Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Bogus Studies of Miller Park

How we've been misled -- repeatedly -- about Brewers “economic impact.”

By - May 10th, 2017 12:35 pm
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Miller Park

Miller Park

The overwhelming consensus among scholars is that public money spent on pro sports facilities has little economic impact. As one review of various case studies put it: “A new sports facility has an extremely small (perhaps even negative) effect on overall economic activity and employment.”

“If you ever had a consensus in economics, this would be it,” Michael Leeds, a sports economist at Temple University, told Marketplace.org. “There is no impact.”

But officials with the Milwaukee Brewers and the Miller Park stadium district have long wanted to contest this view, to quiet criticism of the stadium’s high price tag — anywhere from $524 million to upwards of a $1 billion — for taxpayers for the ballpark. Thus, back in 2001, the Milwaukee Brewers, whose biggest owner was Bud Selig, commissioned a Madison based company, Chamberlain Research Consultants, to study the impact of Miller Park.

The study found the stadium had a bountiful, $415 million economic impact. The key reason was this eyebrow-raising statistic: “of the 2.8 million fans who attended regular season games at Miller Park in 2001, 17 percent, or 476,000, stayed overnight in Milwaukee for an average of two nights,” as the Business Journal reported.

Of course, since the Brewers paid a for-profit company to do the study, it was never taken very seriously. So about three years later, Selig tried again. This time he hired PR man Carl Mueller to find the right researcher to prove the team’s economic impact.

Mueller hired Swarnjit S. Arora, a UW-Milwaukee economics professor who ran a low-profile organization called the UWM Institute for Survey and Policy Research. Mueller says that the late economics professor Leon Schur was also involved in the study, but Arora credits only himself and UWM academic staffer Peter Akubeze. The authorship hardly matters, given the slapdash nature of the study.

The study was completed in January 2005, and by that time Selig and his co-owners had sold the team to Mark Attanasio. That may explain why it wasn’t released until October of that year as the Associated Press reported.

The study basically takes the data from Chamberlain Research Consultants and repackages it with a more modest economic impact of $327.3 million. It claims that Chamberlain’s 2001 data — from the inaugural season of Miller Park when excitement to see it would have been at its peak — would be comparable to later years when it comes to the percent of out-of-town visitors to the stadium, but offers no analysis as to why this would be true. It also makes no distinction between the economic impact of spending by fans inside or outside the stadium. And it doesn’t include a copy of the Chamberlain study, so no analysis of the data is possible.

But the major flaw is the study’s assumption that any out-of-town visitor to Miller Park has come to town to see the Brewers. Thus it repeats the Chamberlain conclusion that that “17 percent of out-of-town visitors to Miller Park stayed an average of 2 days in the area.” Of course, they may have drawn to the city for Summerfest, for a convention, for business, to see the Milwaukee Art Museum or to enjoy a boat trip from Chicago. Summer is the peak tourism season for Milwaukee. And if there was no Miller Park, these visitors would have probably spent their money on other attractions in town, as tourists do. But the study simply assumes they all came for the Brewers.

The entire portrait offered here suggesting flocks of Brewers fans stay overnight is at odds with what we know of out-staters, many of whom avoid Milwaukee like the plague. Indeed, Selig was adamant that Miller Park be built in the valley, where out-of-towners could easily drive to the game and then leave, never seeing more of Milwaukee than I-94.

The assignment for Arora in doing this study was made clear by Selig. “I always knew there were huge benefits to building new ballparks, and this was an exercise to prove that,” he told the AP reporter.

But the periodic carping over the Miller Park sales tax, which continued far beyond what taxpayers had originally been told, continued, and by 2012 it was time for a “new” study to be released.

Once again Selig paid for the research, this time with money from Major League Baseball. The study, you see, “has been a useful tool for Major League Baseball in understanding new stadiums as a destination that draws economic impact from other areas,” Mueller tells me.

Yes, Mueller was once again hired by Selig to make Miller Park look like a gold mine. Once again Mueller hired Arora, though the UWM Institute for Survey and Policy Research was by then nearly defunct. Arora says he closed it two months after finishing his second Brewers study. Once again the Chamberlain data was used to help determine how many ballpark visitors were from out-of-town, though the data was by then 11 years old and Chamberlain Research Consultants would go out of business that year.

