The death of Boston’s 2024 Olympic bid was a confirmation of an enduring and endearing truth about this city. For all its pro-sports fanaticism, no other metropolitan area has arguably displayed such consistent common sense in refusing to give away the store to athletic potentates. The post-mortem on the failed bid should also include a toast to a populace that for decades refused to believe the hype that it needs big-time sports for status.
Most American cities throw billions of tax dollars at team owners for stadiums that offer little or no economic impact and produce far fewer quality jobs than public infrastructure projects or industrial development. Drawing on data from researchers Victor Matheson of College of the Holy Cross and Robert Baade of Lake Forest College in Illinois, public funding accounted for $15 billion of the $26 billion spent on professional football, baseball, and basketball stadiums between 1990 and 2011. Of the nearly 70 stadium projects in that period, more than 50 were built with at least two-thirds taxpayer support.
Massachusetts is blessedly not among any of them. It did not believe the hype 20 years ago, when Governor William Weld championed a $700-million, state-built “megaplex” of a convention center and domed stadium when the New England Patriots were considering leaving the state. Weld said, “If you want Boston and Massachusetts to be the capital of the Atlantic rim, then you want to have a facility like this.”
That clanging rimshot irritated Bostonians. Only a quarter of respondents in various polls favored public funds for the stadium. The Pats eventually built a privately-funded stadium in Foxborough for $325 million, with $70 million in state infrastructure improvements.
The even-more-beloved Red Sox received the same message 15 years ago, when former owner John Harrington unveiled a $627 million proposal for a new Fenway Park that included $275 million in city and state support for land acquisition, parking garages, and infrastructure. A Globe poll found only 34 percent support for the financing plan. That proposal also died.
About 30 stadiums and arenas around the nation are 100-percent taxpayer-funded. Even the $100 million garage the state built to support the now-named TD Garden, when put next to the $160 million of private funding for a new home for the Celtics and Bruins, still results in a public subsidy well below the average of around 60 percent for stadiums and arenas.
All that history does not necessarily mean that Boston sports team owners won’t keep trying to come to the public till. The Globe reported in May that Patriots owner Bob Kraft is floating a proposal with the city for a $200 million taxpayer-built soccer stadium for the Revolution. Mayor Marty Walsh should not give such a proposal a single thought.
It is of course highly speculative why Bostonians are so relatively clear-eyed about public spending on sports, even as the Patriots, Celtics, Bruins, and Red Sox have all bedazzled their fans with championships in recent years. I suspect it comes from myriad sources. It could in part be from the historical strength of neighborhoods, which care more about urgent needs than boosterism. It could be a self-assured confidence that stems from non-sports greatness in so many arenas in education, health care, and technology. It could because New England has a rich diversity of diversions, from local music and the arts to its mountains and craggy Maine coast.
Sports spending skepticism has in fact already added to our urban diversions. Had there been a megaplex, there likely would be no Seaport or Innovation District as we know today. Boston rejected 2024 because it instinctively knew it did not have to dangle its financial or cultural future from an Olympic ring. For that, Boston wins the gold medal in sports sanity.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.