Friday, April 23, 2004

The Truths Not Told

When the FedExForum was being proposed, and the tiger team was in full gear, some critics of public funding for the arena argued that there were studies that showed publicly funded arenas did not return on their investments and were often used by team owners as another way of maximising their profits. Several studies have been done now and, to my knowledge, not one has yet shown that publicly funded sports facilities are good returns on investment.

The local daily was in full booster mode at the time -- ruthlessly supportive. They mentioned such studies only briefly and dismissively, before loudly telling one and all that the "intangible" benefits were just as profitable. They still do it. Easter Sunday had an editorial from a Professor of Economics at the UoM who even argued both positions -- spending most of her article pointing out the lack of economic benefit to the City and then turning around to meekly utter the "civic pride" loyalty oath at the end.

Look at all the media hoopla about the Grizzlies' playoff run. Everyone is now crowing "How you like us now?" The assumption -- there is no evidence or proof -- is that Memphis is now big league, "world class" in the city's over-used formulation, and folks notice us favorably and take us seriously. Of course, that didn't convince MTV. But hey! We're world-class baby.

This week, yet another study shows that public funding isn't necessary. The authors persuasively show that arenas generate enough income to pay for themselves. You can read the study's press release, with more information, here.

There is a weakness to their assumption, though, one that ought to be pointed out. They base their numbers on arenas and stadiums being used for twenty years or longer. That's not the case any more. Our Pyramid is barely a decade old and considered a relic. Teams don't make promises even up to a decade now. Owners may not plan to move, but being locked down when opportunity comes -- or fortunes change -- isn't good business practice for them.

The good news for those who oppose public funding is that the Internet is making the fight more even. Sites like this and this are where citizens can end-run the newspapers and radio/television stations that will blunt their opinions. Never forget that newspapers and radio/television have valuable financial and prestige interests in getting big sports teams in their markets. Opposing these teams' demands is not good for them.

When the Grizzlies were pitching to come here, the local daily and television made all opposition seem to center around Duncan Ragsdale and Heidi Shaefer. Except in the Letters column, and disparaging reports about City Councillors, you saw little about citizen organisation and that was only to brush it aside as foolish. That, I feel, was deliberate. The next time, it will be much harder to pull off. There's a network of websites and blogs, more people are online, and people are much more comfortable using the Internet. Organisation will be better and stronger.

If we're lucky, that won't be happening any time soon.

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