Arora’s latest version references the Chamberlain research “from our previous study” without disclosing it was from 2001. He suggests he also got data from a 2010 state Department of Tourism, but offers no link to the study or any quotes from it. Nor is available at the DOT website, but it appears to be used to estimate how much out-of-town visitors spend per day, rather than how many visitors to Miller Park come from outside the metro area.

Arora does use zipcode data from the Brewers to help estimate how many 2011 fans came from out-of-town, but 20 percent of the tickets had no zip code so Arora simply estimates where they might be from based on the rest of tickets sold. But the major problem here is simply repeating the Chamberlain assumption that all the fans staying overnight in Milwaukee came here for the Brewers, rather than all the other attractions in town.

Arora uses a cost-of-living adjustment to help bump up his earlier estimate of the economic impact, increasing it to $355.7 million.

Rich Kirchen of the Business Journal duly covered the grand result, quoting Mueller that the study was “suggested” by Selig, without telling readers Selig paid for it. He provides no link to the study nor reports the author’s name. He quotes Mueller marveling that the study used “conservative estimates” and yet the results “showed an even greater impact than expected.”

Don Behm of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a publication whose revenue is heavily dependent on sports coverage, all but swooned over the study, with a lead sentence on Miller Park, “Call it the golden dome.”

Behm does note it was paid for by Major League Baseball, but also leaves out a link to the study and the author’s name and provides not one quote from the study. But his story is larded with quotes from Don Smiley, board chairman of the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District, Mike Duckett, the district’s executive director (it was the district which released the study, providing separation from Selig and Major League Baseball), as well as Robert Leib, who does work for hire for sports franchises, and Brian Mayhew, a Brewers fan and associate professor of accounting at UW-Madison, all of whom gushed about the stadium.

But not one quote from an economist, including the study’s author. Behm does reference the earlier study, noting it “was criticized by some local economists who said it inflated the Brewers’ yearly benefit.” That leaves readers to draw the conclusion that this study was somehow different than the last, which surely pleased Selig.

Indeed, I think it’s fair to say Mueller and Arora earned every last dollar they were paid: they really gave Selig the results he wanted. I see no reason to think the Chamberlain data can’t be recycled in 2021, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Miller Park.

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33 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Bogus Studies of Miller Park”

  1. AG says:

    Bruce, excellent point that many of those out of town visitors may have been here for for other reasons and also just happened to decide to see a Brewers game. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t think of that simple fact, despite encouraging that exact thing for many convention and organizational visitors I have interacted with.

    However, even if 75% (or even 90%) of out of town visitors to Miller Park were here already, the remaining 25% (or 10%) would still provide a net benefit that is greater than the total tax payer dollars put toward the stadium.

    I’m also curious on how much you think the data would have changed for % of out of town visitors since 2001? If anything, I feel like Miller Park as a destination has only increased. Not to mention, if one accepts your theory that Miller Park is an afterthought for visitors, then your hypothesis for declining out of metro visitors compared to 2001 would be largely moot (I’m assuming you hypothesis is that it declined, for that is the only way that would support your article). I also fail to see how this wasn’t addressed by using ticket sales zip codes? Is it only the missing data estimation that you have an issue with?

  2. Bruce Murphy says:

    AG, thanks. I think anything you or I say on out-to-town visitors would simply be speculation. That’s what a study is supposed to offer, some hard research. To have two studies based on an earlier study that doesn’t include the study and its data, to me simply disqualifies it as research.

  3. No to mention the opportunity cost — the value of billion dollars invested in some other way. Education for example, according to many economists would be a better investment.

  4. Joanne Brown says:

    Anyone think the same study will be reconfigured for the Bucks arena?

  5. Matthew says:

    As I have now become an ‘Out of Town’ visitor for the last few years, I have to say that the reason for my visits right now are to see family. When I come to town, we usually just look for something local to do such as summerfest, zoo, museums, sporting events, holiday shows, biking, dining, etc. Depending on what is happening in MKE we can usually find something fun to do. With or without the Brewers we would probably be spending the same amount per trip. It would definitely be a miss-attribution to claim that our spending is being driven by the Brewers.

