Opinions vary on economic impact of city NBA team

Wednesday, February 20th 2008, 6:37 pm
By: News 9

By Alex Cameron, NEWS 9

Oklahoma City's NBA adventure -- two years as home to the displaced New Orleans Hornets -- gave fans a taste of what it's like to be a major league city, and gave the city crucial fodder for its campaign to get people to vote 'yes' on March 4.

An economic impact study done by the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce shows the Hornets had an economic impact on the city of more than $130 million and city leaders believe, with a permanent team, the impact could be even more.

"There's a big economic development impact to this," said Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, "And it will elevate this city like few things can."

However, economist Dennis Coates has co-authored numerous papers on the economic impact of pro sports, and says, quite simply, their impact is greatly overestimated.

"Oklahoma City is not going to be elevated to world-class status by having an NBA franchise, it just won't." Coates said. "No study done by someone not in the employ of a franchise or a stadium developer is ever shown that they generate jobs and income."

Coates said there's no better proof of how subjective and biased most impact studies are than the fact that, in trying to get out of their lease in Seattle so that they can come to Oklahoma City, the Sonics are arguing in legal briefs that there will be no negative economic impact on Seattle if the team leaves.

Coates said upgrading the Ford Center and building a practice facility for an NBA team certainly could provide non-economic benefits -- the ability to go to games, having a team to follow, city pride -- all things that might justify a public subsidy like the one Oklahoma City is contemplating.

"But there is no evidence that you will get paid back in terms of job creation or income growth as a consequence of funding an arena," Coates said.

Bob Lanier knows a thing or two about funding pro sports facilities, having served as mayor of Houston for three terms in the 1990's.

"The reality I faced was, we had three teams and their leases were either out or just about to be out," Lanier said.

Lanier said he opposed using public funds at first, but when that led to the Oilers leaving the Astrodome for Tennessee, he changed his tune and helped pass initiatives to fund, not only a new football stadium, but a new baseball stadium and new basketball arena, through increased hotel and rental car taxes.

Bruce Hotze is a successful Houston businessman who fought the arena financing referendum. He said cities like Houston, and now Oklahoma City, are held hostage, pressured to hand over hundreds of millions of dollars to support millionaire owners and players.

"It's a lot of money that could be spent, I think, in a lot better ways," Hotze said.

But Lanier disagrees. He said pro sports add to a city's quality of life. Lanier said the public investment is worth it, if the return is public enjoyment.