Arts and Sports

In a move that I think surprised us all, the NFL has announced that Minneapolis will host the 2018 Super Bowl. This is surprising because… well, we all know what January can be like in Minneapolis, right? I think even the Stark Family of Winterfell would be taken aback by how cold it gets here.

Winter is coming, indeed.

I have to say, yesterday’s announcement has caused me to reflect on the wildly different ways we think about arts and sports—and how we treat them. And my thoughts are complex.

On the one hand, civic pride makes me thrilled to have the Super Bowl come here. I’m happy to show the world how great the Twin Cities are, even in the middle of winter.

But at the same time, I’m hardly thrilled that so much money was thrown into making the Super Bowl bid a success, and even less thrilled that so much money was thrown into building a stadium, which ultimately helped make the Super Bowl bid a success. It is somewhat galling that a billion dollars are going to construct the new stadium… to make it possible for a billionaire team owner to make even more profits than ever before. And it is galling that the facility in question will only be used for its intended purpose eight to ten days out of the year.

I’m sure the Vikings’ supporters would respond, “Yes, but football is a major amenity for the city, and a huge economic engine for the region. It’s vital and alive… and classical music is in decline.”

Well, yes and no. Football is an amenity and economic engine, but classical music is most certainly not in decline.

But more to the point, this line of reasoning is a false dichotomy that we really need to leave behind.

* * *

To begin, let’s look at the numbers.  When it is running at full steam, the Minnesota Orchestra attracts 300,000 people to downtown Minneapolis each year. Each year. To put it bluntly, that’s a lot. The Minnesota Vikings, in comparison, attract around 500,000.

But although both organizations bring in a large number of people, the Minnesota Orchestra and the Minnesota Vikings have been treated very differently when it comes to public funding.  I think its fair to ask why.

Yes, there is a difference between attracting 300,000 and 500,000 people. But the Orchestra had to claw its way through the legislature (and, one could argue, lie about its finances) to get $14 million in bonding money so it could refurbish Orchestra Hall. Plus, it had to hand over the title to Orchestra Hall to the City of Minneapolis to receive this $14 million. In comparison, the Vikings received $498 million in public funds; the contribution is split between the City of Minneapolis ($150 million) and the State of Minnesota ($348 million). The State has issued appropriation bonds in an approximate amount of $462 million and will finance the remainder of the $498 million public contribution with available State funds.

Using a simple mathematical formula based on attendance figures, why couldn’t the Orchestra have received $300 million in public funds, instead of $14 million?

And going further, why did we re-write laws, re-route transportation lines, and re-structure taxes to support Vikings Stadium, but not Orchestra Hall?

I’m sure someone would shout out, “Well, it’s not just actual attendance figures that matter… there are all kinds of other revenue streams involved, and all kinds of economic activity surrounding football, too!”

Let me say a few words about that.

I’d like to point out that the Orchestra attracts people year-round, instead of a few days during the football season. In doing so, it provides year-round support to downtown businesses. A study by the Minnesota State Arts Board has shown that arts attendees spend, on average, $22.87 on items such as parking, food, hotels, or other expenses on top of their ticket costs each time they attend an arts event. These ancillary expenses add up—the city of Minneapolis reported it lost $2.9 million in tax and parking revenue because of the Minnesota Orchestra’s lockout.

But let us step back and look at the impact of the arts on a broader, state-wide scale.

Minnesotans love the arts… not just as observers but as participants. Surveys have shown that 67% of Minnesotans have attended an arts event over the past year, in the form of concerts, stage productions, gallery shows and so forth. And, 60% of Minnesotans take part in an arts activity, from singing in choirs, painting, making pottery, woodcarving and more.

That’s remarkable.

As a result of this active engagement in the arts, the arts play a huge part in our state’s economy. The Minnesota State Arts Board has compiled the following statistics:

• The arts in Minnesota have over $1 billion in economic impact annually.

• The arts attract businesses, visitors and new residents, and encourage consumer spending, all of which result in increased tax revenues. Cultural offerings enhance the market appeal of an area, encouraging business relocation and generation of new jobs.

