The Sycamore Institute is taking aim at Nashville with a report, released Tuesday, about the underwhelming impact of public subsidies for sports stadiums.
The Tennessee-focused think tank joins the stadium fray amid city budget hearings and ongoing negotiations, both public and private, between the Titans and Mayor John Cooper's office.
Sycamore’s study synthesizes reporting, government analysis, economics research and data, examining five stadiums across the state. Its conclusions are consistent with decades of economic research critical of public subsidies for stadiums. Sycamore argues that pro sports venues redirect existing tax revenue rather than attract new spending and incur hard-to-quantify opportunity costs — money that might otherwise go elsewhere. They also require associated public expenses not included in a stadium’s price tag, like infrastructure and overruns — two topics still under scrutiny in Nashville’s project. Associated jobs often come with low wages, precarious employment and lots of turnover.
Sycamore provides direct counterpoints to a press release from the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp, the most visible nongovernmental organization generating numbers behind a new stadium push. In February, the NCVC referenced a study, which has been criticized for specious methodology, that hosting a World Cup would bring a $695 million economic impact to Nashville. Economic benefits of big events like a FIFA World Cup or NCAA Final Four have been favorite proxy arguments for proponents of a new domed stadium.
Launched in 2015, Sycamore regularly issues reports on Tennessee-specific policies. In the past year, it has published white papers on health care, public education, the state budget and the criminal justice system. The think tank bills itself as nonpartisan; members of senior leadership share backgrounds working with conservative administrations and elected Republicans. Conservative-leaning groups like Americans for Prosperity and the Beacon Center have also questioned the prudence of subsidizing the stadium, as have more liberal Nashville-based organizations.
Sycamore gets into the weeds on Nashville’s financing methods, debunking some of the confusing semantics around tax earmarks and the general fund. The study does not address the legal realities of the city’s obligations under its current lease, the leverage that the Titans have over Metro.
Writing about Nashville’s NFL ambitions for The New York Times in 1996, Kevin Sack observed an intracity divide along lines of big-city ambition and prudent government decision-making. Cited by the report, Sack's summary holds 26 years later: “The anti-stadium movement has been stoked, leaders on both sides of the debate say, by an underlying sentiment that Nashville is growing too quickly. Although studies suggest that professional football would have negligible direct impact on the city’s economy, many here see it as a symbol for progress that is not universally embraced.”