It’s a great time to be an Atlanta Falcons fan. The star-laden team is coming off its biggest win of the season, and more than 70,000 fans will fill the Georgia Dome on Sunday night for a nationally televised matchup with the Chicago Bears. It delights a football nut to pen such sentences, which couldn’t have been written for most of the Falcons’ 44 years.
The franchise thinks this success offers an opportunity to agitate for replacing the 17-year-old Dome. Falcons owner Arthur Blank raised the subject yet again this month. The dream is a billion-dollar stadium with a retractable roof, built downtown or perhaps in Doraville by the end of the 2010s, and funded with public and private money.
But there could be no worse time to talk about spending any tax dollars to replace a functioning stadium, especially in financially flailing Atlanta.
Just this summer, Atlanta raised its property tax rate by 42 percent to close a $56 million budget gap. The city fiscal situation will probably get worse before it gets better, and money for a stadium means less money for other needs.
When revenues do recover, the city’s financial outlook will still be troubled. For one thing, more than $1 billion in pension liabilities will remain unfunded. Things don’t look much better for the state, which owns the Georgia Dome and could also be asked to help pay for a new stadium.
Worse, the idea is to build the new stadium just as the state finally pays off the bonds floated for the Georgia Dome. Are taxpayers expected to keep filling the trough forever?
And we’re talking about a lot of slop here. Profs. Judith Grant Long and Andrew Zimbalist have estimated nationwide that, from 2000 to 2006, the average public contribution to a new stadium’s construction and operating costs was $316 million. That was 40 percent higher than the previous five-year span.
Those figures may only rise further in the coming years, when a new stadium would be built. Atlantans, and other Georgians, have better uses for a few hundred million dollars.
OK, you may say, but what about the money a new stadium would generate? Well, economists Dennis Coates and Brad Humphreys studied the economic impact of U.S. professional sports teams from 1969 to the late 1990s, including new stadium construction. They found that pro sports teams may actually cause local incomes to fall by up to $10 per person per year.
Elected officials in Doraville and DeKalb County might keep that little statistic in mind as they consider luring the Falcons away from downtown.
Replacing a stadium, Coates says, “is likely to have the least amount of [economic] impact” for a metro area: “There’s not going to be a big increase in the number of people attending, there’s not going to be an increase in the number of concessions sold. It may be that there is a little bit of a novelty effect, but most of the NFL teams sell out all their games anyway, at least they have historically.”
On the evidence, there may never be a good time for taxpayers to subsidize a new stadium.
It may be true that the Falcons would be more profitable with a stadium that has more of the luxury suites that are so lucrative. All the more reason for the team to find its own financing in the private markets.
It may be true that the experience for fans would improve in a new stadium, as Blank suggests. All the more reason to let the fans pay for this improvement at the box office, rather than subsidizing them at the expense of people who’d prefer to spend their money watching the Braves, Hawks, Thrashers, Bulldogs or Yellow Jackets — or something other than sports.
There’s a term that fits here, one that may sound familiar to the Home Depot alum Blank.
Do it yourself.
Note: This text reflects corrections made to the original post.