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Friday, July 20, 2012

The Social Benefits of Bringing Back the Sonics

Posted by on Fri, Jul 20, 2012 at 2:15 PM

As Goldy wrote recently, the economic argument for a new arena is basically unconvincing. Economists across the country agree that the net regional benefit of building new arenas is "approximately zero," and a 2009 survey found that eighty-five percent of economists believe that we should eliminate local public subsidies for pro sports entirely. All of this adds up to a pretty good dismantling of the argument that says a new arena will be an economic boon to the region.

But it’s really dumb to make a solely economic argument for building an expensive pro sports arena.

Dollars-and-cents arguments may get the most traction, but perhaps the most compelling argument to make for bringing the Sonics back—the one that hardly anyone is making—is that it will bring social benefits to the community. There is unfortunately very little research out there on this subject, but there is some. And it indicates that the social benefits of a sports team—specifically to quality of life—can be pretty dang big.

Commenting on another pro sport, Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell once said, “The pride and the presence of a professional football team is far more important than 30 libraries.”

One of the most widely cited studies on this subject, conducted in 2004 by Gerald Carlino and Edward Coulson at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia (.pdf), considered pro football teams in a “quality of life index” with other assets of a city that have been successfully quantified, such as air quality, proximity to water, and pleasant weather. The feature all of these things share is that residents of a city can benefit from them without ever actually paying for them. Most Sonics fans, for instance, enjoyed the team without ever going to a game, “absorbing” the benefits of the Sonics’ presence by watching them on TV, reading about them, and talking about them.

In the study, quality of life is measured by comparing rent prices and wages between cities, under the assumption that residents of a city with a better quality of life will be willing to tolerate higher rents and lower wages. The Carlino and Coulson study—which compared several cities with and without professional football franchises—found that people were willing to pay 8 percent more in rent solely in order to live in a city with a football team. "We found that once quality-of-life benefits are included in the calculus," the researchers write, "the seemingly large public expenditure on new stadiums appears to be a good investment for cities and their residents." Other studies have found similar effects for basketball and baseball teams.

This may sound crazy, especially to non-sports fans. I'm an English-degree-holding, ponytail-wearing, Pokémon enthusiast—not exactly your quintessential sports jock. But following the Sonics, after moving to Seattle from Utah as a wee lad, made Seattle a better city for me—just as it did for thousands upon thousands of other people (a sizable portion of whom were packing City Hall last night). And I only ever went to one game. "Perhaps residents should think of a professional sports team in the way they think of a new art museum or new symphony hall," Carlino and Coulson write, "...they receive enjoyment just by having it around."

One shortcoming of the Carlino and Coulson study is that it doesn't try to figure out the ways in which NFL teams actually improved quality of life. Did people in NFL cities feel more prideful? Did they feel more unity with their neighbors? We have no way of knowing. The other problem is that isolating the effect of an NFL team from other factors that improve quality of life in big cities is really difficult.

One strategy to solve these problems is to actually ask people how they feel about pro sports in their city. In 1998, Mark Rosentraub and David Swindell in Public Administration Review did just that, in what was the first attempt to quantify the "cultural identity and civic pride” that came from having sports around. The researchers surveyed more than 1,500 Indianapolis residents by phone, inquiring about their feelings about local sports teams, as well as other "civic assets" like art museums. The results led them to conclude that, "Sports teams are clearly critical in establishing the sense of pride respondents have in living in Indianapolis."

Chris Hansen and the rest of the pro-arena lobby should be looking more carefully into research like this—and using it to sell their project. If the economic argument will shatter under scrutiny, we need another way to gauge how the Sonics' return will benefit Seattle. If there's a social case to be made—and the research out there, though spotty, indicates that there is—they need to make it.


