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Is Tampa Bay Rays' financial impact as good as candidate says?

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayoral candidate Larry Williams has been a one-man cheerleading squad for the Tampa Bay Rays on the campaign trail, a stance that has set him apart in the 10-way race. His rivals have mostly shied away from committing to a new baseball stadium.

Williams insists a new stadium is not a matter of politics. It's about keeping jobs in the Tampa Bay area.

"With a financial impact of approximately $300 million plus to our city, it is easy to determine that baseball is good for St. Petersburg," he wrote in a recent letter to the St. Petersburg Times.

Arguments for a new stadium are largely opinion based, so we opted to take a larger look at Williams' assertion.

Baseball has been a third rail issue in St. Petersburg since the Rays announced their desire for a new stadium in 2008. A proposed waterfront stadium was met with fierce criticism and quickly shelved. A community group has since been established to help keep the Rays in the area. The team insists a viable future cannot be charted from Tropicana Field.

As mayor, Williams said, he would rally for the Rays to stay in an updated Tropicana Field. But, he is quick to add, "if a new stadium is needed to keep this team in St. Petersburg, we should build a new stadium."

Williams attributes his assertion that the Rays bring gobs of money into the area to a 2008 economic impact study conducted by Walter J. Klages of the Klages Group and commissioned by the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. The report concluded that visitors attending Major League Baseball games generated more than $298 million to the area in 2008. Of those visitors, those who came to Pinellas County expressly to attend baseball games generated almost $192.9 million.

The study is based on a diverse sample of attendees at Rays' home games between June 17 and July 7 in 2008 and has a 2.4 percentage points margin of error. Klages interviewed more than 1,700 fans at games against the Marlins, Cubs, Astros, Red Sox and Royals.

Klages also interviewed 1,229 Pinellas County visitors from August through October. The report has a 2.8 percentage points margin of error.

The study found the majority of Rays fans, or 66 percent, come from outside Pinellas County.

Day-trippers alone generated more than $40 million in 2008 in entertainment, transportation and restaurant purchases, the study found. In total, each visitor spent roughly $700 a day, a figure that includes lodging expenses.

The Rays would not provide any data to support the study's claims.

Other reports have found that the Rays are a significant contributor to the local economy.

The St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce released a study by Pricewaterhouse­Coopers in 2008 that concluded the Rays contribute $92.5 million a year to St. Petersburg economic activity.

A more recent report found out-of-town baseball fans generate anywhere from $137 million to $213 million annually. Visiting baseball teams create $1.5 million in annual income for hotels, restaurants and other businesses, according to a study conducted by Arduin, Laffer & Moore in February.

But many academics argue that reports that paint professional sports teams as economic generators are largely bunkum paid for and commissioned by fans or businesses that directly benefit from having a local sports team. What's more, critics say, it is impossible to accurately pinpoint the economic impact of one business in a popular tourist locale.

"We generally find no large economic impact from generator sports," said Victor Matheson, a sports economist with the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. "We look at things like employment numbers in cities and tourism visits and we just never see the sort of bumps that reports like this come up with."

Matheson reviewed Klages' report and found the methodology reasonable. But Matheson concluded Klages' report assumes visitors are spending more than $500 each day. Even if that figure includes airfare and hotel stay, visitors are unlikely to spend that much, Matheson said.

Stefan Szymanski, a sports economist at City University London, also questioned the Rays' economic contribution to the Tampa Bay area after reviewing Klages' report.

"Presumably if residents did not go to the baseball (games) they'd go to some other local entertainment, so there's no net impact," he said.

What's more, if the prime real estate used by Tropicana Field were developed into a more popular venue, such as a theme park or shopping mall, the land could generate more money and create jobs, Szymanski said.

"So the net impact of the stadium allowing for the best alternative might even be negative," he said.

Although Williams accurately quoted from a report that found the Rays generate nearly $300 million for the area, Williams' comments do not acknowledge the report's incompatibility with similar studies or the larger debate that the economics of pro sports are difficult to measure.

We find Williams' statement to be Half True.

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Is Tampa Bay Rays' financial impact as good as candidate says? 08/22/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 25, 2009 1:39pm]
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