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Should the U.S. Really Try to Host Another World Cup?

DESCRIPTIONPhoto: zoonabar Many of the structures built for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games lie vacant.

There is a good section in the book Soccernomics about the economic impact studies that cities and countries sponsor when they are hoping to host a huge sporting event like the World Cup or the Olympics. The gist of it is that you can make an economic impact study say pretty much whatever you want, since it’s an exercise in speculation, and that the economists hired by bid committees make sure the numbers say yes.
The truth, however, is that most such events don’t provide much economic stimulus, and often turn out to be money losers. This isn’t to say that cities or countries shouldn’t try to host these events — but, as the Soccernomics authors argue, they should at least realize that what they’re doing is paying for the right to host a big party. The same is generally true for public funding of new sports arenas, as the economist Dennis Coates made clear not long ago.
Coates, who teaches economics at University of Maryland, Baltimore County and is the immediate past president of the North American Association of Sports Economists, is back with a stern warning for certain people with soccer fever. As it seems the U.S. is going hellbent for leather trying to land an upcoming World Cup, he wants to get ahead of the cheerleading to make clear how the economics will actually play out. His new paper, “World Cup Economics: What Americans Need to Know about a US World Cup Bid,” is an attempt to challenge “the rosy assumptions being made by U.S. bid leaders, and I hope it will force proponents to be more forthcoming with answers about what we can really expect from a U.S. World Cup.”
Coates’s central claim:

Despite bid organizers’ claims, the World Cup won’t be a boon for the American economy; in fact, it will likely cost the United States billions of dollars in lost economic impact. For example, economic estimates in support of the 1994 U.S. World Cup were later shown by economists to have been off by up to $14 billion. Far from having a positive economic impact, the last World Cup we hosted, a so-called major success, had a negative impact on the average U.S. host city of $712 million. Yet no one is discussing these figures despite the current economic troubles we face. … Few analysts who aren’t in the employ of the event boosters have ever found such events to pay for themselves in a purely dollars and cents view.

The recently completed South Africa World Cup is hardly an exception, with the bulk of the trouble lying in the gap between optimistic projected costs and actual costs:

The proposed budget for the 2010 games was about $225 million for stadiums and $421 million overall. Expenses have far exceeded those numbers. Reported stadium expenses jumped from the planned level of $225 million to $2.13 billion, and overall expenses jumped similarly from $421 million to over $5 billion.

And don’t forget the “ruins of modern Greece” — i.e., the abandoned facilities from the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. You think Greece might be feeling a bit of buyer’s remorse about now?