Comments (39) RSS

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Baconcat 1
I thInk citing the line "far more important than 30 libraries" counts as a gaffe. Go to your corner.
Posted by Baconcat on July 20, 2012 at 2:19 PM · Report this
Basketball is entertainment for blacks and poors though. We here in Seattle might love humanity but we hate people, especially THOSE people, so fuck them.
Posted by Reader01 on July 20, 2012 at 2:22 PM · Report this
You lost me at "Art Modell," the biggest civic turncoat in the history of pro sports. He makes Howard Schultz look like George S. Bailey.
Posted by DOUG. on July 20, 2012 at 2:27 PM · Report this
"I've sold sports arenas to Indianapolis, Baltimore, and North Haverbrook, and by gum it put them on the map!"
Posted by joelgrus on July 20, 2012 at 2:30 PM · Report this
Fnarf 5
Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell once said, “The pride and the presence of a professional football team is far more important than 30 libraries.”Fuck Art Modell. You might want to think twice about quoting this guy in a story about moving sports franchises, after the way he moved the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. That's a pretty peculiar way to distract attention from how the Sonics were moved to Oklahoma. It only serves to remind us that he who giveth also taketh away, and if we steal a franchise from someone else we can lose another one ourselves.

Plus, libraries. Fuck you, Art Modell.
Posted by Fnarf on July 20, 2012 at 2:30 PM · Report this
so let's let the public vote on this, then.
Posted by ian on July 20, 2012 at 2:34 PM · Report this
Nice effort! Your one study talks about taking a city with no pro sports and adding one team, namely football. So, we have a football team. And a baseball team. Did you find any research on what effect could be discerned at all by a city adding a third team, as with the reboot of the "Sonics" name? How about a fourth, the hockey team Hansen claims is necessary to make this worth his while?

I get that many people who were alive during the Sonics term are sad they left. And believe that when the new company names itself Sonics, and hires staff and players not related in any way to the history of the Sonics, they will not feel so bad any more. And that's good. But supporters such as attended last night's meeting presented a petition with 12,000 signatures. That is less than one full new arena night worth of people. Is this a good reflection of the number of people who will attend every game? Or who are going to be helped to feel better? If so, what is the per-old-Sonics-mourner cost to the general public of helping Sonics-mourners feel better?

Honestly, the tycoon owners' group needs to just pay for all their business's startup costs all by themselves, like every other business today has to. Once their business is running, its operations will generate taxes our city's general fund desperately needs. If we stupidly accept the tycoons' first offer now, those operations taxes will be lost - we'll have to sink them back into servicing the debt they will have fooled us into taking on for them.

There's no reason for us to take this deal when we can hold out for them paying their own way. They are bluffing on a business basis, and we'd be fools to give in at this point. And to those who fear these billionaires will walk away if we hold out for a good deal, I say if they walk they would never have stuck around in any case, and how well did that work out last time?
Posted by gloomy gus on July 20, 2012 at 2:35 PM · Report this
slake 8
I'm dumber for reading this article.
Posted by slake on July 20, 2012 at 2:41 PM · Report this
Zebes 9
"The pride and presence of a BathFitter brand bathtub is far more importan than 30 book cases," said Clark K. Carson, bathtub salesman.

"The pride and presence of a Big Mac is far more important than 30 7-11 tacquitos," said Duncan Flatworth, McDonald's manager, franchise #125713.

"The pride and presence of some Apple product is far more important than 30 of whatever shitty knockoffs Microsoft is making these days," said Steve Jobs, Apple head honcho and chief fry cook.
Posted by Zebes on July 20, 2012 at 2:42 PM · Report this
gcm 10
I've never spoken to a stranger before, but gee if the Sonics come back I'll certainly be talking to new people all the time.

And the correlation between football teams and higher rents in cities is so strong, it must be causation.
Posted by gcm on July 20, 2012 at 2:42 PM · Report this
Cato the Younger Younger 11
"But it’s really dumb to make a solely economic argument for building an expensive pro sports arena."

Intern, what grade are you in and do you realize Seattle has upcoming cost overruns on a tunnel they are going dig under downtown that we are going to have to pay for, our libraries are holding out hope we approve a levy to fund them for a few more years and Metro is going to be asking for a HUGE amount of money to replace the bus fleet at some point in the near future.

The economic argument is the ONLY fucking argument that counts at this time. It's called a recession and daddy says NO to your new playground. You already got two new playgrounds
Posted by Cato the Younger Younger on July 20, 2012 at 2:44 PM · Report this
keshmeshi 12
How are they not already using this argument? Arena proponents have been getting slammed on the economics of the project, so they're falling back on civic pride, because that is literally the only reason to use public funds for this project.

