In the aftermath of the Washington Redskins’ one point loss to the Atlanta Falcons last week, it was noted by Doc Walker on Washington, D.C. on ESPN 980 how few Redskins’ fans were in attendance in Atlanta. One obvious driver of the latter was the team’s record (3-10) going into the game, but there are bigger economic factors at work.
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Walker pointed out that NFL teams including the Cleveland Browns, Green Bay Packers, Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers regularly enjoy large fan turnouts when those teams play at away stadiums. The latter isn’t true as much for the Redskins, and Walker wondered aloud why this is the case.
The answer is very simple. Applied to the Redskins, the economic reason why is not a very positive one. As USA Today reporter Dennis Cauchon wrote in 2010, “Federal employees earn higher average salaries than private-sector workers in more than eight out of 10 occupations.”
To put it very plainly, federal work in modern Washington, D.C. is highly paid in a relative sense, and because it is, D.C. residents have an incentive to stay in Washington, D.C. In a broad economic sense, however, the lack of Redskin fandom outside the D.C. metro area signals something very unfortunate.
Our federal government has no resources of its own, and it’s only able to spend and create jobs insofar as it taxes and borrows always limited capital from the private sector. The Redskins’ local popularity is a certain signal of a federal government that’s grown too large, and that spends too much on the workers in its employ. We’ll know the U.S. economy is much better off if and when bars and stadiums not in Washington, D.C. fill up with Redskin fans on Sundays.
Where this gets interesting is that for a sports fan to search for bars and restaurants on Sundays in Washington, D.C. is for that same fan to find all manner of locales that feature games in which the Bills, Packers, Browns and Steelers are playing. Government is ultimately about force, and because it is, workers of all stripes in Buffalo, Green Bay, Cleveland and Pittsburgh have been forced to pay taxes at nosebleed rates to an ever wasteful federal government.
Because they have, they’ve in a sense paid for the demise of their own cities. Washington, D.C. is ultimately backed by revenues taken from the citizenry in all 50 states, and powered by those revenues, it’s been able to bid away workers from depressed (but once vibrant) NFL towns across the country. The relative lack of workers and talent is to some degree a function of Washington’s taxing power; hence all the bars on Sunday that show the games to migrants from Buffalo and other locales. Noted Bills fan and Buffalo native Tim Russert chose to live and work in Washington, D.C., not Buffalo.
It’s argued by some that high levels of taxation in New York state, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio have similarly driven the best and brightest from those states, and they have a point. Taxes are a price placed on work, so high taxes on the margin have to varying degrees factored into the out-migration of productive people from once rich cities like Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Cleveland.
Importantly, that’s not the only factor in play. Figure citizens of San Francisco pay high rates of taxation, but the talented continue to move there from all over the U.S. What this tells us is that a bigger factor in where people live has to do with the economic dynamism of the city in question. Quite unlike Detroit which is stuck in the past, ever clinging to a grand automotive history that last mattered in the 1950s, San Francisco is always evolving.
In San Francisco and its environs, there are no sacred cows in an economic sense. Bad businesses are regularly allowed to die, so that they can be replaced by better ones. The latter signals capitalism at its best whereby investment always moves to its highest, most profitable purpose. And as profits attract talent for the wages that profitable firms can pay, San Francisco thrives, while Detroit implodes. With Detroit, another obvious reason that U.S. cities aren’t as much littered with bars featuring Lions’ games each Sunday has to do with the fact that the Lions’ demise as an NFL team has occurred alongside the demise of the city in which the team plays.
To the above, some would say that San Francisco’s natural beauty trumps economics. They’d have a point, but then Boston, New York City and Chicago can’t exactly claim great weather, yet all three can claim bars and restaurants that feature the Bills and Steelers on Sunday. To varying degrees, each of these three cold weather cities has evolved with the economic times, and for doing so, all three have taken in fans from cities that remain stuck in the past economically.
The same can be said about college sports. Go to any big city, and each Saturday fans of the Alabama Crimson Tide, Mississippi Rebels, and Wisconsin Badgers fill bars that make a point to feature their teams. All three schools offer a great collegiate experience, but most couldn’t count on one or two hands prominent companies that have sprouted up in Tuscaloosa, Oxford or Madison, let alone in the states in which all three schools are located. The result, of course, is that the fans of each out-migrate far and wide after graduation, and because they do, profit-focused bars and restaurants feature their teams to fill a very real market need.
Importantly, there are outliers; the Dallas Cowboys most notable in this regard. Despite a Dallas economy that has generally thrived, the team’s success over the decades, not to mention its uniforms and cheerleaders, has led to an easily marketable ‘America’s Team’ concept such that Cowboys-themed bars and restaurants are easy to find on Sundays around the country. Throw the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox into such a mix.
Overall, however, the proliferation of Bills, Browns, Packers and Steelers fans in cities not Buffalo, Cleveland, Green Bay and Pittsburgh is very much an economic concept. Forbes contributor Jerry Bowyer put all of this very well in a Wall Street Journal op-ed many years ago, “Steelers bars are a visible cultural artifact of a kind of economic diaspora.” Pittsburgh fans are watching Steelers’ games in bars not in Pittsburgh, and that’s the problem. The fact that so many teams can claim a national base of fans signals a lack of economic dynamism in those cities such that the talented have departed in search of better economic opportunity.
The above is not true for the Washington Redskins, but then that’s another problem. Ever in search of contrarian indicators, the day that ‘Redskins Nation’ becomes the norm is a day that lovers of liberty and economic growth should celebrate. Sadly, it’s probably not a good bet to presume this day is coming anytime soon.