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.