What is the most bitter Major League Baseball rivalry? New York Yankees versus Boston Red Sox? Los Angeles Dodgers versus San Francisco Giants? Well, there is a new one for the list: Bradbury versus Zimbalist.
What’s that you ask? That would be sports economists Andrew Zimbalist and JC Bradbury. They have been feuding for months over whether the Atlanta Braves ballpark and the surrounding retail and residential development, known as The Battery, benefit taxpayers in Cobb County.
“It is hard to comprehend how a competent human being could commit such an egregious oversight unintentionally,” Bradbury, a professor at Kennesaw State University outside Atlanta, wrote in a 57-page report this week countering Zimbalist’s defense of the public $300 million contribution to the construction of the ballpark, which opened in 2017.
A well-known sports economist at Smith College in western Massachusetts, Zimbalist was hired by the Braves to assess the taxpayer benefit question after Bradbury released a report in March calling Trustee Park a money loser for Cobb County taxpayers to the tune of $15 million per year . Zimbalist, who has often argued against teams’ claims of economic benefits from public stadium subsidies, came to the opposite conclusion in this case.
In an interview this week and in his June report for the Braves, Zimbalist described the project as a winner because of the mixed-used development surrounding the ballpark and the fact the team itself is financing the development. The Braves are owned by Liberty Media. Often in mixed-use developments, the team contracts out the development to others, meaning the actual construction doesn’t always match earlier projects.
“Here we have a new model,” for stadium development, he said, “or at least the possibility of the emergence of a new model.”
Bradbury is hardly alone in questioning the economic rationale behind public subsides for stadiums and arenas. The consensus opinion among economists has long been that the consumer spending touted by public authorities to justify these subsidies is merely money that would have been spent in the community anyway.
What makes the dispute here so noteworthy is the level of vitriol. Bradbury has attacked Zimbalist Repeat on Twitter, accusing him in one tweet of “prostituting his credentials.” In his 63-page rebuttal report this week, Bradbury is equally harsh.
“It might be understandable for a Zimbalist to be ignorant of the more recent literature on this subject — though still wrong,” Bradbury wrote. “Whether his demonstrable ignorance is the result of negligence, incompetence, or deliberate misrepresentation of my work, an erroneous accusation of such consequential relevance to the analysis is inexcusable in professional and scholarly discourse.”
In an interview this week, Bradbury said, “I’m angry, and I have every reason to be angry because he got paid to do a hatchet job review of my study. He didn’t review what I did fairly, he did not accurately portray what I wrote. If he would like to engage collegially, he is more than welcome to write up his articles, he is more than welcome to submit his article to academic journals and have them reviewed. He has not done that.”
A key part of Bradbury’s attack revolves around the fact the Braves paid Zimbalist for his work. Teams and leagues commonly hire economic experts to write reports on pressing business matters. But Bradbury goes a step further, all but calling Zimbalist’s alleged pitch for the work a type of shakedown.
Zimbalist said Braves chairman Terry McGuirk approached him to write the report.
“Zimbalist’s reputation as a former skeptic stadium willing to grant immunity to commissioned projects provides him with financial rewards and insider status, similar to other stadium boosters who get to hob-knob with MLB executives and receive invitations to insider events,” Bradbury wrote. “I imagine that ‘It looks like you’ve got a nice stadium proposal there, it would be a shame if something happened to it,’ is likely an effective pitch for acquiring consulting clients.”
Zimbalist said he is unaware of another instance of one economist harshly attacking another. Disagreement is common among economists, he conceded, but those sentiments are almost always collegial.
“He seems to think he can get inside my head and know my motivations,” Zimbalist said. “And I don’t appreciate that.”
In an interview last month after presenting his report to Braves executives and local officials, Zimbalist said of Bradbury, “something else going on that’s motivating what he’s doing.”
In talking with The Athletic, he elaborated on his suspicions of what that motivation is. He’s “on the development board for Cobb County. So he’s involved in local politics,” Zimbalist said. “It seems also possible that he’s a political actor, an engaged political actor in Cobb County. And so that also appears to be motivating (him).”
In his report out this week, Bradbury said he is motivated to take the issues on because he is a sports economist and a resident of Cobb County.
Told Thursday about Zimbalist’s assessment of possible political motivation, Bradbury replied, “This is just idiotic. The man who got paid by the Atlanta Braves for his damn study is saying I’ve got some motivation. He’s out of his damn mind. This is 100 percent on the record, by the way, I am just literally blown away at this man. All I did was take my academic research and write it up so other people could read it. He published a report that he didn’t even read what I wrote. It accused me of saying things that I didn’t say, and now he thinks I have motivations.”
Pushing aside the theatrics, the dispute cuts to one of the core issues in sports economics. Is the spending at stadiums and arenas fungible with spending at local businesses? In other words, if the venues did not exist, would the economic activity merely transfer to retail that already operated in the city?
Zimbalist is saying that by developing ancillary businesses around the stadium and attracting consumers from outside of Cobb County, the project is creating new spending. Bradbury argues the traditional line that the spending only replicates what would have otherwise occurred.
To recount, Bradbury issued his blistering first report in March. In response, the Braves hired Zimbalist, who released his 17-page reply in June. And six weeks later Bradbury countered with his lengthy reply. Is this over?
Not by a long shot. Zimbalist is planning his own reply to Bradbury’s reply.
“I would like to be done with it by the time I’m done talking to you,” Zimbalist said. “I have reactions to just about every paragraph in his report. …I’m going to try to pick out, you know, two, three, four, five points that I think are the most decisive and the most significant in terms of the outcome of our studies and comments on those.”
One thing seems sure, the rivalry will go on.
(Photo: Dale Zanine / USA Today Sports)