Midway through a conversation about how to put a price tag on love, the economists fell silent.

Anthony Santander rocketed a ball deep into right-center field. For a split second, it looked as though the ball would fall perfectly into the outstretched arm of an outfielder. But somehow it traveled a yard farther, doinked off a railing and bounced into the stands for a three-run home run.

The economists went wild.

View post on Twitter

There’s a reason they were sitting in the nosebleed seats of Camden Yards and paying $15 a beer Saturday night instead of sipping complimentary cocktails in the owner’s box. They are America’s preeminent pooh-poohers of taxpayer subsidies for sports stadiums.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

They were in town last week for a first-of-its-kind sports economics conference at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The conference featured talks on the “superstar effect” of Caitlin Clark, “informational uncertainty” in the NFL draft, and, of course, stadium subsidies.

Whenever a billionaire asks for taxpayer money to build a new stadium, these are the people explaining that, no, it’s not a good use of public funds. They are happy to take calls from newspaper reporters across the country and tell readers their beloved hometown team is misleading them about the economic benefits of a new stadium. Or, in Maryland’s case, spending $1.2 billion to upgrade the existing ones.

Pretty soon, people start questioning whether sports economists even like sports. Sometimes, one economist said, they’re accused of being the nerds cut from their high school teams and harboring decadeslong grudges.

Baltimore Orioles right fielder Anthony Santander (25) hits the first home run of the season in a game against the Los Angeles Angels on opening day at Camden Yards on Thursday, March 28, 2024. The Baltimore Orioles won their first game of the season, 11-3, against the Angels. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

“Every sports economist I know loves sports,” said Dennis Coates, a UMBC professor who helped organize the conference.

Coates grew up an hour outside Buffalo, but became a Baltimore sports fan in his childhood, enchanted by greats like Johnny Unitas, Boog Powell, Brooks Robinson and Wes Unseld, when the Colts and Bullets still played here. Coates, who stands 6 feet, 5 inches tall, even wore Unseld’s number on his basketball team.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The sports economists resemble an informal fraternity. They’re mostly men. They like to drink beer, watch sports and crack jokes about each other. Unlike most fraternity brothers, they’re really good at math.

The math is what causes a lifelong fan like Coates to shake his head when sports team claim a new stadium will generate thousands of jobs and benefit the public.

“It’s just nonsense,” he said.

How can the sports economists be so sure? It’s simple. Whenever a team moves in or out of a city, they look at the regional economic data before and after the move.

Nothing changes, they said. In other words, if a pro sports team is generating an economic impact, it’s typically too small to be perceptible.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Sports stadiums are really good at briefly concentrating large amounts of economic activity in a single location, according to the economists, and really bad at creating new economic activity. Yes, people spend lots of money on hot dogs and beer at the stadium, economists said, but that’s money that would otherwise be spent at restaurants, bars, bowling alleys and movie theaters. That means public subsidies for stadiums are almost always a bad financial decision for cities and states.

Pointing this out doesn’t win many friends.

“You have to have a thick skin,” said Victor Matheson, a professor at the College of Holy Cross in Massachusetts.

Matheson said he’s not anti-sports or even anti-stadium. He’s just anti-public subsidies for stadiums, but fans don’t seem to believe him or his friends. He singled out J.C. Bradbury, a professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, who was sitting in the row below him.

That morning, Bradbury checked X. Someone spotted his research into sports subsidies and called him a “carpetbagging dipshit” in response to his comments about the failed move of the Capitals and Wizards to Alexandria, Virginia.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The words stung. Not only is Bradbury a native southerner — he loves sports. In fact, Bradbury and his fellow economists believe pro sports vastly improve a community’s quality of life.

Take it from Coates. He moved to Maryland in 1983 to pursue a doctorate degree in economics. One of his biggest regrets, he said, was missing a chance to see the Colts play at Memorial Stadium before owner Robert Irsay moved them to Indianapolis in 1984.

“You could feel the way that it sucked the life out of many people,” Coates said.

View post on Twitter

But even this deep emotional attachment to a sports team can’t justify massive public subsidies for stadiums, the economists said.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

John Whitehead, a professor at Appalachian State University, helped run surveys of fan bases, asking them variations of the same question: How much would you personally pay to stop the hometown team from leaving?

The answer? Not that much.

If you went door-to-door taking up a collection, residents would typically cobble together tens of millions of dollars to keep their team in town, Whitehead explained. Many would refuse to pay anything.

In Maryland, the $1.2 billion in public debt to fund upgrades to Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore is equivalent to every household in Maryland contributing more than $1,000 — regardless of whether they ever watch a game.

The state will spend years paying back that debt, plus interest, likely doubling the total cost of borrowing to at least $2.4 billion.

In between sips of his IPA, Bradbury explained that public subsidies for stadiums are really just another way to redistribute wealth to an elite class of people rich enough to own sports teams. And the truth is more problematic.

The stadium improvements in Baltimore are being funded by the state lottery. A portion of every scratch-off and Powerball ticket sold in Maryland will go toward paying back the debt. These games are disproportionately played by low-income people, Bradbury said, and low-income people benefit the least from stadium improvements.

Middle- and upper-class people are more likely to attend professional sports games, he said, and the money spent inside stadiums benefits billionaire owners.

Despite the research by the sports economists, cities and states keep forking over public money to build new stadiums, arenas and entertainment districts.

Years ago, there was another group of nerdy outsiders slapping their foreheads and begging people to look at the numbers: data analysts. They crunched reams of overlooked data and realized some of the most commonly held beliefs about baseball were wrong.

Walks were underrated. Stealing bases was bad. And defensive play didn’t really matter.

These ideas were made famous by the book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” and a film adaptation with Brad Pitt. Almost immediately, pro sports teams adapted and hired data analysts.

The sports economists said they don’t believe their “Moneyball” moment is coming. Many politicians and fans seem uninterested — or even hostile — to their research. Pitt will never play them in a movie.

They didn’t seem to mind on Saturday night. The view from the upper deck of Camden Yards was still pretty good. The beer was cold. The hot dogs were edible. The Orioles crushed the Angels, 13-4, and the sports economists cheered as loud as anyone — maybe even louder.

After all, they love sports.

This story has been updated to correctly identify Robert Irsay as the owner who moved the Colts to Indianapolis and to correct the score of Saturday's game.

More From The Banner