Pro Football May Not Spell Economic Boon in Cities Awarded Expansion Teams

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN the National Football League next month chooses a new team from among four rival cities, fans in the victorious hometown should think twice before taking to the streets in celebration: Most pro sports teams are not big winners for their host economies.

The NFL inducted the Carolina Panthers of Charlotte, N.C., into its exclusive, lucrative gridiron fraternity Tuesday at a special meeting called at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. Unexpectedly, however, the league postponed selecting another new team until Nov. 30.

So the other contenders for NFL anointment must endure for a month the prospect of joining the handful of teams that, in the brutal play of football business, have lost without ever donning helmet and cleat.

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From an economic standpoint, however, a rejection by the NFL next month could be a victory of sorts for the fans of all four prospective teams: the Baltimore Bombers; Jacksonville, Fla., Jaguars; Memphis Hound Dogs; and St. Louis Stallions.

A snub by the NFL will be a blessing in disguise if, as a result, city officials and would-be team owners invest in local industry instead of playing fields, say economists who analyze sports. (The groups still competing for ownership of an NFL expansion team have plenty of money on hand; each has raised the franchise fee of $140 million.)

The economies in cities that have coupled themselves to pro teams as an engine of growth lag behind cities that instead invest in building a solid foundation for private industry, says Robert Baade, an economics professor at Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, Ill.

``The idea of having a pro sports team is very seductive, but in terms of pure economics a pro team just doesn't have the potential impact'' of traditional public investment in a local economy, Dr. Baade says.

Baade has recently completed an eight-year study into the influence of professional athletic teams on the economies of 47 United States cities. Among the pitfalls from public investment in professional sports that he and other economists cite are these:

* Unlike investment in industry or manufacturing, the money spent on pro sports creates jobs that are largely seasonal and low in both skill level and wages.

* Compared with more conventional public investment in the economy, the payoffs from public money spent on a pro team skirt the middle class, the working class, and the poor, and enrich an elite of owners and players.

* Many members of this elite make their permanent homes outside the host city and spend most of their six- or seven-figure salaries far from fans of their teams.

* In many cities, public spending on a new athletic team may only rechannel money that the natives would otherwise spend on other local leisure activities.

FUNDAMENTALLY, businesses do not choose a city because it fields a professional sports team. They do so to take advantage of good transportation, an educated work force, tax breaks, low-cost gas or electricity, and other profitable factors, according to economists.

Don Davis, president of the Jacksonville City Council, says the $121 million the city has committed toward renovating the Gator Bowl for the Jaguars would not come from funds for other city projects and investment.

``Some people are comparing apples and oranges; if we were taking money out of the budget for education or out of the budget for fixing the streets in order to attract an NFL team, then people opposed to a franchise would have a valid point, but we're not doing that,'' Mr. Davis says. Some members of the City Council oppose the Jacksonville initiative as wasteful and too ambitious.

Similarly, House majority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri told the Monitor before stumping in Chicago for the Stallions that public money spent on the team would not come from budgets devoted toward business, education, or other valuable city programs.

``A Stallion franchise would just be icing on the cake for the convention center in St. Louis, it would be a great tourist attraction,'' Mr. Gephardt says. St. Louis is building a $258 million domed stadium and convention center to be completed in October 1995.

``And taxpayers fully support the convention center and stadium,'' Gephardt adds.

For Leonard (Boogie) Weinglass, head of an ownership group competing for an NFL team in Baltimore, the value of a pro football team is immeasurable.

``Spiritually, it's good for a city. Sometimes you just can't put the value of something in dollars and cents,'' he said.

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