TIP Strategies is a privately held Austin-based economic development consulting firm committed to providing quality solutions for public and private‑sector clients.
This blog is dedicated to exploring new data and trends in economic development.
By: Kyle Vanhemert
Last year, a pair of researchers from Duke University published a report with a bold title: “The End of the Segregated Century.” U.S. cities, the authors concluded, were less segregated in 2012 than they had been at any point since 1910. But less segregated does not necessarily mean integrated–something this incredible map makes clear in vivd color.
The map, created by Dustin Cable at University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, is stunningly comprehensive. Drawing on data from the 2010 U.S. Census, it shows one dot per person, color-coded by race. That’s 308,745,538 dots in all–around 7 GB of visual data. It isn’t the first map to show the country’s ethnic distribution, nor is it the first to show every single citizen, but it is the first to do both, making it the most comprehensive map of race in America ever created.
White people are shown with blue dots; African-Americans with green; Asians with red; and Latinos with orange, with all other race categories from the Census represented by brown. Since the dots are smaller than pixels at most zoom levels, Cable assigned shades of color based on the multiple dots therein. From a distance, for example, certain neighborhoods will look purple, but zooming-in reveals a finer-grained breakdown of red and blue–or, really, black and white.
“There are a lot of moving parts in this process, so this can cause different shades of color to appear at different zoom levels in really dense areas, like you see in NYC,” Cable explains. “I played around with dot size and transparency for a while and settled on the current scheme as being adequate.” You can read more about Cable’s methodology here, but it comes down to this: When you’re dealing with 300 million dots at varying levels of zoom, getting the presentation just right is as much an art as a science.
Looking at the map, every city tells a different story. In California, for example, major cities aren’t just diverse, they’re integrated to a great degree, too. We see large swaths of Sacramento dotted variously with reds, blues, oranges, greens and browns. Los Angeles is more distinctly clustered, but groups still bleed into one another.
In the Midwest, though, the racial divide can be shockingly exact. In Chicago, bands of whites, blacks, and Latinos radiate out from the city center like sun beams. In St. Louis, a buffer of a few blocks separates a vast area of largely black citizens from another of white and Asian ones. In Detroit, the most segregated city in America according to one recent study, there’s no buffer at all. We see how 8 Mile Road serves as the dividing line between two largely homogenous swaths–one predominantly white and one predominantly black.
Looking at the Southeast, a wide, faint band of green represents the Black Belt, a region originally named for the dark soil in Alabama and Mississippi that eventually came to describe the greater region shaped by plantation agriculture. And while the West looks awfully barren, the density of cities like Los Angeles, Dallas, and Houston gives us a sense of why those states are actually so populous.
Responding to the Duke University study last year, experts were quick to expound on the complexities of the issue. Housing desegregation, one pointed out, is not a magic bullet for equal opportunity. Another made clear that blacks remained more segregated from whites than Latinos or Asians. Here, at least, Cable’s given us a chance to see how things stand today in greater detail than ever before.
Check out the full, interactive map for yourself here.
By: Sara Horowitz
Via: Los Angeles Times
For much of the past century, the Era of Big Work — the 40-hour workweek and its employer-provided benefits — were the foundation of our economy. That was then. Now, independent work is the new normal.
Freelancers, independent contractors and temp workers are on their way to making up the majority of the U.S. labor force. They number 42 million, or one-third of all workers in the nation. That figure is expected to rise to 40% — some 60 million people — by the end of the decade.
A number of factors both economic and cultural are causing the independent workforce to swell. Technological advances and globalization have greatly contributed to the erosion of traditional work arrangements. The private sector’s need for speed and adaptability is increasingly incompatible with maintaining a large, full-time workforce. And of course, the Great Recession has put to rest the notion that there is such a thing as a stable full-time job.
It’s true that many have been forced into this brave new world of freelance work by external factors. But many are getting into it by choice because independent work aligns with a paradigm shift in values that is happening both at work and in the marketplace.
Nearly 9 in 10 workers affiliated with Freelancers Union, a 250,000-member nonprofit, say they wouldn’t return to traditional work if they had the choice. This sentiment is especially true for millennials, who will make up 75% of the workforce by 2025 — and who work and consume differently than generations before them.
