The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Government-subsidized World Cup stadiums have become money-losing “white elephants”

ESPN reports that most of the government-subsidized stadiums built or renovated for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil have become “white elephants [that] are as likely now to collect dust as they are to generate ticket receipts.” However, hope is not entirely lost. One of the stadiums (a 42,000 seat venue that today draws only about 5000 per soccer game) “has been trying to generate funds by hosting weddings and children’s events.” Calling these stadiums “white elephants” is an unwarranted insult to actual white elephants.

In Brazil, there is now considerable anger over this situation:

“When I look back on the 2014 World Cup, it is not good,” the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes, told ESPN FC. “Brazil was left with some great stadiums, but they were too expensive because of corruption.
“Brazilians have not benefited from the tournament. There has been no legacy for them. The World Cup still makes them angry. There is regret that we even staged it.”

This sad state of affairs was entirely predictable. Studies by economists on both the left and the right consistently show that government subsidies for sports stadiums hurt local economies more than they benefit them. Economist Andrew Zimbalist’s recent book, Circus Maximus, has a good survey of the evidence on the effects of hosting the World Cup and the Olympics specifically. Ironically, the Women’s World Cup generally benefits local economies more (or at least harms them much less) than the far larger and more popular men’s event, because the Women’s Cup doesn’t usually get massive government subsidies.

Despite the overwhelming evidence, government subsidies for sports stadiums continue. Not just in Brazil, but also here in the United States, and other countries. I am a big sports fan myself, and very much enjoy watching a wide range of professional sports. Unlike many Americans, I even like watching the World Cup. But it is long past time to ask the multibillion dollar industry of professional sports to pay for its own stadiums.