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
Add to Briefcase
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 »
CNN/ORC Has Clinton Up 5 Points
7 hours ago

Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump 49%-44% in a new CNN/ORC poll out Monday afternoon. But it's Gary Johnson's performance, or lack thereof, that's the real story. Johnson, who had cleared 10% in some surveys earlier this fall, as he made a bid to qualify for the debates, is down to 3% support. He must hit 5% nationwide for the Libertarian Party to qualify for some federal matching funds in future elections.

Rapper Jay Z to Perform Concert for Clinton
7 hours ago
Log Cabin Republicans Don’t Endorse Trump
7 hours ago

While the organization praised him for being "perhaps the most pro-LGBT presidential nominee in the history of the Republican Party," the Log Cabin Republicans refused to endorse Donald Trump for president. The organization, which is the largest gay organization in the United States, said that Trump failed to earn its endorsement because he surrounded himself with anti-LGBTQ people "and committed himself to supporting legislation such as the so-called 'First Amendment Defense Act' that Log Cabin Republicans opposes."

Congress Needs to Deal With Impending Nuclear Plant Closures
8 hours ago

Energy Secretary Ernesto Moniz is warning Congress "that Congress and businesses need to act with more urgency to work out a medley of challenges in promoting nuclear power." A number of nuclear plants are currently on track to close around 2030, unless their licenses are extended from 60 years to 80 years, something that could jeopardize the success of the Clean Power Plan. Moniz called on Congress to pass legislation creating interim storage facilities for used nuclear power.

Trump Pocketed Insurance Money Following 2005 Hurricane
9 hours ago

Donald Trump has said he received a $17 million insurance payment in 2005 following Hurricane Wilma, which he claimed did severe damage to his private club in Florida. However, an Associated Press investigation could not find any evidence of the large-scale damage that Trump has mentioned. Additionally, Trump claimed that he transferred some of the $17 million to his personal account thanks to a "very good insurance policy."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.