My family will attest, I’m a San Diego Chargers football fan. During football season, not only is the TV tuned to Chargers games, but so are multiple strategically located radios around the yard, lest I miss any action while attending to a honey-do task or breaking up an argument between my children. Then there are the pre and post game shows, and wasted hours reading about the draft, trades, and other team side shows. Lest I forget to mention, I’m also a San Diego County resident – just outside the city’s boundaries.
However, the Chargers are one of several NFL teams, along with the St. Louis Rams and the Oakland Raiders, considered likely to move to another city unless they receive a new football stadium. The likely recipient city: Los Angeles. Ironically, each of these teams have been previous occupants of Los Angeles. Whether the Chargers remain in San Diego or move to greener pastures is almost certainly tied to whether they receive a new stadium. The same is true of the others. Teams argue that older stadiums are not capable of being modified to provide the modern amenities and environment to allow the teams to be financially competitive, i.e., maximize profits — lest anyone forget that NFL teams are private profit driven businesses, not public assets.
Every report or statement by public officials seems to be based on the assumption that keeping the NFL team is an economic and cultural benefit to the city. Much has been written about the public costs and dubious benefits of building stadiums to benefit professional sports teams. Little has been written about the benefits of losing a professional sports franchise beyond what is implicit in avoiding the pitfalls of building a new stadium. In fact, losing the team may have several tangible and intangible benefits to a city:
1) Keeping public assets and funds: New stadiums rarely get built without a substantial public investment – usually that public investment constitutes the lion’s share of the cost. Moreover, most stadiums require ongoing public subsidies because almost all of them lose money.1 Therefore, when public officials promise to look for ways to build a stadium without spending taxpayer funds, they are speaking with forked tongue. More typically, public officials make the vague promise to do it “in a way that makes sense” for the taxpayer. For example, donating publicly owned real estate under a “redevelopment” rational allows new-stadium proponents to assert both that the stadium will not tap into a city’s general fund (i.e., tax revenue) and that the taxpayer will benefit from increased property tax revenues resulting from new development associated with the stadium. Studies of the economic impact of stadiums make the claims of an economic benefit to the city suspect.2 Except for an occasional playoff game or the rare Super Bowl game, NFL teams are largely local draws, tapping into money that is already in the city and may compete with other local cultural or entertainment events. The jobs created by the teams are largely low-paying hospitality jobs. The redevelopment impact, discussed more below, is also exaggerated. The real economic benefit generally accrues to a few key land owners and the team owner, which accounts for much of lobbying to apply public assets for their enrichment. The public is increasingly sensitive to this fact and as a result, stadium proposals are increasingly complex to, at least, create the appearance of a public benefit. For example, in San Diego, the Chargers ownership favors a hybrid stadium / convention center expansion proposal. Problem is, the people who are truly motivated to attract additional convention business (e.g., the Port District, the Convention board, and hoteliers) reject the concept of combining the two efforts. Even on its own terms, the convention center expansion is controversial due to nationwide shrinkage of conventions and increasing competition from other cities. Additionally, the trend in stadium building has been away from multi-use stadiums. Public assets and funds are almost always better spent on other ventures.
2) More support for college football programs: In cities and regions around the country, college football programs which do not have to directly compete with NFL teams have better attendance at their games. Some cities much smaller than San Diego, St. Louis, or Oakland consistently produce higher attendance at college football games than do NFL cities. This is true even in cities with colleges in divisions below the NCAA Div. I Bowl Championship Series in which the San Diego State University Aztecs participate. For example, Missoula Montana regularly turns out over 20,000 to watch the University of Montana Grizzlies, a Div. I FCS team — a mostly small college division. Support of a public institution, like a local university or symphony orchestra that is an entrenched part of the community, is a far more fruitful endeavor than support of a private entity for which profit will always be a top priority. Though college sports has its own panoply of criticism, often related to various financial motives, a college’s football prowess translates into more than just bragging rights or civic pride. It is one of the most powerful marketing tools of a university. Ultimately, it translates into more students, more tuition, more departments and programs, more jobs, and more regional economic benefit – in ways an NFL team could never match.
