Not all civic investments in sport are wise. This one would be.
By Stephen Maisch | Special for La Tribune
| May 26, 2023, 11:51 a.m.
Could Salt Lake City be the epicenter of women’s sports in the United States? Yes. And we should invest to make that happen.
As an economist, it seems a little strange to me to write these words. One of the few things almost all economists agree on is that sports stadium subsidies have little or no tangible economic impact.
After three sports economists reviewed 130 studies of venue subsidies spanning 20 years, they concluded that “the level of venue subsidies typically provided far outweighs any observed economic benefits”.
Las Vegas is betting that this time things are going to be different. He recently spent $750 million in public funds to help build a football stadium for the Raiders. Now he’s set to spend $395 million to help fund a baseball stadium for the A’s.
It’s not all pessimistic, however. A study estimated that when Akron’s favorite son, LeBron James, returned to play in Cleveland after a stint in South Beach, the number of food and drink establishments within a mile of Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse increased. by 13.7% and the presence of LeBron increased employment in bars. and restaurants 23.5%.
Could it be that it’s not the shiny new stadium, but rather what happens inside that really matters? I think so.
That’s why, while I was sad when the Salt Lake Bees announced they were taking their talents to southern Jordan, I’m excited about a proposal from a coalition of Salt Lake residents, athletes, sports fans, business owners and developers to convert the soon-to-be-empty stadium into a home for women’s soccer, rugby, roller derby, ultimate and American football – and maybe even more ports.
It is true that there would be many different sports under one roof, and some might remember the mixed-use baseball and football stadiums of the 70s and 80s unfavourably, but it is important to note why these facilities have seen the day. Many cities were unsure if there was enough demand for professional football and wanted to cover their bases with baseball. The thought has been that if people aren’t into those Pittsburgh Steelers and that NFL thing goes bust, at least we still have the Pirates.
Could one of these women’s sports be the NFL of the 1970s? The demand for women’s sports, especially women’s football, is only growing. The 2019 Women’s World Cup final between the United States and the Netherlands in France attracted 14.3 million American viewers. (In comparison, the 2018 Men’s World Cup Final drew 11.4 million US viewers.) On the continent, from 2016 to 2018, the United States women’s soccer team generated more revenue than wears than the men’s team during the same period. Interest in the women’s team only seems to be growing, sales of the 2019 jersey were 500% higher than the 2015 jerseys.
The demand for women’s sports is not limited to football. Deloitte Insights reports that globally, “66% of people were interested in at least one women’s sport, and among sports fans (49% of whom are women), that figure rises to 84%.”
We all know there’s no free lunch, though. So what would it 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 therefore the difference between the current annual rent of $15,000 and the potential money that could be made if the stadium land were turned into 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 that revenue could be used for a whole lot of good across the city — but do we really want another Gateway or City Creek, where nearly all income flows out of town to a corporate hub elsewhere, offering in exchange a handful of minimum wage jobs and the next Bed Bath and Beyond?
As an economist, a Salt Lake resident who lives near the ballpark, and a father who hopes to take his daughter to the ball game for a long time, I know what I want.
Steve Maisch is an associate professor at the University of Utah, where he teaches a course on sports economics.