Chargers “study” finds that spending money causes money to be spent, calls this success

The San Diego Chargers announced yesterday that a study by two local economists found that construction of their “convadium” plan, which would cost $1.15 billion in public money, would “increase regional output by a total of $2.1 billion, increase labor income by more than $800 million, and will have a value-added impact of $1.2 billion.” The study was paid for by the Chargers, but its authors insist (according to the Chargers) that they had “complete freedom to do our research over the summer months and to come to whatever conclusions we believed were warranted.”

Okay, so with at least one eyebrow raised, let’s click on that “Read a complete copy of the economic impact study” link, and we find … oh, look it’s a whole 13 pages of report! Two of which are renderings of the convadium, and the rest of which are, from what I can tell, just the result of plugging the cost of building the convadium into the Commerce Department’s RIMS II formula, and reading the numbers that were spit out. Nice work if you can get it!

A bit of explanation: RIMS II is mostly a set of multipliers, which take a certain kind of spending — construction, in this case, then operations of a football stadium after that — and tell you how much of an effect that’s ultimately likely to have as the money filters out into the local economy. So it could tell you that if a company spent another $1 million on hiring, that would increase to, say, $1.5 million worth of impact as those new hires went out and spent their paychecks at local stores, which would hire new employees in turn, etc.

What RIMS doesn’t tell you is what would happen if you didn’t spend the money. In this case, the city would still have a 4% lower hotel tax rate, which would presumably boost hotel stays somewhat by making San Diego more competitive against other places to go on vacation — or, if you want to look at it another way, the city would have the option of raising hotel taxes 4% to spend on something else that could then be plugged into the RIMS model. RIMS also can’t tell you what would happen to Chargers fan spending if the team were to leave (would they all drive up the coast to see them in L.A.? buy more Padres tickets instead? spend it on big-screen TVs?), so you’re comparing apples to a box of oranges that you haven’t even opened to count yet.

In short: Studies like these are almost entirely worthless for telling you whether a project is worth doing. Developers love RIMS II and its ilk, though, because if you put big enough numbers into them, they’ll spit out even bigger numbers, and big numbers look good! In the end, though, all it says is that if the public spends a billion dollars on a new football stadium and convention center expansion, that’s a billion dollars that somebody else will earn. You don’t need an advanced degree in economics to figure that out — though it sure helps when you’re trying to get hired to write a 13-page report that a sports developer can tout on its website.

Study finds higher home values cause NFL stadiums to spontaneously appear

Correlation does not imply causation” is one of the basic principles of statistics and logic — basically, just because your alarm goes off every morning right before sunrise doesn’t mean the sun is controlled by your alarm clock. Yet journalists and (especially) people putting together reports to promote their businesses forget it time after time after time.

In unrelated news, this:

Trulia_AllNFLStadiums_Graphic2Feel free to explicate on your own conclusions from this, but I’m going with “don’t go to a real estate listings site for your sports stadium economic analysis.” Or for proper use of commas.

Five out of five economists agree: Letting Rams, Chargers leave is a fiscal win for cities asked a bunch of economists whether St. Louis and San Diego should have coughed up more money to keep the Rams and (potentially) Chargers from moving to Los Angeles, and if you read this site with any regularity, you can probably guess what they said:

Brad Humphreys, sports economist and professor at the University of West Virginia: There is no evidence in any peer-reviewed scholarly journal that a professional football team will generate any tangible positive economic impact on a city. There is no evidence that the departure of a football team ever harmed a city’s economy.

[Peter] Von Allmen[, president of the North American Association of Sports Economists]: There is a substantial body of economic research indicating that funding stadiums is not a successful economic development strategy.

[Victor] Matheson[, sports economist and professor at College of the Holy Cross]: I would advise them to let the teams go. I don’t think these teams are worth that amount of money. We don’t spend that sort of money on anything else. Way more people go to movies every year than go to NFL games, yet we don’t have the government build movie theaters.

All of the economists noted that if you want to go ahead and build a stadium just because you think sports are keen and not in search of elusive economic benefits, go right ahead. Which is where I kind of wish SI had reached out to Centre College economist Bruce Johnson, who conducted surveys to determine how much monetary value residents typically put on the joy they get from the presence of a pro sports franchise, and came up with a number under $40 million — which, needless to say, is typically way less than cities are spending on most new sports facilities.

Still, good article to take note of for the next time you need evidence that economists do occasionally agree on something. Elected officials not so much, but hey, maybe some of them read SI.

