When a local government considers paying for a professional sports team’s stadium, public opinion tends to fall into two camps.
There’s the “no way” camp, which opposes using taxpayer money to help pay costs that millionaire and billionaire owners can afford on their own.
There’s the “why not” camp, which thinks that pro teams bring economic benefits and make cities more appealing – and what’s a few (or hundred) million dollars of public money, anyway?
Now, as Charlotte and Mecklenburg County consider building a 20,000-seat stadium that would house a Major League Soccer team, we should make clear: We’re not in either camp.
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We were very happy to see the Charlotte Knights move into a splashy uptown baseball stadium, but we thought it was a bad deal for the city and county to each pay the team $8 million to make a move the Knights badly wanted to make.
We do, however, believe the city was right to build an uptown arena that became home to Charlotte’s NBA team, because that arena resulted in other economic benefits, including attracting events like the Democratic National Convention that were invaluable to Charlotte’s brand.
We’re having a harder time identifying the return from $100 million the city and county would spend toward a $150 million MLS stadium in Elizabeth just southeast of uptown. That’s the amount in a proposal presented to Mecklenburg County commissioners last week, the Observer’s Steve Harrison reports.
The proposal also calls for a local ownership group led by billionaire race track owner Bruton Smith to pay $50 million toward the venue. The county would donate the land – worth $12.9 million – and own the stadium, but the Smiths would manage it.
What do Charlotte and Mecklenburg get in return? The economic benefits of an MLS team are iffy at best. Economists overwhelmingly agree that pro sports franchises don’t bring much, if any, new revenue to cities because teams largely don’t spur new spending of entertainment dollars.
Would an MLS stadium spur growth around Elizabeth that wasn’t already going to happen in that thriving community? That’s doubtful, too. (If the stadium were instead built on the old Eastland Mall site, as some want, attendance would likely suffer, as often happens in arenas and stadiums that aren’t centrally located.)
Such dubious benefits might be why other cities have paid far less to build an MLS stadium than the Charlotte-Mecklenburg proposal, as Harrison reported Thursday.
The optics are even worse: As Charlotte and Mecklenburg officials tackle the urgent problem of economic immobility for low-income families, do we really want to be writing a $100 million check so that wealthy franchise owners-to-be don’t have to?
We don’t think so. Having an MLS franchise would be fun for Charlotteans, but it also needs to be a good deal. This one isn’t.