  6. mbradleyc says:

    SMH

  7. Joe says:

    Tom said what I was thinking. None of this takes into account the “impact” using that money in some other way might have produced.

  8. AG says:

    Opportunity cost is a good question to ask. But also consider… if public money didn’t offset the price of Miller Park and the team had left, what is the value of player and organization payroll taxes that would be removed from the state coffers? Not to mention sales tax on goods and services that are baseball operations related (including concessions and such). Combine that with the money spent by people who DO come just for the Brewers (the actual numbers are debatable, but they DO exist) and I just see a lot more benefits than costs. Then add on top of all that the intangible benefits of a local sports franchise…

    This goes back to some of pro-sports biggest critics that say it isn’t really about the public contributions, it’s about the monopoly the sports teams have. They have the power to pull up stakes and find another location that will give them what they want. I think there’s a point at which a limited amount of public support makes sense… and Miller Park’s tax I think is a good balance.

  9. Joe says:

    Yes, AG, all of those aspects should be considered. Yet there isn’t a single reputable study that has quantified those impacts, so your conclusion that public financing was warranted in this case is not supportable by evidence.

    At the end of the day, we subsidized a private asset on behalf of an organization owned by a billionaire, at an enormous cost to whoever else might have otherwise received the money. Until our public schools are better, sports stadiums should take a back seat in my opinion.

  10. Vincent Hanna says:

    This text references an interesting study looking at intangible benefits and their relevance when it comes to public money: https://medium.com/@agatescal/are-intangible-benefits-a-considerable-factor-to-stadium-building-economics-2c870178991.

    Another study, “Public dollars, sports facilities, and intangible benefits: The value of a team to a region’s residents and tourists,” argues that intangible benefits are real and significant (while admittedly hard to measure) and should be considered when discussing public money for stadiums.

  11. AG says:

    It’s ok Joe, my conclusion is subjective so others are allowed to disagree.

    And if we waited for our schools to get better before doing any other quality of life enhancements… well… we’ll just lack any quality of life enhancements.

  12. Scott says:

    Studies… you can tweak studies in any direction you feel meets your needs. Economic value is a SYNERGY of everything this great city has to offer. MLB, NBA and our phenomenal stadiums are indeed luxuries, and luxuries that you find in the very best large cities. I was at the game last night, stayed dry, and sat among hundreds of Boston fans. People visit MKE for everything we have to offer, and in many cases, baseball! I am willing to pay my share for the benefits of PRO sports. This is Milwaukee!

  13. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Bruce, you have always been right on this point and the Brewers, now the Bucks mess. While important problems go unanswered we spend tons of money on basketball.
    Milwaukee has always been a baseball town.We love them, so for us it is worthwhile exependiture. Does it help economically? Yes, but how much? Who knows. We do know that baseball in Milwaukee is nothing.
    The Packer are Wisconsin and we must keep them.
    We know that the leaders of Wisconsin were greatly dissatisfied with the Brewers after the deal.

  14. Rbupp says:

    If private business was funding these huge WANTS we would have no new billion dollar basketball facilities or multi million dollar streetcars!

  15. Rob B says:

    Amen Scott. I have traveled to many other cities, purely for sports. Example, I’ve seen the brewers in Chicago, Seattle, Boston, New York, etc. I know the fans of those other teams do the same. Some folks do it on a yearly basis! These people would not be coming to Milwaukee if not for the sporting event…it likely wouldn’t be on their radar.

    I understand it’s a huge cost and the studies may show inflated economic impact, but I personally think having pro spots is a HUGE boon for Milwaukee. It helps put us on the map and keep us relevant in terms of “big city amenities.” People come and stay for these attractions (summerfest, arts, sports, museums, etc). We start to lose them and we start to lose both visitors and transplants.

  16. What I find curious is that the one thing that Miller Park could point to for increased economic activity isn’t mentioned because it’s hard to pin down who grills in the parking lot and who buys what during games. It’s food and drink!

  17. DairyStateMom says:

    No reputable study, anywhere, ever, has found there to be a net positive effect of the cost to taxpayers of a stadium. Ever. Anywhere. And believe me, many places have tried. (I’m not saying a baseball/basketball/football/etc. team isn’t fun to have around; only that they aren’t worth public money weighed against roads, bridges, and schools).

