The Bear Facts

Here's something that perhaps no municipal official has ever asked: Which is a better bargain, a baseball team or a giant panda cub?
by | July 11, 2007

Taishanball_2 Here's something that perhaps no municipal official has ever asked: Which is a better bargain, a baseball team or a giant panda cub? But that's the question that Washington, D.C. has spent the last two years answering.

In April 2005, the Nationals arrived, bringing major league baseball back to D.C. for the first time in 34 years. Three months later, Tai Shan (a.k.a. Butterstick), our panda cub, was born. I feel I can impartially judge the relative impact of these two events, as an Arlington, Virginia resident whose two primary reasons for venturing into the District, other than work, are to see the Nats and to go to the National Zoo.

To woo Major League Baseball, the D.C. city council approved $611 million in public funds for a new stadium. The Nats drew 2.7 million fans in 2005 and 2.2 million in 2006.

In 2000, the National Zoo, which is part of the Smithsonian, paid the China Wildlife Conservation Association $10 million to rent Tai Shan's parents, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, for ten years. Most of that money came from Fujifilm, which sponsors the pandas -- there weren't any public funds involved. As part of the agreement, the zoo paid $600,000 more after Tai was born.

Tai went on exhibit in December 2005. Zoo attendance in 2006 was 2.6 million, up from 1.9 million the preceding year. If you doubt that one plump little panda could have caused that change, consider that in 2001, the first year that Tian Tian and Mei Xiang went on display, visitation spiked to 3.8 million, a 1.3 million increase over the preceding year (it leveled off around 2 million the next four years).

In other words, D.C. paid $611 million to annually draw 2.5 million people to an attraction, give or take, and $0 to draw 700,000 visitors to another one. Advantage: panda.

There are a couple of reasons that comparison isn't entirely fair to the Nats.

The District hasn't even gotten what it paid for yet. The new stadium opens next year, which will increase attendance.

Also, those zoo visitors were pumping money into an upscale neighborhood in Northwest D.C. The hope is that the ballpark will spur a revitalization where it's really needed, in Southeast along the Anacostia River.

However, you should also know that culturally D.C. is still a football town and a panda town. Pandas are on our fare cards, buses and phone books. On the subway, I hear tourists talking about the bears all the time. They buy panda merchandise everywhere.

My point isn't that cities should seek pandas instead of baseball. Obviously, you can have both. And, though panda cubs sleep in trees, they don't grow on them. The only U.S. cities with pandas are D.C., San Diego, Memphis and Atlanta. There's never any guarantee of cubs. The National Zoo tried to artificially inseminate Mei Xiang again this year, but failed.

What D.C.'s ursine accomplishment does suggest to me is that cities may be overlooking zoos as tools of economic development and urban renewal. Oakland, California is likely to be the next U.S. city to get pandas. Whatever pittance of public money the city appropriates for the bears seems sure to be worth it.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman | Former Staff Writer |