Expert Commentary

Covering sports stadium financing? Read these 4 tips.

Professional sports owners often justify asks of hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars for new or revamped stadiums with estimates of huge economic returns for communities. Read these 4 tips to help investigate these claims and comprehensively inform voters.

economic impact
(Lesly Juarez / Unsplash)

When sports franchises want a new or revamped stadium, they often turn to taxpayers for help with financing. For example, in June 2023, Nevada legislators approved $380 million in public funding for a 30,000-seat ballpark for the Oakland A’s, who are expected to make the move to Las Vegas in 2028.

Proponents estimate the A’s stadium in Las Vegas will create thousands of jobs and have an annual economic impact of $1.3 billion — more on that in the video below.

But economic research for decades has found that, by and large, the fiscal returns for residents — in the form of increased economic activity and job growth — are far smaller than public expenditures, which have recently approached or exceeded half a billion dollars per stadium.

Learn about the research in our companion explainer and research roundup.

Journalists should look closely at the political context around these major financial commitments, and question estimated fiscal returns. This is not just a topic for sports or business journalists covering major professional teams — even minor league teams have meant financial hardship for towns that took on debt to attract them. Here are 4 tips to help you get started in your reporting.

1. Interrogate economic impact statements or fiscal estimates from franchise owners.

Teams often produce economic impact statements or fiscal estimates claiming that building new stadiums or revamping existing ones will result in a fiscal and jobs boom for a city or region.

What assumptions do these economic impact statements or fiscal estimates make? Do they fully explain how they arrived at their numbers? If not, will the team publicly provide those behind-the-scenes details? Know that franchises may not make their analyses public.

For example, reporter Jon Styf at digital news outlet The Center Square obtained a two-page document showing economic impact estimates from the state of nearly $1 billion per year from a proposed retail and housing development around a new stadium for the National Football League’s Tennessee Titans.

The document also included economic impact estimates of around half a billion dollars from other cities hosting major events, such as the Super Bowl. Styf reached out to economists to find out whether those estimates were reasonable — the economists questioned their credibility.

In short, avoid reporting team-published estimates at face value. Run them by an economist or two who study this topic. Reach out to the North American Association of Sports Economists for help finding experts. FieldofSchemes, a blog run by journalist Neil deMause that covers sports economics, is another place to look for informed perspectives on economic impact estimates.

2. Know that public financing for a sports stadium can happen either through a legislature or through a direct decision by voters.

The Las Vegas funding happened via lawmakers, for example.

While Kansas City voters in April 2024 voted down public funds for a new stadium for MLB’s Royals, 7 in 10 voters in Oklahoma City who cast ballots in December 2023 said yes to $900 million for a new arena for the NBA’s Thunder. (Dozens of local economists had urged Oklahoma Cityans to reject the measure.)

Public votes may go either way, and can be influenced by campaigns from local groups in favor or opposed — but the legislative pathway is almost always successful, says Kennesaw State University economist John Charles Bradbury.

3. Understand how states and localities finance stadium construction.

These may include municipal bonds or taxes, such as sales taxes, sin taxes on things like alcohol and tobacco, and visitor taxes on hotels and rental cars.

Officials may claim visitor taxes are a way to pass the cost to out-of-towners. As Bradbury and co-authors note in a September 2023 paper in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, local people also rent cars. And residents with lower incomes are more likely to use extended stay hotels and have to pay the higher taxes.

Hotel owners may also draw lower revenues as they reduce pre-tax prices in order to retain customers — or, they may raise prices, passing the tax to customers but deterring future bookings.

4. Scrutinize smaller localities issuing bonds for minor or major league stadiums.

Pearl, Mississippi, issued tens of millions of dollars in bonds to build a new ballpark for an Atlanta Braves minor league affiliate in the early 2000s.

But, due to lack of attendance and lower economic impact than boosters estimated, the city had trouble paying the debt.

Credit agencies reduced the city’s bonds to junk.

(They’ve since rebounded.)

Bonus viewing: Healthy journalistic skepticism of economic impact claims

Alan Snel, publisher of, expressed healthy journalistic skepticism about economic impact numbers from sports franchises on the Dec. 29, 2023 edition of public affairs show Nevada Week, which is produced by Vegas PBS.

Host Amber Renee Dixon asked Snel about economic impact estimates for a new ballpark for the A’s that representatives from economic advisory firm Applied Analysis had presented to state lawmakers.

“They said they expect a $1.3 billion economic impact per year from the stadium and generating about $17 million in total tax revenue each year,” Renee Dixon said. “Those numbers don’t sit well with you. Why is that?”

Snel explained those estimates were “based on certain expectations” about attendance. He then said he had recently interviewed Michael Crome, Chief Financial Officer of the Las Vegas Raiders, which moved from Oakland to Las Vegas in 2020. “And they came out with a press release saying that the stadium and the visitorship, thanks to the Raiders events and also the stadium events, generated $2.29 billion,” Snel said. “That’s nearly $2.3 billion in revenue.”

Snel continued, “And I said to the Raiders, if you want to sit down and explain the math, we will report that. And I think that’s responsible journalism. But just putting these broad, general multibillion dollar figures out there without explaining the math is just — it’s just not an accurate portrait of what’s going on.”

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