Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s senior vice president of events, recently visited NRG Stadium, aka Son of the Astrodome, and pronounced the stadium up to speed to host the 2017 Super Bowl. Oh, except for minor improvements like upgrading the stadium’s WiFi, and renovating the club seating and the executive suites. It shouldn’t cost more than $50 to $70 million. O’Reilly said the costs of upgrading the facility rest with Harris County or its tenants: the Texans and the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, which have absolutely no plans to pick up the tab. That leaves – one guess — the taxpayers.
Hear me out. The stadium is 13 years old, and certainly needs a rehab. It is far older and more run-down than our schools, hospitals and potholes. Besides, the Super Bowl will make us a pile of money. The 2004 Super Bowl brought $350 million to the Houston area. New Orleans claims its Super Bowl had a $480 million economic impact in 2013. The Houston Super Bowl Host Committee predicts the 2017 game will provide a $500 million boost to the economy. However, according to the committee, the game and lead-up events will cost between $30 million and $70 million. That’s apparently in addition to the millions spent on the stadium.
Let’s parse these figures. “Economic impact,” “brought to the area” and maybe “trickle down” are NOT the same as bringing that much cash to town. It is voo-doo economics designed by those who will end up in the executive suites. Follow the money: A fan pays $100 for a meal while visiting Houston. The waiter gets 20 percent (the visitor is a big tipper) and spends his $20 on gas. The gas station owner gets a share which he spends on carrots. The restauranteur spends her $80 on food, utilities, pest control and protection from Vito the Enforcer. By the time that $100 for groceries, gas and toothpaste are counted, the “economic impact” is $54 million. Pay no attention to such inflated figures.
Yes, supporters say that the Super Bowl generates “free advertising” for the host city. The entire planet will be focusing on Houston as it extolls its parks and museums, the Ship Channel and the spot where Gilley’s once stood. Quick question: Where was last year’s Super Bowl held? You’re right. Miami. No, it was Seattle. No, Indianapolis. Did those TV shots of the Hoosier capital’s skyline make you want to move your regional office from Akron to Indianapolis? No? Then what, exactly, did that city receive from hosting the world’s most-hyped event? A lot of bills, that’s what. Indianapolis had expected to spend $450,000 more on the game than it made in revenue, mostly for public safety. The city eventually revealed that figure was closer to $1.3 million. The emperor isn’t wearing a jersey.
Incidentally, notice how companies using the Super Bowl to sell TV sets and Fritos always refer to the event as “the Big Game.” Most companies are not allowed to use the phrases “Super Bowl” or “Super Sunday,” both of which have been copyrighted. Also, the NFL, whose Commissioner Roger Goodell was paid more than $44 million last year, has nonprofit tax-exempt status.
At least we get to see a great football game in person. Uh, sorry. Fans in the host city receive few tickets to the game. Some tickets go to each participating team to sell. The rest go to corporations, sponsors, potential sponsors and, of course, to the Budweiser Clydesdales. The Super Bowl is an orgy for the 1 percenters. When Houston last hosted the Super Bowl in 2004, Hobby Airport was so overrun with private jets that it caused concern for safety. Today that multi-million dollar spectacle is mostly remembered for Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction.”
The Super Bowl is not the only 400-pound linebacker in the room. The finances of pro sports have reached an arms race among cities. So let us look at pro sports without the cheerleaders, not on the sidelines, but on local TV and radio sports programs plus newspaper columnists. Pro sports teams do not add to, but subtract from, the local economy. According to a Brookings study, sports facilities now typically cost the host city more than $10 million a year. Oriole Park at Camden Yards costs Maryland residents $14 million a year. The net cost to local government for refurbishing the Oakland Coliseum for the Raiders was about $70 million.
As for construction, promoters are always low-balling the costs. Taxpayers in the U.S. spent about $10 billion more on stadiums and arenas for professional sports teams than the boosters forecast, according to a book by Harvard University urban planning professor Judith Grant Long. This brings up the matter of just how important a pro sports franchise is to a city. It was said that Houston needed to land an NFL franchise in order to be “a world class city.” That makes sense. The franchise put us up there with New York, Los Angeles and Green Bay, Wisconsin. Oh, I forgot, Los Angeles lost not one but two NFL teams years ago, and seems to be doing just fine.
One study determined that an NFL franchise employs as many full-time workers as a large Wal-Mart store. Meanwhile, cities like Houston and Dallas support scores of pro athletes, who collectively are raking in hundreds of millions of dollars from local fans. Where do the jocks spend that money? Check the schedule. During the playing season, the athletes are in town for half the time. Off season, most reside elsewhere. The dollars paid by Texas fans are sent to California or Florida or wherever the players live. That giant sucking sound (thank you, Ross Perot) is money being taken out of town.
So enjoy the Big Game from your den, and when the camera pans the stadium, look for Peter O’Reilly. He’ll be in one of those executive suites – and check out the new carpets.
Ashby is a fan at firstname.lastname@example.org