Economy

The San Diego Chargers are moving back to L.A. Is being a ‘major league’ city worth it?

The economic benefits of sports franchises are usually exaggerated. But some cities love them anyway.

A former Chargers fan dumps memorabilia in front of of the San Diego Chargers headquarters after the team announced that it will move to Los Angeles, Thursday Jan. 12, 2017, in San Diego.
Denis Poroy/AP
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The NFL’s Chargers franchise will relocate from San Diego to Los Angeles, the club’s ownership announced in a letter on Thursday morning, two months after San Diego residents rejected a tax hike on local hotels to fund the construction of a new stadium.

“San Diego has been our home for 56 years. It will always be part of our identity,” wrote owner Dean Spanos.

“But today, we turn the page and begin an exciting new era as the Los Angeles Chargers.”

The franchise changed their name and unveiled a new logo on Twitter, though they plan to keep using their old logo, according to ESPN.com. And San Diegans were registering their bitterness on social media and in real life alike, with jilted fans discarding old gear in front of Chargers Park.

Somewhere among the embitterment (and glee), the relocation will probably stir up a debate that brings out the crabbiest of econocentrists and the breeziest of sports boosters: Just what good does a professional sports team ever do for the cities that host them?

The econocentrists have a point.

“As a general matter, public investment in a stadium doesn’t represent a productive investment for the local economy,” Andrew Zimbalist, chair of the economics department at Smith College in Massachusetts, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

That has become a mainstream view among scholars who study the effect of sports on local economies. And the question of whether or not a team gets funding from its host city is often decisive: Exhibit A would be the Dodgers, whose flight from Brooklyn so many decades ago came after urban planning czar Robert Moses refused the owner’s plan to replace Ebbets Field.

Not that investment is always a losing bet: Some stadiums are built as part of a larger development that can bring benefits, for instance.

And the Chargers’ plan to share a new $2.66 billion stadium with the Los Angeles Rams in Inglewood, Calif., in coming years will rightly be greeted by one group of area residents as a stroke of good fortune, says Dr. Zimbalist. “The construction industry is going to get a lot of work.”

But he and other scholars have analyzed how owners tend to sell their pitches to cities using deeply flawed promotional studies that exaggerate or fabricate estimates of their projects’ financial returns, leaving out hidden public sector costs in infrastructure, business relocations, and public services like police and medical technicians, among others.

Local governments often love the idea anyway – perhaps for the personal honor of turning one’s city into a “major league” town, but many scholars argue that it is essentially a kind of investment in the emotional glue of civic order.

“Across more than two millennia, those in power have incorporated sports and sports facilities into social systems,” wrote a group of researchers led by Cleveland State University urban affairs professor Mark Rosentraub in 2008.

“For example, the Romans built the Coliseum and staged hundreds of events to attract and retain political support.”

Games can be manipulated, too, as a distraction from social problems. And the intangible benefits of building a stadium and hosting a franchise are uneven: Dr. Rosentraub's survey of Indianapolis Colts fans found 58 percent of them would actually be willing to pay to keep the team in Indiana, but other towns have told researchers that the cultural significance of their franchise’s presence didn’t mean much – not enough, at least, to want them around if they weren’t contributing to the economy.

Chargers fans who come to watch in Los Angeles, now at least a two-hour drive from San Diego, will get an unusually intimate glimpse for the next two years, since the team will be playing in the 30,000-seat StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. 

In a statement, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti welcomed the “extraordinary contributions” the team would make “to our entire region.”

“L.A. already has more visitors than ever before. The Chargers will make our NFL tradition even richer, and give sports fans everywhere one more reason to be in Los Angeles.”