The Super Bowl doesn’t kick off until Sunday, but in the week ahead, the states of New York and New Jersey will host events and parties related to the game. And in New York, the state — and ergo taxpayers — will pick up $5 million of the city’s tab for (sort of) hosting Super Bowl XLVIII, the Albany Times-Union reported Monday.
The $5 million, included in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s state budget, will help pay for marketing and promotional activities — including $1 million for a truck that will drive around the city promoting the event — as well as $500,000 for a media dinner and $2.5 million for the Super Bowl Blvd. that will cover three city blocks into Times Square for most of the week.
Spending public money on promotions and marketing isn’t that odd, since it’s geared toward promoting the state. But much of it seems plain wasteful. The Super Bowl is one of the world’s highest-profile events, and New York has known it would host it for years. Are we supposed to believe that New Yorkers wouldn’t know about the game and its associated events without a million-dollar semi-truck looping around the city? And does it really make sense that the state, not the NFL, should pick up the tab for a dinner for journalists? It should be noted, too, that while many of the related events are in New York, the game itself is taking place in New Jersey.
Aside from that, the $5 million in taxpayer funding is indicative of a bigger, often untold problem with how these events are sold as their own brand of economic stimulus: when proponents of the Super Bowl tout the economic benefits the game will bring to the city, they rarely if ever talk about the associated costs that come with it too.
On first glance, the cost appears small relative to the benefit. The Super Bowl, happening at a time when New York rarely receives major tourist traffic, will flush $400 million into the local economy, according to event organizers and proponents. In reality, that number is likely far higher than the true benefit the city and surrounding area will receive. Sports economists say the real number is generally about a tenth of what economic impact estimates figure. If that’s the case, $5 million in taxpayer money is a much bigger piece of the pie than it originally appears, and it doesn’t account for the money New Jersey or local and federal governments will spend too (the Super Bowl host committee, the Times-Union says, originally sought $60 million from various sources to cover the costs of putting on the event).
Estimates of major economic benefits, economists argue, rarely account for the fact that much of the money tourists do spend won’t stay in the local economy. And they also rarely account for the costs of putting on such an event, whether it’s what the state allocates to pay for marketing, promotions, or to feed volunteers — as in this case — or what state, local, and the federal government have to pay to secure such a large event. The total cost of securing the Super Bowl isn’t known and the league pays for a substantial piece of it, but considering that it will involve at least 100 local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, a wide security perimeter around the stadium and other events, and SWAT, counter-terrorism, and diving squads, it certainly isn’t small.
That doesn’t mean we should cancel the Super Bowl, of course, or that there’s no benefit to hosting it. It is a reminder that these events aren’t free boons for the local economy. They can provide small, temporary boosts, but they also come with costs. Cities host the Super Bowl (and other events, like the NCAA Tournament) because they want to, and because events like these may bring intangible social benefits to the public. We should enjoy the Super Bowl — and New York and New Jersey residents should enjoy having it in their neck of the woods for the first time. Just don’t pretend that these events are a free economic lunch that are going to make everyone in the host city better off financially, because they almost certainly will not.