A primer and research roundup

A primer and research roundup

In June 2023, Nevada legislators approved $380 million in public funding for a 30,000-seat ballpark for the Oakland A’s, who are expected to throw their first pitch in Las Vegas in 2028 after Major League Baseball owners approved the franchise move in November.

It’s the latest public commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars for a professional sports stadium. In the U.S., most franchises in the four major sports leagues — MLB, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League — are valued at over $1 billion.

Across those leagues there have been eight new stadiums or arenas built since 2020, at a total construction cost of roughly $3.3 billion, according to a September 2023 paper in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. About $750 million in public funds went toward those construction projects, the paper finds.

When government dollars are allocated it’s usually through a legislature passing a law, or by public vote. Voters in Kansas City, for example, in April 2024 widely rejected a sales tax bump to pay for a new downtown stadium for MLB’s Royals.

“I like to say that you can fit a majority of the city council in the owner’s box but you can’t fit a majority of the electorate,” says Kennesaw State University economist John Charles Bradbury.

The approved public funding in Las Vegas represents about one quarter of the total cost of the planned stadium, pegged at $1.5 billion. Proponents estimate the A’s stadium in Las Vegas will create thousands of jobs and have an annual economic impact of $1.3 billion, news outlets have reported.

Economic research for decades has found that, by and large, the fiscal returns for residents — in the form of increased economic activity and job growth — are far smaller than public expenditures, which have recently approached or exceeded half a billion dollars per stadium.

This primer will help journalists understand the history of public financing for stadium construction and empower them to use academic research to interrogate claims that these projects mean big bucks for communities.

The research also finds:

  • Journalists often report figures from press releases and economic impact statements without questioning the assumptions of those analyses.
  • Of the dozens of stadiums built in the past two decades for the four largest American sports leagues, about 4 in 10 were financed at least in part with municipal bonds exempt from federal taxes — which places part of the financial burden of stadium financing on residents nationwide.
  • Football and baseball stadiums may increase foot traffic to nearby businesses, but basketball and hockey arenas do not.
  • Overall, stadiums tend to shift economic activity, not create new spending.
  • Expansion teams are likely to favor markets that already have strong employment and business growth.

A coming stadium construction boom?

Las Vegas is hardly alone. Economists have found that every 30 years or so there’s a wave of public financing for building stadiums or revamping existing ones.

A construction boom may already be under way in the U.S.

For example, Wisconsin will provide $500 million to renovate the Milwaukee Brewers ballpark, and more than $1 billion in public bonds will go toward a new stadium for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. And the MLB’s Tampa Bay Rays have asked St. Petersburg city councilors to approve more than $400 million for a new ballpark along with nearby infrastructure improvements.

If you’re covering public financing for sports franchises, you’ll want to know what the research says about this topic. This is critical to providing thorough coverage to audiences.

A brief history of public financing for sports stadiums

Modern stadiums were first constructed during the early and mid-1900s, around the two world wars.

“Sports venues were almost exclusively privately financed until the 1930s, when they became largely public ventures,” write the authors of a recent paper in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, featured in the research roundup below.

More stadiums were built as leagues expanded and teams moved cities throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Another construction boom came in the 1990s, with many new stadiums replacing older ones, along with new venues for expansion franchises.

“The median public share of venue construction costs declined from 70% in the 1990s and 2000s to approximately half of construction costs in the 2010s,” write the authors of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management paper. “Newly opened and planned venues in the 2020s have received roughly 40% of funding from taxpayers.”

While the share of public financing has fallen, the authors find that the amount of public money has risen, from a median of $168 million in public funds per stadium in the 1990s, to $350 million in the 2010s, to $500 million in the 2020s across the four major U.S. sports leagues.  

Even stadiums ostensibly built with private funds can come with public costs.

For example, the New England Patriots built Gillette Stadium in 2002 without direct public dollars, but the franchise benefitted from at least $70 million in state money for nearby road, sewer and other infrastructure improvements, according to the Boston Globe, which the paper authors cite.

Economic activity and stadiums: ‘A transfer of wealth’

While Fenway Park in Boston and Wrigley Field and Soldier Field in Chicago have stood for around 100 years, many stadiums built in the past 50 years have already been replaced for a variety of reasons, despite better construction materials and methods.

