Last week, Vice President Joe Biden and challenger Rep. Paul Ryan spent some of the time they shared on a Kentucky stage exchanging shots at the other’s view on the United States economy. They kept it, unsurprisingly, rather political. But for anyone who wanted more of a real-life sense of the current economic condition, the spotlight might have been better placed hours earlier in a Minnesota restaurant, where Chris Coleman held a press conference calling for an end to the NHL lockout.
Coleman is the mayor of the city of St. Paul, the state capital and home of the NHL Minnesota Wild. On the day of the press conference, the team should have been preparing to play its season-opening game. Staff at the Xcel Energy Center should have been readying the arena. But the NHL and its players association remain locked in a labor dispute that has postponed the start of the season—and risks cancellation of it altogether. For Coleman and the city, that will mean going without the 18,000-or-so fans who are likely to attend 41 regular-season home games.
City officials estimate that, on game days, each fan spends an average of $50 on top of ticket price. This amounts to about $40 million dollars of economic activity. No small portion of that circulates in the restaurants, bars, retail stores, and parking garages around the downtown area near the arena. It doesn’t take an economist to interpret that no hockey games being played there means fewer customers frequenting these businesses; less commerce means eventually resorting to actions like cutting employees’ hours and reducing the size of the workforce; and fewer people working means less economic activity throughout the city. This lack ofcapital formation and productivity does not bode well for maintaining jobs today or creating ones tomorrow.
Unlike in most major-league sports labor disputes, mayors, residents, and fans in NHL cities don’t seem to be taking sides this time around. They seem to simply want the league and its players to sit down and resolve the impasse. That’s an interesting and unconventional response. If it holds up, it may be a signal that headlines about labor disputes in sports are shifting towards story lines about the public and away from from owners and players. But even if that turns out not to be, there are surely signals that the time has arrived for a balancing-out—and possible overturning—of the decades-long assumption that local businesses do well only if teams do well.