• There are over 30,000 artists in the state of Minnesota and more than 1,600 arts organizations.

• In Minneapolis, arts organizations spend $171 million; audience spending adds another $98 million for total arts-related spending of $269 million.

• In greater Minnesota communities, the arts stimulate business development. Small arts towns like Fergus Falls, Grand Rapids, New York Mills, and Lanesboro, for example, “revive their town centers and reinvent themselves” through increased commitment to the arts. (Greg Myers, Corporate Report Minnesota)

• In Saint Cloud, arts organizations spend $4 million; arts audiences spend another $5.8 million for total arts-related spending of $9.8 million.

• “A vibrant arts community is critical to how corporations decide where to locate, and how people decide where to work.” (Megatrends and Megatrends 2000, John Naisbitt)

• The arts drive tourism, an increasingly important industry in Minnesota. Travelers who come from other areas for arts-related tourism also spend money shopping, parking, and in hotels and restaurants. Cultural tourists spend more money per trip than the average traveler — $614 per trip versus $425.

• Five of Minnesota’s top tourist attractions are arts organizations: the Walker Art Center, Guthrie Theater, Ordway Center, Orchestra Hall, and the Children’s Theatre.

Let’s back up even further.  If you look at the national trends, you’ll see that not just the arts, but classical music is very much alive. The blog Proper Discourse has delved into the stats, and found a few key facts, including the following football comparison:

“The Metropolitan Opera made $93m in ticket sales last year, selling 79% of a total of 800,000 available seats. If the Met was an NFL team with these figures, it would have had the #2 attendance for the 2011 season, behind the Dallas Cowboys at #1 and above the NY Giants at #3. Incidentally, while the Met took very slightly more at the box office than either of these teams did at the gate, but the mean ticket price is almost identical.”

These are big numbers.  So can we please drop the false notion that Americans (and Minnesotans in particular) value sports but not the arts?

And more important, can’t we find a way to support the arts commensurate with their actual impact?

* * *

This brings me to my other key point—arts and sports aren’t enemies. This is not a zero-sum game, where you are only allowed to support one or the other.

I, for example, am a huge fan of our local baseball team, the Minnesota Twins, and I know there are plenty of colleagues in the arts who would say the same thing.

And I know from personal and professional experience that both sports and arts can provide huge, positive impacts on the community. For example, let me say a word about the impact on students. I’m a huge supporter of teaching arts in school, and know that study after study has shown that participation in arts can pay big dividends in a variety of ways, including student engagement, academic achievement, creation of social networks, and self-esteem.

And sports do this too.

Study after study has shown that student athletes are also primed for success. They learn lessons of working in teams, setting goals, and self discipline that make them great students. Yes, I know there are problems. I know that at times marquee athletes in prestige sports might glide their way through college (like, say, basketball students at the University of Kansas or football players at the University of Nebraska), but the athletes in under-the-radar sports or at under-the-radar schools are often hugely engaged, disciplined and talented—just like their music student counterparts. While teaching at Kansas, I had several football students in my classes (for the record, football was completely overshadowed by basketball at KU), and many of them were excellent, articulate achievers. And since my classes—colonial and modern Latin American History topics—were always electives, they chose to be there.

Both sports and music add value, and enrich our community in unique ways, which is why I’m often disappointed that they are too often turned into competitors. Each can, and should support the other.

Case in point, I can imagine how the Super Bowl might bring benefits to the arts community, such as helping Minneapolis land major arts events, too. Now, I have no illusions that the simple act of landing the Super Bowl will somehow bewitch other promoters into scheduling large-scale events here. But it will be a factor in these promoters’ decisions… I’ve witnessed this myself. A few years ago, I observed the behind-the-scenes effort by the City of Minneapolis to land the huge GALA Choruses festival, which would have brought thousands of singers from all over North America and beyond. I can tell you that organizers do look to see if the city has the capacity to pull off a major event. Would it be the decisive factor? No. But successfully hosting a Super Bowl can help in future bids to bring, for example, the World Choral Symposium to the Twin Cities.

