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Detroit's Super Bowl profits, before and after the game

The Tuesday Column
Super Bowl Economics: Chump Change for Cities

Triple-chinned Babbitts worry about binge drinking around sports events. They should worry more about the con of binge events, the Super Bowl first among them. Its once-a-year gift to a chosen city is an annual Promised Land of profit and PR. And once a year the myths fly thicker than locusts over Egypt: Wife-beating will spike, water pressure will plummet, the nation’s theme parks will whistle in the wind, Janet Jackson will pop out a third breast. But no myth tops the host city boosters’ predictions of riches and recognition for everyone. The more audacious the predictions, the thicker the wool woven over people’s eyes.

The dirty secret of mega sports events isn’t that they’re not lucrative. They are. But with extreme selectivity. Like the Olympics or the World Cup, the economic impacts of those mega-events ultimately make no difference to residents of the unlucky host cities, who must either flee or sustain the carnage of hype and hassle. The events are quick ways to concentrate wealth in a few fortunate (and usually migratory) pockets. The last thing they do is diffuse wealth in the locale where they take place.

When the Super Bowl was held in Houston in February 2004, the host committee bandied about an “economic impact” promise of $330 million for the city. It was an empty boast. Two years later Houston was giddy over Hurricane Katrina’s disaster and exodus because it promised to lift the city out of its chronic economic anemia, which the Super Bowl had done nothing to alleviate. The unemployment rate, The New York Times reported in September, “was 5.5 percent in July, compared with 5 percent nationally. During the last oil boom in the 1970s, 150,000 jobs were created in the business of oil field equipment,” but “since the 1980s, about 130,000 of those jobs have been lost as oil and natural gas exploration migrated farther away from Houston,” and the more recent oil boom hasn’t helped. The game certainly didn’t.

The year before, San Diego’s boosters claimed a $367 million impact. “But a more precise figure,” USA Today reported just before the game, “is $75 million, says Robert Baade, a sports economist at Lake Forest College in Illinois. While 100,000 fans may show up in the city for the Super Bowl, nearly as many people—scared by the crowds and traffic—will stay home, he says.” Detroit’s boosters are predicting a $302 million impact for that beleaguered city and its southern Michigan environs this year. They could be claiming with equal accuracy that Mars teems with talking avocados. As elsewhere, the estimates are superstitious guesswork by local burghers luring their local government to subsidize the splurge and let the private few reap the benefits. The deception happens to be a lot more pronounced, to the point of cruelty, in Detroit. The city is already in ruins, has been since its demolition by indifference since the 1960s. Now the city is following down General Motors’ and Ford’s path to bankruptcy. It is America’s future today. It has a $30 million budget deficit (a pittance compared with the car makers’ liabilities); it has 13,000 homeless people; it has the highest unemployment rate of any city other than New Orleans. And they’re cheering a football game’s “impact”?

For a few lucky businesses, maybe. A 30-second TV ad during last year’s Super Bowl cost $2.4 million. The 100,000 out-of-towners raining on Detroit will be shelling out thousands for a night in a hotel, a ticket at the 50-yard line, a Chateau Rothschild in a suburban restaurant. But the lion’s share of that money won’t stay in Detroit any more than the money visitors will be shelling out on the merry whores of Windsor, just across the border in Canada, where the sex business, like $75 Cuban cigars, is legal. Just look at the city the next day. It’ll be no different from a briefly spruced-up welcome mat, and poorer by the block. They even tore down the office building once home to Motown Record between 1968 and 1972, to make room for one day’s football parking. A 30-second ad’s worth could have provided the investment for a year-round business to make a go of it there, or in other places where expediency’s wrecking ball is doing its leveling best. Then again, who’d have been the customers?

Detroit is a post-Katrina city without ever having been hit by a hurricane, at least not a natural one. It takes a so-called act of God to induce a nation’s resolve to rebuild one of its beloved cities. It has taken the acts of men decade after decade, Detroit’s first among them, to ensure Detroit’s condemnation. A football game in all this is one more joke at the city’s expense. And all the boosters can sing is “Let’s Get It On.”


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