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Would You Buy a Used Tennis or Football Event From This State?

Genghis Smith
Wikimedia Commons

By the looks of things, you, the Connecticut Taxpayer, will soon own a failing tennis tournament. You already own a really bad college football program, and you recently agreed to pay a man $750,000 to stop coaching it

I've been struggling with the state's decision to buy the New Haven Open. New Havenites are breathing a sigh of relief, because the tournament was otherwise headed for North Carolina (what is it with North Carolina poaching our sports?) if no savior came along. 

No matter how broadly you define the mission of government, it's tough to see how owning a professional tennis tournament fits in. And this tournament looks like a dying sports event more than it looks like anything else. This year a whopping 3,993 people crammed themselves in to the 15,000-seat stadium to watch the final. Overall attendance for the ten-day event has fallen from a peak of 100,000 to 45,000. 

So you -- through the vehicle of a quasi-public agency called the CRDA, which is explicitly designed to minimize meddling by you pesky voters and your elected reps -- are paying $618,000 for the Sick Man of U.S. Tennis. You'll pay another $400,000 each year for "operating costs," a government term that means "a number considerably higher than the one we're giving you right now." 

Why would you do that? One reason is that the tournament claims it generates $25 million a year in related economic activity. Let me put that into perspective. That's $555 per daily attendee. So if you buy a ticket for yourself and your two runny-nosed kids, presumably you're out there spreading $1,500 around the Elm City on foam fingers and Dom Perignon.

The other reason is that you already put a bunch of money into this when you built one of the largest tennis venues in the world. The stadium cost you $18 million in public bonds. So now you have to save the thing that goes inside it. 

This is a pattern that repeats itself. 

Library of Congress, via Wikimedia

Consider the abysmal UConn football program. 

One of the more chilling exchanges on the subject happened Oct. 2, on Where We Live, when host John Dankosky asked USA Today sports reporter Paul Meyerberg if UConn is a big time football program.

"No," Myerberg said flatly. "I would not put UConn in the same class as any big time football program. The program has obviously taken a big hit. It's not an A+ rating anymore. It's a B."

And, said Meyerberg, UConn is stuck in the jury-rigged American Athletic Conference. "It's going to be a terrible league. It's a bad league now, and it's going to be awful next year when Louisville goes to the ACC." 

Meyerberg said UConn has nothing that would attract a big time coach. Recruiting will be hard and assistants will see little reason to join the staff. Even the allure of a worst-to-first transformation will be tepid, he said, because "even if you go 11-1, you're still playing in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl." It's a regional program, he said, and turning it into a national power would take something akin to a miracle.

Why should this bother you? Well, even though it's almost impossible to figure out what something like the UConn football program costs, I'm comfortable telling you it has run up a big tab with the taxpayers. You built a stadium with $90 million in public bonds, and you built practice facilities with another $31 million in bonds. Debt service on those bonds is not carried on the UConn football books, which is one of the many reasons it's so hard to say was a football program costs. 

This was all part of a massive bet -- using your money -- that UConn football would click and generate a lot of revenue. College sports departments are -- to an alarming degree -- in the television business, and right now UConn football's high velocity plummet out of the national conversation and into the second tier basically means the TV money is not coming. You need TV money to make the balance sheet work.

Also hard to quantify are the social and ethical costs. College football makes a lot people happy, but with it come a series of ethical compromises and a campus climate that is more dangerous to women -- and, in a different way, to football players --than it would otherwise be. We got a taste of that on a show featuring Jeff Benedict whose new book, The System, pulls back the curtain on college football. 

Anyway, what should we bet on next?

Colin McEnroe is a radio host, newspaper columnist, magazine writer, author, playwright, lecturer, moderator, college instructor and occasional singer.
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