Stadium Fantasies

May 2018
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Former Publisher
Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City

Back when I was mayor of Kansas City, Mo., I repeatedly argued against spending city tax dollars on sports stadiums, and I was never successful. My opponents maintained that the stadiums were creating thousands of jobs and generating millions of dollars in tax revenues. Thankfully, it seems that the folks on the other side of the state, and one hopes elsewhere in the country, have begun to figure out that this is baloney. As Liz Farmer points out in her article in this issue, the voters in St. Louis, after the loss of four different NFL teams, have become skeptical about “investing in gaudy entertainment amenities the lower-income population couldn’t afford to use.”

An honest conversation about public funding for stadiums would reflect the fact that what is really at stake is civic pride and recognition, not economics. Last year, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis reported that 83 percent of economists surveyed agreed that “providing state and local subsidies to build stadiums for professional sports teams is likely to cost the relevant taxpayers more than any local economic benefits that are generated.”

Spending money on a stadium -- an entertainment venue -- is essentially consumption, and it is entirely different from investing to improve education, transit or public safety, all of which will yield an economic return. This is especially true for spending on infrastructure, and it’s by no means a new idea. Back in 1992, Alicia Munnell, then senior vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, summarized the research on public spending on infrastructure, writing that its impact “on private-sector output and productivity has been positive and statistically significant.”

Every expenditure of public money involves “opportunity costs” -- the value of the next highest use of the resource. When the opportunity cost exceeds the value actually obtained, you know you’ve made a bad decision. But, of course, it all depends on what you value most. For those in the high-priced stadium suites, maybe prestige and image are more important than they are to those in the bleachers.

In a recent blog post, Aaron Renn, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and Governing columnist, wrote that if current trends continue, “St. Louis will soon drop below 300,000 in population -- perhaps America’s most stunning population collapse.” If St. Louis’ voters and leaders have concluded that it will take something other than more spending on stadiums to turn things around, good for them.