Aug 24,2001


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Five Hundred Million Arguments For The Elimination Of The Super Bowl

Why we should scrap the Super Bowl, spectacle and all

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by Neil deMause

In case you've been living under a rock -- or in the football no-man's-land of Los Angeles -- it's time once again for the yearly extravaganza known as the Super Bowl. On Sunday afternoon, an estimated 90 million people will sit down to watch ten hours of pregame, postgame, and halftime shows, commercials, and, oh yes, football, in our annual orgy of national sports obsession.

All this activity, the NFL likes to remind us, also means economic activity. Wherever you've looked in media coverage of Super Bowl XXXV (including SportsJones), there's been mention of the economic windfall that comes from hosting the game: a record $250 million for the Tampa region this year, according to the league.

Figures like this are showing up more and more often on the sports pages, usually with little explanation. A few years ago, during Michael Jordan's return from hiatus, Fortune magazine calculated that His Airness was worth a cool $10 billion a year to the U.S. economy.

What does a number like that mean? In this case, it means someone at Fortune took out a calculator and totaled up every economic exchange that was touched by MJ's blessed hand: every pair of Air Jordans sold, every pair of Hanes underwear worn, every "Space Jam" video rented. Total up all the Jordan merchandise, Jordan-endorsed products, and Jordan-linked TV contracts and you get $10 billion.

What's missing from this analysis is what economists call the "substitution effect": most people, presumably, would have watched videos and worn underwear even if Jordan hadn't been around to tell them to do so. As Chicago Sun-Times writer Richard Roeper pointed out at the time, "Heck, maybe there'd be a Zippy Pippy cologne inspired by Scottie Pippen. Who knows."

The same goes for Super Bowl economic stats. Sure, Tampa area hotels are packed to capacity for the big game, but it's not like Florida is otherwise hurting for tourists in mid-winter. When University of South Florida economist Philip Porter looked at tourism figures for past warm-weather Super Bowls, he found no discernible uptick during the week of the game. In fact, says Porter, Super Bowl tourists are often forced to book week-long hotel stays even if they are only flying in for the weekend -- meaning windfalls for the national hotel chains that jack up prices for the event, but not much for local merchants who miss out on lost sales during much of the week.

So if Super Bowl benefits for the host city are overstated, what about the costs of the game? The NFL, predictably, is silent on just how much of a public subsidy the Super Bowl gets. But if we apply the same logic (and assumption-laden bookkeeping) to the game's costs as the league does to its alleged benefits, we can quickly compile a litany of Super Bowl liabilities just as long as its assets.

The largest subsidy, of course, is for the building: no championship game takes place anymore without a state-of-the-art playground to host it. Raymond James Stadium, site of Super Bowl XXXV, was built at a cost of $168 million in public money to replace Tampa Stadium in 1998. The stadium project was propelled in part by the argument that a new stadium would help draw Super Bowls and their supposed economic benefits. It's a common argument for football teams seeking new homes: Phoenix, San Francisco, and New York are all currently considering building new football stadiums in part as a means of luring future Super Bowls.

Next page: An economic monster on the loose


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