Surprise! Stadium Predictions Flawed

The Washington Examiner reports:

Attendance at Nationals Park has fallen more than a quarter short of a consultant’s projections for the stadium’s inaugural year, cutting into the revenue needed to pay the ballpark bonds and spurring a D.C. Council member to demand the city’s money back.

The District’s ability to pay down the debt on the publicly financed ballpark depends in part on the number of people who show up to the games, David Catania, independent at-large, wrote in a letter Tuesday to Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi. 

A study was commissioned in 2005 by Gandhi’s office. Written by Los Angeles-based Economics Research Associates, the report predicted attendance at the 41,000-seat ballpark would average 39,130 in year one, dropping to 32,737 in year four.

But paid attendance through 28 games has averaged only 29,141, Catania said, 26 percent lower than the consultant’s estimates. The Nationals are drawing the 15th-best crowd in baseball, according to ESPN, with a team that is in last place in the National League East and a 22-31 record as of Wednesday.

“It appears now,” Catania wrote, “that ERA may have seriously overestimated ticket sales, which represents a major portion of stadium-related revenues.”

Gandhi says it doesn’t matter, the bonds can be paid off with attendance as low as 10,000 per game. Which raises the question: if it’s that easy to pay for the stadium, why didn’t the multi-millionaire team owners agree to pay for it themselves?

Of course, these economic projections for subsidized stadiums are always vastly overstated. As Dennis Coates and Brad Humphreys wrote in a 2004 Cato study criticizing the proposed stadium subsidy, “The wonder is that anyone finds such figures credible.”

Several Cato studies over the years have looked at the absurd economic claims of stadium advocates. In “Sports Pork: The Costly Relationship between Major League Sports and Government,” Raymond Keating finds:

The lone beneficiaries of sports subsidies are team owners and players. The existence of what economists call the “substitution effect” (in terms of the stadium game, leisure dollars will be spent one way or another whether a stadium exists or not), the dubiousness of the Keynesian multiplier, the offsetting impact of a negative multiplier, the inefficiency of government, and the negatives of higher taxes all argue against government sports subsidies. Indeed, the results of studies on changes in the economy resulting from the presence of stadiums, arenas, and sports teams show no positive economic impact from professional sports — or a possible negative effect.

In Regulation magazine, (.pdf) Coates and Humphreys found that the economic literature on stadium subsidies comes to consistent conclusions:

The evidence suggests that attracting a professional sports franchise to a city and building that franchise a new stadium or arena will have no effect on the growth rate of real per capita income and may reduce the level of real per capita income in that city.

And in “Caught Stealing: Debunking the Economic Case for D.C. Baseball,” Coates and Humphreys looked specifically at the economics of the new baseball stadium in Washington, D.C., and found similar results:

Our conclusion, and that of nearly all academic economists studying this issue, is that professional sports generally have little, if any, positive effect on a city’s economy. The net economic impact of professional sports in Washington, D.C., and the 36 other cities that hosted professional sports teams over nearly 30 years, was a reduction in real per capita income over the entire metropolitan area.

And yet millionaire owners and mayors with Edifice Complexes keep commissioning these studies, and council members and editorial boards keep falling for them.