Since 1990 over $65 billion (in 2020 dollars) has been spent on stadium construction in North America’s “Big Five” sports leagues, with over $30 billion coming from taxpayer subsidies. After public interest in building expensive sport facilities died down for about a decade following the Great Recession in 2008, stadium proposals have come roaring back in 2022, with multiple billion-dollar plus venues on the drawing board across the country, from Buffalo to Oakland.
Stadium proponents have made numerous arguments to attempt to counter the idea that taxpayer subsidies are merely a giveaway to millionaire players and billionaire owners. One of the most common is that sport facilities are not merely home for the primary sport tenant but instead can be used to host an array of events. The operators of Chicago’s Soldier Field claim that “the stadium grounds now host over 200 event usage days per year.” Officials in Worcester claimed that Polar Park, the country’s newest (and at $160 million the most expensive) minor league baseball park, “is anticipated to host 125 year-round events” including family affordable baseball games, outdoor concerts, other sporting events, community meetings/events and even a potential polling location. But do professional sports stadiums really get much business outside of the sports they are built to accommodate?
To answer this question, my colleagues Robert Baumann, Frank Stephenson and I, along with undergraduate research assistants Robert Murray and Jack Muldowney, tracked facility utilization at 148 venues across 56 cities in the U.S. and Canada between 2000 and 2019. We started with the number of regular season events one would normally expect from the primary tenant at a venue. Obviously, a reasonable number of NBA and NHL teams share facilities, and there are a handful of other sharing arrangements that would bump up utilization in some venues. To this we added the number of observed home playoff games per year for each stadium.
Next we went to Pollstar, an industry trade group that tracks all major concerts and other traveling entertainment such as ice skating, children’s shows, comedians and Cirque du Soleil. Finally, we included major non-league sporting events such as U.S. men’s and women’s national soccer team matches, NCAA basketball playoffs, college bowl games, international soccer tournaments and league all-star games. The counts here are not complete, as they miss some international soccer friendlies and most high school sporting events, but they do include nearly all events likely to lead to high attendances.
The data show that other than NBA/NHL arenas, most sports venues are rarely used outside of regular-season games. In fact, in an average year the typical NFL, MLB, or MLS facility plays host to fewer than five major entertainment or sporting events other than regular season games played by the primary tenant. Outside of “mega-acts” like Taylor Swift or Bruce Springsteen, NFL stadiums are simply too large for most concert acts. Baseball stadiums are poorly designed for viewing anything but baseball. And MLS stadiums are a poor choice for most non-soccer events given the availability of similarly-sized indoor venues in most cities. So, outside of large indoor arenas, taxpayers should expect their sport-facility investments to sit empty most of the year.
Victor Matheson, a professor of economics at College of the Holy Cross, is past editor of the Journal of Sports Economics.