Economic grievances


(Deandome, Chapel Hill)

This morning on Mike and Mike, Mike Greenberg was complaining, on behalf of season ticket holders, that the NFL’s stated intention to increase the number of games subject to flex scheduling will hurt season ticket holders. That’s because a last minute change in a game’s kickoff time will, of course, alter people’s travel plans, especially those who have to travel some distance to go to games. All of this exists to accommodate television, which wants to retain the right to identify marquee match-ups and put those in favored time slots. On Sunday, for example, the originally scheduled Football Night in America game on NBC was Giants-Packers. Before the season started, that looked like an appealing game – two recent Super Bowl champs, both of which were expected to contend for the title this season. But the Giants are basically terrible – their four-game winning streak has been built on the brilliant strategy of only playing against third string quarterbacks. And the Packers, one of those teams relegated to playing a  third string QB are not a compelling watch at the moment. So, NBC jumped at the chance to show Broncos-KC instead.

For most fans, this is a good thing, since most of the football watching public would undoubtedly have preferred to see the Denver-Kansas City game. But for the ticket holders of the two games in question, especially if hotels and other booked travel was involved, this was surely a nuisance.

I mention this because Greenberg spent several minutes on this issue this morning (at some point in the segment, it was pointed out that college football has been dealing with last minute scheduling for TV for years). Greenberg himself grew up in a household that had season tickets and he’s especially sympathetic to this particular demographic. That’s fine.

It’s worth pointing out that, in general, season ticket holders are people of means. Between personal seat licenses and the cost of the tickets themselves, a package can cost thousands of dollars per year. Most Americans cannot  actually afford that. It doesn’t follow that there is basis for complaint here. But in context, it would be nice if Greenberg spent a little more time talking about what, I would argue, is a far bigger grievance – the public financing of stadiums. These often involve aggrieving people of much lesser means than the typical season ticket holder. Many taxpayers aren’t sports fans, but they’re still footing some of the bill for an activity in which they have no interest and, more importantly, does not serve an obvious public good, for the reasons I discussed the other day. When localities fork over money to help a billionaire build a new stadium, that cash has to come from somewhere. According to Will Bunch: “Cobb County’s school board approved a 2013-14 budget Thursday night that will result in five furlough days for all employees, the loss of 182 teachers through attrition and a slimmer central administration staff.”

Speaking of free money, UNC announced this week that it was considering either renovating the Deandome, which opened in 1986, or cashing that in for a new basketball-only stadium. In recent years, North Carolina has spent tens of millions of dollars on renovations to Kenan stadium, where the Heels play their home football games, and to the Lowdermilk Center, a “state-of-the-art’ academic facility for athletes that is adjacent to the football stadium.  Bubba Cunningham, UNC’s AD told the News and Observer that the discussions are preliminary, but that UNC is looking at revenue enhancing mechanisms, like luxury suites. etc. Given the current layout of the Deandome, these might present a challenge in terms of the existing structure.

A few years ago, in a post about college sports and revenue generation, I noted that even programs that claim to be making money have to be taken with a grain of salt, due to the lack of transparency in collegiate athletics financing, the fact the programs differ in how they count revenues and losses and because expenses that ought to be attributed to the sports teams sometimes aren’t. In that light, I found it interesting that Cunningham said he didn’t anticipate needing any state money to pay for the renovations or new facility. Instead, he said, “I certainly wouldn’t anticipate any state funding…it would be seat licenses, donations and operating revenue that would have to pay for it.”

Count me dubious on this one. When the continually expanding ACC announced the addition of new members in recent years, including Syracuse, Pitt, Notre Dame (except in football) and Louisville, the moves were billed as unmitigated positives from the standpoint of school and conference revenue. And yet, lo and behold, earlier this semester, the Athletic Department asked for an increase in student fees to cover the additional costs associated with conference expansion, notably the increased travel budgets that the bigger conference will require. I am confident that athletic department and school officials did not warn students they’d be footing part of the bill for expansion when it was announced (UNC student already pay $280 a year just in athletics fees). And there is a longstanding debate among those who study such issues about whether increased athletics fundraising siphons money from other parts of the university.

In other words, there’s no free money here. Instead, there is a decision to spend significant sums enhancing athletics and a tendency to trumpet its putative benefits to the wider campus or community that independent analysis either can’t identify or has positively debunked.

As a final aside, I found this comment from Cunningham about the inconveniences of the Deandome interesting:

“We only have one concourse for 20,000 people,” Cunningham said. “How do we try to expand the concourses so that restroom lines and concession lines aren’t clogging the circulation throughout the building?”

As a season-ticket holder, I have been to the building many times. And it’s true – the concourse is congested at half time. But I grew up going to Yankee Stadium in the 1970s – a violent, urine-soaked building. I know the fan experience is very different today than it was 35 years ago and, in many ways, so much for the better. But I never imagined that going to a sporting event should be like dining in a fine restaurant. Clearly, however, that is how the clientele whose preferences drive this particular bus want to take in their football and basketball games. It’d be nice if they didn’t expect others to help them foot the bill for it.



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