Wednesday’s Book Review: “Public Dollars, Private Stadiums”

Public Dollars, Private StadiumsPublic Dollars, Private Stadiums: The Battle Over Building Sports Stadiums. By Kevin J. Delaney and Rick Eckstein. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003.

Although published in 2003, this book seems strikingly dated now. In no small part that is because of the ongoing clamor over public financing for stadiums around the United States. Since this book’s publication, this trend has continued as virtually every major league city has been held up by owners for new stadiums and indoor arenas. The authors, sociologists at Temple and Villanova Universities, offer cases studies in the debates over public financing of sports arenas and the enormous amount of dollars pulled out of government entities to make them possible. They focus on debates since the 1980s in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Denver, Phoenix, San Diego, Hartford, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia over the financing of stadiums. I should add that in virtually every case a new stadium eventually was built with significant taxpayer involvement. There have been only small success in these political debates in the last 25+ years.

The authors note that any effort to build a new stadium comes first from the sports team owner, who always pleads that without a new arena the team will be unable to complete in the league and will have to move elsewhere. One may question whether or not this is true; in instances where information has come to light the teams are almost never as destitute as the owner states. The result has been, according to the authors, that an estimated $10 billion in public funds has been spent on new sports complexes since the 1980s. Dave Zirin, a lefty sports writer, succinctly argues that if these teams are subsidized by public funds, then the public should have a say in their management. He has argued in many setting that we have every right to make demands on owners since we who live in cities where they exist help pay for their upkeep through our tax dollars for stadiums and infrastructure. “We should have the right to withhold tax money for a stadium unless a public advocate is added to a team’s board of directors” (p. 181), writes Zirin in Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love (Scribner, 2010).

The authors also emphasize that a coalition of team leadership, government officials, and the business community always work together to ensure the public funding of sports arenas. Invariably, they emphasize how it will be great for the local economy. These new sports complexes, proponents argue, contribute millions of dollars of net worth to the city/county/state. They also create hundreds if not thousands of new jobs. Despite these claims, as Delaney and Eckstein make clear, economists have found no evidence of positive economic impact of professional sports teams and facilities on urban economies. Local politicos always invoke the presumed transformation of Baltimore’s inner harbor or some other local where a stadium’s presence seemingly helped advance investment. That post hoc, ergo propter hoc argument is, at best, incomplete and largely refutable with rigorous economic analysis.

Delaney and Eckstein quote a Pittsburgh executive in their section on the fight over stadiums in that city: “Sports…you can argue over the numbers, but they are just not economic generators. If you had $100 million to spend in the region and wanted to get the most impact, sports wouldn’t do it. It’s not like it’s creating a lot of jobs. You know, the Steelers won all those Super Bowls when the steel mills were pulling out of town.” (p. 160) The authors understand that the Pittsburgh executive was correct about economics; even so owners keep getting sports complexes built at government expense.

The authors emphasize the roles of local growth coalitions, public-private partnerships that campaign for and usually achieve their ends. Sometimes there are public hearings and votes; sometimes not, but whenever these coalitions are strong they gain stadium deals relatively quickly. Where they are weak or non-existent, they either fail altogether or the effort is delayed.

No question, the local business community, along with local government officials and opinion leaders, is critical to the success of efforts to gain public financing for sports complexes. The authors are academic researchers who are not grinding axes in this book, but they do make the clear case that there is little reason to believe the boosterism of advocates for stadium building. The cases studies are excellent; there are also many more that have taken place in the intervening years since this book’s publication. That is why I say it now seems dated.

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3 Responses to Wednesday’s Book Review: “Public Dollars, Private Stadiums”

  1. Guillaume says:

    The phenomenon happens in minor league settings, too. I live in Lancaster, PA, where a successful franchise got the city to build a brand new stadium. While it did help clean up some industrial wasteland and get some more downtown traffic, few new businesses opened nearby, and even local eateries report little to no improvement. Why? Plenty to eat _Inside_ the stadium…


  2. mike shupp says:

    A quibble. You might want to fix that subtitle. “The Battle Over Building SPORT Stadiums” rather than “SPACE Stadiums.”

    Nice to see you’re keeping your primary focus, however!


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