Success during the Era of Big Work meant promotions, benefits packages and pensions. Americans went to work at 9 a.m. and left at 5 p.m. — OK, let’s be honest, 6 or 7 p.m. — primarily for the material rewards that flowed from such employment: a new car, robust benefits, a three-bedroom house and two weeks of paid vacation. For the past century, in other words, remuneration defined success. For many workers, it still does.
However, among the growing ranks of independent workers, labor itself is increasingly its own reward, as is the opportunity to establish a work-life balance that was unthinkable during the Era of Big Work. Millions of freelancers are working when they want and how they want. They’re building gratifying careers but also happy lives. And they’re helping build a support system so they can live the lives they want.
Yes, the comfort of a regular paycheck is gone, but it’s replaced by other, arguably greater comforts: a flexible schedule, the sense of ownership and pride that comes with being one’s own boss, the ability to prioritize health and wellness in ways that are incompatible with traditional employment structures.
A recent survey from the freelancer hiring hub Elance-oDesk found an overwhelming 89% of freelancers prefer work flexibility to a traditional corporate career. Almost half of millennials prioritize job flexibility over pay, according to a national survey conducted last year by Millennial Branding, a research and consulting firm, and Beyond.com, a career advisory website.
As a result, the way Americans think about work is changing, and so is the way they spend money. Millennials in particular have reimagined the very idea of ownership and fueled the rise of conscious capitalism. Four out of five are more likely to put their purchasing power toward companies that support a cause they care about, according to a 2011 study by Participant Media.
Some argue that millennials don’t buy big-ticket items because they can’t afford them — for instance, the number of cars purchased by the 18-to-34 demographic fell almost 30% between 2007 and 2011. But that’s only one factor in a much larger equation.
In reality, millennials tend to value experiences more than things. Their consumption habits are driven less by what kind of job they have and more by their pursuit of ever-evolving technology, brands that align with their ideals and sustainable and social purpose purchasing.
From what we buy to how we work — and why we do either — the American economy is undergoing a change every bit as epic as the shift a century ago from an agrarian society to an industrial one. When workers left the farm for the factory, there were, undoubtedly, plenty who mourned the loss of the old way of life, while others eagerly looked to the next era with vision and enthusiasm. The same is true today.
Some view freelancing as a short-term path to return to the well-worn avenue of Big Work. Meanwhile, others are eagerly embracing collaborative consumption and various digital platforms — such as Etsy and Airbnb — that have enabled the freelance economy to proliferate.
Despite the tremendous changes in our economic landscape, Washington is all but ignoring the broader economic implications, as evidenced by the failure of the Bureau of Labor Statistics to even track independent workers, much less adapt to their economic needs.
Freelancers, on the other hand, aren’t just learning to adapt. Many are thriving in this new marketplace, creating powerful new platforms for working and living — co-ops, credit unions, community health and wellness centers — tailor-made for millennial technology and the 21st century economy.
The Era of Big Work is indeed over, and good riddance. Welcome to the Era of Meaningful Independence.
By: Chris Tomlinson
Via: Houston Chronicle
U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen’s speech on the economy is the most anticipated portion of the annual Economic Symposium Conference in Jackson Hole, Wyo. this week, but the most interesting discussions will be around this year’s theme: the labor market.
Unemployment, under-employment and low-quality jobs continue to hamper the U.S. recovery from the Great Recession, and many economists wonder if there has been a fundamental shift in how the labor market behaves. Employers nationwide complain about not having enough qualified workers, even though the unemployment rate remains high.
Texas employment numbers have been much stronger, thanks mostly to the boom in oil and natural gas production that has taken up much of the slack in the Texas labor market. When Texas employers complain of a shortage of workers, it’s because the unemployment rate here really is low.
One reason for the shortage of workers nationally, the Wall Street Journal ventured Thursday, is the unwillingness of employers to raise wages. Better pay would induce more people to participate in the labor market, or relocate to where there are jobs.
Another problem could be what employers consider to be qualified. The Greater Houston Partnership has launched an initiative to make sure young people get training that matches the needs of local employers.
There is also the question of what qualifications the employer is demanding and the barriers to employment many low-income people face. Perhaps employers take responsibility for training workers, or making sure they are paid well enough to pay for childcare and health insurance.
The findings presented at the conference over the next three days could answer a lot of questions about what it takes to make sure every American benefits from the nation’s recovery.