And I'm with #6. If civic pride is so important to this city and if this project is so popular with the voters, let the voters decide. How is it we're voting on necessary infrastructure like the seawall and not on a multimillionaire's pet project?
Posted by keshmeshi on July 20, 2012 at 3:02 PM · Report this
Fnarf 13
Also, did the study analyze the civic pride of just winning teams? How much pride should I schedule for a Sonics team that goes 21-61?
Posted by Fnarf on July 20, 2012 at 3:07 PM · Report this
Reverse Polarity 14
Really, I don't think you gained many converts with the crack about libraries. Best just to have left that quote out of the post.

I would agree that there is some nebulous civic value to a sports team. But any attempt to quantify it with data is all but impossible. And it is a little hard to set aside economic concerns when the city, county, and state have been in perpetual budget-slashing mode for years, with no end in sight.
Posted by Reverse Polarity on July 20, 2012 at 3:09 PM · Report this
meanie 15
If sports teams are so important, wheres the drive to get nascar? Its the number one sport in the country. ( by capita or some bullshit metric )


seriously the NBA dumped you, get over it, pining for a new chance with your ex isn't good policy, or a way to decide how to spend money.
Posted by meanie on July 20, 2012 at 3:10 PM · Report this
cressona 16
Joseph Staten writes:
Economists across the country agree that the net regional benefit of building new arenas is "approximately zero," and a 2009 survey found that eighty-five percent of economists believe that we should eliminate local public subsidies for pro sports entirely. All of this adds up to a pretty good dismantling of the argument that says a new arena will be an economic boon to the region.

Note we're talking about "regional benefit" and "boon to the region." As a Seattleite and a cityphile, my interest is in seeing this arena happen in Seattle and not some place else in the region. In that respect, it's not hard to formulate a case that Seattle will benefit economically, considering that (I'm guessing here) 75% of the attendees for an NBA or NHL game will be coming from out of town.

My one concern is about how practical it will be to take light rail to the arena.

About the 85% of economists wanting to eliminate public subsidies for pro sports--I'm glad that Seattle set the precedent that from now on, when major-league sports owners say, "Subsidize us or we'll leave," we held our ground. But let me ask a question. When the bank loans me money for my mortgage, are they giving me a subsidy? No, they're, well, giving me a loan. And letting this project use some of the city's bonding capacity can ultimately enrich this city, both financially and culturally.
Posted by cressona on July 20, 2012 at 3:16 PM · Report this
Totally absurd. How can anyone witness the hero worship that went to pedophile enabler Paterno and not realize the appalling negative impact of idolizing people playing a children's game.
Posted by MikeB on July 20, 2012 at 3:20 PM · Report this
keshmeshi 18
When the bank loans me money for my mortgage, are they giving me a subsidy?

No, it's not, but if the city bought your house and then paid off the loan with the property taxes you pay, that would be a subsidy.
Posted by keshmeshi on July 20, 2012 at 3:21 PM · Report this
@18, very nicely put indeed.
Posted by gloomy gus on July 20, 2012 at 3:29 PM · Report this
Sargon Bighorn 20
Of course the social benefits of a Pro basketball team is all the young Black kids will aspire to play hoops and screw over their school work in the hopes of making millions playing in a publicly subsidized arena. Now that's a social benefit we can all support.
Posted by Sargon Bighorn on July 20, 2012 at 3:34 PM · Report this
Sam Levine 21
Determining the relative utility of things like professional sports is something that markets are *really* good at.
Posted by Sam Levine on July 20, 2012 at 3:35 PM · Report this
All you gotta do is put the name of your host city in front of the name of your private business and presto! Civic pride. Everybody can feel like they had a hand in it when "their" team wins, and place the blame squarely on the actual owners when it loses. It is absolutely worth de-funding 30 libraries (or more!) for that warm feeling of imaginary ownership.
Posted by Proteus on July 20, 2012 at 3:40 PM · Report this
Daddy Love 23
The city and county will MAKE money on this deal (because of how the revenues are structured--I won't take the time here), so if there is ANY net civic positive, we should be doing it, and there are at least some people who will be employed who weren't before if this goes through (the McHughs support it), and there are legions of rabid basketball fans in teh hinterlands who will spend in Seattle because of it. These things seem more or less obvious, even if you sneer at the "children's game."

