Not all civic investments in sport make sense. This would be.
By Stephen Maisch | Specially for The Tribune
| May 26, 2023 11:51 am
Could Salt Lake City be the epicenter of women’s sports in the United States? Yes. And we should invest in implementation.
As an economist, I find it a bit odd to write those words. One of the few things that almost all economists agree on is that subsidies to sports stadiums have little or no tangible economic impact.
After reviewing 130 studies on venue subsidies over a 20-year period, three sports economists concluded that “the amount of venue subsidies typically provided far exceeds any observed economic benefits.”
Las Vegas assumes that this time everything will be different. Recently, $750 million in public funds was spent to support the construction of a football stadium for the Raiders. Now it’s ready to spend $395 million to fund a ballpark for the A’s.
However, it is not all doom and gloom. According to one study, when Akron’s favorite son, LeBron James, returned to Cleveland to play after a stint in South Beach, the number of places to eat and drink within a mile of Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse increased 13.7%, and LeBron’s presence boosted employment at bars and restaurants by 23.5%.
Could it be that what matters is not the shiny new stadium, but what’s going on inside? I think so.
So while I was saddened when the Salt Lake Bees announced they were bringing their talents to South Jordan, I am excited at the proposal by a coalition of Salt Lake residents, athletes, sports fans, business owners and developers to transform Transform That soon-to-be-empty stadium into a home for women’s soccer, rugby, roller derby, ultimate and American football – and maybe even more sports.
It’s true that there would be many different sports under one roof, and some may unfavorably remember the mixed-use baseball and soccer stadiums of the ’70s and ’80s, but it’s important to understand why these facilities came into existence. Not sure if there was enough demand for professional football, many cities wanted to cover their bases with baseball. You figured if people don’t get into the Pittsburgh Steelers and this NFL thing goes bust, at least we still have the Pirates.
Could one of those women’s sports be the NFL of the 1970s? The demand for women’s sports, especially women’s soccer, is increasing. The 2019 Women’s World Cup final between USA and Netherlands in France attracted 14.3 million US viewers. (By comparison, the 2018 Men’s World Cup Finals had 11.4 million U.S. viewers.) On the mainland, from 2016-18, the U.S. women’s soccer team generated more local revenue than the men’s team for the same period. Interest in the women’s squad only seems to be increasing, sales of the 2019 kit were 500% higher than the 2015 kits.
The demand for women’s sports isn’t just limited to soccer. Deloitte Insights reports that globally, “66% of people were interested in at least one women’s sport, and among sports fans (of whom 49% are female) the figure is as high as 84%.”
However, we all know that there is no such thing as a free lunch. So what would that cost us?
Well, the Bees paid Salt Lake City $1,250 a month to lease the stadium. What these women are asking for is a similar lease. The opportunity cost to the public is thus the difference between the current $15,000 annual rent and the potential money that could be raised if the stadium grounds were used for something else.
Salt Lake could certainly get a lot more than $15,000 a year for those 13 acres — and there are plenty of places throughout the city where that income could be used for a lot of good — but do we really want another Gateway or City Creek , where nearly all of the revenue flows out of town to a corporate center elsewhere, in exchange for a handful of minimum-wage jobs and the next Bed Bath and Beyond?
As an economist, a Salt Lake City resident who lives near the ballpark, and a father who hopes to take his daughter to the baseball game for a long time to come, I know what I want.
Steve Maisch is an associate professor at the University of Utah, where he teaches a course in sports economics.