By: Neal Pierce
The phrase “ISO standard” is something you might find on the base of a light bulb, under your computer keyboard or in the owner’s manual for your refrigerator. It means that these products are made in a way that complies with international standards of quality and compatibility. There are ISOs for financial management, electrical engineering, chemical technology—you name it.
But now, the first-ever set of ISO standards for world cities has been created. And the implications are dramatic. City policymakers will have objective standards to compare their services and performance with other cities around the world. And just as significant, the people of cities—civic, business organizations, ordinary citizens—will be able to access the same new global standards. This means they can ask city leaders tough questions, stoking debate about their own city’s performance on the basis of verified measures ranging from education to public safety to water and sanitation.
The late May start-up list of city indicators by the Geneva-based International Organization for Standardization seems, at a glance, straightforward enough. What’s the particulate matter in a city’s air? Debt service as a percentage of the city’s own revenue? Average life expectancy? Green area per 100,000 residents? The percentage of the city population with regular solid waste collection? The share of the city population that lives in slums?
But many cities, up to now, haven’t recorded data on all those indicators. Or if they did, they were inconsistent in their precise definitions, making it difficult to make apples-to-apples comparisons of cities across continents and diverse societies. Many organizations, in independent media and special interest groups, issue rankings of cities. But in 2008, when the Global Cities Indicators Facility at the University of Toronto compared rankings that had been applied to seven prominent world cities, it turned out that only six of the 1,200 indicators being applied were exactly the same.
Now, cities everywhere will have an internationally agreed upon set of standards indicating data that should be collected, and the definitions and criteria to use in collecting it. They won’t be legally required to do so, but they’re likely to be under pressure from citizen, business, academic and other groups insisting they use the ISO standards so that their performance can be benchmarked clearly against peer cities, both in-country and—in today’s increasingly globalized economy—across the globe.
“It’s a potential game changer for world cities and everyone who works for cities, for journalists evaluating city performance, for the World Bank in determining grants and more,” notes Dan Hoornweg, a former World Bank official, professor at the University of Toronto and an early proponent of world city standard setting.
Global game changer
The goal, say Hoornweg and other supporters, is to encourage higher levels of city service delivery by making the data open and transparent. The need to collect and verify data could improve cities’ credit and bond ratings, appealing to investment decision-makers. Cities that show high performance will be able to argue more forcefully for higher national government assistance and tax sharing.
Conversely, the system could make politically motivated manipulation of data tougher and inefficiencies in city policies and administration more difficult to hide.
The ISO organization is hailing the new standards as a significant breakthrough. Cities, notes ISO Deputy Secretary General Kevin McKinley, share many patterns of behavior “regardless of geography, politics or economic model.” He contends that the new standard, officially known as ISO 37120, establishes a uniform approach to what’s measured and how— “a cornerstone of needed consistency and confidence to improve our cities.” But, he adds, “the standard doesn’t spit out a value judgment on what a particular city should choose as targets. Instead the standard helps provide more consistent expressions of city performance and quality of life.”
Initial city response to the new standards for cities seems positive. “There’s never been a time where it’s been more important to understand how we as a global city compare with other cities,” says Andrew Collinge, assistant director for intelligence and analysis at the Greater London Authority. “We can learn from them and actually use data so we can address challenges facing all of our cities.”
Another city that is excited about the news of the ISO standard is Minna, Nigeria. “To us in Minna, this is an important milestone in city management,” says Abdul Husaini, a town planner and geospatial analyst in Minna. “The presence or absence of information on an indicator is in itself an indication of the adequacy of basic services in a city.”
Rotterdam, notes Nico Tillie, an indicators expert there, strives to be an attractive, resilient, economically successful city. But, he adds, “How do we perform? If we want to improve, we need to know why we rank 3 or 50. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” But in a study Tillie worked on with the Delft University of Technology, the researchers found that verified and standardized third-party data not only was missing from the rankings but in many cases the entire ranking process was performed in “a black box” without clear definitions. This made it totally impossible to analyze the data outcomes.
New World Council on City Data
London, Minna and Rotterdam, plus a dozen other cities including Shanghai, Dubai, Chicago, Johannesburg and Buenos Aires, are inaugural members of a body called the World Council on City Data. Launched at a Global Cities Summit in Toronto in late May, the council will play the important role of verifying that cities are collecting the right data the right way. The council intends to be “a global hub for cities, international organizations, corporations and academia,” sharing ideas for city performance improvement broadly.
