Another pro team abandons its fans and a taxpayer-funded stadium in search of bigger money. But how much does big-league sports actually contribute to a city’s economy?
It’s not news that some professional sports owners have less loyalty to their communities than Wall Street vulture capitalists.
More than enough, even lavish publicly financed stadiums, is never enough. Hence, no surprise that Stan Kroenke won approval last week from a majority of other billionaire NFL owners to abandon St. Louis and move to Los Angeles.
Despite being a Missouri native, he wanted out bad. He passed on a beautiful Mississippi River site for a new stadium and at least $400 million in taxpayer money toward its construction. In the L.A. suburb of Inglewood, he’ll be privately financing a stadium that’s estimated to cost $2.66 billion and paying the NFL relocation fee of $550 million.
Such is the allure of the second-largest media market. The Rams might be joined by the Chargers from San Diego or Raiders from Oakland.
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Kroenke has a net worth of $5.5 billion. His wife, Wal-Mart heiress Ann Walton Kroenke, is worth $2.6 billion.
A class act to the end, who hasn’t given loyal fans a winning season in years, Kroenke poisoned the waters heading out of town.
“Any NFL club that signs on to this proposal in St. Louis will be well on the road to financial ruin, and the league will be harmed,” his application to move stated. St. Louis “lags, and will continue to lag, far behind in the economic drivers that are necessary for sustained success of an NFL franchise.”
These are the classy people we are dealing with in most cases, enabled by pro football being the nation’s most popular sport.
I would make an exception for Seahawks owner Paul Allen. He has shown himself to be an exemplary civic steward and, yes, he has done well but also good.
And even though the L.A. stadium involves minimal public costs by pro-sports standards, $180 million, owners will continue to play cities and locations within metro areas off against each other. The most telling line NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell spoke last week was that Kroenke’s Xanadu would “set a new bar.”
In most places, this means a new bar for taxpayers, too. St. Louis and state taxpayers are still paying off debt on the Edward Jones Dome, the new bar circa 1995.
Lost between the hoopla in L.A. and taste of ashes in St. Louis is a fundamental question. How valuable are pro sports to metropolitan economies?
The economic-impact studies from boosters are almost always tainted by best-case scenarios and questionable multiplier effects. Critics can rightly say that most jobs created are low-wage and many are part time.
Jeffrey Pierro, of Bryant University in Rhode Island, surveyed the academic work, concluding, “Studies have shown that, while franchises can give the economy a boost in the short term, there are little to no long-term positive effects.”
In the 2010 book, “Sport and Public Policy,” Charles Santo and Gerard Mildner looked at the economic effects worldwide. Examining an earlier attempt to bring Major League Baseball to Portland, they concluded the added payroll from all spectator sports would constitute 0.63 percent of the metro area.
But what do pointy-headed scholars know? They probably never bled team colors, lived or died in the outcome of a critical play. To them, 12 is just another number.
Indeed, emotion and the search to gain or retain prestige and status must play important roles. In many communities, voters have been willing to approve vast sums for sports franchises while voting down school levies. A majority has ignored the argument that stadiums and arenas can be poor investments.
The knife’s edge is particularly sharp in fading cities or those on the make.
In 1950, St. Louis was America’s eighth-largest city. By 2014, wounded by white flight and erosion of corporate headquarters, the city had lost nearly 63 percent of its population. This is a dilemma faced by numerous markets, such as Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
Like most older cities, St. Louis retains lovely bones. It is the nation’s 19th most populous metro area. But it has been bypassed by places such as Phoenix and Charlotte that were little towns a century ago. And the latter didn’t have franchises handed to them. The Phoenix suburb of Glendale has nearly bankrupted itself in what appears to be a losing battle to keep the NHL. Taxpayers built a lavish stadium there for the NFL.
When the big-money grabs began in the 1990s, it was a truism that pro sports were an important amenity for keeping and attracting major corporate headquarters and high-end employees. Again, this was especially persuasive in cities that feared being further hollowed out or in those ascending.
Again, this is tough to prove or disprove. Cincinnati overspent on lush new palaces for the Reds and Bengals. And despite losing its Delta hub, it remains a corporate center, especially with Procter & Gamble. Yet Cincinnati also boasts a world-class orchestra and parks, a delightful cityscape and stunning setting. How much of a difference did the teams make?
Today’s most coveted workers spend all their waking time in front of computer screens or in nerdy playrooms. But somebody continues to fund those seat licenses and fill the luxury boxes.
L.A. went 20 years without the NFL but few places are L.A. Seattle continues without the NBA, but this is a uniquely blessed place, too, with plenty of attractions. San Diego is lovely and blasé about sports. For most other cities, even L.A.’s proposed privately funded stadium is unlikely to break the cycle of blackmail toward meeting “a new bar” or else.
Most Americans, apparently, wouldn’t have it any other way. Proving we don’t worship economics if it collides with any given Sunday.