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PAGE ONE Economics

®

The Economics of Subsidizing
Sports Stadiums
Scott A. Wolla, Ph.D., Senior Economic Education Specialist

GLOSSARY
Investment: The purchase of physical capital
goods (e.g., buildings, tools, and equipment) that are used to produce goods
and services.
Standard of living: A measure of the goods
and services available to each person in
a country; a measure of economic well-­
being. Also known as per capita real GDP
(gross domestic product).
Gross domestic product (GDP): The total
market value, expressed in dollars, of all
final goods and services produced in an
economy in a given year.
Productivity: The ratio of output per worker
per unit of time.
Subsidy: A payment made by government
to support a business or market. No good
or service is provided in return for the
payment.

“The idea that sports is a catalyst for economic development just
doesn’t hold water.”
—Robert Baade, sports economist

Professional sports give people pride and a sense of community. But who
should pay for the stadiums? From 2008 to 2010, three NFL stadiums were
built: the $710 million Lucas Oil Stadium for the Indianapolis Colts, the
$1.1 billion AT&T Stadium for the Dallas Cowboys, and the $1.6 billion
MetLife Stadium for the New York Jets and Giants.1 The newest NFL stadium
is the $1.1 billion U.S. Bank Stadium for the Minnesota Vikings (2016), of
which $498 million was paid for by the state and city governments.2 Of
course, the controversy rests on the fact that any government subsidy for
building a new stadium is funded by taxpayers.

It’s All About Spending
Proponents say that subsidizing sports stadiums is justified because of
the economic impact it will have on the community. First, sports stadiums
are huge construction projects. In fact, they are often compared to the
medieval cathedral in their attempt to dominate the skyline and inspire
civic pride.3 And, like the cathedrals of old, they are expensive, massive
building projects that require years of intensive labor. Proponents of a new
stadium often laud the project’s ability to generate new construction jobs.
For example, the proposed stadium for the Los Angeles Rams in Inglewood,
California, was predicted to cost $3 billion and add 22,000 construction
jobs to the economy of Los Angeles, California.4
Although construction jobs eventually disappear once a stadium is built,
once the games begin, so does consumer spending. For example, more
than 3.5 million people5 saw the St. Louis Cardinals play at Busch Stadium
in 2015 (the second-highest home game attendance in Major League
Baseball that year).6 Baseball fans who attend games also pay for parking,
eat in restaurants, and buy food and drink at the ballpark. All that spending generates revenue and jobs for the local community. And, as those
parking attendants, restaurant workers, and stadium workers spend their
earnings, the money circulates again through the economy. Economists

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PAGE ONE Economics®
call this the multiplier effect, whereby one dollar of
spending (by consumers, businesses, or government)
creates more than one dollar in economic activity. The
estimated economic impact of those millions of people
who attended St. Louis Cardinals home games in 2015
was $343.9 million.7
A potential new stadium also holds the promise of new
development taking root nearby. Such development
might include new restaurants and bars as well as condominium and office space. As interest in the area grows,
the value of existing commercial and residential property
is likely to improve. In a similar vein, stadium construction
can be proposed as an economic-development initiative
by choosing to build in a blighted or underdeveloped
area. The hope is that the new economic activity and
increased traffic will lead to revitalization of that area. In
addition, all the extra spending and income gets taxed
when it is spent and earned and respent again. The tax
revenue then offsets at least some of the cost of the subsidy. Finally, proponents often suggest that professional
sports and new stadiums help build civic pride and can
be beneficial marketing tools for the city’s image as people
around the country (and the world) watch games televised from the new stadium. In fact, many consider the
presence of a professional sports team to be a status symbol and essential to being considered a first-tier city.

The Economist’s View
In spite of all of these economic arguments, economists
generally oppose subsidizing professional sports stadiums.
When surveyed, 86 percent of economists agreed that
“local and state governments in the U.S. should eliminate
subsidies to professional sports franchises.”8 Perhaps
economists just do not like sports? Actually, many economists love professional sports—including former Federal
Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke, an ardent Washington
Nationals fan.9 Rather, it is the provision of taxpayer money
in the form of subsidies that economists generally oppose.
In a 2017 poll, 83 percent of the economists surveyed
agreed that “Providing state and local subsidies to build
stadiums for professional sports teams is likely to cost
the relevant taxpayers more than any local economic
benefits that are generated.”10 In their book, Sports, Jobs,
and Taxes, Roger Noll and Andrew Zimbalist present a
comprehensive review of stadium investments. In all
cases, they find a new sports facility to have extremely

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small (or negative) effects on overall economic activity
and employment. Furthermore, they were unable to find
any facilities that had a reasonable return on investment.11
Sports economist Michael Leeds suggests that professional sports have very little economic impact, noting
that a baseball team (with 81 regular-season home games
per year) “has about the same impact on a community
as a midsize department store.” His research suggests
that if every professional sports team in Chicago (including the Cubs, White Sox, Bears, Bulls, and Blackhawks)
were to suddenly disappear, the economic impact on
Chicago would be a fraction of 1 percent.12

