If You Build It, They Might Not Come: The Risky Economics of Sports Stadiums

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The trials of the Phoenix Coyotes, the least popular hockey team in the NHL, offer a lesson in public debt and defeat

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In June, the city council of Glendale, Arizona, decided to spend $324 million on the Phoenix Coyotes, an ice hockey team that plays in Glendale's Jobing.com Arena.

The team has been owned by the league itself since its former owner, Jerry Moyes, declared bankruptcy in 2009. For each of the past two seasons, Glendale has paid $25 million to the league to manage the Coyotes, even as the city faced millions of dollars in budget deficits. Now, Greg Jamison, who is also part of the organization that owns the NHL's San Jose Sharks, is making a bid for the team, and would therefore be the beneficiary of the subsidies.

"Take whatever number the sports promoter says and move the decimal one place to the left. Divide it by ten. That's a pretty good estimate of the actual economic impact."

To put the deal in perspective, Glendale's budget gap for 2012 is about $35 million. As the city voted to give a future Coyotes owner hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, it laid off 49 public workers, and even considered putting its city hall and police station up as collateral to obtain a loan, according to the Arizona Republic. (The latter plan was ultimately scrapped.)

Overall, Glendale is not only on the hook for $15 million per year over two decades to a potential Coyotes owner, but also a $12 million annual debt payment for construction of its arena. In return, according to the Republic, the city receives a measly "$2.2 million in annual rent payments, ticket surcharges, sales taxes and other fees." Even if the Coyotes were to dominate the league like no other in recent memory and return to the Stanley Cup Finals year after year, the city would still lose $9 million annually.

This is an altogether too common problem in professional sports. Across the country, franchises are able to extract taxpayer funding to build and maintain private facilities, promising huge returns for the public in the form of economic development.

For instance, just three of the NFL's 31 stadiums were originally built without public funds. In two of those cases, public funding was later used to upgrade the stadium or surrounding facilities, even as all 32 of the NFL's teams ranked among Forbes' 50 most valuable sporting franchises in the world in 2012. (Only MetLife Stadium, shared by the New York Jets and New York Giants, received no public funding.)

Time after time, politicians wary of letting a local franchise relocate -- as the NBA's Seattle Supersonics did, to Oklahoma City before the 2008-2009 season -- approve public funds, selling the stadiums as public works projects that will boost the local economy and provide a windfall of growth.

However, according to leading sports economists, stadiums and arenas rarely bring about the promised prosperity, and instead leave cities and states mired in debt that they can't pay back before the franchise comes calling for more.

"The basic idea is that sports stadiums typically aren't a good tool for economic development," said Victor Matheson, an economist at Holy Cross who has studied the economic impact of stadium construction for decades. When cities cite studies (often produced by parties with an interest in building the stadium) touting the impact of such projects, there is a simple rule for determining the actual return on investment, Matheson said: "Take whatever number the sports promoter says, take it and move the decimal one place to the left. Divide it by ten, and that's a pretty good estimate of the actual economic impact."

Others agree. While "it is inarguable that within a few blocks you'll have an effect," the results are questionable for metro areas as a whole, Stefan Szymanski, a sports economist at the University of Michigan, said.

PUBLIC MONEY BALL

There are numerous reasons for the muted economic effects. The biggest is that arenas often sit empty for a significant portion of the year. Jobing.com Arena is guaranteed 41 hockey games annually. The other 324 nights, it must find concerts, conventions or other events to fill the schedule, and in Glendale, where the arena competes with facilities in nearby Phoenix, that can be tough to do.

"We've looked at tons of these things, and the one that we found that seemed to make sense is the Staples Center in Los Angeles," Matheson said. "But they use it 250 dates a year. They don't make sense when you're using it 41 times a year and competing with another venue down the street."

Another reason the projects rarely make sense is because of the way they are structured. Stadiums and arenas are financed with long-term bonds, meaning cities and states will be stuck with the debt for long periods of time (often 30 years). And while cities make 30-year commitments to finance stadiums, their commitments to government workers and other local investments are often made on a year-to-year basis, meaning that, just as in Glendale, it becomes easier to eliminate public sector jobs and programs than to default on debt incurred from arenas.

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Presented by

Pat Garofalo and Travis Waldron

Pat Garofalo is the economic policy editor for ThinkProgress.org. Travis Waldron is an economics and sports reporter for ThinkProgress.org.

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