US study links flu deaths to arrival of pro sports arenas

Featured image credit: Jimmy Conover on Unsplash

Featured image credit: Jimmy Conover on Unsplash

New research in the US shows that flu deaths increase when a city becomes home to a new professional sports team and their vast venues.

US cities that gained pro teams between 1962 and 2016 saw increased influenza mortality of up to 24% after the teams came to town. The West Virginia University (WVU) researchers, led by professors Brad Humphreys and Jane Ruseski, analysed cities with new teams in the four major North American professional leagues.

The researchers used Centers for Disease Control data on weekly flu deaths in 122 US cities over a 54-year period, along with the arrival dates of new professional baseball, basketball, football and hockey teams in cities and the start of play in leagues during that time. They controlled for factors relevant to the spread of viruses, like a city’s population, temperature or rainfall, and yearly dominant flu strains.

According to their paper in Sports Economic Review, the largest increase in a city’s weekly flu mortality came from the NHL. An NHL team moving into a city caused a 24.6% increase in flu deaths per 100,000 residents, Ruseski said, a total increase of about 20 flu deaths a year in each city.

When NFL teams moved to cities that never had pro sports teams before, those cities saw an average increase in flu deaths of 17%, or about 13 additional deaths a year. Becoming home to an NBA team increased a city’s flu mortality by 4.7%, and MLB — whose games generally occur outside flu season — had the smallest impact, driving three additional deaths each year.

“As for why hockey is so deadly, we believe it is both the timing of the season and location of the teams,” Ruseski said. “The NHL season overlaps almost perfectly with the flu season and NHL teams are more likely to be in colder cities.”

The research team, based at WVU’s John Chambers College of Business and Economics, said their data should make people question the wisdom of taxpayer-funded stadium subsidies.

“Most, if not all, of the sports venues in the cities we studied received direct and/or indirect public financing,” Humphreys said. “Since 2000, US state and local governments have committed nearly $20bn to new stadiums — roughly a billion dollars per year. These subsidies usually come in the form of governments essentially cutting team owners a check, funded by issuing bonds, to build their stadiums. The fact that teams basically extort cities to get these subsidies by threatening to move elsewhere makes this of even more interest to economists.

“Our finding, that people in cities with sports teams are likely to be sicker than they would be without the team, has the potential to shift how we think about hosting professional sporting events. We hope taxpayers will be less likely to subsidise professional sports facilities if they realise those teams are making them sicker, burdening health care systems and harming businesses’ bottom lines as workers use sick days.”