Yup, media still suck at covering sports stadium subsidy debates

If I link to an article and only quote the part that quotes me, that’s not narcissism, it’s repurposing, right? I’m going with repurposing.

Anyway, David Uberti of the Columbia Journalism Review has an article up today about how local journalists drop the ball on covering sports stadium subsidy debates, a topic that you know is near and dear to my heart. After discussing how the Buffalo media has largely skipped over the question of whether the city should help fund a new Bills stadium in lieu of the question of where to build it — something that’s devolved into self-parody at this point — Uberti asks me why the hell this is:

“You might end up with sportswriters covering this, whose eyes glaze over when they see an economic-impact report,” said deMause, who co-authored a book, Field of Schemes, on the topic. “Or you have news people handling it, who might be able to handle the economic aspects, but they can easily get distracted by the sports aspect of this.”

He added, “When you have to fight against the fact that nobody has this issue as their beat, no one has the time. It’s easy to cover it in a very surfacey way.”

The CJR piece also cites some other friends of FoS (correspondent Bob Trumpbour of Penn State Altoona and Holy Cross economist Victor Matheson, among others), and is well worth reading for a reminder of how the news media really isn’t helping promote more intelligent public discourse on stadium issues. Though I’d still love to see an article digging into the dynamics of why individual reporters who get assigned to these stories end up punting on the bigger issues — lack of time, lack of expertise, lack of editorial support. Hey, David, I’ll race you to it!


34 comments on “Yup, media still suck at covering sports stadium subsidy debates

  1. The real reason is simply that sports coverage is great filler for local media and drives traffic. I would bet a good 30% of the Star Tribune’s traffic is driven by sports, and maybe a third of that by the Vikings specifically. How do you think the Star Tribune is going to cover the Vikings subsidy demands given that? Especially as the paper owns a lot of land right around where the new development would be happening. It is just farcical to expect any local coverage to worthwhile and really websites like this or national coverage are the only things you can trust.

    Even MPR which is a really solid public radio station, one of the best in the country, mostly presented it with the standard political horse race fake balance.

    “Oh stadium subsidy opponent you are asking for a careful reading of documents and more realistic analysis of the economic impacts? Sounds interesting.”

    “Lets ask a proponent what their counterpoint is.”

    “Lollipops are going to rain down from the sky if we fund this and there will be a million jobs”.

    ” A million jobs really? That sounds like a lot of jobs!”

  2. I figured it was equal parts not wanting to jeopardize access to a very popular, web traffic-driving source and local political institutions exerting behind-the-scenes pressure.

  3. Just to play armchair psychologist for a few minutes… I tend to think a lot of this is driven by the consumers, especially those with a borderline healthy attachment to their local sports teams. To a certain extent, the media is simply catering to the local base of sports fans, ones who believe that their city’s identity (and destiny) is inextricably linked with its teams.

    These folks probably have no time for cost-benefit analyses, or economic impact reports. They just want whatever benefits their favorite teams above all else, even if it means they themselves get screwed in the process. Conversely, they haaaaaate when anyone says “yeah, this could be good, BUT…” at which point, they immediately blow up their twitter mentions and questions their loyalty to their city and their local teams.

    Well, that’s been my experience in Orlando, anyway.

  4. Business, tax impact analysis does not belong on the sports page. It belongs on the front page without biased coverage from the sports reporters.

    Reporting about city taxes and spending is something that is of importance, articles about this should be directed toward everyone in the city instead of the group that reads the sports page.

    The main thing is holding those politicians who sign these biased deals accountable, either by limiting the deal to only while they remain in office or possibly some sort of public accountability (prison, just a suggestion) when the city needs to hire 200 more police officiers (or whatever is needed) and can’t because of spending $30 million per year on fieldhouse and stadium operating costs.

  5. Long time reader, first time commenter,

    Sports journalists are, by and large, unqualified to cover and write about the economics and policy discussions related to sports financing. The local business / government writers matter most here.

    And yes, since in 2014, print and local media readership / viewership is heavily dependent on sports – whether college or pro, and the identity of so many people locally are wrapped up in the performance of the team. Most local papers would shut down were it not for sports.

    Local TV is nothing but 12 minutes of police scanner news, followed by needlessly complex weather reports and then sports. Were it not for sports, local TV news would shutter up. They have no interest in angering the nearby sports franchises and cutting off their access – essentially propaganda in many cases.