The path to an ISO standard aimed at broad global city buy-in was not an easy one. Supporters acknowledge a heroine behind the story—Patricia McCarney, director of the University of Toronto’s Global Cities Indicators Facility, who has made creation of good global data on cities an all-consuming goal for close to a decade.
The project began in 2008, McCarney relates, when Hoornweg and his World Bank colleagues approached her to start working on a uniform set of indicators for cities. Nine pilot cities, including Bogotá, Toronto, São Paulo and Belo Horizonte helped to devise a list of some 115 initial indicators. Over time the number of participating cities would rise to 258 across 82 countries.
But as McCarney and her allies pushed forward on the project, it became clear that independent audits including ISO-like third-party verification of the data would be critical to its acceptance. ISO central in Geneva was approached in 2011 and initially seemed lukewarm to the idea. But as French, Japanese and Canadian bodies showed interest in some form of city standards management, that changed.
A technical committee was formed. With McCarney’s institute acting as a de facto secretariat, meetings were held in urban centers from Japan to France and Britain to Canada. Comments were received from cities worldwide— “fantastic for us, really strengthening the set of indicators we started with back in 2008,” notes McCarney. The analysis winnowed down and rejuggled the list to 100 candidate indicators. Finally, 46 (see them all here) were selected as well-tested core measures that cities must report to prove they’re in conformance with the new ISO 37210 standard.
“Now Geneva is fully behind us,” says McCarney. “Usually an ISO process takes six years. We did it in two. They took a big leap of faith with us.”
And, she notes, there’s been a big change in cities’ attitudes about releasing data on their performance indicators. “In the early days when we were testing and fine-tuning,” she notes, “cities were willing to give us data confidentially and share it with other cities. But they were very uncomfortable releasing it to the public.” But, she notes, cities seem more comfortable opening up this sort of data now and making it public, as it will be under the ISO standard.
Plus, McCarney observes, “researchers in universities and international agencies can now access the data—for analytics, for visualization, for performance analysis,” in a way never before possible.
Looking forward, the ISO city crafters are considering new measures focused on risk and resilience for cities. Indicators might include such things as the presence of early warning systems focused on such threats as stormwater surges and tornados, or seismic preparedness in cities prone to earthquakes. Both for the initial and added measures, auditors in each case will check the data to ensure that the definitions and methodologies in the formal ISO 37210 standard are being followed.
Most of the new city ISO standards apply all across the globe—for example the number of police officers or firefighters per 100,000 population are equally applicable in a Toronto or a Bogotá. But developed-world city standards, for such services as fresh water supply and sanitation services, are tough for developing-world cities of Asia, Africa and Latin America that have fast-filling slums triggered by cascading levels of immigration from poor rural migrants.
European and North American cities did, McCarney notes, “have a strong voice” in planning sessions for the new standards. But “we were very careful,” she asserts, to include special recognition of the conditions developing-world cities face in many of their poorest neighborhoods— “what’s possible for them, what they can report on.”
Another concept the process is encouraging is a focus on “peer” cities. London, New York and Tokyo, for example, may be in a class to themselves, notwithstanding their geographic separation. Toronto’s best global match may be halfway across the globe in Melbourne.
And the expanding data collection possibilities may, over time, identify more global peers—and exchanges—between cities. Potential advocates range from business and citizen groups within individual cities to globally active consulting groups and NGOs, all debating and pushing for expanded standards that correspond to their missions.
“With the initial ISOs, the city-standards issue has made a big leap forward,” says Hoornweg. “But now that the process is launched, it’s sure to spread widely.”
MORE: Here are the 46 performance measures the world’s cities will be judged by.
Small Business Owners Grade Their States for Business Friendliness: Utah and Idaho Rate the Highest; California and Illinois Among Least Friendly to Small Businesses
By: Dane Stangler
Via: Kauffman Foundation
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — June 10, 2014 – Thumbtack.com, in partnership with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, today released the third annual Thumbtack.com Small Business Friendliness Survey showing that small business owners in Utah, Idaho, Texas, Virginia and Louisiana gave their states the highest rating for friendliness to small business.
Small businesses in Colorado Springs, Boise and Houston gave their cities the highest ratings.
In contrast, small business owners gave California, Rhode Island and Illinois an “F,” while Connecticut and New Jersey both earned a “D” grade.
