Worcester, MA and the Stadium Subsidy Scam

Neil deMause is the economist author of Field of Schemes and runs a blog by the same name. He’s the most insightful critic of the oft-touted but seldom-realized benefits of local government subsidies to professional sports facilities.

The latest, which he writes about at Deadspin, involves Worcester, Massachusetts. Smack in the middle of the state, New England’s second city has long had an inferiority complex, even as its affordability relative to Boston has engendered a reversal of decades of decline. DeMause suggests that perhaps this sense of inferiority drove Worcester’s efforts successful campaign to poach the Red Sox AAA team from nearby Pawtucket, Rhode Island by issuing $106 million in city bonds (while standing to recoup only $36 million from the team) to build a minor league baseball stadium.

There was an odd twist to Worcester’s bid:

They needed to stay close to the parent club in Boston, and the only other likely candidate city, Worcester, Mass., had hired as a consultant renowned Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist. And surely the man who literally wrote the book on the stadium scam wouldn’t tell Worcester to bust open its piggy bank to steal away the PawSox, right?

It didn’t quite work out that way.

It is indeed odd that Zimbalist lent his expertise and credibility to this proposal, both because his academic brand has been built on debunking the promises of stadium-driven development, and because he was alone among his local colleagues:

The Worcester gratuity was a stunning turnabout in a world where sports subsidies had seemed like they might finally be on the wane, and it was nearly universally panned by experts in the sports economics field. After Worcester issued its stadium plan, the Worcester Business Journal polled nine economists—plus, for some reason, me—to ask what they thought of the proposal. Among the collected comments: “It virtually never works.” “This is not a good thing for local governments to be doing.” “You better have a Plan B in place.” Only one expressed confidence that it would turn out well for the city, and that one was Zimbalist.

The article is an interesting read. I think deMause is very careful to avoid impeaching Zimbalist’s ethics (he’s working as a consultant, not an academic), and any projection of complex economic effects has enough contingency to admit “it’s possible” as a fair answer. But he points to economist Nola Agha as a voice of prudence:

She was quoted in the Worcester Business Journal saying “it virtually never works,” and while she credits that to on-deadline journalistic oversimplification—in reality, she says, “it’s extremely nuanced”—that’s still the standard against which all stadium plans need to prove themselves the exception to the rule.

Personally, I find the whole thing disappointing. McCoy stadium in Pawtucket is a great, classic minor league ballpark and catching a game there on a summer afternoon is a treat because it’s stripped of the bells and whistles and distractions of big-time sports entertainment. If you’ve been there, your eyes will tell you that it delivers very little to the city of Pawtucket. Right. It’s a ballpark.

I hope it works out for Worcester, but I’m not real confident. And I’m not on board with “WooSox” either.

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4 comments on “Worcester, MA and the Stadium Subsidy Scam

  1. I don’t disagree generally. But I have come to the position that it is reasonable to apply a different framework wrt stadium matters for smaller cities and minor league teams. That being said, it’s probably better for the cities if they aren’t in the same basic metro as the parent team, because there will be a lot of sentiment and pressure on them to fold. This is the case for either Pawtucket or Worcester vis a vis Boston. Still, it’s worth doing an academic study specifically on smaller towns, such as Greensboro (where I argued with someone about this once, of a foundation who gave $25MM towards a stadium, and in hindsight, I’d say he made good arguments).

    I’ve been developing a framework aimed at reducing the negative benefits from stadium and arena deals, based on the reality that it is very difficult to successfully get a city’s elected officials to “just say no.”

    http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2018/08/been-to-largo-lately-sports-teams-often.html

    Given that reality, it’s best to make the deal as beneficial for the community as possible given that you have at least one hand tied behind your back.

    I haven’t read it, but this week the Providence Journal is running a four part series about losing the team in Pawtucket.

    • Richard, very interesting points. I think deMause, though he’s skeptical, leaves open the prospect that Zimbalist has found Worcester to be a viable case. I’m not an economist, so I can’t argue one way or another over the numbers, just see a pattern in the politics. It would seem to be a case where saying no is politically difficult. Let me read the post you linked and see what I think. Thanks for chipping in.

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