@18 But it's a subsidy with no net cost to the city.
Posted by Daddy Love on July 20, 2012 at 3:55 PM · Report this
Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn 24
Got your ass handed to you trying to make an economic argument in an area with lots of good research proving you full of shit. Solution? Switch to an area where there is no research -- then make shit up and challenge everyone to prove your made up shit wrong. Brilliant.

Except I prove you wrong thus: you made this shit up.

Posted by Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn on July 20, 2012 at 3:55 PM · Report this
Anyone notice all the people against the new arena were white. How about surveying people living in the Central District down to Rainier Beach whether or not the Sonics add any cultural value to the city.
Posted by homogeneous on July 20, 2012 at 4:05 PM · Report this
shorter version of the "social benefits" theory:

sometimes factional interests combine to suck off the public teat. sometimes it's public employee unions as in stockton, california, sometimes it's wall street bailouts, sometimes its farmers getting farm aid, or don't farm aid, sometimes it's sonics fans.

this is a weakness of democracy.
Posted by J Madison on July 20, 2012 at 4:07 PM · Report this
The two places you're most likely to see different races, and cultures interact in Seattle are on a basketball court, or at a hip hop show. Not at a PCC in Green Lake.
Posted by homogeneous on July 20, 2012 at 4:10 PM · Report this
keshmeshi 28

How will we *make* money on this deal? Hansen Co.'s own rosy projections show us breaking even. And that's not including how much we'll be spending on city and county infrastructure and services like transit and police for the arena itself.

And so would it be if the city/county/state bought me a house and let me pay it off by paying my property taxes. I mean that would especially make sense in a city facing tons of foreclosures since they'd be forgoing the property tax anyway. Why haven't Detroit, Las Vegas, and most of Florida implemented such an amazing plan?
Posted by keshmeshi on July 20, 2012 at 4:21 PM · Report this
most states and cities without sports teams are shit holes. Blue cities have great sports team traditions. Boston, Philly(reprsent), NYC, San Fran, LA. Whereas, North Dakota, Miss, Alabama have no sports team. Yeah, we want to be like them. But, lets face it, most people (not all) who now call Seattle home arent from here. they could care less about the Soops. Most of the fans were priced out of the market and are living in the god forsaken burbs. This region will never get another deal like this, ever. This is a brutal capitalist system, there is no team owned by the people scenario in the future. The port is manipulating fools like crazy. Face it , Soops are gone and theyre never coming back. Blame the Starbucks guy, greedy owners and resentful anti sports Seattle residents, who cry libraries but never go to them. and cheer for Philly. ;)
Posted by SeMe on July 20, 2012 at 4:39 PM · Report this
@23, it's not a susidy with no net loss. Those taxes belong in the general fund. Diverting them to service the arena debt robs the general fund. It's a loss.
Posted by gloomy gus on July 20, 2012 at 4:58 PM · Report this
Supreme Ruler Of The Universe 31
Here it is...the completely barren calendar of the Tacoma Dome:…

This free to the taker, one of a kind (now that we demolished her sister in Seattle) sports dome is a cavernous dwelling, ready to Play Ball!

It's a basket of transit options:

Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe on July 20, 2012 at 5:28 PM · Report this
Intern, The Stranger may not be paying you so who is it then? Hansen?

There is NO great city of the world built on sports.

If the denizens of a city cannot take pride in its natural beauty, architecture, educational institutions, arts institutions because they lack a sports team, then I don't want to live there.

And finally, we DO have sports. Up the ass, we have sports. We don't need a team of pituitary cases to prove our worth.
Posted by westello on July 20, 2012 at 5:36 PM · Report this
MrBaker 33
The city is buying 7 acres in SODO with arena taxes.