Sacramento, Providence and Buffalo were the survey’s worst-performing cities as rated by their small business owners.
More than 12,000 entrepreneurs nationwide participated in this year’s survey. The Thumbtack.com Small Business Friendliness Survey is the largest survey of its kind and is the only survey to obtain data from an extensive, nationwide sample of small business owners to determine the most business-friendly locations. The survey ranked 82 cities and most states on what makes a positive environment for small businesses.
“Creating a business climate that is welcoming to small, dynamic businesses is more important than ever, but rarely does anyone ask small business owners themselves about what makes for a pro-entrepreneur environment,” says Jon Lieber, chief economist of Thumbtack.com. “Thousands of small business owners across the country told us that the keys to a pro-growth environment are ease of compliance with tax and regulatory systems and helpful training programs.”
Some of the survey’s key findings include:
- Small businesses in Texas, Utah and Idaho have rated their states in the top five every year this survey has run, while California and Rhode Island have been rated in the bottom five every year.
- The friendliness of professional licensing requirements was the most important regulatory issue in determining a state’s overall friendliness to small businesses. Closely following licensing requirements was the ease of filing taxes.
- Once again, tax rates were a less important factor than the ease of regulatory compliance in determining the overall friendliness score of a jurisdiction. Two-thirds of respondents said they paid their “fair share” of taxes – that is, they felt like they were neither under-paying nor over-paying.
- Small business owners who were aware of training programs offered by their government were significantly more likely to say their government was friendly to small business than those who weren’t. Awareness of training programs raised overall scores by 10 percent, while 76 percent of those who said they were aware of government-sponsored training programs for business owners ranked their local government as “somewhat” or “very supportive,” and only 8 percent of these said local government was unsupportive.
- Only 19 percent of respondents said they were prepared for implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
- Female entrepreneurs were more likely than male entrepreneurs to say that their state government was friendly to small business, while male entrepreneurs were more likely than female entrepreneurs to have a positive view on the outlook of their state economy.
- Kentucky’s grade was this year’s most improved, jumping from a B- to an A.
“It is critical to the economic health of every city and state to create an entrepreneur-friendly environment,” said Dane Stangler, vice president of Research and Policy at the Kauffman Foundation. “Policymakers put themselves in the best position to encourage sustainable growth and long-term prosperity by listening to the voices of small business owners themselves.”
Complete results can be seen here and include full sets of rankings and dozens of easily searchable quotes from small businesses nationwide. Each state and city also has its own data visualization showing its detailed survey results.
Thumbtack.com surveyed 12,632 small businesses across the United States. The survey asked questions about the friendliness of states and cities toward small business, such as:
- “In general, how would you rate your state’s support of small business owners?”
- “Would you discourage or encourage someone from starting a new business where you live?” and
- “Do you think you pay your fair share of taxes?”
Thumbtack.com and the Kauffman Foundation evaluated states and cities against one another along more than a dozen metrics. The full methodology paper can be found here.
Headquartered in San Francisco, Thumbtack is a consumer service that helps millions of people accomplish the personal projects that are central to their lives. Thumbtack introduces customers to experienced professionals who are available, interested and qualified to meet their specific needs. Whether looking for a painter for their home, a math tutor for their child, or a DJ for their wedding, Thumbtack provides anyone in the U.S. with an easy and dependable way to get started, compare options, and hire with confidence. The company has raised a total of $49 million from Sequoia Capital, Tiger Global Management, Javelin Venture Partners, and other prominent investors.
There will be those who say the only thing more boring than soccer is the economics of soccer. I am not one of them. I do, however, have friends and acquaintances who are very much of that opinion. To disabuse them of their benighted view, I’d like to tie Brazil’s current political crisis to more general questions of economic development. What does it mean to spend many billions (yes, billions) of dollars supporting the construction of stadiums? What does it mean to provide subsidies to private corporations or to international governing bodies to host large sporting events? These questions are also ours here in the US. We publicly subsidize everything from the Super Bowl to minor league ball parks to NASCAR tracks. We do this in the belief that there will be a return on investment. Are we justified in this view?
If economic development issues are not complicated enough, I have also indulged my desire to weigh in on the World Cup itself, who will win, and why. Fans of the game can add one more voice to the countless prognosticators and pundits who think they know who will win the World Cup by reading my post on the matter here.
