King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Oregon has no money for schools, but plenty for an Expos ballpark. Plus: Jets tell fans, "Don't just stand there, pay up!"


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Salon Staff
August 22, 2003 11:00PM (UTC)

I'm amazed that the same old discredited arguments keep getting dragged out in defense of public financing for stadiums.

The Oregon Senate was expected to consider a baseball stadium financing bill Friday, after the bill breezed through the state House on Wednesday. The state and the city of Portland are trying to come up with a taxpayer-financed stadium deal to lure the Montreal Expos to move there. Major League Baseball, whose teams collectively own the Expos, has said that a stadium deal must be in place before it will consider a location for the team. And baseball doesn't want any more privately financed joints like Pac Bell Park in San Francisco. That sort of thing makes it tough to twist government arms in the future.

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The Washington, D.C., area is the other U.S. candidate to be the Expos' future home, with Monterrey, Mexico, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, also in the running.

Stadium backers have taken the usual tack of claiming that the new place will be an economic boon for the city and the state, which by the way is struggling to keep its schools open in the current fiscal crunch.

The Web site of the Oregon Stadium Campaign says that "an analysis of new ballparks constructed in the last several years reveals one consistent theme: every community with a new ballpark has experienced economic benefits that have far exceeded the region's original expectations." But every single study ever conducted by an economist not working for a company that would benefit from the construction of a stadium using tax dollars, every single one, has found that this isn't true. Publicly financed stadiums are boondoggles, not boons.

"There are very few fields of economic research that produce unanimous agreement," Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist wrote in his book "May the Best Team Win: Baseball Economics and Public Policy." "Yet every independent economic analysis of the impact of stadiums has found no predictable positive effect on output or employment. Some studies have even concluded that there is a possible negative impact."

It's not surprising, then, that pro-ballpark arguments fall apart on close inspection. Stadium proponents love to point to the thriving commercial district that often grows up around a new ballpark, sometimes in an area that had been nothing but warehouses, as evidence of the stadium as economic engine. But as Cleveland State urban affairs dean Mark S. Rosentraub showed in his book "Major League Losers: The Real Cost of Sports and Who's Paying for It," it's a smoke-and-mirrors argument. In the context of even a small metropolitan area, the amount of economic activity related to a new ballpark is tiny. And that activity isn't being created. It's just being moved.

Construction of a new stadium doesn't make everyone -- everyone who doesn't own the team, that is -- suddenly a lot richer. Those people eating in new restaurants across the street from the new yard are doing so at the expense of the restaurants in other neighborhoods that they used to visit. The ticket-buying customers who make up those big crowds in the new park are going to fewer movies or buying fewer CDs. There's no evidence that the money being spent around the ballpark is anything but money that was already being spent elsewhere.

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Or as Rosentraub put it, "A large proportion of the spending on sports, or that which results from sports, is merely a transfer of activity from one area to another." After showing that the professional team sports industry never accounts for even 1 percent of a county's payrolls, he wrote, "Sports is not only small potatoes, but those potatoes may have been someone else's before the team or stadium existed."

In Portland, the building of the stadium will create $12 million in income tax revenue from employees directly or indirectly working on the construction project, backers say. That's about $3,500 for each of 3,425 full-time equivalent workers. That sounds nice, but it assumes that all of those people would be unemployed or working in a different state if they weren't working on the stadium.

The stadium will also be a boon to tourism, proponents say. While it's no doubt true that having a big-league team attracts some tourists -- people who come into town for a game and spend money on hotels, restaurants and shopping while they're there -- stadium backers always overstate the case. Here's the stadium group's Web site again: "Approximately 15 percent of Portland Trail Blazers' ticket buyers reside outside of Oregon, most in Southwest Washington. Assuming 15 percent of ticket buyers of an Oregon MLB team are from out of state, approximately 365,000 new out-of-state tourist visits will be made to Oregon each year, resulting in a major economic infusion for the state's restaurants, bars and retail establishments."

Portland is on the state line, folks. A large portion of that 15 percent of Blazers basketball ticket buyers who "reside outside of Oregon, most in Southwest Washington," are suburbanites, not tourists. Eighteen percent of the people in metropolitan Portland live in southwest Washington. Out-of-staters are under-represented in Portland sports crowds. Those 365,000 visits for baseball games wouldn't be new visitors. Most of them would be coming to Portland for entertainment anyway. Shoot, most of them probably work in Portland.

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And how many tourists who come into town and go to a ballgame would come anyway and do something else if there were no team? It's not like those ballpark tourists will be New Yorkers and Bostonians flocking to Portland because the Expos -- the Expos! -- have moved there. They'll mostly be people driving in from Eugene and Bend and The Dalles because Portland's the closest big city. They do that now.

Even if the bill passes, Portland is a long way from getting the Expos. There's no ownership group in place, and the legislation, which would use income taxes on player and team executive salaries to raise $150 million, doesn't cover anywhere near the projected stadium cost of $300 million to $350 million. The average cost overrun for publicly financed stadiums is 20 percent, so a more realistic estimate might be around $400 million. Someone will have to raise that money.

The Oregon House did some other business Wednesday. It passed a budget that had been in legislative gridlock, as the Portland Oregonian called it, for seven and a half months. The new budget managed to keep the schools and courts operating full time. Barely.

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If they could just teach those judges and schoolteachers to play baseball, money would be no object.

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They also pay who only stand and wait [PERMALINK]

I'm also amazed at the continuing, unending gall of sports franchises, which never seem to tire of finding new ways to say to their customers, "Screw you. Hand over some more cash." This month's prime example is the New York Jets, who announced to the 20,000 people on their season-ticket waiting list that for a mere $50 they would be entitled to ... stay on the waiting list! What a deal!

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A handful of other NFL teams charge for a spot on the waiting list, an unusually hostile way to treat customers even in the unusually customer-unfriendly business of big-time sports, where teams routinely force their fans to buy a license that gives them the right to become a customer by buying tickets. Imagine if your local supermarket sold you a license before you could buy groceries, and then charged you for the right to stand in line at the checkout. What would you do? You'd find another supermarket. Of course, NFL fans can't do that. Too bad for your local supermarket that it's not a member of a cartel.

Anyway, the Jets' scheme is particularly obnoxious because of the way the team's president, Jay Cross, defended it. "We want to take these season-ticket holders in waiting and try to make them part of the family," he said.

There's nothing that makes getting hosed by a giant corporation quite so infuriating as when the corporation tries to put a smiley face on the whole enterprise. "For your banking convenience," the sign on your neighborhood bank branch reads, "this office has closed. Please visit our location in East Armpit, two states over."

Fifty bucks for the privilege of staying in line. If Jay Cross thinks that's how you treat family, someone ought to call Child Protective Services.

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And here's some advice for those lucky devils who already have Jets season tickets: Beat the rush and buy some Depends now, before Cross gets a look at those bathroom lines.

In the face of blistering media coverage and fan outrage, Cross backed off a bit in an interview on WFAN radio this week, saying the plan was "in flux" and "will evolve," though he didn't elaborate. But he also said about 2,000 people on the list had already ponied up. Amazing.

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