I imagine there are other, more concrete ways we could capitalize on the momentum and energy of the Super Bowl to help the arts community. Why not create an ad hoc group to explore ideas?  Maybe one is forming as we speak?

If nothing else, the arrival of the Super Bowl can be the catalyst for an important, community-wide discussion—what truly matters to our community, and how do we collectively and holistically support these things? There will always be a competition for attention and resources, so how can we fairly decide what to support? What mechanisms do we need to support them? How best to shape infrastructure, laws, taxes, and other sources of income to best protect our investments? These are points we need to discuss.

* * *

So in the end, I’m not upset that the Super Bowl is coming to town. I am, however, disappointed that all too often we treat arts and sports as part of a zero-sum balance where we can only support one at a time. Sports contribute to the economic well-being of our community, as well as our quality of life. Arts, too, contribute to the economic-well-being of our community, and to our quality of life. Moreover, they contribute to these things at comparable levels.

So can we maybe have a more honest conversation about how to comparably support them?



8 thoughts on “Arts and Sports

  1. Scott, what the arts need is a billionaire owner who knows how to manipulate state government in order to get what he wants. You cannot imagine my shock to learn that NFL teams are considered by tax law to be nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit?! No way.

    I agree with everything you’ve written, and wish that you’d submit this post to MinnPost or the Strib for even wider distribution and readership. Unless the Governor and everyone else in our state government read your blog? (smile) Thank you for writing in such a coherent way, with such an even tone, about this subject. You bring out the logical, relevant, and important considerations for both the arts and supports to benefit our community. To me, it’s mind-boggling that the Vikings received hundreds of millions and will charge their fans $2500 for their seats on top of the ticket price, and the Minnesota Orchestra has to fight and sacrifice for $14 million.

    I better shut up now or I’ll stop making sense! Thank you, Scott!


    • Thank you… I think I caught them all! Strangely, I am reminded of an episode from the sitcom “Friends,” where Phoebe pronounced “Spider-Man” similarly to how we pronounce the surname, “Goldman.” And the crew exasperatedly explaining, “No… he’s a spider MAN! It’s not like he’s Joe Spiderman!”


  2. I think you have done a masterful job of spelling out the economic aspects of all this.

    However, I don’t think you are giving due regard to the social impact of cultural activities vs. sports activities. For better or worse (mostly worse, I think), folks are more interested in sports than the arts. And the politicians know this; hence their support for public investment in ever greater and more expensive sports venues. And their attitude is if that means further lining the pockets of billionaire franchise owners, so be it.

    Sid Hartman used to say (and probably still does) that without the three professional sports franchises, MSP would “just” be a cold Omaha. I could never understand what was so bad about Omaha, but to Sid (and many others) that would be just about the worst thing imaginable.

    Moreover, all the 1 per centers in the large companies around here seem to agree with Sid, I suppose because there is more value in their mind to handing out free tickets to clients for Vikings games than MN Orchestra concerts.

    The whole country (and this area) is sports crazy. And until that changes, the arts will continue to get the short end of the proverbial stick. But don’t hold your breath………


  3. Thank you, Scott, for bringing such thoughtful consideration to the matter of how BOTH arts and sports can thrive. I appreciate especially your stats on the arts, and classical music especially, because it seems nowadays that all anyone has to do is burp out “classical music is dead/dying” and the words are accepted as gospeltruth. We must repeatedly speak down that lie.


  4. I could not help but notice that at least 2 of the folks cheering in the Star Trib pictures of the Super Bowl announcement are members of the Board of the MN Orchestra. I wish they had worked as hard to end the lockout and controversy re the finances and contract for the MN Orchestra musicians. I applaud all the folks who did work to end the lockout and restore a great institution and thank the author of this blog for the interesting discussion of the relationship of arts and sports.


  5. So, the mean price for a ticket to the Met, the Dallas Cowboys, and the NY giants is basically the same – but how can that be?? Otherwise, the canard that opera is elitist and sports aren’t would be proven false . . . oh my aching head.


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