Football Folly
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Football Folly

The Buffalo Bills playing in Toronto on December 3, 2009. Photo by JoshMcConnell.

The Brothers Ford got many Torontonians spluttering out their morning coffee today with the proclamation that they had hopes of bringing an NFL franchise to the city. Let us set aside—for a moment—the fact that the NFL has given us every indication that they aren’t interested and that previous attempts to bring a team here have failed miserably. Let us set aside that the notion of finding private partners to build a one-billion-dollar stadium (the estimated cost of an arena big enough to meet the NFL’s preferred seventy-five-thousand-seat threshhold) is right now only a pipe dream. Let us set aside the appearance that the Fords are conflating their personal hobbies with the city’s interests. Let us set aside the uneasy feeling of hearing numbers like “one billion dollars” bandied about when this week members of the public have been asking the budget committee to please, just please, reconsider one-hundred-thousand-dollar cuts to various community services.
Instead, let us focus for a moment on this: Rob Ford has contended that an NFL franchise would be a real financial boost for the city, creating jobs and generating tourist revenue that would make the team worthwhile for everyone in Toronto, football fan or not.
Is there reason to think that might be true?

Fans and empty seats at a Bills game held at the Rogers Centre on November 7, 2010. Photo by JasonJThomas.

Not according to Brad Humphreys, a professor at the University of Alberta who specializes in the economics of sport. We spoke with him by phone earlier today:
Torontoist: What was your initial reaction to Mayor Ford’s contention that bringing an NFL franchise to Toronto would be a clear economic win for the city?
Humphreys: That he’s not very well informed of the realities about the impact of sports franchises on urban centres. I have studied this for ten years, and…I have not found one shred of evidence that suggests that the presence of a professional sports francise in a city has any tangible economic impact.
[Later, Humphreys returns to this point and adds…] He’s made the claim that one of the big economic components will be that Toronto will get to host the Super Bowl. Well in fact there’s no evidence that mega-events like the Super Bowl generate economic activity. Toronto is a tourist destination; people come to visit all the time. Yes, [the Super Bowl] brings tourists to the city, but those are not new tourists: it’s just one group of tourists—booking hotel rooms, eating in restaurants, and so on—crowding out another group that would have been there otherwise.
Ford believes that he can bring a team here, build a stadium to host them, and maintain the team’s presence in the city, all entirely without government money. In your experience is that feasible?
It’s not impossible. In fact, it would be extremely desirable that taxpayers not be involved in the subsidization of a professional sports team because there’s no tangible return for them.
Can you predict how an NFL team might affect the Argos?
Hard to tell. I know that’s the question on many people’s minds—not just about the Argos but the CFL in general. I’m not so convinced that it’s going to be a terrible thing for either the Argos or the NFL. Toronto is a big metropolitan centre and might be able to support both.
When the [Buffalo] Bills played in Toronto, ticket sales were pretty soft. Is it feasible to think that residents will come out in large enough numbers to adequately support an NFL team?
The fact of the matter is that the business model for the NFL is not driven by attendance—it is driven by national television revenues. If you can profitably operate an enterprise in Green Bay, you can do it many places.
Anything else you’d like to add?
The mayor has made the usual arguments about a world-class city. I just never know what to make of this. I think Toronto is a world class city as it is.
Finally: is this a good way for the mayor to be spending his time?
Yes, think so. You know, it’s difficult for politicians to explain easily to constituents how they’re making a difference in their lives…but if you can stand up and say “Hey, I brought the NFL to Toronto” everybody understands that. It’s an easy way for politicians to signal that they’re doing something.