Economist Victor Matheson notes that while Brazil has spent $3,600 million on stadium construction for this World Cup, the U.S. managed to successfully host the 1994 World Cup on a capital improvements budget of $5 million (for minimal sprucing up of the Detroit Silverdome and Dallas Cotton Bowl). The 1994 final was held before 94,194 in the ancient Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA, which had concrete benches for seating.
The game was a terrible nil-nil marathon, but the Rose Bowl was fine, just as it was fine for the 1984 Olympics soccer final, and the equally old Coliseum was fine for the 1984 Olympic track and field. Granted, the Rose Bowl is in a lovely geographic spot, down in the Arroyo Seco under mile-high Mt. Wilson. You drive past stately homes and then park on a golf course. But the Coliseum is in the ‘hood (I went to a Raiders playoff game there in 1983 and my friend got his window smashed but, much to his pleasure, they couldn’t pry out his stereo), and it was still good enough.
It’s just a game. Hosting a sports event really isn’t that big of a challenge.
It would seem like the economics of stadiums are backwards: For a big international event that gets fans worked up, any old tub like the Rose Bowl is okay. Instead, the time when you might need a nice place, unlike the recent Olympics and World Cup white elephants, is for something repetitious and marginal, like selling season tickets for baseball.
The psychology of stadiums, however, is that having a fancy stadium makes your burgh world class or at least major league. In truth, visitors pay almost zero attention to your sports facilities, unless they have a lot of history. For example, the only baseball stadiums that tourists care about visiting are the century-old relics Fenway in Boston and Wrigley in Chicago.
Nobody from anywhere else cares that you have a new state of the art stadium. What sells to tourists is history. For example, when I was in Rio in 1978, I went to the Maracana stadium to see a soccer game because of its reputation as the ultimate in soccer proletarianism: it was in the Guinness Book of World Records for squeezing in 199,850 fans for the 1950 World Cup final Brazil lost 3-2 to Uruguay, and because it had a dry moat to keep the tough eggs from lynching the ref. (The only problem was that when we came out in the dark, we discovered it was such a proletarian neighborhood that there were no cabs. Fortunately, a dwarf bodybuilder who was the tour guide for some German soccer fans was worried about our safety and gave us a ride back to Copacabana Beach.)
Having a lot of movie stars in Los Angeles provides some measure of protection against getting ripped off by sports leagues. For example, Los Angeles hasn’t had an NFL team in 19 years, in part because it hasn’t been in any hurry to replace the Rose Bowl (where UCLA plays) and Coliseum (where USC plays) with a brand new free stadium for some billionaire. Similarly, the two baseball stadiums are very old: Dodger Stadium (1962) is the third oldest ballpark in the MLB, while Angel Stadium (1966) is tied with the dump in Oakland for fourth oldest.
If you build a new stadium, the locals get excited and turn out in large numbers for a half decade (unless you are the Miami Marlins and then they don’t turn out at all), but after that they show up if the local team is winning. Tourists don’t care about your team, and they especially don’t care about your team’s shiny stadium.
Update: let me improve this overly generalized statement with an example. I was briefly in Pittsburgh last year, and I wouldn’t have minded attending a ballgame of the upstart underdog Pirates, but only if I sat in the upper deck from which you can see the skyscrapers of downtown Pittsburgh across the river.
In other words, sports complexes are interesting to tourists if they interact with what’s distinctive and attractive about the city: e.g., Pittsburgh has a surprisingly spectacular location and the ballpark lets you see that from certain seats.