sports facilities with Virginia counties which didn't, concluded the same as studies 1 and 2.
What these studies mean: not much, unfortunately. While it is easy to conclude that new stadiums do not help the economy anywhere nearly as much as promoters insist, it is not clear from these studies that they harm it. The Heritage Foundation study compares apples and oranges - you'd get the same effect trying to compare the skating styles of Turner Stevenson with Sergei Fedorov. Words simply don't do justice to Fedorov's smoothness or Stevenson's elephant-esque loping. The intricacies of local economies cannot be simply generalized out, particularly across two states which, while very near to one another, differ dramatically. And the first two studies make an overly simplistic link between stadiums and local economies.
But the main reason we have to look askance at these studies is that they rarely, if ever, address two important factors: hockey and alcohol. The coolest game on earth gets the coldest shoulder in economic research. And why don't they study the alcohol consumption levels in towns with publicly funded stadiums? God knows I put back more than my fare share when a hockey game is on. Or off. Come to think of it, given my drinking in the off-season, there doesn't seem to be any correlation. But I'm sure it exists for other people. You drink from joy when your team wins and from shame and self-pity when they tank it like my Capitals do.
Well listen up, chicken little. While the jury is still out on the economic costs and benefits of new municipally supported stadia, the benefit to the fans is, shall we say, minimal? How about almost non-existent. The only real benefit of a new stadium is that your locality gets to keep its team for at least a few more years. Then the team will whine and complain until the city forks over more dough, or it gets to leave for a more generous town. It is a merciless, endless cycle. Kind of like my alcoholic binges.
I'm no economist, and if I was, I'd be damned if I would trust myself to come up with a dollar figure to put on the happiness benefit of keeping your team. When the Whale blew out of Hartford in 1997 it left a lot of broken hearts, but all those years of flopping on the beach couldn't have done wonders for the mental and emotional health of the Hartford Whaler fans either.
Perhaps the solution is the publicly-owned team, like the Green Bay Packers. A nonprofit corporation may be just what the doctor ordered. And with the Penguin franchise set to fold, Pittsburgh had better think about this idea immediately. Or Jagr will be playing for the Rangers next year, and Pittsburghers will be given the horrific opportunity to rediscover the wonders of indoor soccer.
Taps for the Caps
The Capitals' season has finally ended, the misery is over ... until next year. With paper bags swiftly coming into fashion, I watched them skate into oblivion and give up more two-on-ones than Debbie Does Dallas. At least next year we will get to watch young kids strive and lose rather than old geezers stumble and lose.
Jericho, LCS' Official Wrestler, Visits Canada
Chris Jericho ("The Lionheart", "Monday Night Jericho"), Canadian wrestler and hockey fanatic, made the fastest "heel turn" (going from fan favorite to bad guy) ever known at a wrestling event televised live from Toronto a few weeks ago. Jericho got hold of the mike to address the crowd, which had cheered him, flags waving, all of the way to the ring. He started:
"I'm a Canadian" (tremendous cheers - a "pop")
"And I live in the USA" (booing - "heat")
"And as I walked down the clean streets of Toronto today" (pop)
"I looked up at the green Canadian trees" (pop)
"I smelt the fresh Toronto air" (pop)
"And I thought to myself ... God, I'm glad I moved, 'cause Canada sucks" (stunned silence followed by tremendous heat).
That's our Jericho.