3) Better use of the land. Arguably, the large amount of land required for a pro-football stadium hosting just eight games a year, and one or two more if the team qualifies for the playoffs with sufficient prowess to play at home, can almost always be better used. However, this circumstance is particularly true for downtown real estate where professional teams now most often lobby to relocate their stadiums. This displacement of other uses doesn’t only occur from the time of the decision to build the stadium into the future. The mere specter of a stadium being built at a particular location puts other potential uses and projects on hold, particularly if the city or team already owns some or all of the property upon which the stadium would be erected. Thus, for example, in downtown San Diego’s East Village, the area under consideration for a stadium remained fallow during the pre-recession building boom. This circumstance continues during the recovery while construction in the rest of downtown has nearly reached pre-recession levels. This is unfortunate since the East Village has become somewhat of an academic center. A law school (Thomas Jefferson) relocated to the area in a state-of-the-art new building. City College has expanded beyond its traditional campus island and into the urban street grid. The city built a new architecturally stunning central library comprising half a million square feet. An “Innovation District” is proposed to attract creatives and tech startups. The developers of the district are actively seeking university satellite programs as tenants. University campuses have far more documented benefit to their host communities than professional sports teams. University programs actually attract outside investment and businesses, and require an educated or skilled work force, i.e., higher paying jobs. Notably, Carlsbad, a smallish coastal city to the north of San Diego, has hired a consultant to help it recruit a university satellite campus to locate there – the same consultant was involved in Cornell building a $2 billion technology satellite campus on New York’s Roosevelt Island. Yet the City of San Diego, with much more leverage and assets to offer is preoccupied with building a stadium at the site. Public parks have also proven to be reliable catalysts for redevelopment. In fact, a truly public amenity is almost always a better use of public lands or funds than a stadium. Stadiums almost always result in lost opportunities for the subject land, even when the stadium is merely a proposal.
4) Avoiding the blighting effect of stadiums. The public sees a new stadium, and in master planned stadium developments, additional buildings. They assume that the redevelopment goal has been accomplished. However, stadiums are much more likely to have a blighting influence on their surroundings, as can be seen from the long term impact on nearby neighborhoods of the many mature stadiums across the country. Some newer stadiums, particularly baseball parks have done a better job integrating into their surroundings. Petco Park in San Diego and Camden Yards in Baltimore are examples. However, baseball parks are smaller than football stadiums and have more games. Thus, they occupy less space than a football stadium space but have more economic benefit to a neighborhood by attracting visitors on more days. Nevertheless, “good” stadiums are more examples of mitigation of negative impacts than they are examples of redevelopment or revitalization. A local preservation group deserves much of the credit for Petco Park’s successful integration. The Save Our Heritage Group fought to prevent the demolition of historic warehouses in the area, several of which had already been remodeled as residential lofts. The preserved warehouse buildings became key features of Petco’s development, and the Western Metals building has become a nationally recognized symbol of the baseball park.
Stadiums create heavy but sporadic demand for parking, which may result in the demolition of buildings for parking lots. Most often, the first buildings to be demolished are historic structures, and buildings housing small businesses or creative ventures. The parking lots which replace them have a blighting effect on downtown landscapes. The vast expanses of asphalt are ugly and conflict with walkability and transit orientation, which are the main attraction for people to live or work in downtown.
As discussed above, the specter of a stadium proposal can also have a blighting impact by putting all would-be alternative uses of the land on hold.
5) Grab-bag of benefits: Watching the team without TV blackouts due to unsold-out games (although the NFL has recently eliminated the black-out rule), more productive use of your personal time and money, fewer traffic jams on game day, fewer opportunities for resident fans of opposing teams to show their civic disloyalty, greater likelihood that your children will be attracted to participate in a safer sport, greater church attendance, fewer football widows / widowers, and, well, you get the picture.
As for the San Diego Chargers, the mayor has promised that it will come down to a city-wide vote. I’m not saying I couldn’t be swayed. If the stadium could be used to house the homeless, provide 24 hour public restrooms downtown, was covered with some sort of bio dome that removed CO2 and particulate pollution from the air while simultaneously generating green energy, and public transit use was mandatory for spectators, then even I might support it.
Images: Google Earth aerial images of Qualcomm Stadium and area around Petco Park – both in San Diego.
1. Judd, D.R., Promoting Tourism in U.S. Cities – Professional Sports Franchises, ch. 15 in Readings in Urban Theory (Fainstein & Campbell, 3d Ed. 2011).