Columnist “asks an expert” about Kings arena impact, doesn’t actually so much listen to him

Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton has made a special name for himself among sports subsidy boosters, as someone able to recognize the near-invisible economic returns on stadium and arena projects while simultaneously saying we should build them anyway. But Breton truly outdid himself with yesterday’s column, titled “Are arena subsidies good for cities? Let’s ask an expert.” The expert in question was our old friend Geoffrey Propheter, and here’s what Breton took from their conversation about the proposed Sacramento Kings arena:

  • “Propheter found that either public subsidies were too high and never recouped by cities – or the new arena didn’t spur the level of consumer spending that arena proponents promised.”
  • But Propheter’s work is “more nuanced and less uniformly conclusive” than this, and includes “a less publicized aspect…: That arenas sometimes can work in some markets,” especially those where the NBA team is the only game in town. In Oklahoma City, for example, “the arena and the franchise has had a positive effect on personal income levels,” Propheter told Breton.
  • With Sacramento a one-team city, “The bottom line is: anti-arena advocates who claim there is no way an arena in Sacramento can work are just as wrong and partisan as those who say it will bring an economic windfall.”
  • Propheter supports a public vote on a Kings arena, but as a Kings fan himself, would vote in favor of it because “I would be voting with my heart… The economist voice in me would be squashed completely.”

It all comes down to a nice simple “beware the extremism of both sides” message that is beloved by newspaper columnists the world over — and which sounded strangely at odds with the dispassionate statistical analysis that I’d read in Propheter’s research, and heard during my own previous conversations with him. So in the spirit of Woody Allen and Marshall McLuhan, I dropped Propheter an email asking if Breton’s conclusions jibed with what he’d told him. His answer: Not exactly.

  • Propheter says he doesn’t recall saying that the arena would be likely to produce tangible economic benefits, “because I don’t believe it would (or that we’d ever be able to tell if it did).” Oklahoma City, he notes, does show a correlation between building the Ford Center and an increase in resident income, but because it also built a whole ton of other downtown development at the same time, it’s impossible to say whether the arrival of the Thunder caused it or not.
  • If you want to talk about the benefits of stadiums and arenas, you should look at the intangible psychic benefits to a city, because economic benefits are going to be few and far between.
  • With that in mind, Propheter concludes, “If Sacramentans love the Kings more than anything else on the planet including safer neighborhoods, dependable water, quality schools, etc, then it makes sense to give as much money as it takes to keep the team when the alternative is that the team leaves and Sacramentans lose the enjoyment of their first investment preference. But I doubt anyone in their right mind would take such a position.”

Now that’s a nuanced position — and certainly takes into account that some residents of a city might want to support an arena not as economic development, but just because they can’t stand to see the team leave. But it also is an excellent argument for letting people vote on it, because without the economic justification, it comes down to: Would you rather have your basketball team, or would you rather keep the money the owners are trying to extort from you? That’s a less pleasant question, perhaps, but it’s still one that reasonable people can come down on either side of.

What it isn’t is support for the notion that those who say an arena can’t be an economic benefit are “just as wrong” as those who say it will create an economic windfall, and surely no columnist would pretend it is just to support his own preconceptions, right? Boy, if life were only like that…

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14 comments on “Columnist “asks an expert” about Kings arena impact, doesn’t actually so much listen to him

  1. Having lived in Oklahoma City before and during the arena, the arena had little to do with any economic vitality in downtown OKC and the adjacent Bricktown area. The various incarnations of MAPS did far more to create and maintain the economic vitality of these two areas along with neighborhoods south of downtown than the arena, whose effect is minimum at best.

  2. It’s funny because Geoffrey’s J. Urban Affairs 2012 paper specifically talks about Sacramento (to Anaheim) a whole bunch.

    the results from Model 2 (basketball only cities) and Model 3 (multisport cities) demonstrate that single sport cities enjoy greater economic returns than multisport cities, which suggests that tangible and intangible opportunity costs are greater in the former instance than in the latter. If the Kings were to leave Sacramento, for instance, and relocate to Anaheim as has been discussed, the cost to the region in terms of income and civic pride (or other intangibles) would be higher than if Sacramento was also home to, say, a professional baseball franchise. In the absence of a major league alternative (Sacramento is home to the Triple A River Cats), the implication is that citizens in single sport cities will be more willing to support larger subsidies for stadia than citizens in multisport cities.

