Media Bias and Public Stadium Funding

A few weeks back, Skip Sauer at The Sports Economist pointed to an Op-Ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Villanova sociologist Rick Eckstein. It is relevant to what is going on in Gwinnett County, especially in reference to the coverage by the Gwinnett Daily Post.

If you build it, they will come. This is usually the mantra of those in favor of publicly financed sports stadiums, including the current proposal for a new soccer stadium in Chester. In this case they are visitors whose spending would turn devastated cities and neighborhoods into exciting destination points. Local schools, merchants, and residents all would benefit as municipal coffers swelled.

There’s only one problem with this scenario. It’s not true. Never has been. They do come, but cities are not saved. Over the past two decades, academic research has generated literally hundreds of articles and books empirically challenging the alleged economic wonders of new stadiums, even when they’re part of larger development schemes. I have been studying and writing about publicly financed stadiums for more than 10 years and cannot name a single stadium project that has delivered on its original grandiose economic promises, although they do bring benefits to team owners, sports leagues and sometimes players.

That much we already knew. But the question remains: if these are such obviously bad deals, then why does the public tolerate the public funding of sports venues? Eckstein has an answer.

In a just-released article in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, my colleagues and I studied media coverage of 23 publicly financed stadium initiatives in 16 different cities, including Philadelphia. We found that the mainstream media in most of these cities is noticeably biased toward supporting publicly financed stadiums, which has a significant impact on the initiatives’ success.

This bias usually takes the form of uncritically parroting stadium proponents’ economic and social promises, quoting stadium supporters far more frequently than stadium opponents, overlooking the numerous objective academic studies on the topic, and failing to independently examine the multitude of failed stadium-centered promises throughout the country, especially those in oft-cited “success cities” such as Denver and Cleveland.

Today, two local papers reported on the subject of Gwinnett County issuing the final permits to begin construction. Here is the article by Michael Pearson of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Gwinnett County’s planning and development department issued a permit Friday for grading work at the site of the county’s new baseball stadium.

Although some trees had earlier been cleared from the site on Buford Drive near the Mall of Georgia, the permit’s issuance marks the true beginning of construction work on the $45 million stadium.

Project manager Preston Williams did not return a telephone call left at his office late Friday afternoon seeking comment on when work would begin at the site. Williams has previously said that he expected grading to begin within days of issuance of the permit.

The county is under a tight deadline to complete construction of the stadium by next spring’s home opener for the top minor-league affiliate of the Atlanta Braves. That team is relocating from Richmond, Va.

Among the first tasks, Williams has said, will be grading the land that will eventually become the playing surface of the 10,000-seat stadium.

The GCVB, Gwinnett County and the Atlanta Braves signed a contract last week for the ball club’s Triple-A team to relocate from Richmond to Gwinnett County.

Short, sweet, and to the point: nothing but the relevant facts. Pearson, Tim Tucker, and a few others at the AJC have covered the issue in depth, sometimes having to seek open record requests when county officials refused to comment on details. They have also contacted outside sources, including me and others who disagree with me, to comment on the project. I feel that they have done an excellent job.

Camie Young’s version in the Gwinnett Daily Post is similar until the last paragraph.

According to a press release, county economist Alfie Meek estimates the ballpark will generate approximately $15 million per year in new economic activity, including an estimated 200 additional jobs countywide and generate about $6.5 million in new personal income.

The last paragraph is not needed in a story about the issuing of the initial construction permits. If Young wants to report on the potential positive economic impact calculated by a paid employee of the county, it is her duty to contact disinterested experts to comment. I can only guess that the author was trying to inject her own opinion—or, possibly the opinion of the paper’s editor—into the story.

Do they give anti-Pulitzers? If so, the Post’s coverage of this whole affair ought to be nominated.

6 Responses “Media Bias and Public Stadium Funding”

  1. K-Funk says:

    Do these studies showing that stadiums are a bad deal take into account the intangible benefits to citizens of having a local team to root for? Admittedly, these benefits are hard to quantify, but are nonetheless real.

