Hook, Line, & Stinker

Everyone loves the 49ers. But even love has its limits. Are taxpayers willing to subsidize millionaire owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr.'s dreams of a new stadium when economists say it's a bad deal

Since some cities did not provide specific data on nondurable goods, Zipp further tested his thesis by measuring overall retail sales in struck cities.

At the same time that non-baseball control cities experienced retail sales declines during the strike, six of the seven baseball cities posted greater than average gains in retail sales during the strike. Only one baseball city, St. Louis, showed an extremely small downturn in September, 6.8 percent to 6.6 percent.

Moreover, Zipp showed that "all ten of the cities thought to be most vulnerable to the strike (those with more games missed and more fans per capita lost) did better than expected in both strike months, while four of the cit-ies least susceptible showed some relative losses," further supporting his argument that ball teams are not a determining factor in an area's fiscal health.

Zipp's study is surely limited in its scope. Seven weeks is hardly enough time to properly assess a metropolitan economy and make conclusive statements about it.

Baade, on the other hand, has made similar studies of cities with professional sports teams from the mid-'60s until the late '80s and come to the same conclusion.

Zipp cites a 1990 study co-authored by Baade that "looked at nine cities between 1965-83 and found no significant relationship between adding a sports team or a new stadium and the city's economic growth," Zipp writes in his study. "In fact they found that in seven of the nine cities, the city's share of regional income declined after the addition of a sports team or the construction of a new stadium."

Baade updated and expanded this study in 1994, including 48 metropolitan areas that hosted professional sports teams over the 30 years between 1958 and 1987. Again, Zipp writes, Baade "found that in no cases did a new stadium have a statistically significant, positive economic impact on the city's growth and in three cases it had a negative impact."

If the point isn't money, what is it? That's where club owners and their attendant sycophants start talking about "the intangibles." This amorphous realm deals with the psychological health of a city. It's a pride thing, a civic thing, a sense of being a world-class, major league town. But it's also about sticking your chest out and doing the strutting bloated-neck-sack, my city do or die, your city sucks thang. So, you see, it has a lot to do with the sports mentality.

Baade adds another point. "It's an edifice complex," he says. "The Egyptians built pyramids. We build stadiums, shopping malls, and casinos." And DeBartolo builds all three. He's the perfect exemplar of this syndrome.

Affordable-housing activist Calvin Welch has another metaphor, and a slightly different explanation, for the problem. For years, he's called it the "cargo cult mentality" of city officials. Whether it's a convention center or a sports stadium, it has to do with laying down offerings to the long dead, long gone economic gods -- false gods in the case of sports stadiums. Build it and they will come back, that's the thinking. Just like the South Pacific Melanesians who built wooden replicas of cargo planes hoping they would beckon back the real World War II aircraft with their C rations and Coke.

Or as Baade says: "It's like Pascal, who said, 'I believe in God because I can't afford not to.' It's the same way with city officials and stadiums. They have to believe stadiums have an economic impact, because they can't afford not to."

Zipp agrees, attributing the rush to build stadiums to a desperate reaching -- fervent, even -- at creating some sensation of progress. "The fiscal crises of the last two decades have made city officials more concerned with issues of economic development while seemingly less able than ever to impact their economic fates," he writes in the preamble to his study. "In this climate, city leaders increasingly have sought major development projects, ones that can create jobs and that they can use to portray a sense of urban revival. In virtually every major U.S. city, part of these developments have focused on trying to keep or acquire a professional sports team."

In the world of intangibles, this is the greatest one: How does a mayor, a city, catch a self-esteem buzz? The drug analogy isn't gratuitous. Like drugs, the buzz is a lie, a fleeting perception, but a powerful one. And like drug pushers, sports team owners like DeBartolo rely on it to make their money.

Check out Carmen Policy, president and chief smooth-talker for the 49ers, discussing the intangibles. He hits all the right notes, the perfect pitchman pushing all the right buttons to make a sale.

"We are part of the soul of the city," he says of the team, when asked to defend a public subsidy, even though economists say it isn't money-wise.

"Why is it a good investment for the city to have a world-class opera? Why is it important to have a great symphony? Why is it important to have a great main library? We have become part of the fabric of the community."

As he spins out of control, Policy equates the 49ers with nonprofit public institutions bent on public service. One wonders if he's willing to take the whole plunge and wed his team to municipal government. His confusion is forgivable, however. Once you take the public teat in your mouth, independence and identity can tend to get skewed.

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