Inside sports business
Nary a week goes by when we aren’t discussing some new proposal to use public money to finance the construction of sports venues.
We’ve seen plenty here, with the pitch for an arena in Sodo District stalled in May by a 5-4 Seattle City Council vote denying the vacation of a block of Occidental Avenue South to entrepreneur Chris Hansen. Several years ago, there was the construction of both Century Link and Safeco Fields using a combined $700 million of public funding.
Elsewhere, we’ve seen recent proposals to publicly finance baseball venues in Atlanta and Arlington, Texas, arenas in Milwaukee and Sacramento and to refurbish all major sports facilities in Cleveland. Given continued debate over the merits of such payouts, Georgia State University last week launched a new research center geared toward studying key areas where sports and public policy come together.
The Sport and Urban Policy Initiative, based in Atlanta and run by the school’s Department of Kinesiology and Health, will attempt to raise public awareness of issues faced by cities amid costly requests from sports teams, leagues and fans.
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“With every case, there’s a political battle,” said Tim Kellison, 31, director of the new center. “Sometimes, it’s strong. Sometimes, it’s not so much. But … every time we look at these, there is a fair amount of misunderstanding at all levels. Including us academics, but also with the general public, with elected officials and sometimes with the media.’’
And the No. 1 issue Kellison feels the public lacks understanding about? The old adage about how a new sports venue will bring economic benefits to a city.
“A team, or a business or an elected official will talk about all the jobs and all the businesses that will come with a new stadium or a new team,” said Kellison, who also acknowledges the benefit sports venues can have on quality of life. “And then a week later, usually a journalist will cite that there is basically no evidence that it occurs.
“If you look at all the literature from economists, the sports studies and impartial analysts, they’ve been unable to identify the significant million, hundred million or billion-dollar impact for stadiums and even mega events like the Olympics.”
Atlanta, of course, is where the 1996 Summer Olympic Games were held and begat Turner Field. Now, the Atlanta Braves are ditching that venue for new $622-million SunTrust Park, to open in nearby Cobb County next year.
Kellison said the ongoing debate over the county’s decision to spend more than $300 million in public funds on the new stadium was partly behind the center’s formation and will continue to be kept in strong focus.
One interesting outgrowth of the new center is its creation of a website – Stadiatrack.com – compiling key stadium data from the past 15 years. Among its tidbits are results of all referendums on public funding since 2000, a detailed list of all publicly financed stadiums since 2005, as well as notes on venues with pro-environmental designs.
Kellison hopes making such data instantly accessible to fans and the media will foster more informed dialogue. The center plans papers on a variety of topics to be released via its website, the media and academic journals.
Kellison said fans often automatically tout the economic benefits of sports and venues, while ignoring independent economists, like Stanford professor emeritus Roger Noll, who almost universally agree that none exist.
Others will cite the “civic pride” factor of sports — especially when some victorious city throws a championship parade — without figuring out the actual worth.
The Stadiatrack website shows the debate over building such venues is more split than some sports fans and talk shows make it seem. There have been a dozen sports referendums in this country since 2000, with seven having passed while five failed.
Five of the approved referendums passed with fewer than 60 percent support.
The website chronicles the Sacramento Kings losing a 2006 ballot initiative by a 71.4 percent rejection rate after seeking $600 million in public funds for a new arena. Two years ago, a favorable Sacramento City Council didn’t risk another referendum in earmarking approximately $223 million for the Kings’ new Golden 1 Center.
Kellison said referendums are becoming less frequent as the public’s appetite for sports handouts wanes. Hence the need for increased public education about costs — financial, environmental and otherwise — as teams and leagues seek their financial cut with as little open discussion as possible.
Far from being “anti-sports,” Kellison and those behind the center mostly studied sports management and often feel conflicted between their love for the game and quest for truth about cost.
“Our focus is more on the impact on communities, positive or negative,” he said. “We understand the benefits of these (sports venue) places and what it can do for a city and quality of life. But also, having studied this and ourselves all being sports fans, we take more of a critical approach towards examining them instead of just taking it for granted.’’
And now, starting with the information already available on the center’s website, greater numbers of fans can take that critical look as well.