I just this morning got around to watching Tuesday night’s episode of HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel on District Detroit, the development that was supposed to spring up around the new Detroit Red Wings arena, but hasn’t — something that’s been covered by other outlets in the past. While trying to remember how to log in to HBO Go, I had already learned that the Ilitch family, owners of the Red Wings and Tigers, had called it “a self-interested, sensationalized and inaccurate report designed to attract viewers instead of a balanced report on the rebirth of Detroit and our contributions to City’s turn around,” so needless to say I had high hopes.
And I can now say that … it’s fine. It lays out all the main plot points of the District Detroit saga — rich family meets struggling city, rich family that kept property blighted for years promises city new development in exchange for public money, rich family builds parking lots for its own profit instead of new development — in that breezy eyebrows-furrowed narrative style that’s been familiar ever since 60 Minutes launched back in the late Paleozoic. Aside from a debatable dig at how the city’s literally crumbling schools were denied funding as a result of the arena subsidies (the state claims that it reimbursed the city schools, but it’s complicated), there’s nothing that hasn’t been reported many times before, let alone that could be considered “inaccurate.”
The most enlightening parts are the segments interviewing former state representative John Walsh, the sponsor of the Red Wings bill (and now president of the Downtown Detroit Partnership), who is helpfully unrepentant about helping to birth this whole mess:
Real Sports correspondent David Scott: “Did you consult any independent economists about it?”
Walsh: “I didn’t consult any, but I did plenty of research. I am known as a data-driven person.”
Scott: “The North American Association of Sports Economists — I don’t know if they came up in your research? They concluded that sports subsidies have no consistent positive impact on jobs, income, or tax revenue.”
Walsh: “If they’re only looking for dollar-for-dollar return, I agree with them—”
Scott: “But they’re not. They’re talking about job creation, they’re talking about local economic development.”
Walsh: “How do you quantify that? At some point you have to have a level of faith in a project.”
My expectations of American elected officials, especially American elected officials who immediately jump from public office to working for local business lobbying groups, couldn’t be lower, but still hearing one say “I am known as a data-driven person” immediately followed by “At some point you have to have a level of faith” is impressively horrifying. This isn’t going to displace John Oliver’s report on stadiums as my favorite YouTube video on the sports subsidy scam — especially since HBO hasn’t put it on YouTube, though I’m sure if you dig around you can find it somewhere — but if it convinces some future legislator somewhere that “hmm, maybe we should have checked to see how this worked out in other cities first, using actual math,” then it’s 17 minutes of air time well spent.