    So yes, I thank you for your Field of Schemes work. And I know it will take constant pounding to get people to see how they are being totally used by sports franchises.

    I’ve grown up a Braves fan, but any rational look at the Cobb deal shows it just won’t hold water: from transportation, to the public financing to the ‘town center’ that the Braves want around the stadium. I have friends who are really conservative, but they don’t care about any of this. They want the Braves to win and want shiny new toys.

  6. I’m with Kei on this… in a sense ignorance of the deeper issues has become a badge of honour for many people – and not just in the sports sense.

    To expand on his premise, it is true of much of what passes for debate in the modern world that we now determine who wins and who loses simply by which side can shout the loudest. They don’t have to support their claims as fact. They don’t even have to be coherent, much less salient, in their arguments. All that matters is that they can shout louder and ridicule their opponent. Look at politics in general… it doesn’t matter who is the most suitable for the office… all that matters is whether one side has dirt in their (distant) past that can be dug up and used against them. Electoral platforms now routinely start and end with “sure, we’re scumbags… but we’re nowhere near as bad as the other guy”.

    Specifically relating to sports writers (who are often saddled with trying to reduce the issues in question to 220 words for publication), I would say this:

    1) they tend not to have either the education or background to analyze the issues in detail.
    2) they appear to make no effort to source outside assistance in order to address the deficiencies outlined in pt 1.
    3) As defacto employees of the teams they cover, they are unable to impartially cover any issues relating to the team in question.
    4) As persons who’s livelihood depends on the existence of said teams, no-one should on any account believe anything they have to say about the issues facing the community.

    And maybe that centrefielder who keeps getting into trouble with the law isn’t really “a good guy who has bad luck”, as the sports beat reporter would have you believe.

  7. The problem with blaming the sportswriters is that non-sports journalists are often *worse* in their coverage — they’re so happy to be dabbling in “the toy store” (as sports has often been disparaged at newspapers) that they don’t think they have to dig very hard for the real story. Plus, non-sports writers typically don’t know anything about the sports business, and will happily swallow anything that team execs say (because they’re sports execs, and sports are cool!), whereas at least sportswriters sometimes have a little cynicism, at least.

    There are exceptions on both sides, obviously: news-side writers who take the time to learn about sports and sportswriters who take the time to learn about tax-exempt bonds. But they’re the exceptions, and I remain curious how heavily the various factors — time pressure, ignorance, publisher pressure — each factor into this.

  8. “These folks probably have no time for cost-benefit analyses, or economic impact reports. They just want whatever benefits their favorite teams above all else, even if it means they themselves get screwed in the process.”

    But sports fans aren’t getting “screwed”. They’re getting something at less than full price, thanks to the contributions of their non-sports fan neighbors. From a purely selfish economic perspective a sports fan should be in favor of public subsidies. The alternative is paying more or going without a local team to cheer for.

    As far as sports writers are concerned I think some of the problem is that they’ve always been taken – and taken themselves – too seriously. Sports are just a branch of the entertainment business. The folks on SportsCenter have the same job as the folks on Entertainment Tonight (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but they’d kill you for saying so.

  9. “But sports fans aren’t getting “screwed”. They’re getting something at less than full price, thanks to the contributions of their non-sports fan neighbors.”

    Wait wait wait. Sports team owners are still charging fans whatever the market will bear. How are fans getting anything at less than full price?

  10. Fair point, Neil. I’d argue, however, that it is impossible to establish anything like market price when we are talking about sports businesses precisely because the market for everything associated is so heavily skewed by subsidies (both visible and invisible).

    If stadia were not subsidised I agree that ticket prices might not go up to pay for the difference in construction cost. However, the other alternative would be for owners to build simpler and less costly facilities… so fans (might) be asked to pay what they are paying now for ‘less’. Or maybe Keith is right and fans would be asked to pay double to cover the cost of the palace.

    I know we’ve argued this point in the past and I respect your viewpoint, but I do think the type of revenue generating palaces that are being built (largely with tax dollars) today drive player salaries up as well as franchise values/owner wealth. It’s not easy (maybe impossible) to prove or disprove that… but anytime you are talking about ‘adding money to the system’, I’d argue that this generally drives up all costs, including construction costs and player salaries (though probably not concession worker wages).