    I got interested in this stuff when the new Sox stadium went up in Chicago while I was still living there, and became even more interested when I moved to Racine (where, some of you may remember, we tossed George Petak on his sorry butt after he voted for the stadium tax).

    Neil de Mause of the Field of Schemes blog (fieldofschemes.com) has done yeoman’s work for many years in this area. The tab to taxpayers, according to de Mause, is around $2 billion (yup, with a “b”) every year. (Total, folks.) $2 billion is a lot of schools, or a lot of health care, or a lot of playgrounds for kids, or a lot of roads. Wait, what was I reading JUST TODAY that the current proposed Wisconsin budget trades roads now for education and health care funding?!

    Thanks, Bruce, for keeping this issue out there. I fear you’re a voice crying in the wilderness, but hey, somebody has to do it.

  18. Don’t want to be misunderstood on the food comment. I’m with Bruce, and Obama for that matter, that public money shouldn’t be paying privately profitable sports facilities. I don’t feel the same about cultural activities because there is a more direct and constant positive effect on economics — just ask the parking structures downtown! But as one manager of a supermarket who loves the Brewers tail-gating told me, people in Wisconsin love to cook out so much they would do it on the street. They like that the Brewers have given them the venue, but I doubt if they think they should be taxed over it!

  19. Dewey Martin says:

    Bruce, your analysis is focused on the math behind the big spending numbers cited by UWM or Chamberlain in support of the economic benefits to Milwaukee County that flow from Miller Park as opposed to throwing money at milwaukee public schools, police or fire budgets, street repair or any number or local needs. Take a look at the logic economists use in reaching their conclusion. Very theoretical using assumptions without any real world testing or surveys. Taking the funding directed toward Miller Park and applying it to the needs in other areas wasn’t on the table. It wasn’t an either or decision. The benefit to local residents in improved quality of life, national international “big league” status are difficult to measure and that’s why economists ignore them and limit their examination solely to whether a team/stadium increases average personal income in the region not whether jobs were created, not whether additional tax dollars were created. From a policy standpoint, the same majority of economists that was cited in your article argue that luring overnight visitors from other parts of the state or for that matter out of state is bad policy because those folks would be spending the same money spent on tickets, brats, beer, and parking in Steven’s Point, or Schaumburg on movies, bowling or in their local taverns. The reality is that if Milwaukee wants Major League Baseball or NBA Basketball there’s a price tag. If Milwaukee doesn’t want it, there are communities that are willing to spend the same money and then some to lure a major sports team into their market.

  20. fightingbobfan says:

    One thing I do know. In the service of his employer at the time, The Journal Company, Charlie Sykes harangued critics of the project and bullied anyone who dared call up an question the wisdom of the project. He really played the role of company man pit bull.

    Which leads us to another issue.

    The sports pages comprise a major portion of our home town paper. Would we even have a newspaper if there was no Brewer news to cover half the year?

    Guess that’s an economic issue too.

  21. Bruce Thompson says:

    For some time, I have thought that a fair solution would be for the taxpayers to take an equity interest in the team, which is the appreciating part of sports. Instead they get the depreciating part, the ball park.

  22. Andrew says:

    Bruce Murphy- please do your own funded study, then afterwards we can criticize it because of the biased reflected in these articles that you put out prior. I do understand that’s what is happening in your opinion when three studies do show that there is a positive economic impact yet you wish to continue to say that there’s not because of a generalization in the economics field. I was at the game yesterday and had the pleasure of sitting behind a group of 12 people from Davenport Iowa who’s only reason to come to Milwaukee was to see the Brewers game and the only reason they invested the money to come is because they knew regardless of the temperature they will be able to see a game because of the retractable roof. These individuals each probably racked up a bill from the concession stands in excess of $50, and that’s not even considering if they stopped at a grocery store in the area and had it any type of pre-or post game tailgate. I believe the impact of that single group probably offset my tax cost for the entire year of the stadium. I know that’s a small sample size however consistently I have heard and seen similar stories in my visits to Miller Park. I can appreciate the fact that an endless stadium tax is not something that is wise and depending on your political leanings downright disgusting, but to continue to point out information that doesn’t pass the commonsense test of what you see at the stadium when it comes to economic impact of people out of the state and long-distance visitors, I feel it makes you look jilted.

