Now comes Philadelphia’s big chance. On Feb. 4, the underdog Eagles have the opportunity to finally break through and win the Super Bowl, satisfying—or at least quieting—their notoriously foul-mouthed fan base.
The other possibility for the big game is same-old, same-old: another Lombardi Trophy for the New England Patriots. It would be their sixth since 2002.
If Philly does the improbable, stay tuned for a run of commentary about how important it is to title-hungry fans and a city with relatively little sports success—just two championships each for the Flyers, Phillies, and 76ers since the Eagles last won the NFL title game in 1960. That was the pre-Super Bowl era.
You might even see a story or two on the financial benefits to the city of bringing home a victory to Philadelphia.
But neither Philly nor the greater Boston area, what New England really means, will win this one in a sports business sense. That’s because victory in the Super Bowl, or NHL, or NBA finals, or the World Series, has very little impact on the winning town’s economy, according to people who study sports business.
When it comes to championships, “there’s no doubt that it makes people happy. There is very little evidence that it makes people rich,” said Victor Matheson, a professor in economics and accounting at Holy Cross and a specialist in sports economics.
Matheson, in a phone interview, noted the well-established work of sports economists Dennis Coates and Brad Humphreys, who found a team going to the finals or winning a major sports championship doesn’t impact a city’s bottom line, except with for the possibility of a slight uptick in residents’ personal income in the year afterward.
Case in point: Boston. The town that once looked to the NBA’s Celtics for most of its sports success has been on an incredible run since the turn of this century. In all, the Patriots (five), the once-cursed Red Sox (three), Celtics (one), and Bruins (one) have combined for 10 major professional league titles since 2000.
If the sports-translates-to-financial-success theory really held water, we’d see strong evidence of it there, right?
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, among the 10 biggest metropolitan areas in the country, seven showed a greater percentage of growth between 2000 and 2010. Greater Boston did gain population (about 161,000 new residents) but in raw numbers, it was last among the top 10.
Meanwhile, Atlanta—with no major sports titles since 2000—experienced 24% growth in its population and gained 1 million people in the first decade of the century.
But population may be a little too indirect as a measure, because it depends on people understanding that an area is booming and then moving there. So, let’s look at the Boston Planning & Development Agency’s annual economy report, which tracks “conditions and trends” in Boston’s economy.
The 26-page report details the city’s strong economic position relative to peer communities, citing the huge boost to Boston that its highly educated workforce provides. It also mentions very specific industries that have done well, such as footwear.
But nowhere does the word “sports” appear, nor the Pats, Sawx, or Celts. Why? Because at the end of the day, pro sports just don’t have that much impact on the economy. The whole art, entertainment, and recreation sector of Boston’s economy provided just 2.2% of its total jobs in 2015, according to the report.
“For certain cities, an event like (winning a championship) could be a boost in civic pride,” noted Mark Conrad, director of the sports business concentration at Fordham University. But finding hard evidence of an economic boost tied to it is a fuzzy prospect at best.
I’ll close by noting that I had the good fortune to be in Cleveland the night in 2016 that the Cavaliers broke the city’s 52-year dry spell without a major championship. To say Clevelanders were ecstatic would be putting it mildly.
Recently, I was back in town over the holidays and the city seemed, well, pretty much the same. Still friendly, still underrated, still a bit gritty. The biggest economic difference I saw? You could buy T-shorts in the airport that read: “Cleveland Cavaliers 2016 NBA Champions.”
John Affleck is the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society at Penn State University.