The word of the National Football League commissioner is not law. But the opening line of a 2,300-word piece in the Buffalo News last month might have fooled casual readers: “The question has been on the minds of every Buffalo Bills fan ever since National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell said the team needs a new stadium: Where should it be?”
Good question — or at least it would be if a new stadium was a certainty or official plans were looming. The Bills, however, are essentially locked into playing at their current Ralph Wilson Stadium through at least 2019. Though the team is on the auction block, it’s unclear who will own the franchise next year, let alone if he or she will want to build new digs. Even then, New York state and local politicians have said they’re reluctant to pony up the hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars usually required to construct such lavish venues.
The Ralph The Buffalo Bills play the Pittsburgh Steelers at Ralph Wilson Stadium during a 2012 preseason game in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/David Duprey)
The News isn’t the only media outlet in western New York that has run stories implicitly — or even explicitly — supporting the idea of a new stadium. Indeed, Buffalo’s alternative weekly unveiled its own plan for a downtown venue in a cover story this month. Local TV and radio reports have focused on proposed building sites, asked readers to weigh in on them, and trumpeted the purported economic benefits. National and sports media, meanwhile, have echoed Goodell’s claim that the Bills need a new home to remain economically viable. That’s not to say all coverage of the issue has toed the NFL line. But a new stadium is neither imminent nor inevitable, facts that the balance of reporting haven’t reflected.
The question of financing such venues is, at its core, a political one: Should the public subsidize a lucrative local business to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars? Media scholars and economists have long criticized news organizations for tacitly endorsing these ideas. Sports coverage is among the greatest draws of local media, and the deluge of stadium speculation puts political pressure on local officials to deliver. Reporters have a history of biting on economic impact studies that overestimate spinoff benefits. And the undercurrent throughout the coverage is the unspoken threat of becoming a minor-league city if a major-league team skips town.
“America has a culture that tends to want to be behind a winner,” said Robert Trumpbour, a communications professor at Penn State Altoona and author of The New Cathedrals: Politics and Media in the History of Stadium Construction. “The media can be part of that dynamic as well. They come together to create a situation in which there’s a lot of support for stadium building, even if the public doesn’t want to pay for that.”
The situation that’s developing in Buffalo is familiar to many major American cities: A professional sports franchise owner, threatening to take his or her business elsewhere, garners public funds, sweetheart tax deals, or cheap property to help construct a spanking new sports complex. These magnates — and some of the politicians that enable them — market such investments as engines of development, often commissioning rosy economic reports to prove their point.
Journalists have often taken such numbers at face value despite stadiums’ dubious economic history, said Victor Matheson, a Holy Cross professor who studies sports economics. It’s especially evident in day-one stories, as reporters work under time constraints that make nuanced analyses difficult. In such pieces on July 20 detailing a planned downtown arena for the Detroit Red Wings, for example, both the Detroit Free Press and Crain’s Detroit Business cited projections from team ownership of $1.8 billion in resulting activity. The latter, which has in the past reported critically on stadium payoffs, at least acknowledged in its story that the numbers are sometimes off the mark.* But it had just over a day to dissect the embargoed information before going to print.
“For us to process and analyze the sheer amount of information in 24 hours would be impossible,” said Bill Shea, who covers the business of sports at Crain’s. “The balance of our reporting has been different.”
Detroit’s ABC affiliate, WXYZ, both repeated the rosy economic numbers and neglected to remind viewers that the $450-million arena will be built primarily on the public’s dime.
It’s unclear if the yet-to-be-built stadium will bring such prosperity to the struggling city. But independent economic analyses of past projects, which overwhelmingly conclude that sports venues are poor public investments, deserve at least a cursory mention. As Matheson told CJR, “We generally don’t find those [economic] bumps. And when we do find those bumps, they tend to be about one-tenth to one-fifth of what was claimed.”