Stephen Maisch: Not all civic investments in sports are wise. This one would be.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake Bees face the Reno Aces at Smith's Ballpark on Tuesday, April 18, 2023.

Could Salt Lake City be the epicenter of women’s sports in the United States? Yes. And we should invest in making it happen.

As an economist, it feels a little strange to be writing those words. One of the few things that almost all economists agree about, is that subsidies to sports stadiums provide little, if any, tangible economic impacts.

After three sports economists reviewed 130 studies on venue subsidies spanning 20 years, they concluded that “the level of venue subsidies typically provided far exceeds any observed economic benefits.”

Las Vegas is betting that this time, things are going to be different. It recently spent $750 million in public money to help build a football stadium for the Raiders. Now it’s poised to spend $395 million to help fund a baseball stadium for the A’s.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. One study estimated that when Akron’s favorite son, LeBron James, came back to play in Cleveland after a stint in South Beach, the number of eating and drinking establishments within one mile of Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse increased by 13.7% and LeBron’s presence increased employment in bars and restaurants by 23.5%.

Could it be the case that it’s not the shiny new stadium but rather what’s going on inside that really matters? I think so.

That’s why, while I was sad when the Salt Lake Bees announced they were taking their talents to South Jordan, I’m excited by a proposal from a coalition of Salt Lake residents, athletes, sports fans, business owners, and developers to convert the soon-to-be-empty stadium into a home for women’s soccer, rugby, roller derby, ultimate, and American football — and perhaps even more sports.

It’s true that there would be a lot of different sports under one roof, and some might unfavorably remember the mixed-use baseball-football stadiums of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but it’s important to note why those facilities came into being. Many cities were unsure if there was enough demand for professional football and wanted to cover their bases with baseball. The thinking went, that if people aren’t into these Pittsburgh Steelers and this NFL thing goes bust, at least we still have the Pirates.

Could one of these women’s sports be the NFL of the 1970s? The demand for women’s sports, particularly women’s soccer, is only getting bigger. The 2019 Women’s World Cup final between the United States and Netherlands in France drew 14.3 million U.S. viewers. (By comparison, the 2018 Men’s World Cup Final had 11.4 million U.S. viewers.) On the mainland, from 2016 to 2018, the U.S. women’s soccer team generated more revenue at the gate than did the male side over the same time period. Interest in the women’s squad only seems to be increasing, sales of the 2019 jersey were 500% higher than the 2015 jerseys.

Demand for women’s sports is not limited to soccer. Deloitte Insights reports that, when looking globally, “66% of people were interested in at least one women’s sport, and among sports fans (of whom 49% are female), that figure rises to 84%”.

We all know there’s no free lunch, though. So, what would this cost us?

Well, the Bees have been paying $1,250 a month to Salt Lake City to lease the stadium. What these women are asking for is a similar lease. The opportunity cost to the public is thus the difference between the $15,000 current yearly rent and the potential money that could be procured if the stadium land were developed into something else.

Salt Lake could certainly get a lot more than $15,000 a year for those 13 acres — and there are plenty of places these revenues could be used for much good throughout the city — but do we really want another Gateway or City Creek, where almost all the revenue flows out of the city to a corporate hub somewhere else, offering in exchange a handful of minimum wage jobs and the next Bed Bath and Beyond?

As an economist, a Salt Lake resident who lives near the ballpark, and a father who hopes to take his daughter out to the ballgame for a long time to come, I know what I want.

Stephen Maisch

Steve Maisch is an associate professor at the University of Utah, where he teaches a class on sports economics.