Over the weekend, U-T San Diego surveyed local economists about the public contributing money or land to a new Chargers stadium. Not surprisingly, most of the economists said it was a bad idea. But more interesting were the five economists who said the project deserved public support. That’s because their reasons for backing public money for a stadium weren’t about economics.
Here’s how they make the case for spending public dollars:
• The current Qualcomm site costs the city more than $10 million each year to maintain so a new stadium would be an improvement. (Two economists gave versions of this.)
• A stadium for football and other sports helps maintain the city’s reputation for promoting active lifestyles.
• Football adds to San Diego’s quality of life.
Note that the last two reasons don’t have anything to do with money. The first two assume there has to be a football stadium here. Knock down Qualcomm Stadium and build a bajillion condos on the site and that $10 million annual loss goes away very quickly.
More of the economists thought along the same lines as UC San Diego professor James Hamilton:
I am not aware of a recent example of a major sports facility investment that earned anything approaching a reasonable return on capital or turned out to be self-financing in terms of tax revenues. The owners of major sports franchises essentially hold cities up for ransom with constant threats to relocate to other communities, not because of better market conditions but because the local governments are prepared to subsidize the sports team even more heavily. The best reason for giving in to these demands is to keep the Chargers here and make the fans happy, not to boost the San Diego economy.
The consensus among economists on this point is pretty stunning. A whopping 85 percent of economists believe local and state governments should end pro sports subsidies, according to a Harvard professor.
Look, football is fun to watch. And there’s some intangible cachet to your city being a football town. Who could put a price on Eric Weddle’s beard?
But as the stadium debate moves forward, let’s keep the argument straight. If we decide to pay for a new stadium, it means we’ve decided we’re going to subsidize football because we like it, not because we’re going to make money off the deal.