Fighting your own city’s Olympics bid

One of the founders of the grassroots No Boston Olympics group discusses what made their movement successful to scuttle the city’s 2024 bid:

I think the most important talking point we had was around the taxpayer guarantee. The International Olympic Committee requires host cities to sign a contract saying taxpayers will be responsible for cost overruns. And the boosters behind Boston 2024 made all sorts of promises about how the public would be protected. But they weren’t able to produce anything substantive that showed that, and they were still asking for the blank check. So it was hard for the public to trust the boosters and ensure there wouldn’t be costs to pay in the case of overruns, as there have been in all of the recent Olympics. [Editors’ note: According to a study from University of Oxford, no Olympics since 1960 have come in under budget; they average a cost overrun of 156 percent.]

We had a broad coalition of people who came to us for any number of reasons. Some people were concerned about the taxpayer guarantee, others didn’t want disruption to their life for the three weeks, others were concerned about militarization of police and restriction on rights that occurs when hosting mega-events. At our victory party, there were people in socialist alternative t-shirts sharing a beer with people in t-shirts with the Don’t Tread On Me flag representing the Tea Party right. We had been able to form an incredibly broad coalition, and that’s something I think doesn’t happen enough.

One of the great takeaways here is that we are lucky to live in a democracy where we can have a robust Olympics debate. No Boston Olympics was outspent 1,500-to-1 by the boosters; we spent less than $10,000. But we had the facts on our side and a press willing to tell both sides of the story. I think we are lucky that’s the case. The day after the bid was pulled, I received a phone call from the primary backer of the bid [businessman John Fish] and his words to me were, “Democracy worked.” That was a pretty profound and gracious thing for him to say….

There is a misconception that the IOC cares that the transit system works well when they are choosing the city to award the games to. In 1996, they awarded the games to Atlanta over Toronto and Melbourne, both of which have far superior transit systems than Atlanta. Boston 2024 never had a plan for investing new or additional resources in transportation. All that they produced in their two-plus years of existence was a wish list of projects they would like to see happen. But if they happened, they would come at the expense of other projects already in the planning process, because they weren’t advocating for new resources or revenue to grow the pie. I’ve lived in Boston my whole life and never owned a car, so there is no bigger supporter of investment in transit that I am, but this bid was never going to do that.

Residents of few major American cities would want to be on the hook for something so large, the Olympics or something more mundane like a major infrastructure project. At the same time, the Olympics only needs one city willing to host (just like NFL owners only need one city like Las Vegas to make terrible deals for the city) and just a few who agree in order to work out a more favorable deal. Perhaps this gets at a basic question plaguing many cities: why do major projects always seem to have major cost overruns?

Could we reach a point where no major city wants the Olympics? It is interesting to consider what might happen then: move to a permanent site, whether an existing city (and they do exist with all the facilities within a region – see Los Angeles) or a new location created just for this (I imagine some authoritarian leaders or business magnates might be interested)? Downsize their expectations? Scuttle the whole project?

Las Vegas willing to pay record public subsidy to have NFL

How much power does the NFL have? Enough to have major cities commit incredible sums of public monies:

Las Vegas appears poised to claim the mantle of World’s Most Expensive Stadium from East Rutherford, New Jersey, where the Jets and Giants play in the $1.6 billion MetLife Stadium. (Los Angeles Stadium, Stan Kroenke’s project that will host the Rams and Chargers, is estimated at $2.6 billion—but that cost includes parts of the surrounding entertainment district.*)

Clark County taxpayers will contribute $750 million to the new arena, a record for a sports facility—about $354 per resident, taken from an increased tax on hotel rooms. That tax currently pays for schools and transportation, in addition to tourism-related expenditures.

Stanford economist Roger Noll said it was the “worst deal for a city” he had ever seen…

The state’s figures to justify that new tax are… ambitious. Its forecasts suggest 450,000 new visitors every year drawn by the 65,000-seat stadium, spending an average of 3.2 nights per visit. About a third of tickets are supposed to be purchased by tourists, although no other city manages 10 percent. Why half a million people would fly across the country to watch a team that no one wants to pay $20 to see in Oakland is not clear.

Even with the studies that show stadiums don’t contribute anything to cities, it seems that someone is always willing to pay. In this case, it wasn’t just Las Vegas: Oakland tried to put together a last-minute deal that they claimed would require even less of the team:

Schaaf told ESPN Friday she believes Oakland’s new stadium plan is viable.

