When the Atlanta Braves announced this morning that they would be moving out of the city to nearby Cobb County to get a new stadium in 2017, the team was quick to point out how much money they would bring with them to Cobb County. "The economic benefits from the new stadium will ripple throughout the region," reads their website, specifically explaining that it would create 5,227 jobs and $235 million in payroll. Partly because of those big job guarantees, Cobb County has offered to pay $450 million toward the new stadium, over two-thirds of the total $672 million price tag, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (Update: the Braves organization denies that Cobb will provide $450 million, and writes that the county's exact contribution is still being finalized.)
However, significant economics research suggests that residents will be getting a "really crappy deal," according to Neil deMause, the co-author of Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit. "The notion of stadiums as an economic catalyst is a complete myth," he told The Atlantic Wire. "The notion that you are somehow going to get economic benefits from a new stadium and a baseball team in your county that is going to make up for a loss of $450 million. ... Any economist in the country is going to say there's no possible way to earn that back," he explained.
With co-author Joanna Cagan, deMause was an early critic of public-private stadium deals, and their ideas have taken a great hold in the public consciousness. "I'll reserve further Braves snark until I read full details, but the general stadium rule is you're getting swindled 100.1% of the time," Sports Illustrated's Andy Glockner tweeted.
So where will Cobb's pledged $450 million contribution come from? Tax increases, most likely, but the county will have a tough time passing those budget changes through a Republican-controlled government. "It's major Tea Party territory," deMause said, "and it's gonna be really interesting to see how they come up with $450 million without a tax increase and without calling it government spending." Even if they can raise the money, though, he doesn't think they'll see a return on their investment. "I guess if the Braves are paying a small enough amount for it, it's worth it to them. But I don't understand at all why Cobb would be interested in doing this," deMause said.
Government spending to create jobs isn't always a terrible idea, but the efficiency of stadium deals leaves a lot to be desired. Compare the $450 million offered up by the county to the supposed gain of 5,227 jobs, which comes out to about $86,000 per job. "Anything over $50,000 a job is, in economic development terms, a really crappy deal," deMause said. There's also the quality of the jobs to consider, since many of those workers (like stadium vendors, parking attendants, and security guards) will be working just 82 days a year.
Finally, there's the matter of the other more efficient economic objectives that won't get funded, like education, where Cobb County faces a major budget shortfall. Even a tax refund, might be preferable. Do you think 700,000 Cobb residents would enjoy a nice $642 kickback instead of a baseball team slightly closer to their homes?
Atlanta residents are perhaps the most familiar with professional sports squeezing money from the government. The city recently approved a $1 billion stadium plan for the NFL's Falcons, a number that has already been revised upward by more than $200 million. That new stadium will replace the 21-year-old Georgia Dome, which, like the 17-year-old Turner Field, is still a relatively recent construction. The city plans to contribute $200 million to the project by levying a new hotel tax, which in theory will impact tourists more than residents. Perhaps that's why the city has no plans to fight the Braves' move.
Despite the Braves decision, we may all be getting ahead of ourselves. DeMause cautions that an announcement doesn't necessarily mean the plans will go through. Cobb County taxpayers can only hope as much.