    Would the Phillies have paid Halladay and Lee what they did if they were still playing in the Vet? If not, then the subsidy provided for the stadium does play some role in the wages paid out in that market… even if the argument is that another team (with another new stadium) would have paid them that much if the Phillies didn’t.

  11. “Sports team owners are still charging fans whatever the market will bear. How are fans getting anything at less than full price?”

    If they truly are paying the max that the market will bear, they’re getting a nicer stadium than they’d get if they were paying for it themselves. I’m not buying the idea that the loss of subsidy would all end up coming out of player salaries and owner profits to the point where stadia would be as expensive as they are now.

  12. Neil, I think the strong disgust most “ownership groups” take to the idea of per event ticket taxes and fees cover renovations/etc only helps Keith’s argument. There’s full ticket price and there’s full ticket price with a new “$10 arena tax”. The owners would prefer the “ticket buying fan” dollars go into their pockets and not the facility, as much as possible.

    As a model for distributed costs giving the ticket buyer a break…. cable company packages and ESPN’s reasons for being on the basic tier.

  13. Well, and then we get things like the Think Big “report”, where the arena will create 4,000 jobs and $11B in new economic impact (that, if they’re lucky, will really just be “four miles farther south” impact) over 35 years, and Sacramento’s media seemed to ask one question: Why haven’t we started building this yet?

    A case in point is all the trash from the Bee about how the bonds are backed by parking revenues. I have tried gently, in a very nice way, to point out that the deal proposed in 2013 is extremely different from the deal passed in May, and that now the bonds are actually backed by the general fund — not parking — and they simply ignore it.

    They can’t pay attention for even five minutes to refute my comment. This is so typical.

  14. Amending my earlier statement…

    “The alternative is paying more or going without a local team to cheer for.”

    to:

    “The alternatives are paying more, getting less or going without a local team to cheer for.”

    John wrote: “…I do think the type of revenue generating palaces that are being built (largely with tax dollars) today drive player salaries up as well as franchise values/owner wealth.”

    Of course they do. Salaries are where they are because of the money available to pay them, which any subsidy contributes to. If the subsidy isn’t there and owners are already charging all that the market will bear, something’s gotta give. Most likely it would be multiple somethings – lower salaries, less extravagant stadiums, lower profits. Sometimes in another city. C’est la vie.

  15. Mike:

    It makes you wonder why they capped the windfall at $11bn. Why not $111bn? Why not include every dollar spent for a radius of 200mi around Sacramento? I mean, if the Kings left, surely the city would simply pack up and move to somewhere that has an NBA team….

    As the new arena will replace the old one, and as it will concentrate entertainment spending that would have happened at some attraction in Sacramento anyway, I’d argue the economic benefit of building it will be approximately $0. In the worst case… we’d have to list all the generally beneficial things Sacramento could have built for it’s taxpayers with this money instead of the things it’s taxpayers could build for Ranadive/the NBA…

  16. In theory, I can see how it would work out to $0, but in reality, STA’s owners had stopped recruiting acts — many of these acts went to arenas that were just as bad or worse — so there will be SOME uptick in business. These owners have some huge bills to pay now, since they borrowed over $220M from Goldman-Sachs, and will have a lease payment to make as well; they do have some incentive to bring acts in, so they’ll try. It’ll even work for a couple years, too.

    But then it’ll be back to business as usual. SBH will own plenty of parking spots, so the City will have only a small uptick in revenues there, perhaps balanced out by people no longer going downtown on those 200 nights a year (that’s an optimistic number… But it doesn’t matter, really).

    My main point, though, is that the Bee and other media outlets continue to lazily say that the bonds are backed by parking revenues… Plain and simple, they’re not. They’re too lazy to research this. It’s amazingly stupid.

  17. Oh, absolutely player salaries go up when there’s more money in the system. But that has nothing to do with what fans are getting for their dollar.

    As for getting “a nicer stadium,” that’s a matter of opinion. They’re getting stadiums with more opportunities to sell them things, certainly, but they’re then getting charged for a lot of that added value via higher ticket prices and concession prices. (Not to mention via the same taxes everyone else in the area is paying towards the stadium.) It’s not exactly a windfall.

