Friday I had the opportunity to hear some excellent speakers at a Business Journal event on the future of downtown Milwaukee. Former Mayor John Norquist was as opinionated as ever, but I was most taken by Marc Marotta’s pitch for a new basketball arena downtown.
Marotta emphasized, as yours truly did in a commentary last week, the importance of a high quality of life in economic growth. He put the need for a new stadium in this context, arguing that having a professional sports team downtown brings great intangible benefits to Milwaukee’s economy.
It is an important point, because there is pretty substantial literature showing that stadiums and professional sports in general are a costly and inefficient way to boost the tangible indicators of economic growth. A 1997 report by economists Robert Baade and Allen Sanderson, for example, concluded:
“[C]ities should be wary of committing substantial portions of their capital budgets to building stadiums and otherwise subsidizing professional sports in the expectations of strong income and job growth.”
So what intangible benefits do professional sports bring to a place? The big benefit, nearly impossible to measure, is civic pride. John Gurda touched on this idea in his book, The Making of Milwaukee. He describes in detail the excitement in Milwaukee when the Braves came to town; residents saw their coming as proof that the city had finally made the big time. And civic pride is important, good luck getting outsiders to come to a place if longtime residents are down on it.
Another intangible benefit is even more basic than pride: unity. In our current political climate, it is invaluable to have reminders that there is more to Wisconsin and to being a Wisconsinite than recalls and partisan divides. Consider, for example, the Brewer’s run last year. The state was in political turmoil yet thousands of citizens of all political and demographic stripes found something common to care about.
At their core professional sports are trivial, but perhaps that is why they matter. Anything that can bring thousands of people who may disagree about all the serious stuff together even for a little while is worth supporting. That is why I hope Marotta and other stakeholders find a way to get their new arena and keep pro basketball in the state, not doing so would mean one less institution with the potential to unite Wisconsinites.