Are major league sports teams worth the public dollars we spend on them?
Its an old question, an unresolved question, and its one were about to debate again in Charlotte, this time regarding our most popular professional franchise. According to an Observer report last week, the Carolina Panthers are working on a plan to refurbish Bank of America Stadium, which at 16 years is old is becoming the shag carpet of NFL stadiums comfortable but in need of some updating.
Its possible the stadium renovations could cost more than $250 million, and its certain the team will ask Charlotte for some help. The team and the city have had some preliminary meetings, the Observer reported, and although the Panthers havent formally requested assistance, thats what pro teams expect from city and county governments. Usually, the governments say yes.
Should Charlotte? Economists, for the most part, will tell you its not a good deal. Yes, some studies show that professional teams and the stadiums they play in help create jobs, income tax revenue and other tax benefits. But those studies are often commissioned by teams and cities eager to have them. Economists largely say that net jobs gained from pro sports are minimal, and the net tax revenue falls far short of covering the public dollars spent to build a stadium.
Charlotte, however, is a bit of a different story. While some cities pick up the whole tab for new professional stadiums, our investment in the Panthers stadium two decades ago was among the sweetest deals a city has made with a pro sports team. Taxpayers contributed about $60 million for land and infrastructure improvements around the proposed stadium. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, with some help from Personal Seat License owners, paid for the rest of the $248 million project.
It was a partnership that benefitted Charlotte in ways that go beyond the punch of an economists calculator. You can frown at the amount of time and attention people spend on pro sports, but studies show that having a professional team influences how people perceive the quality of life in their city. And, like political conventions, being home to a major league team puts you in a bigger-city club that makes it easier to attract workforce talent, along with the businesses looking for that talent.
Leaders in most cities understand this. And those that dont? Several, including St. Louis and Minneapolis, have been stingy about public funding requests from pro teams, only to pay out many tens of millions more to lure a new team once the old one left. Charlotteans, who lost the NBA Hornets, know all about writing the big check for the new guys.
With the Panthers, theres much we dont know yet. How much will renovations cost, and how much will the city be asked to pay? Can that money come from the citys Convention Center fund? That option is politically palatable because the fund gets its money from hotel/motel taxes, but it has many suitors and by law must be spent to promote tourism.
For now, we hope the Panthers will approach any funding request with the same sense of partnership that helped engender the enduring goodwill Charlotte feels for this franchise. We expect city officials to protect taxpayers fiscal interests while understanding that our rooting interests are for keeping that partnership intact.