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Adventures in Lousy Sports Stadium Logic, Starring University of North Texas and D

Researchers say the new UNT stadium will pump $29 million a year into Denton's economy. You'll never guess where the researchers work.
Researchers say the new UNT stadium will pump $29 million a year into Denton's economy. You'll never guess where the researchers work.

The University of North Texas unveiled its shiny new football stadium last week, a $79 million complex designed to bring some juice to Denton come college football season. By big-time college sports' standards, $80 million for a new stadium isn't a ton of money. University of Michigan spent three times that just upgrading its Big House a while back. Still: It's the public's money (see back-handed correction below), dumped into a shrine for a sport UNT doesn't play particularly well. So it's no surprise that the university wanted someone to tout Mean Green Stadium's "economic impact."

It found that someone without even leaving campus. When the stories about the new stadium hit the web last week, they parroted a figure arrived at by the university's own research and economic development office: $29 million a year. Even the Business Journal repeated the figure without caveat.

As usual, the tale of the stadium as economic engine looks wildly exaggerated.

Michael Seman, a university research associate, tells Unfair Park that he and his fellow researchers used industry-standard multipliers to arrive at the $29 million figure. This was his for-instance: The University of Indiana will play in Denton next month. They'll bring 100 people with them -- players, boosters, coaches, equipment managers, parents, whoever -- not to mention whatever fans make the trip. They'll all stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, maybe even drink a little, to mourn the fact that they have to root for Indiana football.

Fans from around North Texas will show up and do the same. All that showin' up will put money into the pockets of local business owners, and that money will trickle down into the pockets of employees who man Denton's restaurants and coffee shops, and that money will in turn bore itself even deeper into the economy, until it eventually reaches the campus drug dealer and goes off grid.

Boom! Impact, yo.

I checked with Seman, and as I suspected, the study neglected to consider what these studies always neglect to consider: That most of that money would have been in the economy anyway.

UNT was going to host Indiana (or some other terrible team) whether it built a new stadium for $80 million, rehabbed its old one for less, or kept right on playing in the apparently crumbling Fouts Field, where it's been playing in since 1952. Some middling football program's caravan would be spending a few bucks in Denton regardless, as would some number of Mean Green fans, who I imagine are mostly freshmen who have yet to discover binge drinking.

But the new stadium is nicer, the logic goes, so even more people will show up. If that were the case, the Pittsburgh Pirates, who a decade ago talked the city into bankrolling a $216 million park -- arguably the best park in the Majors -- wouldn't have spent much of the last 10 years playing to crowds smaller than the ones at a good Texas mega-church. Shiny stadiums don't draw. Good teams do. And UNT, which has averaged just over two wins the last six seasons, hasn't sniffed good in some time.

Besides, even if people were dumb enough to show up to watch football just because the seats were a little more comfortable, researchers have proved that the money they spent wouldn't have much impact on the economy. It'd just be shifted from somewhere else. Instead of dinner and a movie or concert and a cocktail, football and a post-game beer.

We spend the money we have in our pockets. More cleverly named concession stands and more brightly painted lines aren't going to make more money show up in those pockets.

It's disappointing to see the school's research arm traffic in such shoddy statistics -- and to see the Business Journal, of all publications, Xerox the propaganda and report it to the world at large. But it's no surprise. Stadiums have a way of sucking the logic out of our ear holes. How else would explain D Magazine's recent plan to move the Rangers downtown?

You read that one, right? No? I did. I have the pieces of head on my office wall to prove it. It puts Dallas taxpayers on the hook for $300 million, and assumes that moving the team from Arlington to here (and doming the stadium) would automatically fill the 20,000 seats that go empty every game, ensuring that the Rangers make back the $300 million they'd spend going halvesies with you and me on their new digs (plus the cost of breaking their lease). Because, you know no one lives near Arlington, that shitty attendance has nothing to do with 4,921 other things people have to do around here, and there's no way the Rangers will return to putridity anytime in the next 10 years, leaving D Magazine Field at Budget Slashing Park as empty or emptier than the Ballpark has been over the years.

On the bright side: D ran out of space before they mentioned all the jobs their new stadium would create, and UNT's job projections seem modest, attributable to weddings and other banquets the school hopes to host at the new complex. Because the only people better than politicians at producing thousands of fantasy jobs are the people who build new stadiums.

Correction(ish): I write that the stadium was built with the "public's money." A couple commenters below point out that the stadium wasn't built using taxpayer dollars. It will be paid for with donations, future sponsorships and student fees (among other sources). But student fees, charged to future students who will have no say in the matter, are as public as any other dollars that could have been dumped into the stadium.

Our colleges, public and private, are getting more and more expensive because of an often unnecessary arms race to build newer, shinier facilities. Timmy McPublic, UNT Class of 2020, won't pay for this stadium with his tax dollars. But he'll pay for it. Or, more likely, a bank will pay for it, and Timmy will have to pay the bank back with interest over 30 years. I wonder how that will impact the economy?


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