  23. fightingbobfan says:

    Some of you have got to learn how to use a return key.

    As John Oliver put it, a city would derive more economic benefit by putting that money in a helicopter and dropping it over the city.

  24. Jack Norman says:

    Bruce Thompson’s idea is attractive, but remember: appreciated assets only yield profit when they’re sold. And the taxpayers’ share of ownership would always vote against a sale of the team as protection for the team staying in Milwaukee.

  25. AG says:

    You know a discussion is a productive one and being conducted by informed people when someone quotes John Oliver.

  26. Paul says:

    Nobody claims that there is NO economic benefit to having a major-league ballpark in town.
    My husband and I went to St. Louis a couple years back specifically to see the Brewers play the Cardinals, and we spent a couple days patronizing restaurants, a hotel, bars, and a few tourist sites. At the game, we sat in front of a family from Iowa — perhaps the same folks Andrew met at Miller Park, who knows. There are always plenty of red t-shirts in the stands when the Cards play here.
    But we’ve only gone to Busch Stadium once. Quite possible that it will remain our only visit, unless one of us has to attend a convention there.
    I bring this up only because Milwaukee and St. Louis are similar insofar as they share the same reputation as brewery cities, and are at a distance, unlike Chicago, where an overnight stay is likely.

  27. fightingbobfan says:

    It is possible to be comedic and factual, just like our president is comedic inadvertently and non-factual.

  28. Dennis Sell says:

    I doubt if the thousands of Chicago Cubs’ fans who came to Milwaukee during the weekend of April 7-9 would have come to our city had it not been for the baseball games. These thousands of fans spent money staying at hotels and eating at our restaurants during their stay here.

    The Cubs are scheduled for two other weekend series in Milwaukee–July 28-30 and September 21-24. Thousands of Cubs’ fans will travel to Milwaukee during those two weekends, particularly the July weekend and will again patronize our hotels and restaurants.

  29. Joe says:

    Dennis – Most of them tailgate with their own food and then drive home after the game.

    They come here specifically because tickets are cheaper than going to a Cubs game, and from the northern suburbs of Chicago it’s actually a faster drive than trying to get to Wrigley in Chicago traffic.

    They do not come here to “experience” Milwaukee (i’m sure a few of them probably do, but please spare us the hyperbole of “thousands”).

    But hey, if you’re fine with your tax money building a stadium for the Cubs, don’t let me rain on your parade.

  30. Vincent Hanna says:

    Joe how do you know how many Cubs fans come here just for a game, especially between June and August?

  31. Joe says:

    Vincent, i think the burden should be on the person claiming thousands of Cubs fans staying in Milwaukee hotels many times a year to prove that. As a former Chicagoan i have at least some basis on which to make my claims as to why Cubs fans come here. It was universally to avoid the hassle of Wrigley.

    Not statistically significant, but then again that’s kind of the point of Bruce’s article.

  32. Vincent Hanna says:

    Oh I agree that they come here because it’s easier to get tickets (and you always know the game will be played). I’m not disputing that. But I think it’s disingenuous to claim that the majority are not coming here for any other reason, they just go straight to the game and straight home, especially in the months of June, July, and August. I also used to live in Chicago and I work with Cubs fans now and I have my own anecdotal evidence that suggests plenty of Cubs fans come here for much more than the baseball game.

  33. Bill Kurtz says:

    The bottom line is that 2 things separate the Milwaukees, Cincinnatis and Kansas Citys from the next rung of cities (Toledo, Rochester, N.Y., Louisville, Des Moines). One is cultural institutions, the other is major league professional sports. If we haughtily refuse on principle to subsidize either, how much better off are we? We may save $100 or $200 or so personally, so the only reason to take that stand is principle. And that principle is about the only one I know that unites the libertarian right and the politically correct left. At least that makes sense on the right- if all taxes are bad, even a small savings is a good thing. But for leftists, opposing stadium/arena subsidies because they’d rather see that money spent on various social concerns is a dead end, because nobody else is ready to sign on to their preferred spending agenda- they’ll just pocket the tax savings, thank you!

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