Mesa

Spring-Training Stadiums Are a Bad Investment, Yet No One Cares

One Arizona city spent roughly $100 million on a new training facility for the Chicago Cubs, despite little evidence that it would boost the local economy.

National Journal
Sommer Mathis
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Sommer Mathis
Jan. 31, 2014, 7:03 a.m.

This art­icle is part of a weeklong Amer­ica 360 series on Mesa.

In 2010, voters in Mesa, Ar­iz., over­whelm­ingly ap­proved spend­ing nearly $100 mil­lion in pub­lic money to help the Chica­go Cubs build a vast new spring-train­ing fa­cil­ity and en­ter­tain­ment com­plex. After 60 years of mak­ing their spring­time home in Mesa, the Cubs had threatened to pick up and move to Flor­ida, and the city gov­ern­ment scrambled to put to­geth­er a gen­er­ous pack­age to per­suade them to stay.

It worked. Cel­eb­ra­tions sur­round­ing the grand open­ing of Cubs Park, the brand new 15,000-seat sta­di­um, along with sev­er­al prac­tice fields, a 70,000-square-foot club­house, and the ad­ja­cent River­view Park com­munity re­cre­ation area, began in earn­est last week­end.

Eco­nom­ists would have warned Mesa’s voters that spring-train­ing sta­di­ums are an ex­cep­tion­ally bad deal for tax­pay­ers, if any­one had bothered to ask. This is ac­tu­ally something we know. Ry­an Holey­well over at Gov­ern­ing magazine wrote a great primer on this sub­ject back in 2011:

“There’s ab­so­lutely no need for any com­munity to in­vest in a sports team,” says Philip Port­er, a sports eco­nom­ist at the Uni­versity of South Flor­ida in Tampa, loc­ated a few miles from the sta­di­um Hills­bor­ough County built for the New York Yan­kees.

Since teams move around so fre­quently, ample data is avail­able to de­term­ine wheth­er a city suf­fers fin­an­cially when its team leaves. But, Port­er says, “noth­ing changes” when a team skips town. Sales tax, prop­erty val­ues, and the size of the tax base gen­er­ally re­main at com­par­able levels, un­der­min­ing the ar­gu­ment that the sta­di­ums pose a vast eco­nom­ic be­ne­fit. “That find­ing is so uni­ver­sal as to be ir­re­fut­able,” Port­er says.

A study by Uni­versity of Ak­ron pro­fess­or John Zipp ex­amined the num­ber of tax­able sales in Flor­ida com­munit­ies that hos­ted spring train­ing in 1995, when the base­ball strike caused teams to field second-rate “re­place­ment play­ers” and Grapefruit League at­tend­ance dropped by 60 per­cent. If spring train­ing had a ma­jor fin­an­cial im­pact on those com­munit­ies, they should have suffered tre­mend­ously. That didn’t hap­pen, and in fact, their tax­able sales in­creased. Those find­ings “may in­dic­ate that spring train­ing is not the ma­jor tour­ist draw that many claim,” Zipp wrote in a pa­per pub­lished by the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion.

When I was re­port­ing this week’s Amer­ica 360 series on the new eco­nomy un­fold­ing in Mesa, I sat down with city of­fi­cials who made the case that the pub­lic dol­lars put to­ward Cubs Park were ac­tu­ally a bet­ter in­vest­ment for tax­pay­ers than tra­di­tion­al ball­parks. Spring train­ing means tour­ism dol­lars in a way that reg­u­lar sea­son base­ball doesn’t, they ar­gued, since fans from Chica­go can be re­li­ably coun­ted on to make the yearly pil­grim­age down to Ari­zona, to the tune of an es­tim­ated $52 mil­lion im­pact each year. One of the of­fi­cials even sug­ges­ted there was a spring train­ing “bo­nus” be­cause some ma­jor-league play­ers in­ev­it­ably pur­chase homes in the area.

It’s pretty clear that ar­gu­ments like this de­serve a lot of skep­ti­cism. That study after study has shown zero neg­at­ive eco­nom­ic im­pact when a spring-train­ing team de­parts is just one part of this pic­ture. I asked Neil de­Mause, au­thor of Field of Schemes, a book and com­pan­ion blog track­ing pub­lic fin­an­cing deals for pro­fes­sion­al sports, what he thought of the sales pitch Mesa of­fi­cials had made in de­cid­ing to pay for Cubs Park.

“From everything I know, that’s com­pletely back­wards,” de­Mause writes in an email. “Bring­ing in fans for only one month out of the year is likely to have *less* im­pact than a year-round sta­di­um. Yes, fans vis­it just for spring train­ing, but a ton would go to Flor­ida and Ari­zona any­way in March, and just end up go­ing to spring train­ing to have something to do while they’re there. And play­ers buy­ing homes that they’re only in one month out of the year isn’t a very good be­ne­fit, either — it’s good if you’re a re­altor, but if you’re a res­taur­at­eur, say, all it means is a bunch of houses that re­main empty much of the year.”

Mesa has forth­com­ing plans for an ad­ja­cent “Wrigleyville” com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ment with a Sheraton hotel, shop­ping, and oth­er amen­it­ies, which could, in the­ory, add some ex­tra loc­al value to Cubs Park. And the team’s old spring-train­ing fa­cil­ity, Ho­hokam Sta­di­um, is be­ing ren­ov­ated to make room for the Oak­land A’s, who will move in next year after de­part­ing nearby Phoenix Mu­ni­cip­al Sta­di­um. So, in that sense, Mesa at least isn’t end­ing up with an aban­doned piece of ma­jor in­fra­struc­ture, something spring-train­ing towns else­where have dealt with time and again.

But the bot­tom line is that the eco­nom­ics of spring train­ing are murky at best, and a truly bad bet at worst. And yet, Mesa’s self-de­scribed eco­nom­ic­ally con­ser­vat­ive may­or, and the city’s voters, all clearly felt that the pro­spect of los­ing the Cubs as a loc­al in­sti­tu­tion was too big a blow to bear. Base­ball is base­ball, after all, and the fan ex­per­i­ence at spring train­ing is un­deni­ably fun: smal­ler sta­di­ums, bet­ter ac­cess to star play­ers, and a quick jaunt to some­place warm. The case for pay­ing for spring-train­ing fa­cil­it­ies with pub­lic dol­lars may be fatally flawed, but the case for de­cid­ing it’s worth it for in­tan­gible, cul­tur­al reas­ons is harder to re­fute.

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