The ongoing debate about the fiscal impact of the Atlanta Braves’ home stadium has spawned an even more vehement fight between two notable sports economists, including one of the country’s most recognizable names in the field.
On Tuesday, the Braves hailed a 15-page stadium fiscal impact report the team had commissioned from well-known Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist, which rebuked the findings of a critical study that was published in March by J.C. Bradbury, an economist at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.
In his analysis, Bradbury had determined that the tale of Truist Park, which opened in 2017 in suburban Atlanta, “had been similar to most other stadium projects, which fail to generate large economic benefits to host communities.” Bradbury’s report was based on three peer-reviewed studies he had authored about the economic implications of the stadium and a $400 million surrounding development called The Battery.
Bradbury’s conclusion harkened to a proposition that Zimbalist had invoked nearly three decades ago, when he first called into general question the economic benefits of stadiums in his book, Baseball and Billions.
In 1997, Zimbalist and Stanford economist Roger Noll co-edited the seminal book, Sports, Jobs and Taxes, which popularized the now-consensus line of academic skepticism towards publicly financed sports venues.
Despite this, Zimbalist has, over the years, issued occasional public votes of confidence for certain subsidized stadiums. As with the Braves, this has at times been while he’s being paid by a team or municipality with a vested interest in the findings.
To that end, Bradbury took to Twitter on Wednesday to excoriate Zimbalist as a “shill” who was exploiting his academic reputation to cash in personally.
In an interview with Sportico, Zimbalist defended himself against Bradbury’s “invective”—and a critical post in the stadium watchdog blog, Field of Schemes—by insisting that he took the Braves assignment because he found the work interesting and because Truist Park was primarily funded through private dollars.
Zimbalist, who estimates he turns down about three-quarters of the expert-for-hire solicitations he receives, argued that instead of it creating a conflict of interest, the Braves’ remuneration gave his work a stamp of legitimacy.
“If I didn’t get paid there is an element in it that says I am not a professional, I am doing it for some other reasons,” Zimbalist said. “The payment thing is, ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’”
To be sure, Zimbalist is far from the only academic who takes paid work on the side. Bradbury himself acknowledged working as a consultant and says he is not trying to single Zimbalist out as America’s lone moonlighting social scientist. Rather, Bradbury argues that there is something acutely problematic with an economist who studies stadium financing being paid by a team to provide a public report on its venue. Bradbury says he has chastised other economists who have done the same.
Previously, the Braves hired Georgia State associate professor Bruce Seaman, a former staff economist at the Federal Trade Commission, to produce research. In 2013, as the club was preparing to renegotiate its lease at Turner Field, Seaman authored a report claiming the Braves were responsible for an annual economic impact in excess of $100 million.
Zimbalist says he was personally approached by Braves chairman Terry McGuirk, who agreed to Zimbalist’s conditions of data disclosure and independence.
“Andrew Zimbalist is perhaps the most respected sports economist in the country,” said Braves spokesperson Beth Marshall. “However, we decided to work with him not just because of his reputation, but because he has been on both sides of these issues and is a true independent leader in this space.
Zimbalist recalls McGuirk saying that he had been recommended by commissioner Rob Manfred, who Zimbalist has known for years while doing consulting work for Major League Baseball.
“I said to him I need access to lots of information and I expect you would be completely open, and if at some point you are not, I would stop the work,” Zimbalist said, adding that he had yet to even discuss his fee for the project with the Braves.
By point of contrast, Zimbalist says he recently bowed out of doing a fiscal impact study for the City of Oakland on a proposed new waterfront stadium for the A’s, after the city “resisted” providing him the data he requested.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the city said it had “previously explored working with Zimbalist, but the Oakland deal has not been fully negotiated, so any meaningful economic analysis is premature.”
Zimbalist says that those who criticize him for selling out his previous academic work on stadium financing fail to appreciate the nuance he’s bringing to the subject.
“We shouldn’t have a catechism out there or politically correct view it is automatically bad because there is public money going to stadium,” said Zimbalist.
Truist Park—the Braves’ second new Georgian estate in less than two decades—cost $672 million to construct, with $300 million of the money coming from Cobb County taxpayer funds.
County officials insisted the stadium and The Battery would be an economic “home run” for the area, and the local chamber of commerce commissioned a report projecting up to $19 million in added annual tax revenues for the county.
In his report, Bradbury found that the development had led to only small net gains in sales tax revenue and negligible increases to the area’s property value growth. Because of the shortfall in tax revenue, Bradbury determined that Cobb County taxpayers have ended up owing $15 million per year to cover the stadium’s debt and a share of its operational expenses.
Zimbalist’s report criticized Bradbury’s for methodological and empirical missteps, such as focusing too heavily on the stadium’s “short-term effect.” Zimbalist concludes the project will lead to a fiscal surplus of between $19.6 million and $125.6 million over the team’s 30-year lease. Bradbury, in turn, condemns Zimbalist for attempting to make these kinds of future projections.
“He is making all these speculative assumptions,” Bradbury said.
Indeed, this is not the first time the two economists have brawled over baseball.
In 2007, Bradbury wrote a book, The Baseball Economist: The Real Game Exposed, which Zimbalist later gave an unflattering review in the Journal of Economic Literature. In a lengthy response on his old Sabernomics blog, Bradbury took issue with Zimbalist’s “arrogant tone,” adding, “His demeanor and thoroughness is out of step of what is normally expected in academic discourse.”
Years later, as Zimbalist became more interested in doing work on baseball sabermetrics, he says Bradbury was among a handful of experts he reached out to for help and guidance. A vexed Bradbury rebuffed the request, and Zimbalist says that remained the first and last time the two have directly communicated.
In a telephone interview this week, Bradbury mused that, besides financial gain, Zimbalist’s latest play with the Braves may have been further motivated by personal score-settling. But Zimbalist insists the opposite is the case.
“I was counter-motivated by the history of the book review,” he said. “I did not want to reignite an unpleasant exchange with (Bradbury)… I would reject categorically any suggestion I was motivated to attack this person.”
At the Braves’ request, Zimbalist says he is scheduled to fly to Atlanta next week to publicly address his report in person. The following week, Bradbury is set to claim his new perch as president of the North American Association of Sports Economists.
With assistance from Eric Jackson.