News: Charlotte Exclusives

Bowling for Dollars

Football may be an absolute good, just not a public good

College football exists at the intersection of two deep and mysterious disciplines, football and economics. No wonder then that the sport so easily makes usually sane and sound people go a little crazy. And crazy defines any notion to use public money to support a college football bowl game in Charlotte.

According to a report in The Charlotte Business Journal, current bowl sponsor Continental Tire may not renew its backing of the three-year old game. This is the first intersection of football and economics. Such sponsorships are exercises in vanity that cannot be justified on purely budgetary terms. The name association-game does not truly function as an ad campaign as the late, unlamented and incongruent OS/2 Fiesta Bowl demonstrated for all time.

As such, these deals are not unlike a downtown branch of a department store that gets little traffic or, indeed, ownership of a pro sports franchise. These things seldom make pure budgetary sense but do payoff in the psychic satisfaction they provide, which is fine if a company or individual has the money to do that. But Continental appears to be in for a round of belt-tightening during which luxury plays like an annual million-dollar bowl sponsorship may be hard to justify.

This prospect has bowl game officials raising the possibility of some sort of public support for the Charlotte bowl game, not unlike several other cities provide to other bowls. They point to the supposed economic benefits of the game to Charlotte and argue it would be a good investment for the city. But if we take the claims of economic benefit at face value they actually argue against any public support for the event.

Visit Charlotte, the city’s tourism booster, claims the bowl game generated between $15 and $20 million in increased business for the local economy in each of its first two years. If so, then it is a no-brainer for those businesses, primarily restaurants and hotels in the center city, to band together and come up with the $1 million to replace the Continental Tire money. That would be a proper investment. In fact, something on the order of $500,000 to $100,000 of seed money may be all that is needed to keep the game going without public funds.

Further, use some imaginative accounting in setting up the group and you might be able to structure financial support in such a way that it becomes an expensible entertainment expense. The point is that if the bowl game is truly such a boon to the private sector, then the private sector can easily pay for it without dipping into taxpayers’ pockets.

In any event, there needs to be a clear understanding of the real-world limits of a mid-December college football game in Charlotte. The vagaries of football dictate that the possible pool of teams which could keep a strong game in Charlotte is only about a dozen or so schools deep. The 2002 match-up of West Virginia and Virginia was a master-stroke paring two rivalry schools, both of which were within driving distance of Charlotte. But in 2003 Virginia fans had already done the Charlotte thing, and Pittsburgh fans simply stayed home. Attendance slipped by 20,000 fans.

This year’s game will likely sell out Bank of America Stadium as North Carolina fans flock to watch UNC take on Boston College. But should the game get stuck with, say, a Miami-Syracuse match-up in 2007 or 2008 a sellout would be a miracle. To be in the bowl business backers must be willing to brave the great, wacky unpredictability of sports.

This fact puts bowl sponsorships squarely in the category of a risky, private investment. Bowl game subsidies are as far removed from a fundamental government function as a tackling drill would be out of place at a city council meeting. (County council, not so much.)

That, and go Tar Heels.