“At the end of the day, this is the decision of the Raiders and the NFL,” Schaaf said. “What I am confident about is, if the Raiders want to stay in Oakland, we have a viable plan to build them a stadium with no upfront money from them, in financial terms that I believe are more favorable to them than the terms in Las Vegas — what we know of them.”

I’m still waiting for a city mayor or other big-name official to publicly bid a major sports franchise good riddance when they ask for a lot of local money. Perhaps that would be bad form – local officials are usually in the business of trying to attract everyone they can – but it could also send a strong signal about how private interests cannot overrule the long-term public interest.

The most important annual statistical moment in America: the start of March Madness

When do statistics matter the most for the average American? The week of the opening weekend of March Madness – the period between the revealing of the 68 team field to the final games of the Round of 32 – may just be that point. All the numbers are hard to resist; win-loss records, various other metrics of team performance (strength of schedule, RPI, systems attached to particular analysts, advanced basketball statistics, etc.), comparing seed numbers and their historic performance, seeing who the rest of America has picked (see the percentages for the millions of brackets at ESPN), and betting lines and pools.

Considering the suggestions that Americans are fairly innumerate, perhaps this would be a good period for public statistics education. How does one sift through all these numbers, thinking about how they are measured and making decisions based on the figures? Sadly, I usually teach Statistics in the fall so I can’t put any of my own ideas into practice…

Comparing the McMansions of Matt Ryan and Tom Brady

Relive some of the excitement of Super Bowl by comparing the McMansion of Matt Ryan in Duluth, Georgia versus Tom Brady’s homes:

I’d say Matty Ice picked himself the most conventional McMansion possible…

But what his house, or houses? I bet he has no taste…This house in Brookline, Massachussets? You’re kidding me. It’s kind of tasteful. Okay, it’s great, it’s perfect…What about the house in LA? I bet that’s hideous…You know what though, Tommy Boy? You are not McMansion material…

The winner here is Matt Ryan for keeping it real.

All those hours of coverage of the big game and you didn’t see important information like this. Both clearly have large homes but there are notable differences. This analysis suggests this comes down to personal taste but I think there are some other factors at work:

  1. Brady operates in different locations where expectations about large homes may be different. Compared to the Atlanta area, are there were fewer McMansions in Brookline (probably) or in the Los Angeles area (maybe not but there are also more legitimate mansions)?
  2. Brady operates in a different social circle than Ryan. With his model wife, Brady has to fit in with a range of famous people while Ryan is with the football crowd. Both have plenty of money but there is a difference in social class and taste a la Bourdieu.
  3. Both grew up in suburban areas: Ryan in Exton, Pennsylvania (outside Philadelphia) and Brady in San Mateo, California (Bay Area). This could influence both wanting to live in suburban areas now.
  4. Ryan is younger than Brady and perhaps he hasn’t had the time or experience to move to a more “mature” home.

Overall, I suspect many pro athletes have homes critics would call McMansions.

Could high school football stadiums drive economic development?

Among other reasons, the construction of impressive new high school football stadiums in Texas is justified by the idea that they will promote economic development:

School officials have responded to critics by pointing out that the stadium would also be used for soccer games, band competitions, and some state football games; there’s also the hope that retail and restaurant development will spring up nearby. A high school football stadium serves the community in ways other than just bringing in visitors, business, new residents and more tax dollars. One of them is clearly Texas pride in the game-day spectacle.

The evidence is pretty clear with sports stadiums that the public money spent on them tends to go back to the owners and teams, not the community. Could high school stadiums – paid for with tax money yet serving the community – be different?

One point of skepticism is to ask how many significant events these stadiums would hold each year. The biggest crowd events are football games. But, a high school team plays roughly five to eight home games each year. While these stadiums are bigger than the average high school stadium, are there enough fans to support local businesses? It seems like the stadiums need to hold a lot more events to truly bring in people. (Perhaps some of them could attract concerts or festivals?)

A second question is how to directly link the football stadium to economic development. As the article notes, a number of these communities are expected to grow. At least some of this growth would have happened without the flashy new stadium. Are the communities going to survey new residents and businesses to see if the stadium factored into their decision? Or, having built the stadiums, will they attribute positive changes to the stadium?

Finally, it sounds like these communities are locked into competition for stadiums (and other amenities as well as general growth). Is it necessarily the case that building a great stadium would give one suburb a significant leg up on another suburb? If this is a zero-sum game or an arms race, someone will lose. A different view might be that Sunbelt suburban growth will continue in a number of these communities and may not be strongly related to the construction of high school stadiums (or other public amenities).