Beyond the spotlight a single World Cup provides lies the larger public policy question of whether massive subsidies for sports are necessary—or even desirable. This post uses the World Cup stage as an opportunity to talk about the economics of sports and the peculiarities of soccer generally.
Brazilians ask: Why did we decide to host this event?
The World Cup begins this week. Thirty-two nations are participating, and a total of sixty-four games will be played in 12 stadiums. Some of these facilities are brand new and purpose-built. All have been constructed or improved through public financing of the Brazilian government. The most remarkable of these is in Manaus, a city at the edge of the Amazon rain forest. There are no viable roads in. Construction materials were sent by barge. Visitors to the four matches will fly in, though there is a river boat option as well. Yes, four matches at a stadium designed for 42,000 fans. And after the matches are played? No one knows. There is no local team that can justify a stadium of this scale. More broadly, the cost is well over $3 billion for all of the stadiums.The entire budget deficit of the country could have been offset by that spending. And there is no discernible ROI for the stadium development. What’s more, soccer’s international governing body (FIFA) will take all of the gate receipts and broadcast rights—one hundred percent.
So with no direct ROI, what justifies that spending? The most common answer, one familiar to cities who have vied for the Olympics (or sports venues or events generally), is that they generate welcome publicity for the host community. Never mind that no credible study supports the perceived benefits. Wh, then, you may ask, do communities continue down that path? There are two answers to that question, neither of which is very encouraging. The first is that officials are corrupt. We have ample evidence of that. FIFA itself is rife with kick-backs and bribery. Sepp Blatter, the head of FIFA, is deeply complicit in “selling” the Cup to the highest bidder. The 2022 Cup is scheduled to be held in Qatar, which would force players into matches where the temperature can reach 140 degrees. Moving the Cup from the summer to the winter would disrupt the professional league matches, so that’s not a good idea. And did I mention that the next World Cup will be held in Russia?
There’s corruption, and then there’s a simple case of being misguided. In 2007, the former Minister of Sport, Orlando Silva, said that no public money would be required for the construction (and improvement) of stadiums for the 2014 World Cup. More recently, Silva’s replacement, Aldo Rebelo, dismissed the notion that the new stadiums would become white elephants. In fact, there is every reason to think that neither the new construction nor the improvements to existing stadiums will ever justify the expenditures. The experience after the World Cup in South Africa strongly suggests that not only is there no ROI, but that the host nation is saddled with additional debt. This was Greece’s experience after the Olympics, and almost certainly played a part in that nation’s debt crisis.
Brazil was the only nation to bid on the 2014 World Cup. Since then, support for the Cup among Brazilians has steadily declined—from over 70% to under 30%. It may sink even further. Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, is a vocal defender of the Cup, but she is struggling with the strikes and protests that have engulfed the nation. Even high profile former soccer stars are questioning the expense. Street protests made the news early this year and can be expected to play to the international news media for the next several weeks. The complaint is that money spent on stadiums should have gone to the country’s “Third World” infrastructure. It’s an argument that deserves more than passing consideration.
It is entirely possible the relationship between major governing bodies (FIFA, the IOC, and even the NFL, with its non-profit status) and host cities and nations will have to change. If countries and cities quit bidding on events, or subsidizing stadiums, sports won’t go away. TV coverage won’t stop, and there will still be breath-taking moments for fans across the country and around the world.
Why the US should care about the Cup
Around the globe, nations are waiting for the first game between Brazil and Croatia with bated breath. But Americans will, as they always do, wonder what all the fuss is about. There are obvious reasons for this: we already have a game called football and it’s, well…different. Beyond that, we have a national team that rarely wins and pretty much struggles against all opponents.
Soccer is a game we don’t understand and we play poorly, but there are other reasons to be skeptical of the hoopla. In addition to the massive capital outlay to host the event, this World Cup carries a load of scandals that rival the Lance Armstrong era in cycling. Are the stadiums actually prepared for the tens of thousands of fans who will occupy them? Are the police ready for the tens of thousands of citizens who will occupy the streets? And that’s not all. Accusations of match-fixing associated with illegal international betting are hitting the presses, just as teams are leaving for Brazil. Then there is the systemic corruption of the sport’s governing body, FIFA.
