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
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.

What We're Following See More »
BIG CHANGE FROM WHEN HE SELF-FINANCED
Trump Enriching His Businesses with Donor Money
13 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Donald Trump "nearly quintupled the monthly rent his presidential campaign pays for its headquarters at Trump Tower to $169,758 in July, when he was raising funds from donors, compared with March, when he was self-funding his campaign." A campaign spokesman "said the increased office space was needed to accommodate an anticipated increase in employees," but the campaign's paid staff has actually dipped by about 25 since March. The campaign has also paid his golf courses and restaurants about $260,000 since mid-May.

Source:
QUESTIONS OVER IMMIGRATION POLICY
Trump Cancels Rallies
22 hours ago
THE LATEST

Donald Trump probably isn't taking seriously John Oliver's suggestion that he quit the race. But he has canceled or rescheduled rallies amid questions over his stance on immigration. Trump rescheduled a speech on the topic that he was set to give later this week. Plus, he's also nixed planned rallies in Oregon and Las Vegas this month.

Source:
‘STRATEGY AND MESSAGING’
Sean Hannity Is Also Advising Trump
1 days ago
THE LATEST

Donald Trump's Fox News brain trust keeps growing. After it was revealed that former Fox chief Roger Ailes is informally advising Trump on debate preparation, host Sean Hannity admitted over the weekend that he's also advising Trump on "strategy and messaging." He told the New York Times: “I’m not hiding the fact that I want Donald Trump to be the next president of the United States. I never claimed to be a journalist.”

Source:
THE SHAKE-UP CONTINUES
RNC’s Spicer to Work from Trump HQ
1 days ago
THE LATEST

"Donald Trump's campaign and the Republican party will coordinate more closely going forward, with the GOP's top communicator and chief strategist Sean Spicer increasingly working out of Trump campaign headquarters, the campaign confirmed Sunday."

Source:
MORE PALACE INTRIGUE
Manafort Resigns from Trump Campaign
4 days ago
THE LATEST

In a statement released Friday morning, the Trump campaign announced that Paul Manafort has resigned as campaign chairman. The move comes after fresh questions had been raised about Manafort's work in Russia and Ukraine, and Trump brought in Stephen Bannon "as a de facto demotion for Manafort."

Source:
×