“Tom Brady, sociologist of religion”

A new documentary series looks at how sports fosters belonging and Tom Brady is one of the people behind it:

The theory, as you might guess from the title, is that sports, broadly constructed, are a kind of religion. As Chopra intones during the introduction, with images of stadiums and religious pilgrimages rolling by, sports “have believers, priests, and gods. They have rituals, miracles, and sacrifices. Sports unite us. They are a calling.”…

In parsing “the religion of sports,” Chopra and his star-powered co-producers are trying to understand a resilient form of meaning making and community formation in the United States. It seems a little silly to group Chopra and co. with social theorists like Alexis de Tocqueville and contemporary scholars who worry that America’s community structures are fraying. But, incredibly, that’s the project they’ve created: a sort of jock’s guide to civil society. While the series can, at times, come across as a rosy-eyed passion project, its central insight—that sports can be understood as a way that people find belonging—reveals a rich theme for artists who seek to grapple with the strong sense of cultural division and isolation experienced today by Americans of different ethnic, class, and political backgrounds…

Chopra takes this literally: “Sports is an actual faith. It’s not even metaphor. It’s real. You practice these things,” he said. This is debatable—Chopra is looking at religion purely as a matter of practice, while discounting the importance  of belief. Sports are not about the metaphysical nature of the universe; they provide no guidebook for the self or community in navigating life.

But, to embrace Chopra’s interpretation of “religion” for a moment, it’s curious to consider the ways in which sports participation has not followed the same trend line as other communal activities. According to organizations like Pew, traditional religious affiliation is steadily declining in the United States; participation in civil-society groups like bowling clubs or parent-teacher organizations has gone down significantly as well. As Americans have pulled away from these kinds of community institutions, their love of sports has stayed relatively constant: According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who call themselves “sports fans” has hovered around 60 percent for at least the last 15 years.

This sounds like a Durkheimian exploration of a functional religion, another area of social life that has some similar characteristics to religion. Sports involve rituals, collective effervescence, totems, and beliefs. This could range from sports (earlier posts involving the World Cup and the belief of some American sports fans that supernatural forces are involved) to following Apple (earlier post here).

I hope, however, this documentary series doesn’t fall into two common traps with this comparison:

  1. Sports are the magic elixir that can bring everyone together. (In contrast, many argue today that religion divides people.) Being a fan alongside another fan may bring individuals together for a moment but does it really make the world a better place? Does racism really disappear? Are cities healed? My answer: no and see these earlier posts on the effect of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the ability of soccer teams to bring about urban revival, and the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series. .
  2. Putting sports fandom and religion side by side suggests that it doesn’t matter ultimately what people believe; it is simply that common beliefs bring people together. Not all beliefs at the same level. Do sports really dictate how most people make major decisions in their life? Do sports provide ultimate meaning? (They may serve this role for a small number of people but religion is still going pretty strong throughout the world.)

The documentary series will reveal how much it gets right about the sociology of sport and religion…

 

Skepticism of 5 million fans for Cubs parade, rally

Even though the 5 million attendees estimate for the Cubs parade and rally was widely shared after being made by city officials, there is good reason for reconsidering the figure:

“The guesstimates are almost always vast exaggerations,” said Clark McPhail, a sociology professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Politics often play a factor in overblown crowd counts. Runaway enthusiasm also could pump up the final tally, McPhail said.

There is a science to calculating crowds. The most common method is to draw a grid and make an estimate based on the average number of people that would fit into each section.

Another way to gauge crowds, particularly in a city such as Chicago, would be to analyze the capacity of buses or trains to deliver millions of people downtown or along the parade route, according to Steve Doig, the Knight Chair in Journalism at Arizona State University.

It doesn’t seem like it would take too much to draw a better estimate: there are plenty of aerial shots of the parade route and rally and groups like Metra and CTA could share figures.

Perhaps it isn’t a matter of examining the data: perhaps few people want to. Chicago could use some good news these days and making such a lofty estimate – supposedly making this the seventh largest peaceful gathering of people in human history – can boost the city’s image (both internally and externally). The team probably doesn’t mind the figure: it illustrates how dedicated the fans are (though there are plenty of other ways to do this) and might help increase the value of the franchise. The fans like such a figure because they can say they were part of something so much bigger than themselves.

If a revised lower figure gets released, I suspect it will not reach much of an audience.

Sociologists with their interests in social movements have been at the forefront in estimating crowd size. See earlier posts about counting crowds here and here.