US Cellular White Sox


You might have noticed a story in the Chicago News Cooperative about the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority—a state agency created in 1987 to build what would become U.S. Cellular Field—went into the red this year as a $1.1 million shortfall in hotel taxes, putting that burden on city taxpayers. On Friday the ISFA blamed an accounting error, saying the shortfall was a mere $185,000.

Coincidentally, I started Jonah Keri's The Extra 2% this weekend; it's about how the Tampa Bay Rays went from being a laughing stock to a competitive baseball team with "Wall Street strategies." It's sort of the new Moneyball, and a good read so far. But Keri begins the book not with the Rays, but with a politician: "Big Jim Thompson stalked the floor of the Illinois state legislature, sweat soaking through his shirt and streaming down his brow."

For years, as Keri points out, the Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg area served as a stalking horse for baseball teams looking for new stadiums and sweetheart deals from taxpayers to finance them. If the ISFA didn't get funded in mid-1988 with a hotel taxes, Jerry Reinsdorf would have moved the Sox south, to a publicly-financed stadium built to show the city's seriousness in landing a team. At midnight Thompson got his votes, Tampa Bay wouldn't land a team for another decade, and Chicago got the ISFA and hotel taxes.

There's a funny thing, though: Thompson didn't get his votes at midnight.

"We were live on the air, and twelve o'clock came and went," recalled Mark Douglas, a former reporter for WTSP-TV St. Petersburg who was embedded at the Illinois Statehouse. "John Wilson, our news anchor at the time, says 'Mark, help me out here. I thought the vote had to be made by midnight.' Sure enough, the clock in the chamber was stuck at a few minutes before midnight. Since they'd stopped the clock, they had not officially met their deadline."

Even by the down-and-dirty standards of Illinois politics, this was a jarring move. [Usual litany of city and state political crimes redacted. You know the drill.] But never in Illinois had lawmakers stopped time to get what they wanted.

Andy Shaw places the responsibility on Michael Madigan for bending the laws of time, or at least the laws of the state.

What Thompson faced if the Sox fled is obvious from the immediate Tribune coverage. Here's the editorial:

Of course the legislature did the right thing when it voted to build a new stadium and provide ongoing subsidies that will keep the White Sox in Chicago. A professional baseball franchise is well worth coveting for its economic impact alone, and even more so for the zest it adds to city life. The Sox subsidy will come almost entirely from a hotel tax levied only in Chicago, so legislators did not rob schools or mental hospitals or downstate interests when they approved it.

And columnist Bob Verdi:

The state of Illinois would not be saving money by allowing the White Sox to depart for Florida; rather, the state of Illinois would be losing money. Pick a figure, but $100 million a year seems to be a modest estimate of the sum that the White Sox return to the economy. A baseball team is a business, worthy of local concessions tendered to any other business being wooed by another region.

That the White Sox represent 88 years of tradition and a way of life to so many Chicago baseball fans only underscores the fact that a major-league franchise is a treasure, not to be dismissed lightly. Not to be dismissed, period. How in the name of honest advertising could Chicago ever attract other commerce—even a hot dog stand from Peoria—if it blithely permitted the White Sox to leave town? A major-league team departed is a black eye that never heals.

If the clock had struck midnight, Chicago would have turned into a pumpkin, like Gary but with worse traffic. Heck, Los Angeles lost two professional sports teams, and lots of people don't want to live there.

Of course, 1988 was really the dark ages of sports-stadium economics.

Studies demonstrating pro sports stadiums' slight economic impact go back to 1984, the year Lake Forest College economist Robert Baade examined thirty cities that had recently constructed new facilities. His finding: in twenty-seven of them, there had been no measurable economic impact; in the other three, economic activity appeared to have decreased. Dozens of economists have replicated Baade's findings, and revealed similar results for what the sports industry calls "mega-events": Olympics, Super Bowls, NCAA tournaments and the like. (In one study of six Super Bowls, University of South Florida economist Phil Porter found "no measurable impact on spending," which he attributed to the "crowding out" effect of nonfootball tourists steering clear of town during game week.)


For politicians eager to embrace sports deals, it's easy to find consulting firms willing to produce glowing "economic impact studies" — even though sports economists nearly unanimously dismiss them as hogwash. For example: Economic Research Associates told the city of Arlington, Texas, that spending $325 million on a new stadium for billionaire oil baron Jerry Jones's Dallas Cowboys would generate $238 million a year in economic activity. Critics immediately pointed out that this merely totaled up all spending that would take place in and around the stadium. Hidden deep in the report was the more meaningful estimate that Arlington would see just $1.8 million a year in new tax revenues while spending $20 million a year on stadium subsidies.

I do think people are more hesistant than they used to be to pony up tax dollars for professional sports, as the Ricketts' dance with the city indicates. But the madness also continues, and the two Tribune responses to the Sox stadium deal are telling as to why. It's not all bad math; sports makes grown men crazy.


Photograph: juggernautco (CC by 2.0)