    The paper also suggests that Sacramento Kings’ success in the late 90s/early 2000s suggest a “team success explanation” and that novelty effects of the team shouldn’t be just a “new team” but when a team experiences real gains in quality.

    He then also suggests that the intangible marginal costs (gaining citizen support to back a public subsidy) should be lower in a single-sport city vs a multisport city (should be easier to have a public vote that passes at the appropriate $ figure).

    Working through some other % of public funding studies he basically concludes that Jacksonville and Portland (single sport cities) vs a few multisport cities end up with the public covering ~47% of the cost vs ~32% in the multisport cities.

    It would be interesting if we’d have a public vote on stadium funding that actually broke down into how much should we give and where should we take the money from, rather than simply Yes or No votes. Of course the statisticians would have a field day trying to interpret those results.

  3. “Propheter supports a public vote on a Kings arena, but as a Kings fan himself, would vote in favor of it because ‘I would be voting with my heart… The economist voice in me would be squashed completely.’ ”
    And this is why we have the problems we do today. What happened to being rational & logical or being a taxpayer first & a sports fan second? Why do cities keep caving in time after time to sports teams?

  4. I will repeat again. kevin johnson has done a lot of work to save the Kings from moving to Sacramento… Sacramento California is not getting a free stadium… i disagree with the sites premise… so anyway i support the Sac Arena and would vote yes on any type of public spending to get the Kings to stay…

  5. What? The Kings AREN’T moving to Sacramento???

    Hey, I leave for a coupla weeks and suddenly sports leagues have deployed time machines and everything…. man, this sucks…

    It’s never really a question of “whether to spend public money” on private businesses (in this case, sports businesses) or not. It’s a question of how much a city should spend. And the sad fact is, in nearly every stadium deal out there there isn’t anyone who can put an accurate number on what “saving the _____” will cost.

    Funny, because they certainly can tell you how many schools or police stations they’ll need to close in order to fund their obligations…

    I think all we (most of us who oppose open ended and unquantifiable subsidy in perpetuity to private business) are asking is to know what the cost is and to have a chance to cast our votes either for or against that subsidy.

    If that (informed choice) is not democracy, what is?

  6. “Sacramento California is not getting a free stadium”

    Ain’t that the truth.

    “…would vote yes on any type of public spending to get the Kings to stay”

    C’mon, which one of you guys planted “berry” here to make a point about someone who is all-in for the “psychic benefits” ;)

  7. Breton was a noted supporter of the Sacramento/Northern California Priest who could not keep his hands off of children and since has been convicted and sent to the Big House for some much needed attitude readjustment by Big Ben, the 300 pound gorilla in Pelican Bay who takes care of child molesters…


    Breton supports with all his black heart, the noted child molester Kevin Johnson, who paid 1/4 million bucks more or less to a young girl to keep her mouth shut about his escapade in the shower with this 15/16 year old nubile youngster…

    He’s some fine fellow this loser Breton…a much noted Sacramento BOZO

  8. I, being a logical person would vote to strengthen our neighborhood safety, housing and parking downtown. We already have an arena. They can tell us that school’s need to close, that we can’t afford housing subsidies or the police departments need to lay off a percentage of the force, but can’t tell us how much this arena will actually cost or bring in. Biased all the way around.

  9. I really have concluded that the more the Bee writes these articles, the more they improve STOP’s chances. If that’s really what they want, I say… MORE ARTICLES, PLEASE!

    We don’t need this arena. If they want to break out the one-team city, I say, Bring up Orlando. Great example of what can and does go wrong.

  10. I propose a public spending plan that Berry & every person in Sacramento gives me $1,000 a month each. It’s uh…for the Sacramento Kings. Yes.

  11. @mp34
    No i will not give you a 1,00 dollars you loser… you are not a tall basketball player or even in the business. I rather spend my tax dollars on the Kings Arena thank you. my choice… like you have the choice to vote yes or no. Again we all knew that we have to spend 200mil of public money to keep the kings… also Oakland is going to have to cough up dough for the new Raider stadium.. or say hello to L.A

  12. mp’s plan would probably stimulate the economy better than an arena would… Provided, of course, he agrees to drop the money from helicopters on a fairly regular basis.

  13. News today is that the team owners have signed a contract to use union-only labor to build the arena. This has set off a firestorm, including an announcement that a group in San Diego, that represents non-union construction workers, will now fund the petition drive.

    My question: How can they agree to use union labor when the City and the ownership group do not yet have a contract?

  14. Mike, I think the promise to use union labor as part of any contract is the quid pro quo for labor’s support of the project.

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