What’s a Winning Season Require of the City?

On November 18, the Post-Standard published an opinion piece about the economic impact of NCAA football. It argued that Syracuse University’s successful season could add $91 million to the local economy, and that “SU and the region can leverage” that success “and reinvest it back into the economy and the team for years to come.”

That $91 million figure came from from National Asset Services, a real estate company. In what the Post-Standard is generously calling a “study” (read all 802 words for yourself), National Asset Services compared the effects of six college football teams on their respective hometowns. That study is bad for many reasons–it confuses some programs’ value to their universities with others’ regional economic impact, for example–but it’s worst offense is its bad data. All of the numbers that it cites came from other studies performed by the very universities in question.

It’s no secret why universities would lie about the economic benefit that they bring to their cities. It gets gullible newspaper columnists to write stuff like this:

“Other college towns have embraced the seven-game home season, with both the universities and host communities investing millions for the purpose of a bigger return. A return to its winning ways for the SU program, if it can be sustained, may be providing us the same opportunity.”

As if it’s an opportunity for a City staring down bankruptcy to pour money into a tax-exempt university’s athletic facilities. Syracuse had that opportunity four years ago, turned it down, and now the team’s winning anyway.

Bad evidence doesn’t really matter, though, when your mind’s already made up. A lot of people take it as an article of faith that Syracuse University is the City’s best opportunity to turn itself around. When you believe that, there’s no reason to question big numbers like $91 million in regional economic benefits–they’re just obviously true.

But it’s narrow-minded to think that Syracuse–9th poorest city in the nation–would be better off if the local college football team could just win a few more games–to understand the City as an accessory to the University, as a place that’s worthwhile on the 7 days a year when SU football plays a home game.

There’s more to Syracuse than that. The City’s biggest challenges, strengths, and opportunities have nothing to do with Syracuse University’s football team. There’s lead paint in the City’s houses, the I81 viaduct is about to come down, the public schools are in the middle of a transformation. What does SU football’s record mean for any of that?

It’s exciting that SU football is finally winning again, and it probably does fill a few hotel rooms and sell a few more beers. But that’s no reason for the community to invest “millions for the purpose of a bigger return.” Syracuse has better uses for its money and bigger claims on its attention. Enjoy the success, but keep the focus on what’s really important.