Call me Little Mary Sunshine. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. But I am beginning to believe that pro football’s domination of the national psyche peaked with this year’s Super Bowl. This can only be good news for San Diego, whose Chargers are trying to treacle-talk political and business leaders into a $700 million subsidy for a new stadium — but only if the team can’t first wangle a better deal in Los Angeles.
Pro football may experience a slow leak. It won’t be a bubble bursting, like dot-coms or subprime mortgages. But the bottom line, I think, is that the sport will be undone by hard dollars, health, and hubris.
First: hard dollars. States and municipalities are financially underwater, and San Diego was one of the first into the tank. Increasingly, San Diego economic seers are realizing the truth: the downtown stadium plans are just so much spindrift — what the techies call vaporware and the rest of us call horse manure.
Kelly Cunningham, senior fellow at the National University System Institute for Policy Research, is one of San Diego’s most distinguished economists, particularly knowledgeable on the local economy. He’s a fan of pro football, baseball, and basketball, but he wrote a note to me saying, “Having previously tried to rationalize public financing for ballparks and stadiums as an economic development tool and investment in the community, I should state my changing views. It is difficult, if not outright impossible, particularly during an era of budget austerities, to justify such expenditures.” He adds, “If it could be shown the dollars spent actually spurred greater return on the invested dollars, it might be justified, but economic studies show this not to be the case in about every situation.”
My guess is that most local economists who have studied the pro sports subsidy racket would say the same, but they have a constraint: establishment employers looking over their shoulders.
Cunningham points to the Super Bowl extravagances that line the pockets of the owners and notes that similar pickpocketing is rampant in other sports. “The economic realities of the costs imposed on the community, inflated ticket prices, increased luxury boxes, overpriced parking and concessions, with inflated salaries for nonresident players and relatively low-paying jobs for everyone else, only seem to extract more and more from the community,” says the economist.
And what about Petco Park? Has it been successful economically? “It helped spur development that probably wouldn’t have taken place otherwise,” says Cunningham, noting, however, that the subsidized condos and hotels in the ballpark district are hardly successful, and the City’s promise that the ballpark would be economically neutral was far wide of the mark. “The big recession and housing meltdown impacted those things.” But overall, the project “just redirected development into the downtown area. [Such redevelopment deals] only rearrange economic growth. We’re subsidizing wealthy developers and sports team owners — taking money away from the community and putting it in their hands.”
He says that the proposed football stadium won’t stimulate the surrounding economy, particularly since there would probably be only ten games a year (two preseason and eight regular season, and possibly some postseason games). “If anything, that stadium would take away from development,” he says. “Those owners don’t want you to spend money in the bar next door. They want you to spend money in the stadium.”
In San Diego, it is important that an economist of Cunningham’s stature is willing to state these truths.
So much for hard dollars. The next factor hitting pro football is just that: hitting. The sport’s violence is injurious to players’ health, and the public is beginning to get concerned. Ben McGrath’s article “Does Football Have a Future? The N.F.L. and the Concussion Crisis,” in the January 31 New Yorker, is a classic. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy results from “major collisions — or from the accumulation of subconcussions that are nowhere near as noticeable, including those incurred in practice,” writes McGrath, citing premature deaths, suicides, chronic depressions, memory failures, and other consequences of on-field crashes that are more frequent as the passing game becomes more prominent.
“Retired [National Football League] players are five to nineteen times as likely as the general population to have received a dementia-related diagnosis,” writes McGrath. He says that baseball immortal Lou Gehrig “may not actually have had the disease that bears his name but suffered from concussion-related trauma instead.”
McGrath quotes Jim McMahon, the former swashbuckling quarterback for the Chicago Bears. At the 25th reunion of the 1985 Super Bowl champions, the 51-year-old McMahon said that his memory “is pretty much gone.”
The New York Times started the crusade against football concussions. (Sportswriters for other papers said they didn’t want to lose access to their sources.) The Times also focused on retired players who are permanently injured but are given little help from billionaire team owners. And that brings us to the third factor that could contribute to pro football’s declivity: the owners’ insufferable hubris. Even football lovers have decried the Super Bowl insult this year, when a gaggle of fans who had bought tickets did not get seats. Now the owners want to extend the regular season to 18 games; they scoff at players who are worried about injuries.
Pro football is quintessential corporate welfare, and the owners have an unbearable sense of entitlement. During the lead-up to the Super Bowl, National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell delivered the annual state of the league address. He lamented that since 2006 “we have not built a new stadium (other than those already in the works).” We? We? As sports columnist Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post wrote, “This Super Bowl taught me a lesson: luxury can actually be debasing. The last great building binge in the NFL was from 1995 through 2003, when 21 stadiums were built or refurbished in order to create more luxury boxes, at a cost of $6.4 billion. Know how much of that the public paid for? $4.4 billion. Why are we giving 32 rich guys that kind of money, just to prey on us at the box office and concessions?”
Why, indeed? And why didn’t San Diegans give a well-deserved concussion to Paul Tagliabue, Goodell’s predecessor as commissioner, when he pronounced imperiously in 2003, as San Diego was hosting the Super Bowl, “From my own perspective, I’m surprised that we are here this week.” The outlook was not promising for future Super Bowls in San Diego. “And the reason is that, you know, so many new stadiums have been built in the last decade.”
It was magisterial extortion. And it still hasn’t worked. And may not.