5 March Madness Venues Turned Money Pits

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- A city full of tourists, a $70 million-to-$140 million economic boost and a place in the national spotlight. Who wouldn't want the Final Four in their town?

Just consider the cost of building the ballroom before hosting the Big Dance.

Last year, Atlanta's Georgia Dome drew host duties for the NCAA Men's College Basketball Tournament's championship round and, according to Atlanta Convention and Business Bureau CEO William Pate and Mayor Kasim Reed, took in the $70 million in financial benefits the event brought to the city's restaurants, hotels and attractions.

Or, you know, it had an impact that looked nothing like that. Economics professor Victor Matheson of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and economics professor Robert Baade, now with Lake Forest College near Chicago, took a look at the economics of sporting events going back to 1970 and found that the projected impact was always roughly 10 times higher than the actual outcome. Remember those restaurants and hotels we discussed? Well, many of those are part of national chains and a whole lot of the cash they're taking in goes to those chains' out-of-state owners.

"Certainly a hotel room in Atlanta this weekend is very expensive," Matheson told Atlanta's WXIA-TV last year. "They're charging two and three times their normal rate. But they're not increasing the salaries of their desk clerks and their room cleaners by two or three times. So all of that money is just going back to the shareholders. It's going back to corporate headquarters in New York City. Not a lot of that money sticks in Atlanta."

That's no minor detail, especially considering that the National Football League's Atlanta Falcons and owner Arthur Blank want a new stadium. The Georgia Dome was built only 22 years ago with $214 million taxpayer money and just got $300 million in renovations in 2007 and 2008, but Blank is already looking for $300 million to $400 million in public funding for a new, tech-savvy stadium, has drawn up plans for the facility and has NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's blessing.

Aside from hosting another Super Bowl, another Final Four is one of the best perks a city can ask for when building an indoor or retractable-roof stadium. But is that little bit of questionable economic impact every few years or so worth it? We looked at the Final Four host facilities of the past few decades and found that they not only ended up being a terrible deal for the cities and states hosting them, but that the Final Four did little to pay down debt that remained long after some of the buildings themselves vanished:

5. The Edward Jones Dome
St. Louis, Mo.
Opened: 1995
Final Four host year: 2005
Cost to build: $280 million

Immediately after this year's Super Bowl, St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke announced he'd just bought some acreage in a sports complex in Inglewood, Calif. It was the latest volley in a battle between the Rams and the St. Louis and Missouri taxpayers over disputed "top-tier" renovations to the Edward Jones Dome.

Despite the fact the Rams haven't made the playoffs since 2004 and haven't won more games than they've lost since 2003, Kroenke and the rest of the Rams ownership is looking for $700 million in upgrades to the Edward Jones Dome -- including a roof with a sliding panel, a glass front, luxury boxes, party platforms, new scoreboards, improved concessions and extra offices. Ownership wants the city to make good on its lease's promise to improve the dome into a "first-tier" stadium by 2015, but St. Louis likely didn't foresee the $1 billion-plus stadiums in Dallas, New Jersey and Silicon Valley.

Built as the Trans World Dome to lure the Rams from Los Angeles in the first place, the Edward Jones Dome is still a financial albatross for its host city and state. Missouri taxpayers cough up $12 million a year just to cover the dome's original construction costs. It's on the hook until 2021, as are St. Louis city and county, which are paying $6 million a year each toward the dome's initial costs.

The Final Four hasn't returned to St. Louis since, and neither the city nor state seem comfortable with paying even more money toward another building. The only madness surrounding the Edward Jones Dome this march is the "first-tier stadium" clause that made this whole mess possible in the first place.

4. Tropicana Field
St. Petersburg, Fla.
Opened: 1990
Final Four host year: 1999
Cost to build: $130 million

By the time the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (later Rays) played their first season here in 1998, the facility was already outdated.

Players couldn't see the baseball against the buildings roof. Catwalks were built too low and interfered with play, counting as ground-rule doubles and home runs for players who hit them. The bullpens are just stretches of turf in foul territory and, until recent additions including bigger video screens and a ray tank, it was one of the most drab settings for a ballgame this side of the ashtray-shaped multipurpose stadiums of the '70s and '80s.

Even that building cost is way outdated. The "Trop" was built to lure the White Sox out of Chicago and the Giants out of San Francisco, but sat vacant as each team used Tampa as leverage for new facilities. When Tampa finally got a team, it needed to dump $70 million -- or more than half of the building's original cost -- into renovations. Another $35 million in renovations came a decade later.

But to what end? The Rays have fielded a competitive team with scant spending for the better part of the past decade but routinely finish near the bottom of Major League Baseball in attendance. Fans complain that the ballpark is too far removed from its fanbase, plans for a new $450 million ballpark for the Rays fell through during the recession and now everybody involved is stuck with the Trop until at least 2027. Even Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig wants the Rays to get rid of the facility, but Tampa-St. Petersburg was hit hard by the recession and the money just isn't there.

