By John C. Mozena
When it comes to the debate over public subsidies for Progressive Field, it’s understandable for supporters to argue that the cost to taxpayers is justified by factors such as civic pride or the team’s cultural importance to the region. However, Clevelanders should not let team owners and politicians influence that debate with claims that stadium subsidies will create an “economic impact” that delivers a financial return on taxpayers’ investment. History, economics and basic common sense all tell us this isn’t true.
Pro sports teams cite glowing economic impact predictions generated by hired consultants who are in the business of creating conveniently positive economic impact studies. But if you want to know whether something is truly going to have an economic impact, your best chance at getting a reliable answer is to ask an expert economist with no personal stake in the project. In 2017, the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business did just this and asked a panel of some of the most respected economists in the world – including an incredible seven Nobel Prize winners in economics – whether stadium subsidies cost taxpayers more than they return in economic benefits.
The results weren’t even close: 83 percent of the economists agreed that stadium subsidies cost communities more than they are worth, 11 percent weren’t certain and only four percent disagreed. This is consistent with decades’ worth of evidence that stadiums just don’t generate economic benefits for the community.
You can’t get 100 percent of economists to agree on anything, but it turns out that “stadium subsidies are a terrible idea for a city’s economy” is about as close as it gets.
One simple reason for this is that stadiums spend most of their days dark and silent. We tend to think of them as filled with gameday crowds, but even an 81-game Major League Baseball season leaves a stadium empty more than three quarters of the days in the year, often for months at a time.
Subsidy cheerleaders claim renovations will bring more fans back to Progressive Field to increase its economic impact, but even the busiest stadiums don’t bring in enough customers over the course of a year to make a serious difference in a local economy. The traditional yardstick for a high-attendance MLB season is three million fans, which has happened just five times in Cleveland’s history. Only five MLB teams reached that mark in 2019. But while three million fans might seem like a lot of people, it’s a lot less impressive when you spread them out over the course of an entire year and compare that to some other kind of business. For example, three million customers a year is roughly equivalent to the annual customer count of a single midsized Walmart or department store.
That’s not zero impact, but it’s not the kind of thing you build an economy around and it’s certainly not worth Cuyahoga County’s decision to potentially go into more than $100 million worth of debt to subsidize it. Under the agreement, more than $8 million a year could come out of the country budget to cover debt payments. That’s real money that now can’t be spent on something else, or returned to taxpayers. To pick an example of what else Cuyahoga County’s elected officials could be doing with $8 million, that’s more than the county is budgeting to spend on universal pre-K ($4.8 million), Early Start ($1.5 million) and services for children with medical handicaps ($1.5 million) this year.
Is this the kind of tradeoff the community is willing to make to upgrade Progressive Field? That’s the debate that Clevelanders should be having, without the distraction of unbelievable economic impact claims.
John C. Mozena is the president of the Center for Economic Accountability, an independent nonprofit that promotes transparency, accountability and reform of state and local economic development programs across America.