I’m still unpacking the exact details of the Pawtucket Red Sox‘ letter of intent to move to Worcester and the $100-million-ish in subsidies it would include — I see the team would get to establish a $1-per-ticket surcharge on city-run events at the stadium and use the cash for its own future capital projects fund, for one thing, while the Worcester Telegram notes that the deal would include $5.6 million in future property-tax breaks for the builders of the larger development project. But Grant Welker of the Worcester Business Journal figured out a quicker path to evaluating the deal: Send copies of the stadium documents to ten sports economists and stadium experts (including me) and ask what they thought of the plan. Which led to the sentence of the week, if not the year:
Of those experts, the only one who spoke positively about the deal was the Smith College professor who was hired by the city to judge the economic viability of the offer to the PawSox.
Yep, that’s right: Nine out of ten sports stadium experts agree that Worcester is getting hosed, and the tenth is none other than Andy Zimbalist, stadium skeptic turned sometime stadium huckster, who is the guy who helped Worcester come up with its plan in the first place. Let’s run through a sampling of quotes:
- Nola Agha, University of San Francisco: “It virtually never works.”
- Joel Maxcy, Drexel University: “There’s just mountains now of economic evidence that the payoff that’s promised and what actually happens is far different. … If it were a private person, you would never take such a nonsensical bargain.”
- Robert Baade, Lake Forest College: “The idea that this is going to serve as a catalyst for economic development, which is the hope – and I emphasize the word hope – is misguided. … Your community could think of all other ways to spend the money with better economic return than a minor league baseball team”
- Victor Matheson, College of the Holy Cross (which is in Worcester): “This is an extraordinarily expensive stadium. … They seemed to be smarter than that. I’m extremely surprised that [the city’s cost] is as large as it is.”
- Andrew Zimbalist, Smith College: “If you can do something like this that was culturally and socially positive and at least break even, it made sense to go forward.”
- John Solow, University of Iowa: “There’s a great deal of consensus among sports economists of all political stripes that this is not a good thing for local governments to be doing.”
- Michael Leeds, Temple University: “I really, really don’t see it. … You’re counting on something [the new development generating enough tax revenue to pay off the stadium] that’s not very likely to happen, and you better have a Plan B in place.”
- Allen Sanderson, University of Chicago: “Overwhelmingly, the fannies in the stands are local. They’re choosing to spend a day or an evening at the ballpark instead of at the ball or other entertainment options.”
- Neil deMause, guy with a blog: “Worcester’s city leaders haven’t just outbid Pawtucket, they’ve ladled on goodies like they’re trying to buy Larry Lucchino’s love. Assuming they can get past all the legislative hurdles, it should be enough to get the city a pro sports team, but it’s tough to see spending more than $100 million in tax kickbacks and state infrastructure subsidies on a team that you could buy outright for $20 million as smart bargaining.”
Zimbalist’s argument, it appears, is that while the stadium itself would be a money pit, getting that additional $100 million in hotels and housing and whatnot would generate enough new money to make the whole deal worth it. That assumes, of course, that nobody would be willing to build hotels and housing and whatnot without a stadium — which is a pretty odd assumption, since it’s not the presence of a Triple-A baseball team that’s going to make anyone want to live or even stay overnight in Worcester.
And also, those with long memories will recall that this is the exact same argument that Zimbalist used on a previous paid gig, for then-New Jersey Nets owner Bruce Ratner, in which he determined that a new Brooklyn arena would lose money for the public, but taxpayers would make it back from all the new housing that would go up alongside it. At the time, I also called for a second opinion from another sports economist, in that case Rod Fort of Washington State University (he’s now moved on to the University of Michigan, who noted this:
“I would never have undertaken this exercise. In essence, Andy is trying to forecast 33 years hence, and he’s forecasting housing markets, which there are other people spending all their waking moments on. What you see is assumption after assumption after assumption after assumption.”
In short: Housing economics is complicated (for starters, new residents come with new costs for things like schools and other public services, not just new tax revenues), and Andy Zimbalist is not a housing economist, but that hasn’t stopped him from telling cities that they’ll be fine sinking money into stadiums and arenas so long as there’s a housing component, and Worcester just took the bait. Presumably it’s bait that city officials knew Zimbalist was going to offer, and that’s exactly why they hired him, but that still doesn’t make the whole thing stink much less.