By John C. Mozena
Buffalo’s soccer fans might be excited about the potential of a new pro soccer team in the city, but their passion shouldn’t be used to justify any public subsidy deal for a proposed new downtown soccer stadium. The evidence is clear that stadiums don’t deliver on their “economic development” promises and that subsidizing them is a terrible deal for a city’s taxpayers, existing businesses and everyone else who depends on quality public services.
I’m not just an advocate for making economic development programs across the country more accountable; I’m also a soccer fan who’s traveled to Buffalo from out of state to attend a match. I know firsthand how passionate and committed the region’s soccer supporters are. Unfortunately, that same passion complicates the effort to make smart decisions about where to invest the community’s resources.
Across the country, owners and other stakeholders with a financial interest in pro sports take our love for our favorite teams and turn it against us to get cities and states to make stadium subsidy deals that simply don’t add up. They frequently dress up those subsidies in claims of “economic development,” arguing that the stadiums and surrounding developments will create jobs and kick-start vibrancy in local economies.
These deals depend on the common assumption that because sports can be such an important part of our lives that they must be a big deal in every way, including in the economy. But when it comes to the final box score, sports teams are the economic equivalent of the Detroit Lions or Cleveland Browns: competitive nonfactors that consistently find new ways of disappointing their supporters.
Far from being economic powerhouses, stadiums are notable for one key economic characteristic: They’re almost always empty and silent. Unlike virtually any other kind of business, they frequently go weeks or even months at a time without adding any measurable value to the local economy.
Even on game days, their impact is limited. This past season, USL Championship teams like the one proposed for Buffalo averaged just under 4,500 fans at each of their 17 league home matches. However passionate those fans might be, the equivalent of a busy convenience store’s daily customer traffic downtown just a few times a year isn’t a foundation on which any “entertainment district” or any other meaningful economic driver can be built.
That’s why the best path forward for Buffalo’s soccer future will be to leave the passion in the stands, letting common sense and hard facts run the table in any attempt at a public stadium deal.
John C. Mozena is president of the Center for Economic Accountability, a free-market advocacy organization based in Michigan.