For example, the Texas Rangers’ ballparks have been replaced every 27.5 years, on average, while Atlanta Braves’ ballparks have been replaced after 26 years, on average. Among the major sports leagues, 31 stadiums and 31 arenas will be 30 years old or more by 2030, according to Bradbury and co-authors in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management paper.

Journalists covering asks of public money for private sports projects should be aware of the large body of research on these public investments.

Despite perennial claims from team owners that building new stadiums or revamping existing ones will result in a fiscal and jobs boom for a city or region, research consistently shows that the hundreds of millions of public dollars that are often outlaid are not typically a sound investment.

“You might see a little bit of a resurgence in the area right around the stadium, but it comes at a cost to less commerce in the outlying area, which is exactly what we’d expect,” says Bradbury, who is the current president of the North American Association of Sports Economists. “This is just a transfer of wealth within the community.”

This transfer of wealth may indeed be the point for some city officials, as College of the Holy Cross economist Victor Matheson explains in an October 2018 essay, also in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

For example, when the taxpayers of Arlington, Texas, finance local stadiums, such as for the Dallas Cowboys and the Rangers, the games those teams play move consumer dollars from other parts of the state to Arlington.

“While, again, regional economic activity is unchanged, Arlington’s economy benefits at the expense of other cities and towns in the area,” Matheson writes. He also notes that fiscal reports produced by sports franchises “have been shown to suffer from significant theoretical flaws that make their conclusions suspect at best, and simply false at worst.”

But Matheson argues that while the current level of public spending on sports stadiums is out of balance with the returns on those investment, in certain circumstances some level of public funding may be appropriate.

He points to the 2004 Athens Olympics as a catalyst for infrastructure development there, and a minor league baseball stadium in Worcester, Massachusetts, as providing the political impetus for $35 million in transportation funding from the state, including to make a particularly dangerous intersection near the ballpark safer.

“Obviously, it would be better for local taxpayers to get the needed infrastructure improvements without the wasteful expense of hosting the Olympics or building a baseball stadium, but government activities are not always without friction, and using a stadium project to spur other more useful infrastructure projects may be a second-best solution,” Matheson writes.

The cost-per-taxpayer of a stadium partially financed through public funds may be small in some cases, but it can also be relatively large. Oklahoma City Thunder ownership, for example, is contributing $50 million to build their new arena, compared with the public outlay of $900 million, which comes out to thousands of dollars per adult in the city.  

“People often ask me, they’ll say, ‘Well, you’re always against stadiums.’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, yeah, my guess is most pulmonologists are against smoking,’” says Bradbury. “I mean, the evidence is clear. And I think that journalists feel a need to cover all sides of an issue, and I totally understand that. But it’s about accurate coverage, not equal-balance coverage.”

Research roundup

Public Policy Toward Professional Sports Stadiums: A Review
John Charles Bradbury, Dennis Coates and Brad Humphreys. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, September 2023.

The study: The authors break down a range of policy considerations for public funding of stadiums. They provide a history of stadium funding since the 1900s, examine research efforts to quantify intangible social benefits of sports teams, describe prominent public funding mechanisms and cast a critical eye toward news reporting.

The findings: With many large U.S. cities facing fiscal crises in the 1980s, government officials began to push the narrative of sports stadiums as economic drivers, “where each dollar spent generates more than one dollar of economic activity as it is recirculated within the community — thereby growing employment income, property values and tax revenues,” the authors write.

Economists began to study the issue around this time. By the turn of the century, “economists were largely in agreement that stadiums were poor public investments,” in terms of tangible benefits, like jobs and spending, “and more recent studies continue to confirm these findings.” Economists then began to explore whether there were intangible benefits to residents of a city with a professional sports franchise — the cultural pride from living in a “big league” city, for example.

One way economists do this is through something called the contingent valuation method, which surveys residents on what they would personally pay for their city to host a sports team. These individual values are then extrapolated to a wider population to put a dollar value on the intangible factors residents enjoy from simply having a professional franchise, whether they go to games or not. Based on results from seven studies conducted in the 2000s and 2010s, “non-use values” amount to “13% of total capital construction costs and 16% of public contributions,” suggesting that “intangible social benefits of hosting professional sports teams are well below levels needed to justify typical subsidies.”

