National Parks vs. Professional Sports

Posted: August 9, 2011 in analysis

In his column on, Robert Ringer says the following about making cuts to the Federal budget.

I don’t know how much you and I pay to keep Yellowstone National Park operating, but I do know that neither I nor any of my family or immediate circle of friends has ever visited Yellowstone National Park, nor do any of us have any plans to do so.

That being the case, why are we required to pay for the guy who wants to take his son camping? Is he willing to pay for my family’s outing to an Orioles or Redskins game? The latter are operated by private corporations that charge customers enough to cover their overhead and, hopefully, make a profit. But government doesn’t have to worry about such mundane matters.

Mr. Ringer seems to have forgotten that most sports teams play in stadiums built with public money.  But, per capita, does it cost the American public more to maintain the national parks, or to build stadiums?  That is to say, is that guy actually paying for Mr. Ringer’s family outing to a ballgame?  Let’s find out.

On the national park side of things, the numbers are pretty simple.  The National Park Service budget is $3.14 billion for 2011.  Not much more to say about that.

As for sports stadiums, there is a lot more to cover.  We’ll limit ourselves to NFL and MLB team stadiums in the US (the examples Mr. Ringer specifically said he wasn’t getting help paying for).  There are currently 63 such stadiums.  To calculate the average cost to taxpayers, I calculated (in 2011 dollars) the public funding amount of each stadium, and took an average of stadium funding over the last 20 years.  This results in a yearly cost of $651.9 million dollars, or about one fifth the cost of the national park service.

So, at this point we can say that, while Mr. Ringer’s trips to see a game are supported by “that guy,” his support of the camping trip is considerably higher.  But wait!  Mr. Ringer says that he doesn’t know anyone who has been to Yellowstone.  In my reading, this comment is intended to imply that the national parks are underutilized as compared to other forms of entertainment (like sporting events).  The NFL and MLB combined have about 91 million attendees a season, as of the 2009-10 seasons.  In 2010, there were 281 million recreational visitors to the National Parks.  This means that the national parks cost the public $11.17 per visitor, and sports stadiums cost the public  $7.15.

Now we have some numbers that pretty much in the same ballpark, if you’ll pardon the expression.  Now, on the one hand, many publicly funded stadiums are nominally multi-use municipal facilities, and benefit their areas more than by simply providing a venue for one or two pro sports teams.  Also, some teams pay rent on the stadium in return for the public support.  On the other hand, the National Park Service earns revenue for the US Government too.  Also, this analysis covered only NFL and MLB stadiums, first because they were the example teams Mr. Ringer used, and second because they have the least applicability as multi-use facilities.  None of the public subsidies towards NBA, NHL, or smaller sporting facilities are in this accounting at all.

What, then, is the conclusion?  Mr. Ringer is factually wrong when he says that the ticket prices charged by sporting venues mean that there is no public subsidy to the event.  Depending on how you choose to interpret his comment and the data, he is either somewhat wrong (the National Park Service does cost more than sport subsidies), or very wrong (per visitor, the two are pretty close).

  1. Ethan says:

    By implicatation, your post makes it sound like public subsidies for athletic venues come from the Federal Government.. I don’t believe that to be the case. Local public funding (state or city level) is a far cry different than federal.

    I don’t agree with Ringer’s position but I think the thrust of his statement is this: “funding for any recreational activity should come from the people who will benfit from it (or at least plan to use it)”. A better case for “local dollars for local ammenaties” could be made than his above, but he’s more about that principle as far as I can determine..

  2. overanalytic says:

    I did conflate together all taxpayer supported levels of government in the original post, but I don’t think it hurts the argument. The National Park Service is federally funded because, well, it is national. Every state but Delaware has a National Park Service run park, monument, battlefield, or other unit, and most have many. Athletic stadiums are typically funded on the state or local (county, city) level, but the people are still being taxed. I suppose you can say that stadium taxes are slightly better targeted, in that states without a sports team do not have them applied, but that is no comfort to someone like, say, me.

    I have never been to a Vikings game, and I never intend to go. But the Minnesota Vikings are about to build a new stadium (or move), and my county may wind up paying $350 million and my state $300 million for it. So why should I be forced to subsidize football fans? As Mr. Ringer points out, the Vikings are a private corporation. If, as he says, they charge people enough to cover overhead and make a profit, why do they need $650 million in public money?

    If Mr. Ringer’s argument was what you suggest, he would presumably be against local taxes to support stadium building. Who knows, perhaps he is. But he was remiss not to consider that in his original statement, where he blithely assumes they don’t exist. That is the point I was getting at in the article. He argues against the National Park Service. That’s fine; he can make a plausible point that public money shouldn’t go to national parks. But his counterexample is just plain wrong, since sports stadiums are also supported by public money, which mostly comes from people who don’t go to sporting events.

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