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…