LeBron James still isn’t worth $500m a year to Cleveland economy, people, get over it

While we’re on the subject of bad journalism, let’s check in with the Guardian, which is generally one of my preferred news outlets, even if it has a reputation for occasional sloppiness. I haven’t been following the paper’s sports coverage lately, so what’s it been up to?

Oh, wow, yeah, that’s not good.

To recap for those who missed the whole “LeBron is worth $500 million a year” fiasco when it broke last year:

  • A staffer for Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald was reported by Bloomberg News to have said that the Cleveland Cavaliers re-signing LeBron James would be worth $500 million a year to the local economy.
  • FitzGerald’s office said that Bloomberg got it wrong, and they were only claiming LeBron was worth $53 million a year in local economic activity.
  • Lots of people, including me, pointed out that even this lower number was pretty implausible, and the overall impact of LeBron’s presence was at most something on the order of a few million a year, of which maybe a few hundred thousand gets returned to the city or county as actual tax receipts.

So repeating a $500 million impact figure that even the person who conducted the study says isn’t true is not a good start. But then the Guardian doubled down by citing Convention, Sports & Leisure, a consulting group that really should come with a warning label reading “objects in studies may be less lucrative than they appear”:

Or as I replied to Waldron:


Missouri development agency claims state would profit on Rams stadium because NFL players pay income taxes

That Missouri state hearing to talk about the economic benefits of a St. Louis Rams stadium but not whether Missouri should build a St. Louis Rams stadium happened yesterday, and the Missouri Department of Economic Development held up its end by bringing along a report claiming to show that the state would earn a net $295 million in added tax revenue over 30 years:

The biggest chunk of the money would come from personal income taxes paid by football players, staff and coaches. They will pump an estimated $9.6 million into state coffers this year, an amount that is projected to grow by at least 3 percent a year and probably, “significantly” more.

That’s $9.6 million in just state income taxes, over and above what the state gets now? The top tax bracket in Missouri is 6%, so Rams players and staff would need to be paid an extra $160 million to make that work out, this for a team whose entire player payroll currently is only $151 million. Also, as committee chair Jay Barnes pointed out, Rams state income tax payments have actually been going down the last two years, to a total of $17.8 million in 2014.

There are other problems with the report (which doesn’t appear to be publicly available yet), including that it estimates only $12 million a year in state debt payments, when currently subsidy plans would require at least double that; and that it doesn’t appear to have calculated the negative economic impact of saddling Missourians with either $24 million a year in new taxes or in lessened spending on other projects. Mostly, then, it tells us that Gov. Jay Nixon looks to be preparing to justify spending money on an NFL stadium by going down the path of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker: Athletes make a lot of money and keep making more money so let’s make sure they stick around by taking all the income tax they pay and giving it back to their employers and then everyone will win! It makes total sense, so long as you don’t think about it too much.

Credit card company issues lame-ass report on Super Bowl spending, gets name in headlines (but not this one)

First Data, which processes credit and debit card payments, has put out a press release about spending at last Sunday’s Super Bowl in Glendale, and Darren Rovell is ON IT:

Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Arizona, resulted in no significant consumer spending growth to the greater Phoenix area, according to an analysis of consumer spending patterns from payments technology company First Data, which says it annually handles 60 billion credit and debit card transactions.

The company’s data shows spending growth from the two weeks surrounding last Sunday’s game was only 3.1 percent better than average compared to the same time period a year before when the spending in the area grew 6.4 percent.

This is along the lines of what actual economic studies have found, so it’s tempting to take this as confirmation that the Super Bowl doesn’t do squat for local spending, because it mostly just displaces visitors who steer clear of town because they don’t want the hassle of dealing with the Super Bowl. First Data, though, didn’t exactly do an exhaustive study: It only looked at credit card and debit card charges, obviously, and just compared spending in the Phoenix area to the same time period the year before without controlling for any other factors. In other words, this could be an actual sign of something, or it could just be a random fluctuation that means zippo.

Also, Rovell doesn’t bother to calculate what a 3.1% hike in spending (compared to “average” — average over the whole year, average for February, what?) means in actual dollars, though presumably he has the First Data report (he didn’t link to it) and a calculator. But, you know, ESPN isn’t paying him to think, just to reprint press releases, and there’s another one on the pile, so no time to lose!

No, there’s still no Super Bowl windfall for cities, no matter what you read in the paper

If you haven’t gotten enough of me griping about media coverage of sports economic reports here — or just want to read about it all in one place — hie thee to’s newly expanded website, where I’ve written all about how the media all too often parrot claims of economic windfalls from sports without even checking if they have any basis in fact.