How, you may wonder, can we be enthusiastic about a quadrennial event the host nation no longer cares to have, is tainted by match fixing, and is overseen by an organization that no fan of the game will defend? And oh yes, an underperforming national team, sub-par officiating, and players that may fall over and writhe in agony when an opponent so much as breathes on them?
Despite all this, soccer’s influence in the US continues to grow. Close to a million Americans may now watch a high-profile English Premiership match. Hundreds of thousands more carefully track the fortune of national teams from Germany, Italy, Nigeria, and, of course, Mexico. Soccer is rapidly becoming our “fourth” sport, ahead of hockey, and it is beginning to rival baseball in popularity. It’s no great stretch to imagine soccer joining basketball and football as one of the big three by the time of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar (or the US, if the scandal that accompanied the selection of Qatar results in a change of venue). In short, soccer is big in this country, and the World Cup will command attention for three glorious weeks. Despite the riots in the streets of Rio and Sao Paulo, despite the bad officiating and the prima donna antics of some players, despite all this, the tournament will captivate a global audience of which the US, for better and worse, will be a part.
What soccer has, and what constitutes a huge part of its appeal, is the flow of the game. In the US, one could argue that sports have lost that beauty. Our major sports are so over-managed that actual playing time is an absurdly small percentage of the coverage. I timed the fourth quarter of the recent Super Bowl from when the ball was snapped to when the play was blown dead. There were less than eight minutes of action in a quarter of play that seemed to go for an eternity. Basketball has begun to follow a similar pattern, with an increasing number of mind-numbing time outs. And baseball, well let’s not even go there. In American sports, players don’t so much play the game as follow the instructions of the coaches. In soccer, there are no time outs. You play for 45 minutes, then you take a break, then you play for another 45 minutes. There are only a total of three substitutions allowed. If you required more than that, due to injury, you would have to play a man down. All this and the players run an average of six miles during the match, often at sprint speeds. Flow is everything—or the ability to disrupt the flow. (Watch Italy.) But in any case, decisions are made and executed by the players rather than managed by the front office’s or television’s demands.
The US can learn to love soccer because it is a beautiful game. People can love it even if their interest in sports isn’t all that great in the first place. Why? Because the passion that drives the 32 nations who participate is unlike that of any other sport, or any other event. While we do watch the Olympics, the intensity has never equaled that of soccer. US sports certainly generate enthusiasm, but soccer more closely resembles collegiate athletics than it does our professional sports. There is also the separate question of how insular our big sports are. Yes, baseball is international, but we continue to host the “World” series even though we won’t allow other countries to participate (excepting Canada). American football is little more than a curiosity outside of North America. Basketball is the notable exception, but it pales in comparison with soccer.
Soccer is wonderful for the non-sports enthusiast, if for no other reason than it provides an alternative to Ambrose Bierce’s chillingly funny adage: “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” Soccer, it turns out, can also teach Americans about geography. We can learn to appreciate that Bosnia and Herzegovina is a single small country in what was the former Yugoslavia (and the former Austro-Hungarian Empire), that many great Belgian players have more than a passing affinity for the Congo, and that England is, well, just England and that Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland all have their own soccer teams (none of which qualified for this Cup).
What does this all mean for economic development?
There are lessons to be learned from Brazil’s misadventures with the World Cup. Yes, we want the Cup to be a success, but if we fail to understand the consequences of bad decisions, we will certainly repeat them ourselves:
- Do not assume that public subsidies for facilities will yield measurable benefits.
- Question assumptions about the promotional value of sports generally.
- Acknowledge that governing organizations (such as FIFA and the NFL) are profit driven even if they are “non-profit.” Their profits are simply allocated differently
- When working with private developers, ensure that the stadiums are integrated into the fabric of the community (Portland’s Providence Park soccer stadium).
- Promote and support sports that the community can participate in, not just as spectators but as participants and investors (youth organizations, for example).
- Stand firm in the face of pressure from professional teams who will claim to “put you on the map.” You are already on the map. Your economic development success will not be the result of sports franchises. Here in Austin we have no professional sports teams (and did I mention that we lead the nation in job growth)?
The World Cup is a unique event. Its viewership (and the passion it generates) is second to none. Being the host nation, however, is not a reason to cave to the demands of an overreaching governing body, and to ignore the greater needs of the country. If we think our sport is so great, we’ll find a way to support it without bankrupting a country.