In looking at news coverage of public subsidy proposals for sports franchises, the authors note that “economic impact estimates from advocacy reports may be repeated without external validation of credibility, and press release statements from stadium boosters are quoted in stories without critical assessment.”

The authors write: “As a potential institutional reform, communities should assess all stadium proposals through referendums and initiatives, a once-common practice which has declined over the last few decades. Public votes ensure that subsidies are congruent with voter preferences and allow time for careful consideration of all relevant costs and benefits, so that voters can make informed decisions.”

Growth Effects of Sports Franchises, Stadiums and Arena: 15 Years Later
Dennis Coates. Chapter from The Economic Impact of Sports Facilities, Franchises, and Events, October 2023.

The study: The author, who conducted foundational research with Brad Humphreys starting in the mid-1990s into how sports stadiums affect per capita income, returns to this question with another 17 years of data, from 1969 to 2011. This analysis adds hockey and soccer franchises in addition to MLB, NFL and NBA — along with the American Basketball Association, which merged with the NBA in 1976 — and covers all urban areas in the U.S., including those without a professional team.

The findings: Average personal income grew about 1.4% per year over the period studied, regardless of whether there was a sports stadium in the area. The economic effects of sports franchises account for less than 1.5% of local economic activity, measured by personal income, wages and salaries, and wages per job.

The author writes: “The results of this exercise are largely consistent with the findings of Coates and Humphreys and of numerous other studies that have found that the effect of sports franchises and stadium and arena construction on local economies is weak or nonexistent. Indeed, franchises, stadiums, and arenas may be harmful rather than beneficial to the local community.”

Do Local Businesses Benefit from Sports Facilities? The Case of Major League Sports Stadiums and Arenas
Timur Abbiasov and Dmitry Sedov. Regional Science and Urban Economics, January 2023.

The study: The authors explore a single economic consequence of sports stadiums — foot traffic to nearby retail and food establishments — in a single year, 2018, for MLB NBA, NFL and NHL franchises. Precise foot traffic for 92 sports facilities and surrounding businesses is from SafeGraph, a company that tracks “location data of mobile devices with installed participating applications,” the authors write.

They acknowledge that “the grounds for subsidizing professional sports are weak,” based on past research, but also cite news reports suggesting businesses near sports stadiums suffered curtailed revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The findings: Every 100 visits to a baseball stadium generates 29 visits to nearby restaurants and similar establishments, and six visits to retail stores. The authors find similar results for football stadiums, but little business sale spillover for basketball and hockey arenas. The authors note that professional football and baseball games typically draw much larger crowds than basketball and hockey games.

Basketball and hockey games have a slight negative effect on foot traffic to health, finance and education-related businesses. The authors note that these sports often have arenas located in central business districts, which may lead people who are not going to a game to avoid those areas during game time.

The authors “find that a median sports facility generates approximately $11.3 million of annual additional spending for food and accommodation and retail businesses, with the aggregate spillovers varying substantially across facilities and sports.”

They do not account for negative effects of sports stadiums — such as increased crime, as explained in the next paper — or the revenue of nearby businesses compared with the public costs of building a stadium or improving an existing one.

The authors write: “Our results indicate that the chances of a community economically benefitting from a sports facility via the spillover channel are higher if the facility hosts a popular team and is visited frequently.”

The Impact of Professional Sports Franchises and Venues on Local Economies: A Comprehensive Survey
John Charles Bradbury, Dennis Coates and Brad Humphreys. Journal of Economic Surveys, September 2022.

The study: The authors review the findings of more than 130 studies on economic outcomes of sports stadiums published between 1974 and 2022, the bulk of them published since 2000.

The findings: Local economic activity is by and large unaffected by sports stadiums, “and the level of venue subsidies typically provided far exceeds any observed economic benefits,” the authors write. There is “deep agreement in research findings” that “sports venues are not an appropriate channel for local development policy,” they add.