Consider the Opportunity Costs
In their critique, most economists highlight an important
pitfall when considering the economic impact of stadiums:
the failure to include opportunity costs. The opportunity
cost is the value of the next-best alternative when a decision is made; it is what is given up. In the case of sports
stadiums, both “seen” and “unseen” economic activity
should be considered. The unseen spending, however,
tends to be overlooked. Consumer spending at a sports
stadium is easy to see—it is obvious and measurable.
What is unseen, however, is how consumers would spend
their dollars otherwise. If they were not spending on
sporting events, they would instead spend on museums,
movies, concerts, theater, restaurants, and so on. Because
consumers tend to have limited entertainment budgets,
dollars spent at a new stadium would not be new spending but rather diverted spending.
Taxpayer money to subsidize a stadium also has opportunity costs. An economist might ask, “Of all the things
my city could do with $500 million, is a sports stadium
subsidy my best option?” Government can choose to
spend taxpayer money on a variety of things: roads,
bridges, airports, police, education, environmental
improvements, parks, and walking paths, just to name a
few—all of which have benefits for society. Economists
often suggest options that increase productivity and
see this spending as investment. For example, government spending on infrastructure (e.g., airports, highways,
and bridges) could increase productivity because it
reduces the cost (in time and money) of transporting
goods and people from one place to another.13 Second,
spending on education is seen as a form of human capital
investment. Human capital is the knowledge and skills

PAGE ONE Economics®
that people obtain through education, experience, and
training. The education that students receive in school
and college (and further training and work experience)
increases their productivity. Economists prefer these
types of investment because increased productivity has
the potential to increase the rate of economic growth
and increase the standard of living.

Conclusion
Building sports stadiums has an impact on local economies. For that reason, many people support the use of
government subsidies to help pay for stadiums. However,
economists generally oppose such subsidies. They often
stress that estimations of the economic impact of sports
stadiums are exaggerated because they fail to recognize
opportunity costs. Consumers who spend money on
sporting events would likely spend the money on other
forms of entertainment, which has a similar economic
impact. Rather than subsidizing sports stadiums, governments could finance other projects such as infrastructure
or education that have the potential to increase productivity and promote economic growth. n

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Notes
1 Hare, Erik. “Stadium Frenzy Ignores Economics.” MintPress News, May 8, 2014;
http://www.mintpressnews.com/stadium-frenzy-ignores-economics/190351/.
2 Roper, Eric. “Taxes to Pay for Now-Open U.S. Bank Stadium Rebound, Thanks to
Gamblers.” Star Tribune, July 22, 2016;
http://www.startribune.com/taxes-to-pay-for-u-s-bank-stadium-rebound/387999002/.
3 Schalter, Ty. “Why NFL Stadiums Are the Modern Day Cathedral.” Bleacher
Report, April 26, 2012. http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1159057-why-nfl-stadiums-are-the-modern-day-cathedral. See also the following: Geisendorfer-Lindgren,
Peter. “Stadiums, Cathedrals: Marks of Their Eras.” Star Tribune, September 2, 2016;
http://www.startribune.com/stadiums-cathedrals-marks-of-their-eras/392207411/.
McKenzie, Sheena. “Sports Stadium Architecture: Welcome the New Temples of
Pleasure.” CNN, January 20, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2014/12/15/sport/
sport-stadium-architecture/index.html?hpt=hp_c5.
4

Slowey, Kim. “Inglewood Mayor: Near-$3B Rams Stadium to Add 22K New
Construction Jobs.” Construction Drive, January 15, 2016;
http://www.constructiondive.com/news/inglewood-mayor-near-3b-rams-stadiumto-add-22k-new-construction-jobs/412203/.
5

Cumulative attendance.

6

Kirn, Jacob. “Cardinals Playoff Games to Have Big Impact on Economy.” St. Louis
Business Journal, October 5, 2015. http://www.bizjournals.com/stlouis/
blog/2015/10/cardinals-playoff-games-to-have-big-impact-on.html.
7

See footnote 6.

8

Whaples, Robert. “Do Economists Agree on Anything? Yes!” Economists' Voice,
2006, 3(9), pp. 1-6.
9 Steinberg, Dan. “Ben Bernanke Is a Huge Nats Fan.” Washington Post,
September 27, 2012; https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/dc-sports-bog/
post/ben-bernanke-is-a-huge-nats-fan/2012/09/27/964d483c-08ba-11e2-9eea333857f6a7bd_blog.html?utm_term=.3c929678c51d.
10

Responses are weighted by each expert’s confidence. See IGM Forum. “Sports
Stadiums.” January 31, 2017; http://www.igmchicago.org/surveys/sports-stadiums.
11 Noll, Roger G. and Zimbalist, Andrew, eds. Sports, Jobs, and Taxes: The Economic
Impact of Sports Teams and Stadiums. Brookings Institution Press, 1997.
12 Bergman, Ben. “The NFL in L.A.? Get Ready for Near Zero Economic Impact.”
KQED News, February 27, 2015; https://ww2.kqed.org/news/2015/02/27/newnfl-team-unlikely-to-have-big-economic-impact-in-southern-california/.
13 Miller, Matt and Bullard, James. “Bullard: Infrastructure Plan Could Boost
Productivity” (video). Bloomberg.com, November 18, 2016;
http://www.bloomberg.com/news/videos/2016-11-18/bullard-infrastructure-plan-could-boost-productivity.

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PAGE ONE Economics®

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Name___________________________________ Period_______
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Page One Economics ®:

“The Economics of Subsidizing Sports Stadiums”
After reading the article, complete the following:
1.	 Explain how the multiplier effect increases the total level of spending.

2.	 Why do most economists oppose subsidizing sports stadiums?

3.	 Most of us overlook the things that fail to happen. Explain why consumer spending would not necessarily just 		
	 disappear in the absence of a stadium and professional sports.

4.	 Explain the opportunity cost of government subsidy of a stadium.

5.	 What options do economists often see as a more beneficial use of government funding? Why?


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