There are occasional exceptions, obviously (I cite several), but as one journalist who has done time fact-checking his peers says:

“For every one good article you see, there are ten others that don’t bother to do it, and the good ones just get lost,” says Noah Pransky of WTSP-TV in Tampa Bay, who also reports on sports economics at his own website, Shadow of the Stadium. “An industry joke is that reporters have always been mathematically challenged, but the problem has been magnified in recent years by the 24-hour news cycle and staff depletion at traditional media outlets.”

Remember, kids: Just because you read it in the newspaper doesn’t mean it’s true! Blogs, though, are 100% accurate. I read a study that said so.

D.C. United report says city would make money on priciest MLS stadium ever, because [CALCULATIONS NOT INCLUDED]

As noted yesterday, now that the elections are safely over, the D.C. council has finally issued its report on the D.C. United stadium plan, and man, oh man, is it long. The report totals 406 pages, which I have done my best to look through and pull out the main takeaways. So, bullet points ahoy:

  • The first item of importance to note is the big logo at the top of page one, which belongs to Conventions, Sports & Leisure, one of the consultancy firms that specializes in these kind of economic impact studies. And when I say “specializes,” I mean that they do a lot of them, not that they necessarily do them well — CSL has a track record of crazy-high impact estimates, landed in hot water for conducting a stadium impact statement for the Los Angeles Angels when their parent company had recently signed a deal to run the Angels’ concessions, and is owned by the Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees, which kind of puts a crimp in their claims to objectivity. But let’s not prejudge their work entirely based on past results — so, soldiering on…
  • Still on page 1: “All information provided to us by others was not audited or verified, and was assumed to be correct.” Given that those “others” mostly consist of D.C. United itself and the city officials who are backing the stadium plan, should we really read the other 405 pages?
  • At $286.7 million, this would be the most expensive MLS stadium ever. D.C. would  be on the hook for $131.1 million of that, plus $50 million in sales and property tax breaks, which jibes pretty well with my $178.5 million subsidy estimate from earlier this year.
  • The district would be overpaying for stadium land by $19.4 million and getting $11.2 million less for the city-owned Reeves Center than it’s worth. That’s not so much an added cost as a potential savings left on the table, but duly noted.
  • The stadium would create 1,683 full-time equivalent jobs, which would be right around the typical craptacular $100,000-per-job-created cost for most stadium projects. If the job projections are correct, of course — they appear to come not from any estimate of how many people would actually work at the stadium, but rather by plugging the total projected economic activity into a formula and calculating it that way, which is awfully dubious.
  • The stadium is expected to generate $109.4 million more over a 32-year period (why 32 years? why not?) in city revenues than it costs the city. This claims to account for both leakage (new spending that is generated outside D.C., such as when fans stay at hotels in Virginia) and substitution (spending that is just cannibalized from other local spending, say, if fans cut back on Nationals or Wizards tickets to go to more United games).
  • There are other problems, though: First off, the report doesn’t compare spending at a new stadium with current spending at RFK Stadium, instead counting all spending as new — on the grounds that “it is likely that D.C. United would relocate to another market if a new stadium is not developed in the District,” though really then you should be deducting the amount of old spending that would get redirected to other things (Nats, Wizards, whatever) in D.C. if the team were to leave.
  • Second, the report estimates that 73% of fan spending would be new to D.C. — and says this figure accounts for leakage and substitution — but doesn’t indicate where that figure comes from. If, as I suspect, it’s from D.C. United’s own figures on how many fans come from out of town, then there’s a huge problem here: Many people from out of town are already in town for other reasons and just choose to go to a sporting event while they’re already there. (I know the last time I went to a Nationals game, it was as a side trip for going to the Smithsonian and such, not the main course.) And while, as I discussed in the Nationals case, D.C. is a bit less susceptible to substitution thanks to so many people living outside the city limits in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, they tend to come into D.C. for a night out anyway, so it’s dicey to assume that if they weren’t in town for a soccer game, they’d otherwise be spending all their hard-earned cash out beyond the Beltway.
  • D.C. will need to lay out its money before D.C. United even puts together the financing for its part of the deal, which raises “the potential risk of non-performance   by the developer.”
  • The subsidies are the only thing keeping United in the black on the deal: Even just without the tax breaks, “team/stadium operating revenue is not expected to cover debt payments until year 19 (2035).” In other words, United wouldn’t be making money on the stadium, they’d be making money on the subsidies.