    Let’s think this through: If stadium subsidies didn’t exist, teams would either have to 1) not build new stadiums, 2) build new stadiums out of their own pockets, or 3) build new stadiums and somehow charge fans extra for them. The third option would be hard to pull off, since it would imply that currently they’re not extracting every last possible dollar from fans; the second would be possible in some cases, though wouldn’t hurt any fans; the first would be the likely scenario in most cases, but would mostly only cost themselves the added profits that come from subsidies. At most you can say that stadium subsidies are allowing sports fans the opportunity to pay inflated ticket prices for seats with cupholders, while not charging them any more in taxes than people who don’t go to games; compared to the money that owners (and players) are walking away with, that’s not much of a win.

  18. John,

    Here is a revealing paragraph from the report on the spending associated with a new arena in Sacramento:

    “As a result, the potential gross annual spending in Downtown Sacramento is estimated to be approximately $146 million per year, $170 million per year for the entire City of Sacramento, $192 million per year for Sacramento County and $231 million per year for the Greater Sacramento Region. These figures are then adjusted to account for spending which would likely occur regardless of the existence of the new facilities and to account for spending which is attributable to impacts from the existing arena. The result is net annual spending potential of $145 million in Downtown Sacramento, $116 million in the City of Sacramento, $74 million in the Sacramento County and $25 million in the Greater Sacramento Region, as shown in Table 8.”

    The $11 billion was extrapolated from the gross, not the net. In other words, 90% of that $11 billion in activity would occur even if the arena is never built.

  19. “Oh, absolutely player salaries go up when there’s more money in the system. But that has nothing to do with what fans are getting for their dollar.”

    I’m thinking about this in terms of the benefits from adding a subsidy in a particular city, so more money available for salaries for that particular team –could– mean fans are getting a better team at less than cost.

    “If stadium subsidies didn’t exist, teams would either have to…”

    Again looking at it as a particular subsidy not existing, a fourth possibility is that the team will leave. So your non-sports fan neighbors have made some contribution to the entertainment you get from just having the team in town.

    Newer is frequently viewed as “nicer”. No owner is going to build or update their facility as frequently when it’s coming out of their own pocket.

    No, none of this amounts to a “windfall”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still 100% against subsidies for businesses that are this profitable, but I think fans still make out much better than non-fans. Whatever the cost is to each citizen, at least fans get something in return. And that “something” may very well be worth more than the personal cost.

  20. Thanks RA. Did they give any info on their methods for adjusting that economic impact for non-arena related effects?

    The only real “new” activity a building can generate involves bringing in money from outside the area in which it is built. Even if a new arena has all kinds of brilliant way to separate local fans from their hard earned cash, that still represents a redirection of discretionary spending that most likely would have happened in the city anyway.

    Put another way, someone paying an extra $50 for stuff at a Kings game likely isn’t going to cancel a fly away vacation or a new car purchase to do it. They very well might skip an evening out at a restaurant, theatre, or minor league baseball game to save that $50 though.

  21. John,

    It has been a long time since I read the report. I knew that paragraph was there and it was easy to find. The full report can be found on http://www.capitolpfg.com/publications.html. I don’t recall any justification for the numbers or a description of methodologies.

  22. If my A’s and/or Raiders get a new stadium, I lose, lose, and lose.

    I lose as a taxpayer having to pay whatever public aspect there is to the new stadium construction.

    I lose as a fan because I won’t be able to go to as many (if any, in the Raiders’ case) games because of the increased ticket cost, which gets me nothing, because the Coliseum is just fine for watching a game in either sport.

    I lose again as a fan because the seats that I can at all afford will be way farther from the field, and again, while the current seats are not ideal for either sport, I’m not going to be able to afford to sit in the ones that would be upgrades in a new stadium.

    I lose again as a fan because the atmosphere won’t be as good with a stadium full of Richie Riches.

    I guess I win because the teams won’t move somewhere else, but a new Raiders stadium isn’t going to help the team get a bigger payroll, and a new A’s stadium will have negligible effects (as the debt service will take care of quite a bit of the increase in gate revenue), so I don’t win in terms of the teams getting better.

    But the teams will be worth more, turn bigger profits every year, and the new stadiums will contribute to the constant increase of player salaries.

    So why is this a good thing for me?

  23. Neil:

    I would add a fourth option to your list – one that I think would most likely be followed if the subsidies didn’t arrive.

