The biggest sports pageant of the year, the Super Bowl is increasingly netting super subsidies from local taxpayers and businesses, who are forking over hundreds of millions for new stadiums and tens of millions more for security and other event-related costs.
This year's Super Bowl in Atlanta may one of the most expensive yet for the public and the business community, with the bill weighing in at nearly $800 million.
This includes hundreds of millions in hotel tax dollars for the requisite new sports palace - the $1.6 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium - as well tens of millions more raised by local businesses to pay for security and other costs of hosting the mega event.
Supporters say hosting the Super Bowl alone will generate $400 million in economic activity for Atlanta, with the stadium producing adding that much and more each year to the Georgia's GDP.
But economists who are experts on the business of sports say Atlanta taxpayers and businesses are misguided if they expect a financial return on the hundreds of millions in subsidies they have shelled out.
While Super Bowl viewers watch Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) , PepsiCo (PEP - Get Report) and Intuit (INTU - Get Report) throw around millions of dollars for the National Football League's premiere event, the good folks of Atlanta will likely see no significant increase in business activity, economists say.
By contrast, the NFL will profit handsomely from the Super Bowl, both from its share of the hundreds of millions in advertising revenue, and the millions more from all the sales generated on the ground in Atlanta, from tax-free special events to a monopoly on ticket revenue.
"If you are an Atlantan and hosting the Super Bowl makes you feel good about yourself and your city, that's great, said Michael Leeds, an economist at Temple University who has done extensive research on sports economics.
"Just don't lie to me and tell me it's going to do somethings it's not going to do."
Economists say the estimate of $400 million in economic activity sounds wildly overstated.
"$400 million is probably too high - more like half that much," Roger Noll, professor emeritus of economics at Stanford University who has written extensively on sports economics, wrote in an email.
But even if it were true, such numbers, rolled out to support public subsidies bids by cities to host the Super Bowl and build new stadiums, fail to take into account the substitution effect.
The thousands of sports fans and high-rollers who have booked hotel rooms in the Atlanta area for the big game for the most part aren't filling what would have been empty rooms, Leeds noted.
Rather, they are occupying rooms that most likely would have been used by other groups, whether it's locals in town for the weekend or major conventions.
"There is a displacement effect," Leeds said. "People are going to Atlanta so a convention of dentists is not going there," Leeds said. "There are 40,000 people coming who occupy hotel rooms, but 30,000 are occupied anyway," Leeds said (citing theoretical numbers by way of example.)
"Invariably, when all the dust is settled, cities look around and say, 'Where's all the money?'," he added.
Some are little more generous. Stanford's Noll estimates the Super Bowl will generate $10 million to $20 million in tax revenue for Atlanta and Georgia.
Jeffrey Dorfman, an economics professor at the University of Georgia, pegs it at a couple million for the state and $18 million for local government.
Still, that won't offset even half of the $46 million raised by local businesses to pay for all the event-related costs related to hosting a mega-event like the Super Bowl, from a massive police presence to major disruptions to the local transportation network.
"I think people are happy to have a Super Bowl in Atlanta," Dorfman said. "I don't know if most people know taxpayers paid a bunch of money for it."
NFL Profit Machine
The NFL's efforts to maximize profits from the Super Bowl and the events around it are another big reason the Atlanta economy and local businesses won't be seeing much a payback from hosting the event.
A 153-page list of NFL demands limited the revenue received by the city and state when Minneapolis hosted last year's Super Bowl bash offers a window into the one-sided deals the league hammers out with host cities, experts say.
The NFL demanded 35,000 free parking spaces for the game, police escorts for team owners, hundreds of hotel rooms and presidential suites, as well as free advertising in local media, according to the published reports.
Also tax free: tickets sold to the big game, which last year were expected to top $100 million, with all the revenue, again, going to the NFL.
"It's a remarkable deal for the league. It's something for nothing," Temple University's Leeds said.
The league typically blocks off an area the size of several square blocks for the NFL Experience, an "NFL-themed carnival," noted Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economist whose 1992 "Baseball and Billions" was one of the first to take a hard look at the league's finances.
The NFL not only gets the revenue generated in the NFL Experience zone, it doesn't have to pay sales taxes on it either, Zimbalist said.
Some of the blocks will have normal, mom-and-pop businesses on them, but given the massive disruption to local transportation and the focus on the Super Bowl, it is far from a windfall for them.
"Some of block has normal businesses on them," Zimbalist said. "That activity grinds to a halt. A lot of firms in other cities have told employees not to come in on Super Bowl week."
Stadiums Not Economic Drivers
Billionaire Falcons owner Arthur Blank landed $700 million in hotel tax revenue for his new Mercedes-Benz stadium, which opened last year.
Roughly another $50 million, in the form of city-provided land, a pedestrian bridge, and tax rebate on construction materials - went into the retractable-roof, luxury-suite-packed Taj Mahal of new NFL stadiums.
The new Mercedes-Benz Stadium replaced the not-even two-decades-old Georgia Dome, itself built with hundreds of millions in public subsidies.
In Atlanta, the pitch for a new stadium included the prospect of hosting a Super Bowl and other major sports events, but also the purported economic windfall a new stadium would produce for Atlanta.
But Atlantans can at least take solace in their new stadium, which supporters argued would be an economic boon to the city, right?
Not so much, say economists, who -- while they don't agree on much -- contend arguments for big public subsidies for sports stadiums are specious.
As far back as 2006, 86% of economists surveyed believed city and state governments should stop subsidizing professional sports teams, The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis noted in a recent paper on the issue.
Even if you throw in off-season concerts, sports stadiums simply don't bring in enough people on their own to drive economic development in the areas they are built in. There are just too few games, especially when it comes to football, Leeds said.
A baseball park, with 81 games, packs the economic punch of a single department store, say a Nordstrom's, Leeds said.
By contrast, a new football stadium will draw even lower amounts of foot traffic over the course of a year, equivalent to a single generic supermarket, he said.
"Professional sports is a big business but there are lots and lots of other businesses that are much bigger," Leeds said.
Still, Atlanta is hardly alone, though, in spending big dollars for a new, Super Bowl-worthy stadium.
Minneapolis and the state of Minnesota forked over nearly $500 million in tax dollars to pay for U.S. Bank Stadium, plus another $7.5 million a year for operations and maintenance. The $1.1 billion stadium was home to last year's Super Bowl.
Taxpayers in Indianapolis and Indiana chipped in $619 million toward Lucas Oil Stadium, home to the 2012 Super Bowl, while Glendale, Ariz., anted up $308 million for the University of Phoenix Stadium, which hosted the Super Bowl in 2015.
Given all the research showing the negative returns for cities on sports stadiums, Temple University's Leeds is mystified why local officials keeping handing over tax dollars to team owners.
"It's like a comic routine where we say look out for the banana peel, look out for the banana peel, look out for the banana peel," Leeds said. "I don't know whether to laugh or cry."