Although I work at the limp-wristed Stranger, I happen to be a sports fan. Or, at least, a pro-basketball fan. One day last summer, feeling my masculinity challenged while attending a Mariners game with a bunch of manly men, I proceeded to name every NBA champion in chronological order: Philadelphia, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Minneapolis, Rochester, Minneapolis...
I bring my basketball cred to the fore (I also started at point guard on my high-school basketball team) because I'd like to call bullshit on the Sonics.
Last week, for the second time this year, the Sonics started making noise about getting public subsidies—perhaps $271 million worth. The money would fund a $221 million upgrade at KeyArena (tailoring the arena for high-end customers) and would pay off the outstanding $50 million debt on the building.
Wait a minute. Didn't the city already finance a $76 million upgrade to KeyArena just 10 years ago? Well, yes. And isn't the city now paying out about $2.6 million a year (with a debt service schedule until 2014) to pay off that construction—a bill the Sonics were supposed to cover with their own revenues? Well, yes.
So, with an average annual net loss of $2.6 million on the Sonics deal, why would we want to hand out more subsidies to the team?
There are two reasons. Both are misguided.
First, investing in professional sports is supposed to amp local economies. This is unproven. In fact, an in-depth study by the Cato Institute released last year found that, if anything, pro sports teams actually hurt local economies. "Our conclusion, and that of nearly all academic economists studying this issue," they wrote, "is that... the net economic impact [is] a reduction in real per capita income over the entire metropolitan area."
The Cato study looked at 37 cities that have hosted professional sports teams over the last 30 years, including Seattle. In addition to debunking industry claims that sports teams generate new consumer spending (they actually just suck up existing spending), the study showed that the average effect on employment in the service sector of a city's economy was a net loss of 1,900 jobs. (Seattle's average net loss was 2,400.)
The second reason to bail out the Sonics? Seattle Times columnist Nicole Brodeur laid out the argument in her column last week: "They are part of the city's identity... and they want to stay."
That's cool for Brodeur to say. She was able to shell out the $70 for her ticket last week. Not me. I'd been planning for months to see the Sonics play my home team, the Washington Wizards, this week. I had rounded up four friends to go, but when we saw the ticket price we all balked. The Sonics might be "part of our city's identity," but most people in our city can't afford that identity. With crummy transportation and schools, we also can't afford $271 million in public subsidies just to avoid an "identity" crisis.