Academic economists argue among themselves about almost any proposition, but on
one issue there is remarkable agreement. In a recent survey of economists, the claim
that [l]ocal and state governments in the U.S should eliminate subsidies for professional
sports franchises received overwhelming support (Robert Whaples, Do
Economists Agree on Anything? Yes! Economists Voice 3, no. 9 , p. 1). There
is an equally remarkable lack of harmony between estimates of the economic benefits
of professional sports produced by scholars and claims of economic impact produced
by the industrys hired consultants. The scholarly literature is replete with dozens
of studies that document only minute to modest impacts, at best, of locating a sports
franchise in a city (see, for example, Dennis Coates and Brad Humphreys, Do
Economists Reach a Conclusion on Subsidies for Sports Franchises, Stadiums, and
Mega-events? Econ Journal Watch 5, no. 3 : 294315). Yet team owners and
their consultants, armed with formulaic claims of grandiose benefits, repeatedly
succeed in tapping state and local treasuries for the purpose of stadium building.
This is so even in the face of apparent majorities opposed to sports subsidies.
Owners of Americas premier sports teams have successfully played the system
in much the same way as owners of prime farmland, another puzzling feature
in political economy. In They Play, You Pay, James T. Bennett provides an account
of this recurring event. He serves up a steady stream of historical vignettes of franchiserelocation
threats and public funding of sports stadiums, and he summarizes what he
calls enough empirical evidence to fill Yankee Stadium (p. 169) on this issue. Bennett
writes with a blend of wry humor, indignation, and ultimately resignation about this
welfare program for the billionaire owners of North Americas sports teams.
Its a large program, too. Bennett cites evidence that governments contributed
$10.34 billion to major league stadium and arena projects between 1995 and 2009
alone (p. 164), a figure that has been replicated in several studies. But the political
drama over stadium building has played out over the better part of the past century,
dating to construction of the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1923. Bennett notes that the
coliseum was the brainchild of Los Angeless Community Development Association
and was essentially a spec house for the Olympics. Los Angeles actually managed
to land this prize, hosting the Olympic Games of 1932. Chicagos original investments
in Soldier Field and Clevelands in its Municipal Stadium were made with the
same objective in mind, but these investments failed. Indeed, the Cleveland Indians
abandoned Municipal Stadium less than two years after its opening in 1932 (with the
exception of games played on Sundays and holidays) and didnt return until after
World War II. Nevertheless, the die had been cast, and Municipal Stadium became
a template for public involvement in sports over the next few decades.
Bennetts book is divided into four segments, the first of which describes the entry
of American political figures into the world of sports. That politicians would exploit the
spotlight provided them by spectator sports is not difficult to understand and dates at
least to the emperors of Rome. Bennetts account begins by recapping President Teddy
Roosevelts role in addressing college footballs injury crisis in 1907. This was an age of
a relatively minimalist federal government, yet somehow the president was compelled
to intervene in rule making for a boys game. Roosevelt was in frequent contact with
Harvard football coach William Reed (p. 8), who believed that Yale coach Walter
Camps rules committee was biased against Harvard. Oh the inhumanity! Out of these
negotiations emerged the National Collegiate Athletic Association, for better or worse.
The political theater in American sport perhaps reached an absurd peak when the
U.S. Senate held four days of hearings on the Federal Sports Act of 1972. Bennett
provides a thorough account of this comical episode. The legislation proposed the
creation of the Federal Sports Commission (FSC), an entity that would regulate the
location of franchises, player compensation, and television broadcasts of the games.
The FSC strikes me as one of the most boneheaded legislative ideas of all time.
Nevertheless, each of these issues was hotly contested during this period. They are
rooted in the monopoly structure of major North American sports, which limits the
number of franchises, allows for joint selling of broadcast rights, and, particularly
at this time, resulted in significant monopsonistic exploitation of players. Resolving
these issues took many years and is still an ongoing process. Negotiations involved
many partiesamong the owners themselves and the players as well as ultimately
between each of these groups; and there was combat between maverick owners and
the collective interests of the league and not infrequent courtroom litigation. But
federal legislation thankfully played only a bit part in the proceedings.
When it comes to stadium subsidies, the books primary focus, fans of pure
politics have more to cheer about because there has been a steady flow of legislation
in this direction at the state and local level over the years. From a purely economic point
of view, stadium subsidies are just like any other wealth transfer to an entityfor
instance, an automobile-manufacturing facility over which political jurisdictions
compete. Stadium subsidies, like corporate location incentives, are a recurring feature
in our political systeman equilibrium phenomenon, if you will. Hence, Bennetts
well-founded sense of inevitability regarding the process.
The books main contribution is Bennetts lengthy account of the scores
of stadium subsidy schemes that have been hatched and executed over the years.
Relative to other recent books on this topic, They Play, You Play is more historical
and less theoretical than Steven Ross and Stefan Szymanskis Fans of the World, Unite!
A (Capitalist) Manifesto for Sports Consumers (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University
Press, 2009) and less prone to view government as the answer to these ills than
Dave Zirins 2010 polemic Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love (New York: Scribner Books; one senses that Zirin would have cheered the creation of
the FSC). One dimension of stadium politics noted throughout Bennetts bookand
missing elsewhereis the use of eminent-domain proceedings to steal land
(Bennetts phrase, used repeatedly) for stadium projects. Stadium building illustrates
just how far the concept of public welfare has been stretched when it comes to
legal interpretation of the Takings Clause.
Bennett serves up myriad detail on these deals, drawing on newspaper accounts
from across the country, important books on the history of sport, and the academic
journal literature canvassing a variety of disciplines, including culture, history, and
politics in addition to economics. This is not economics done in the usual style. The
coverage is more wide ranging and conversational, as if you were seated in a bar
listening to a historian loaded with scores of facts and stories and compelled to get
to the next one and the one after that before time is called.
I have two criticisms, admittedly more directed at style than substance. First, the
discourse follows the arc of time, hopping from one deal and its cast of characters
to the next, but although plenty of numbers are tossed into the narrative, there are no
charts, tables of summary statistics, or regression models to help organize the data.
The absence of these things might admittedly be a plus for some readers, but it
contributes to a rather messy presentation of the topic, albeit rather like the process
being described. Second, on occasion the writing style ventures too close to hyperbole.
Congressman Jack Kemp is referred to as a most voluble gasbag (p. 21),
Senator Jim Bunning as a legendary grouch (p. 29), and Glendale taxpayers
in Arizona (the subsidy source for the National Hockey Leagues Coyotes) as people
who think Bobby Orr is a rowing machine (p. 145). I didnt know these
things before reading the book and dont believe they inform my understanding of
In the end, however, ones patience with this book is rewarded. The reader
emerges from it having been presented with more facts and detail about more deals
than can be gleaned from any other source. Indeed, the book can be thought of as
something of a source of sources. Chapter 4 alone, Parks and Stadiums since 1960,
has 194 endnotes, most of them to articles and books outside the narrow economic
literature and worthy of further investigation. They Play, You Pay is worth keeping
on the shelf for that reason alone.