There’s more — it’s 406 pages, how could there not be more? — but those appear to be the major points. The upshot is: The industry usual suspects say, using figures provided to them by the team and not otherwise checked, that D.C. should earn back a small profit on the stadium, provided all their assumptions about who’s spending what where are correct. That’s a lot more questions than answers raised, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the D.C. council has now left itself with only a month or two to make a decision on the stadium plan — unless, of course, they decide to kick it back to after January 1, with a new mayor and a new council. We shall see.

CT prof replies on Hartford project: Yes, stadiums suck, it’s the rest of it that’s worthwhile

In the wake of my post on Friday critical of the excited media reception of University of Connecticut economist Fred Carstensen’s report on Hartford’s proposed minor-league-ballpark-plus-lots-of-other-stuff development, Carstensen weighed in with some long responses of his own, and then I responded to his response, and soon enough a whole bunch of us were having fun playing with the pencils on the bench there.

You can go read the whole comment thread now, but for those who are pressed for time, here are some of the highlights:

  • Carstensen’s analysis, he stresses, was of the combined stadium/retail/commercial/housing development, not just the stadium. The stadium itself, he notes, would likely be a bad deal for the city, as will the retail piece; however, adding office space that could bring in new jobs and apartment buildings that could bring in new residents could make it a net positive.
  • The REMI model that he used does account for displacement of other spending, though it wasn’t spelled out in the Hartford paper; I’m still reading through REMI’s FAQ to figure out how exactly it handles it.
  • It might well be more beneficial for Hartford to seek a development on the same site that doesn’t require a $60 million stadium subsidy, but that’s not what’s on the table here. So at least the city would be getting something positive back for its money, even if there’s no way of knowing whether it’s the best deal possible without putting the site back out for bids.

My concern remains not just that last bullet point, but the question of what happens if the stadium subsidy gets approved, then the office and residential space — all the good stuff, in city fiscal terms — never gets built. Carstensen writes via email that this is in fact something he pointed out in his testimony (but which didn’t make it into the papers that I could tell): Any deal would need to include some kind of provisions to cover the city’s costs if the rest of the development doesn’t happen, or else Hartford could be left holding the bag.

Anyway, my apologies for giving short shrift to Carstensen’s study of the project, which looks like was actually more comprehensive (and more mixed in findings) than what made it through into the next day’s reportage. This still looks like a risky project for Hartford, but he’s not the one trying to paper over the risk.

Cuyahoga exec: We never said LeBron was worth $500m/year

I was traveling much of yesterday, but in the afternoon I received an email from Richard Luchette, the press spokesperson for Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald. Luchette said that, contrary to widespread media reports, FitzGerald’s office never meant to imply that LeBron James’ return to Cleveland would add $500 million to the local economy. Rather, he said, the estimated economic benefit of LeBron’s return will be more like $53 million, bringing the team’s total impact to $500 million.

It looks like the blame here mostly goes to some terrible reporting in the initial story by Bloomberg News, which cited FitzGerald’s economic development director Nathan Kelly as saying (in its paraphrase) that “a more robust Cavaliers with James playing increases the total economic impact to about $500 million a year with direct and indirect spending,” but in its lede interpreted this as meaning “the return of the star forward to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers will have a $500 million a year impact on the local economy” — and doubled down on the wrong with a headline stating “LeBron James’s Return to Bring Cleveland $500 Million a Year.” Though Kelly certainly could have been clearer — I haven’t been able to find a direct quote of how he brought up the $500 million figure in Monday’s press conference — and taking two days to clarify a misstatement that was all over the Internet on Monday wasn’t great work on FitzGerald’s part either.

In any event, $500 million in total annual economic impact for the Cavs is still pretty implausible: The team currently only sells $30 million worth of tickets, remember, and much of that spending would take place elsewhere in Cuyahoga County even if the Cavs played entirely before empty seats. Even if you add in spending on concessions, LeBron souvenir jerseys, hotels for fans who travel from out of town just to see Cavs games (do such people really exist?), and a multiplier for all the money that LeBron-souvenir-jersey vendors will go out and spend at local stores, it’s hard to see getting anywhere near $500 million. I’m still hopeful that Kelly will get back to me with his calculations, though, so stay tuned.

In any event, this is a great cautionary tale about economic impact statements: You can make “economic activity” numbers say just about anything you want them to, and then the press will get it wrong anyway. But at least FitzGerald got on the telly.