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So Long as Professional Teams Have Local Monopolies, Stadium Subsidies Will Never End

According to J.C. Bradbury, an economics professor at Kennesaw State, owners of professional men’s sports teams have received more than $19 billion in taxpayer subsidies this century. And according to a recent article in the Salt Lake City Tribune, men’s professional sports around the United States continue to ask for billions more. The root of the problem is monopoly, as explained below, and unless and until Congress addresses the root cause, citizens should alter their demands from local politicians.

A Game Only Men Get to Play

The taxpayer subsidy game, in which teams like the Washington Capitals threaten to leave their host city unless taxpayers fork over billions in subsidies, is very much a game that only men get to play. Politicians have never been willing to give billions of dollars to build stadiums and arenas for teams in women’s professional sports. Karen Leetzow, President of the Chicago Red Stars of the NWSL, would like that to change:

Women’s sports need to have a seat at the table. We need to be in the mix because otherwise we’re just going to end up chasing our tail around how to grow women’s sports. If you’re a politician, what better way for you to leave a lasting legacy in the state of Illinois or the city of Chicago than to do something that’s never been done, which is provide meaningful funding for women.

As Leetzow summarized the argument, “equity needs to be part of the conversation.”

One suspects that many sports economists would disagree with this statement. The disagreement isn’t about the word “equity.” The disagreement likely is based entirely on the nature of the “conversation.”

For decades, sports economists have objected to the entire conversation politicians and men’s sports leagues have about taxpayer subsidies. Politicians and team owners have consistently argued that spending billions to build a stadium or arena for men’s professional sports teams is justified in terms of economic growth and jobs. Economists who study this issue, though, have offered a very consistent academic response: This is bullshit!

Okay, the response involves a bit more. Essentially, a host of academic studies fail to find evidence that stadiums and arenas are capable of generating significant economic growth. In the end, economists consistently argue these billions in subsidies are just a transfer of money from ordinary taxpayers to billionaire sports owners.

These studies have been published for decades. And sports economists have screamed about this issue for decades. But all this screaming hasn’t turned off the taxpayer faucet. Men’s professional sports leagues have continued to ask for—and continued to receive—billions in taxpayer subsidies.

Diagnosing the (Monopoly) Problem

This leads to a question: Why hasn’t all the objective empirical studies by sports economists (and all the screaming) stopped the subsidies?  

If we move past the obvious explanation that people don’t really listen to economists as often as economists might like, we can do what people often do when life doesn’t go their way. We can blame someone!

In this case, the name of the person we should blame is William Hulbert. In 1876, Hulbert, then owner of the Chicago White Stockings (the franchise known as the Chicago Cubs today), launched the National League. Hulbert’s creation brought an “innovation” that today is employed by essentially all professional North American sports leagues: Following the advice of Lewis Meacham, an editor with the Chicago Tribune, Hulbert’s new league decided that each city would only get one team.

The National League was hardly a successful business in the 1870s. The vast majority of the first teams went out of business. So it’s possible that Hulbert and Meacham were simply trying to find a model that ensured the financial success of as many teams as possible in a struggling business. Regardless of what motivated Meacham and Hulbert to employ this innovation in the formation of the National League, this model seems to be the root cause of our current stadium financing problem.

Outside of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, most cities today still only get one team in each professional sports league. And because leagues completely control how many teams are in each league, some cities that could clearly support a franchise don’t get a team at all. Consequently, Hulbert’s innovation has led to a world where leagues and its owners have substantial monopoly power over fans (and monopsony power over players). If you want a team, you have to give the owners what they want. And what they want is billions in taxpayer subsidies.

Once again, the owners claim these subsidies create economic growth and jobs. And once again, sports economists scream they are lying. Building stadiums and arenas for them does not create economic growth and does not create jobs. Therefore, we are effectively giving these billionaires taxpayer handouts worth billions.

Ignoring the Economists

All of this is true. But from a politician’s perspective, none of this probably matters.  To see this, all one has to do is think back to January 13th of this year. On that day, the Kansas City Chiefs played the Miami Dolphins in a Wild Card playoff game. Given that this was January in Kansas City, the weather for the game was immensely bad. The temperature was -4 Fahrenheit with wind chills about twenty degrees colder. Not surprisingly, many fans suffered frostbite. And recently it was revealed, some of these fans actually lost fingers and toes.

Let’s think about that for a minute. Fans of football are so addicted to this product that they would risk amputation to watch their favorite team.

Chiefs fans are hardly the only sports fans who are emotionally attached to their team. When the Bills lost to the Chiefs the next week, the video of the Bills fan crying in the stands went viral.

Given this emotional attachment, it should not be surprising that when the Buffalo Bills asked taxpayers in New York to give them more than a billion dollars for a new stadium politicians couldn’t say no. The alternative was to say to the people crying in the stands that their team might not be in Buffalo anymore.

In the end, this is probably not about politicians believing a lie. This is really about teams having monopoly power and knowing that they have created a product that very much controls the emotions of their customers. Assuming we can’t compel sports leagues to permit more competition within a city we need to think about different remedies.

Perhaps we would be better off thinking about this story differently. Sports make people happy (or really sad!). In that sense, stadiums are like building city parks. No one argues that city parks are built to create economic growth. Cities build parks to make people happier. Stadiums very much serve the same purpose.

Therefore, maybe it is time for politicians to just be honest about why we are doing this. We are not using taxpayer dollars to create jobs. We are using these to ensure that the sports teams that make people happy (or sad) will continue to exist.

Of course, some people aren’t sports fans and therefore some people may not like their taxpayer dollars going towards this end. To those people, my response is simple: It is time to grow up and learn how democracy works. Government in a democracy reflects the preferences of everyone in that society. This means that sometimes the government does what you want. And sometimes, it doesn’t.

A Modest Proposal

What we should demand of our government is that it treats people equally (at least, that’s what I want!). If we are going to invest billions in men’s sports, we should at least be willing to invest millions in women’s team sports. Politicians only supporting men’s sports is simply wrong.

Yes, I am sure some economists may still scream we shouldn’t be giving taxpayer dollars to anyone. Seriously, though, that’s not going to stop. As long as sports leagues maintain their monopoly power, politicians are probably going to keep doing this. And that is true, no matter how much you scream.

So maybe we need to try screaming something else. Women’s professional sports are growing and the number of people these leagues make happy (or sad!) is growing rapidly. It is time for politicians to turn the conversation to equity and try and make these fans happy as well!

David Berri is a sports economics and professor of economics at Southern Utah University. Along with Martin Schmidt and Stacey Brook, he is the author of The Wages of Wins: Taking Measure of the Many Myths in Modern Sport (Stanford University Press 2006).

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