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What’s the score?

UpFront: July 2014

What’s the score?

Stats don’t lie − paying for play isn’t always a winner.

During a recent golf trip to Southern Pines, I fatted an approach shot into a fairway bunker 15 yards in front of me. Seconds later, the offending club helicoptered over the sand trap, landing in the middle of the fairway. It was a childish thing to do. I’m an OK golfer, playing to about a 10 handicap. I should expect the occasional flub. But I’m passionate about golf and, therefore, lack perspective.

A few weeks after my 7-iron took flight, the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens descended upon nearby Pinehurst Resort & Country Club. Though the men’s event was a yawner — Martin Kaymer demolished the field — the renovated course won rave reviews, and Sandhills businesses braced for about 400,000 visitors. A study by N.C. State University and the local convention and visitors bureau projected nearly $170 million of economic impact statewide from the tourneys. Though such reports should be taken with a truckload of salt, anyone who passed through Moore County June 9-22 knows the Opens bolstered the local economy.

About the time Kaymer began assailing Pinehurst No. 2, Brazilian authorities were firing tear gas and stun grenades into crowds of demonstrators in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. “I’m totally against the [World] Cup,” a student protestor told CBS News. Why did the world’s most-watched sporting event, one expected to inject $11.1 billion into the economy, get such a rude reception in the country that loves the “beautiful game” more than any other? Moody’s Investors Services forecast that the World Cup would have a negligible effect on Brazil because its estimated economic impact is only 0.5% of annual gross domestic product. Though $11 billion sounds big, it’s trifling to a $2.2 trillion economy.

Sports have become a popular tool for local politicians. The trend is especially prevalent in our largest city, where Charlotte and Mecklenburg County together shelled out $16 million toward a $54 million minor-league ballpark. Last year, the city agreed to spend $87.5 million for renovations at Bank of America Stadium, where the Carolina Panthers play. (In return, the team, which will spend $37.5 million, promised to stay put at least six years.) In March, the then-Charlotte Bobcats asked for more than $40 million to rehab Time Warner Cable Arena, built only nine years ago. Without the upgrades, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver warned, the city couldn’t host the league’s annual all-star game. The 2012 edition, held on the Orlando Magic’s home court, generated $95 million for Orange County, Fla.

The U.S. Opens didn’t come free. The state invested $30 million to widen N.C. 211 into Pinehurst and $8.5 million to replace a bridge in nearby Aberdeen. Moore County Airport got a $9 million renovation and expansion in preparation for increased traffic. But, from its perspective, rural Moore County needs the pop. According to a study by UNC Charlotte economist John Connaughton, sports activity in the Charlotte metro area in 2011 resulted in $1.1 billion of direct revenue. That was just 0.9% of all economic activity. North Carolina lawmakers caught flack for not chipping in on Bank of America Stadium upgrades. Do the Panthers make much of a blip on the state’s $471 billion economy?

I love pro sports for the connections they engender — with friends, with family, with a city. That’s why millions of North Carolinians are blindly passionate about them. That holds us hostage — pay up, owners too often threaten, or we’re outta here — and local officials hasten to hand over the ransom. But who can blame teams for shaking down fans and taxpayers (often one and the same)? It’s a slam-dunk as long as our passion obscures our perspective.



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