  2. Frank says:

    From the linked editorial:

    Minor league baseball gives locals another reason to stay home to be entertained.

    Now, Gwinnett has grown up enough that when fans sing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” they won’t have to be worried about being taken out of the county.

    This keep them in Gwinnett (or whereever) mercantilism has always bugged me. What’s next a replica of Disney World so Gwinnetians don’t go to Florida or a faux Eiffel Tower so the don’t go to Paris? Heck, if keeping people at home is so important why not build a fence–call it the Gwinnett Wall–around the county?

  3. Greyson says:

    K-Funk: It’s not so much that they are a bad deal, but that they are an unfair deal. I’d be all in favor of spending my own money to finance a stadium to bring a favorite sports team to my city, but that still doesn’t make it fair for me to take someone else’s money and put it to that cause (for instance, I wouldn’t want to spend my own money to finance a soccer stadium, because soccer in America is for kids.) I would much rather pay the price in higher ticket prices, parking fees, etc. than have it couched so deeply in taxes… not to mention that it is almost always done with bonds, which end up costing the city exceptionally more in the long run, and only work to make the rich richer, at the poor’s expense.

    JC: WAIT! The media is biased?!? Next you’ll be saying that politicians lie… haha, good post, great study!

  4. mraver says:

    K-Funk-

    Some Gwinnett residents will certainly be better off for having a Braves affiliate in town. As a baseball fan, if a minor league team moved to my town, I would be ecstatic about it, especially if it was a Braves affiliate. I would support such action and probably campaign for it.

    But I would do that knowing full well that it was not going to provide any economic stimulus or benefit (relative to alternatives) to the county or likely to me. The real question that the decision makers in the Gwinnett case (and probably all cases) should consider is whether the cost of to the community (and to be clear, it IS going to be cost) is worth the benefits. Benefits to baseball fans in the area are that they are able to go to baseball games locally rather than having to commute. They will be able to choose to spend their time and money at the new ball park rather than, say, the local bowling alley. If you have a town full of rabid baseball fans, it’s entirely plausible that a deal such as this could increase the town’s aggregate utility.

    But that’s not the trade-off that people are talking about. Indeed, the discussion seems to systematically avoid talking about the trade-off by falsely claiming stuff like “the stadium will pay for itself!” and that stadiums provide economic benefits to a region. This arguments are empirically false. But it seems that deceit is the only way to sell the large part of the population that doesn’t necessarily care that much for baseball on the plan, so that’s what we get.

    Put more succinctly, the “intangible benefits” that you refer to are not typically addressed in empirical studies, but that’s not really the point JC is making. He’s arguing that the commission is being disingenuous (or just flat out wrong) when it claims that the stadium will pay for itself, that it will provide economic stimulus, and that the stadium’s cost won’t be born by Gwinnett tax payers.

  5. Marc Schneider says:

    I don’t think it’s the government’s role to be trying to provide psychic benefits to its citizens. That’s like saying the US should have the largest military just so Americans can brag about it. The government’s role should be to advance the tangible welfare of the population. I think all these stadium deals show how much state and local governments are influenced by developer and other business interests. Those are the people that gain from these deals.

  6. gaecon says:

    Mraver and JC,

    I have a question. If the bonds used to pay for a stadium are revenue bonds and not G.O. bonds (in other words are backed by a revenue stream that is un-related to taxes and not backed by the full faith and credit of the taxing authority) then why can’t the community claim that “the stadium will pay for itself?” For example, if the bonds are backed by rent from the team, ticket surcharges, naming rights, and parking fees, then how are the local taxpayers harmed?

    Second, as a professional economist with years of experience in economic impact analysis and analysis of sports-related projects, I object to the notion that the stadium won’t provide economic stimulus. To the extent that it keeps discretionary income from leaving the community, or attracts new income into the community, it certainly will provide stimulus.

    Also, while I realize that JC’s point has to do with the reporting of the economic impact and not the economic impact numbers themselves, as the economist that did that particular analysis, I would like to point out that just because the numbers cited in the story above were done by “an employee of the county” doesn’t mean that they are necessarily less credible.