Sports stadiums can lead to positive effects for communities, such as improved amenities, like pedestrian-friendly zones. But they also come with negative effects. For example, research links sports events with crime. The “positive association between crime and sporting events is perhaps the most robust empirical finding in the economic effects of sports literature,” the authors write.

Why do sports stadiums continue to garner public subsidies? Among other reasons, such as team owners threatening to relocate, the authors note that the benefits of sports stadium subsidies are concentrated in a few hands — namely and primarily the owners.

Costs, meanwhile, are spread across taxpayers. The public cost of Camden Yards in Baltimore came to $15 per local household per year, according to research from the Brookings Institution that the authors cite. They suggest this creates a situation in which wealthy beneficiaries have great incentive to lobby politicians and advertise in favor of subsidies, with little incentive to mobilize opposition because each taxpayer’s individual cost may be low.

The authors write: “Though findings have become more nuanced, recent analyses continue to confirm the decades-old consensus of very limited economic impacts of professional sports teams and stadiums. Even with added nonpecuniary social benefits from quality-of-life externalities and civic pride, welfare improvements from hosting teams tend to fall well short of covering public outlays.”

Tax-Exempt Municipal Bonds and the Financing of Professional Sports Stadiums
Austin Drukker, Ted Gayer and Alexander Gold. National Tax Journal, March 2020.

The study: Of the 57 stadiums built in the past two decades for the four largest American sports leagues, about 4 in 10 were financed at least in part with municipal bonds exempt from federal taxes. State or local governments issue the bonds, then the interest bond buyers earn is exempt from federal taxes, meaning “tax-exempt municipal bonds confer an indirect federal subsidy to the issuers,” the authors write. Bond buyers accept lower interest rates — saving interest payment dollars for states and localities — because they know they will get a tax break on their investment return.

NFL stadiums are the most expensive, with an average cost of $1 billion. But baseball stadiums are most heavily financed through tax-exempt bonds. On average, $466 million of baseball stadium costs are financed through such bonds. The authors examine the estimated value of those bonds issued since 2000.

The findings: The value of the federal tax exemption is $3.6 billion across the $16.7 billion worth of bonds issued to finance stadium construction, the authors estimate. But the estimated loss in federal tax revenue is considerably higher: $4.3 billion. The authors explain that the reason for the difference is that a portion of bond buyers would still buy those bonds at a lower return rate than the subsidy offers.

The authors write: “Most residents of, say, New York, Massachusetts, or California — unless they are avid fans — gain nothing from the Washington-area football team’s decision to locate in Virginia, Maryland, or the District of Columbia. Yet, under current federal law, taxpayers throughout the country ultimately subsidize the stadium, wherever it is located … Ultimately, the problem is one of rent seeking, since professional sports leagues are able to extract local and federal subsidies by exerting concentrated power while the costs of the subsidies are diffuse.”

Economic Development Effects of Major and Minor League Teams and Stadiums
Nola Agha and Daniel Rascher. Journal of Sports Economics, November 2020.

The study: The authors explore whether new stadiums for major and minor league teams affect economic development, measured by employment and business growth. They use Census Bureau data from 2004 to 2012 covering 871 markets. There were 65 new teams, 67 teams that departed a city and 68 new stadiums built during the period studied. The included top-tier professional leagues and their development affiliates are MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Soccer, and the Women’s National Basketball Association. The WNBA saw three teams join and five leave the league but was the only professional league without a new arena during the period studied.

The findings: The authors note that much research has focused on the economic effects of major league venues. Stadiums and arenas built between 2000 and 2018 cost more than $40 billion total. Spending on minor league venues account for a sizeable chunk over that time — $9.6 billion, according to the authors, and many of those developmental team venues are in the same market as major league teams.

On the whole, new major league teams and new stadiums do not affect economic development, and the findings suggest teams tend to enter markets with strong employment and business growth. New minor league sports teams also do not tend to affect employment, but for markets between 100,000 and 499,000 people, the findings suggest that new minor league sports stadiums can lead to a slight uptick in new businesses.

The authors write: “Overall, we find no substantial evidence that entry of a new team or stadium is associated with any net gains related to economic development, other than for minor league team entry in smaller markets and employment effects limited to the period of construction.”

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