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"Sports Mania Is a Poor Substitute for Economic Success"

2009 January 17
by Skip Sauer

Jerry Bower in todays WSJ:

If there ever was a time to crow about the wonders of rebuilding a city around a professional sports team, this would be it. Three of the four teams remaining in the play-offs hail from cities — Baltimore, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh — that in recent years spent billions rebuilding their downtowns around pro sports facilities and other community “anchors.”

Except that there’s a problem. The teams might be competitive, but the cities definitely are not. All three continue to shrink in population, and have stagnant job markets and crumbling public schools.

Bower believes there is a lesson in the experience of these cities for what we can expect from the public works-focused spending forthcoming in Washington. That is, don’t expect very much out of it, other than a tax bill in the future. He finishes on a clever note:

When the Steelers were in the Super Bowl in 2006 I was the host of a radio show in Pittsburgh. I argued that the franchise was an exercise in leadership excellence in a city whose politicians were anything but. Numerous callers hammered me. They said there are a lot of “Steelers” bars across the country, and that proved the city still had some national respect. Indeed, there are hundreds of watering holes dispersed across America loaded with fanatical devotes of the Pittsburgh Steelers. “Where are the Seahawks bars?” the callers asked.

In Seattle, of course. That city has gained population while Pittsburgh lost it. Steelers bars are the visible cultural artifact of a kind of economic diaspora. People in those bars are the refugees who looked at high taxes, union dominance and lousy schools and voted with their feet. They can still root for their favorite team — from Raleigh, North Carolina. You go South or West to get your bread. The circuses can be watched on cable.

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