I was surprised the other day when someone asked me, sports fanboy, of all people: are the Vancouver Canucks good for our economy?
My initial inclination was to wonder why anyone would think otherwise. How can they not be? How can we not see all the activity upon us?
Here we are at the start of the regular season, eager to see a team that has (on paper, if not yet on ice) more promise than in years. This time of year is hockey’s autumnal version of baseball’s spring optimism. This year’s edition features a clutch of still-young rising stars, so there is a strong sense of renewal and buoyancy in what had been a forlorn business.
No matter, win or lose, season after season in its Stanley Cup-less half-century, the Canucks generate hundreds of millions of dollars directly and indirectly in economic activity through the team’s operations, the stadium’s presence and the hundreds of suppliers and ancillary businesses that benefit from the National Hockey League franchise here. How can all of that not be good for the economy?
But the question that came to me was provocative. The inquirer knew the operative word in the question was “good,” as in: Is this activity anything more than just activity? Is it positive in expanding the economy? As a corollary, if it weren’t there, would our economy suffer?
On this matter, the academic literature over decades might surprise you. In general it finds there is little evidence that sports franchises are good for a local economy. Their impact is negligible, perhaps a small fraction of one per cent. The impact of a major-league baseball team has been compared by a sports economist to that of a mid-sized downtown department store. Take a team away and the economy doesn’t tank.
Which doesn’t mean there aren’t obvious benefits — jobs created, for instance, and thousands of economic transactions — only that it doesn’t add scale to an economy. The spending would have taken place somewhere if it hadn’t been applied to a sports franchise, which of course also takes money away from other forms of entertainment and activity.
With franchises can come clear problems and negative impacts, although the worst of these — the absurd subsidies for stadium construction and operation — don’t intersect with our hockey team in a privately held facility. On the other hand, it is quite difficult to see how the more than $500 million in renovations this decade to B.C. Place can be recouped over my lifetime to generate a positive economic impact through the B.C. Lions and Vancouver Whitecaps — and a handful of concerts and trade shows — irregularly inhabiting the place.
Back to the Canucks, though, because in the end we are a hockey city.
A large question about their impact has to do with economic intangibles — the contribution to our culture and identity as a community. Civic pride itself is difficult to measure, even though it is central to our autonomy and values and social inclusion, but does its presence spur other positive impacts? Might our goodwill about a community through a sports franchise spur investment and generate greater prosperity? Might a franchise’s impact on pride be its connection to economic good?
Beyond that, what value can we apply to the social event of sharing beer in a sports bar to watch a game? What does it mean for us as a community to have a hometown major-league team that binds us (some would say that even blinds us)? Does our escape into sports for hours at a time pay back some sort of dividend in the way we subsequently conduct ourselves? Isn’t there a noticeable spring in our step and lightness of being when our team is winning?
On these points there is precious little research, mainly just our intuition that surely some sort of value arises from the pride in a team — that it is good for us to have, definitely not as good to not have, and that there is some intrinsic, inherent worth in that purpose.
That is, of course, what some franchise owners will play on when they want our money for their teams.
So play on we do, because even if they aren’t technically good for the economy, the Canucks can be good for us. As long, of course, as they are good.
Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, at Glacier Media.