    I think they would build new facilities, but that those facilities would be far less grandiose (and costly) than the ones we see built today (so it’s a version of your option 2, really). The facilities would be new and better (in all my complaints against subsidy, I’ve never once said that the Phillies should still be playing at the Vet or the Pirates at Three Rivers… they were bad stadia for both their major tenants… the product of an effort to be somewhat cost conscious on the part of the cities that built them. 1 is not always cheaper than 2 in the long run), but would only contain the amenities that could more than pay for themselves. So perhaps fans get improved concessions and washrooms (possibly not the latter), and the club seating sections still get built. But the endless walls of HDTVs in places no-one can see them, the ridiculous architectural features that add nothing to the game but cost an extra $30m, the unnecessarily complex retractable roof systems and the like all are consigned to the dustbin.

  24. I really agree with John here. I heard over and over, “Sacramento needs a new arena!”

    Well, then… Build one. You provide the capital, you get the profits.

    What’s the problem?

  25. John, we all know LeBron decided to come back to Cleveland when he heard about the new $9 million scoreboard and new roof. The walls of HD screens are necessary to attract talent (barf).

    http://www.cleveland.com/naymik/index.ssf/2014/08/progressive_field_and_quicken.html

  26. “…there are no profits.”

    Well, if there were no subsidies, teams would still need places to play, so their finances would adjust to build the stadiums they need instead of those they’d like to have. There’s too much money floating around the major sports for them to just disappear if they weren’t subsidized. And then they’ve got a place they can rent out the rest of the year. No reason why the overall enterprise can’t profitable.

  27. Keith,
    I think sports teams can be wildly profitable but I think we are reaching a point where a combination of subsidies and narcissism is making teams less and less profitable. SBH way overpaid for the Kings, Ballmer way, way overpaid for the Clippers. It’s unlikely either of them will ever turn a profit but they don’t care because they are insane narcissists.

    I have often wondered, but I don’t have the time or access to data, what is more valuable to a sports franchise a winning team or a new stadium/arena? My hunch is winning team, and the SF Giants are a good example, they paid for their own stadium and have been selling out for several years out because of how good they have been. Thus, it seems to me that a team owner would much better served by investing in the team instead of a new arena. I don’t think the public cares as much about new arenas as politicians and team owners.

  28. “SBH way overpaid for the Kings, Ballmer way, way overpaid for the Clippers. It’s unlikely either of them will ever turn a profit but they don’t care because they are insane narcissists.”

    That’s confusing profit with ROI, no? Ballmer could turn a profit every year with the Clippers, and it still might not be a decent return on his $2 billion. (Though if he finds another billionaire sucker to buy it off his hands for $2.5 billion, that would help.)

    As for winning team vs. new arena, I think the evidence is clear that winning will always draw more fans than a shiny building, especially once the new-car smell wears off. (Best estimates of the honeymoon period are 2-8 years, depending mostly on whether the team is winning or not.) That said, it’s really tough to control whether your team wins, whereas once stadium subsidies are approved, they’re a sure thing. So it’s little wonder that subsidies have become a core piece of the sports business model.

  29. Neil,
    You are right I did confuse profit with ROI, I should have been more clear, it’s unlikely either of them will get a decent ROI, unless, like you said, they sell the team to some other rich person for an even higher amount.

    That’s true it is difficult to control for winning, though I assume that spending more on players will usually at least will make you competitive, which will drive attendance up.

  30. “That’s true it is difficult to control for winning, though I assume that spending more on players will usually at least will make you competitive, which will drive attendance up.”

    Usually, but not always. (Cf. Mets, Cubs, etc.) Besides, spending on players costs *money*.

    Now, if you could get state legislatures to pass appropriations for outfielders instead of just for stadiums, then we might be talking…

  31. Here’s another great example of the media not understanding an important point when they should have.

    http://m.kcra.com/news/parking-increase-under-microscope-in-arena-battle/27798472

    Parking meter rates was one of the items discussed at Council meetings. I even had an email exchange with Shirey on the topic. $3/hour means $30/day, but Kings fans were happy that street rates would rise to the rates of lower cost garages.

    I wonder if they’ll still be happy when meters run until 10 o’clock, and businesses flee the 3rd-30th/C-Broadway grid.

  32. “Parking Modernization” was the name they gave this tripling of parking rates, and I think we’ll also see an expansion of operating hours on meters.

  33. Whenever owners of Minnesota sports teams demand a stadium, they say it’s necessary because if the stadium isn’t built, Minneapolis would be a cold Omaha. It is so utterly ridiculous but it works EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

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