Besides, St. Petersburg, Pinellas County and Florida still owe close to $80 million on Tropicana Field. It's estimated that the team's rent can pay that off by 2016, but that's a lot of cash going into a stadium that no one loves and only slightly more people actually visit. The Final Four, meanwhile, hasn't been played in a baseball stadium since it left St. Petersburg 15 years ago.

3. Continental Airlines Arena
East Rutherford, N.J.
Opened: 1981
Final Four host year: 1996
Cost to build: $85 million

This building hasn't been known as Continental Airlines Arena since 2007, hasn't hosted a major sports team since the Nets left in 2010 and hasn't served as much other than a concert venue for half a decade.

So how does New Jersey still owe $70 million on it -- not to mention nearly $250 million on Giants Stadium, which was demolished almost five years ago, and Meandowlands Raceway? Because why pay off debt when you can just use it to rack up more debt? The New York Times went into the Meadowlands debt in great detail back in 2010 and told the rest of the country one of New Jersey's many great shames: that its Sports and Exposition Authority turned into a pork store that doled out bonds to refurbish Rutgers' football stadium, build an aquarium in Camden and fund several other projects unrelated to its original mission.

The fact is, the former Continental Airlines Arena/Brendan Byrne Arena now known as the IZOD Center was never a beloved facility. It was stuck in the middle of the Meadowlands and was accessible only by car via nearby highways. Bus service was minimal and train service was nonexistent until recently. The lone concourse was packed, the cavernous vaulted roof was where crowd noise went to die and -- despite multiple Stanley Cup wins for the New Jersey Devils and NBA Finals runs for the New Jersey Nets -- many of the arena's 19,000 seats typically went unfilled for regular-season games.

Even when the Final Four showed up for its last dance in an arena, the most vivid memory the CAA produced was a stoppage of play to clean up water that had leaked from the roof onto the court.

Now the IZOD Center hosts the occasional teen pop act and third-tier sporting event. Like the emptying Meadowlands Raceway beside it and the vacant, unfinished megamall blocking its view of the New Jersey Turnpike, the building is considered a monument to failure. It's little wonder that nearby MetLife Stadium is the only building in the NFL built solely with private funds. Considering what the state of New Jersey is still charging taxpayers for vacant, subpar facilities, would you trust that state to build a stadium for you?

2. The Kingdome
Seattle
Opened: 1976
Final Four host years: 1984, 1989, 1995
Cost to build: $67 million

This was the third of three Final Fours hosted by the Kingdome (1984 and 1989), but none of them prevented Seattle from owing more than $50 million in that building in 2014.

That facility, which was built 38 years ago and demolished in 2000, won't be paid off until 2016 and is one of Seattle's only outstanding sports-related debts. Seattle spent $384 million building Safeco Field for baseball's Mariners in 1997, but imposed sales and car-rental taxes that paid it off by 2011. The city lost basketball's Sonics to Oklahoma City in 2008, but a court settlement related to the move covered the cost of the outstanding debt on the Sonics' Key Arena.

The only two sports venues the city is still paying for are the nonexistent Kingdome and the Seattle Seahawks and Sounders' current home at CenturyLink Field. The city paid 71% of the $422 million cost of that new stadium, but at least that facility is still generating revenue.

The Kingdome and the means used to finance it have made the city and state especially cautious about how it funds sporting facilities in the future and drew hardened lines over the use of public funds in a proposal that would build a new arena in the city's SoDo District to woo an NBA or NHL franchise. When the wounds from the Sonics' departure were still fresh and there was hope the Sacramento Kings would move north, those lines flexed a bit. As that wound heals and the city celebrates its first Super Bowl victory, expect the region to be more pragmatic about how its spends its newfound fortunes.

1. RCA Dome
Indianapolis, Ind.
Opened: 1983
Final Four host year: 1991, 1997, 2000
Cost to build: $77.5 million

When Indiana has a facility that can host a Final Four, the NCAA is going to hold its premier event in that basketball hotbed just about as often as it can.

It won't help pay the rent, but it doesn't mind dropping in every few years or so and crashing on the couch.

Despite the fact the Hoosier Dome/RCA Dome was demolished in 2008 and that LucasOil Stadium opened that same year at a cost of $780 million -- 87% of which was paid for with public funds -- the RCA Dome still has about $60 million in debt remaining. The bonds used to fund it will not be paid off until 2021.

We're guessing Indianapolis is just fine with having the Final Four as a frequent visitor. The NCAA held it there again in 2010 and is scheduled to return in 2015. The problem is that it can't hold next year's Final Four in a building that no longer generates revenue or even exists. While it can be argued that the RCA Dome paid its way in repeat business, that's not what the public ledger says. Tax dollars are going to be diverted to a nonexistent building and away from anything else -- including LucasOil Stadium debt -- for seven years. When Indianapolis tells its businesses and residents the story of the Final Four's economic impact on the local economy, it better have a photo of the RCA Dome ready as a reminder that the tally starts at minus $60 million.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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