Field of Schemes (known pro arena whores) say it complies with I-91, and pretty much comes down to deciding to want it or not.…

As far as "want", the tv ratings in the Seattle have more people watching basketball than there are people in the Oklahoma City tv market.

The only thing the unpaid intern wrote that is meaningful is that he lives here and likes basketball.

That, as Julia Patterson said a couple weeks ago, is probably what this comes down to, is this something enough people want for the county to participate in, they "loan money to for profit companies all the time" (which I found a bit surprising).

The economic benefit is a matter of how big or small you draw the circle. Draw it around the state and the net benefit is pretty small operationally, the state gets a net positive in B&O taxes when those businesses relocate in state (2.5 mil a year on the low end for just the nba team).
As the Mariners pointed out in their draft proposal last year, the are around the stadiums and parts of Pioneer Square just can't sustain employment levels in the winter when the Seahawks end and before the Mariners start.

King County will get some substitution from Snohomish and Peirce counties, Seattle gets some substitution from outside of the city limits (60% of Sonics fans came in from outside of the city). I would feel bad for Everett and Kent, but they really didn't give a rats ass their new arenas had on Key Arena. If you don't think you are competing locally, then you are fooling your self.

Build it in Seattle, or it is all down side for Seattle. Everybody goes back to ignoring the Port's bullshit claims, and the substitution effect leaves (net nagative) and in a few years when Bellevue can convince their citizens to subsidize to a greater extent a less "privately funded" effort.
You build the arena, you get the benefit of that.
Posted by MrBaker on July 20, 2012 at 6:19 PM · Report this
The greatest cities in the world have great sports traditions. Barça became a bastion of resistence against Franco. People in Barcelona love Barça as much as their great Ramblas. Let's not even get into the sports traditions in the great cities of South America and let's get real shitty cities and states in the US have no sports teams. None. To ignore and hate sports is to ignore world and urban history. Soops are never coming back here, it's corporate greed's fault and no one elses, but let's keep it real. The new transplanted Seattlelites don't want a sports team unless is a mediocre MLS and the worlds worst futbol( soccer) not to hate on the Sounders but MLS is awful. Remember Seattle in 95 and the Ms run? This city was alive then.
Posted by SeMe on July 20, 2012 at 7:16 PM · Report this
cressona 35
I wrote @16: But let me ask a question. When the bank loans me money for my mortgage, are they giving me a subsidy? No, they're, well, giving me a loan.

Keshmeshi replied @17: No, it's not, but if the city bought your house and then paid off the loan with the property taxes you pay, that would be a subsidy.

Um, I'm fairly ignorant of my finances, but I do believe the bank owns the title to my home. And to pay off my loan, I have to go out there in the world and make money, but in the case of the arena, the property itself is the revenue generator. A surer thing, it looks. From the standpoint of the taxpayer, though, we're talking about a distinction without a difference.

But don't ask me if this is a subsidy. We've already got a standard here. It's I-91, the Seattle iniative that codifies a ban on--drum roll, please--sports venue subsidies. And in fairness, it looks like that question could be headed for court. If a judge says the Hansen group deal violates I-91, fine by me. Then it's up to Hansen.
Posted by cressona on July 20, 2012 at 8:39 PM · Report this
aliencoffebandit 36
why is the stranger pro-arena? it makes very little sense
Posted by aliencoffebandit on July 20, 2012 at 9:54 PM · Report this
MrBaker 37
@35, it's not heading to court on I-91. Just as they did with the Storm lease, if the council thinks it complies with I-91 then they will exempt the deal from I-91, and avoid going to court.

Literally, any citizen could challenge the proposal, no matter how good it is, because that is how section 5 of I-91 was written. Any citizen would, some, Like Peter Steinbrueck are paid to slow it down or stop it. That just added cost to the city.

Fwiw, Field of Schemes says it is I-91 compliant.…
Posted by MrBaker on July 20, 2012 at 10:49 PM · Report this
cressona 38
MrBaker @37, thanks for the succinct explanation.
Posted by cressona on July 20, 2012 at 11:15 PM · Report this
Mr. Baker, aka Mike Baker, aka arena shill for arena solutions = loser.

Posted by no4thanks on July 21, 2012 at 12:28 PM · Report this

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