Atlanta All-Star Loss Shows Ballot Fight’s Economic Fallout
(Bloomberg) -- Major League Baseball’s decision to move its All-Star Game to Denver from Atlanta was the latest measure of the economic consequences that cities and companies face amid what critics say is a Republican push to restrict ballot access nationwide.
Republicans from former Trump adviser Stephen Miller to Texas Governor Greg Abbott expressed their displeasure in the wake of Georgia’s passage of its version of the rollback. Abbott’s protest: refusing to toss out the first pitch at the Texas Rangers’ home opener.
GOP complaints aside, the league’s choice of Denver’s Coors Field to host its mid-summer celebration illustrated the monetary -- and political -- benefits of confronting the push to tighten voting rules. Democrats embraced the decision as a way to tout what they say are fair elections in states they control.
“We’ve got the most accessible and secure elections in the country, and are grateful that MLB is giving us the opportunity to showcase how elections can be,” said a news release from Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, whose fellow Democrats hold the governor’s mansion and both legislative chambers.
Colorado pushes hard for democratic participation, sending every resident who registers to vote at least eight days prior to Election Day a mail-in ballot, Griswold’s office said. Georgia’s new voting law makes it illegal for elections officials to automatically mail absentee ballots; voters must individually request them.
The Georgia measure also gives lawmakers tighter control over local election boards. Critics say that could allow them to sway close races like the one that awarded the state’s electoral votes to Democrat Joe Biden. Ex-President Donald Trump now faces a state criminal investigation after pressuring state officials to “find” votes that would let him win.
For Major League Baseball, the decision to speak against restrictive voting bills, which Republicans are pushing across the U.S., is a calculated gamble likely to pay off, said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College in Massachusetts.
“Baseball took a risk here,” he said, noting a possible dip in attendance if conservative fans boycott games. But blowback should be fleeting: “In the long run, making this statement to support minority players and to support democracy and to support voting rights, that will be a positive thing for them.”
Specialty sporting events like the All-Star Game are important to cities because they attract tourists to hotels, restaurants and local shops. “This is a big relief win for our economy,” said Colorado Governor Jared Polis in a news conference with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.
Polis said the state’s office of economic development estimates the game and related activities will generate about $190 million of revenue. Moving the game from Georgia is estimated to cost Atlanta’s economy about $100 million, according to Cobb County’s travel and tourism agency.
Most economists say both numbers are overstated, Zimbalist said.
Victor Matheson, an economist at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, called the $190 million projection “completely laughable.”
“They could be saying that the halo of being such a great, nondiscriminatory city will lead to tons of new business. But that sort of estimate is basically hand waving,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Still, even a more modest amount will be a welcome boost. “Any economic impact that will happen will go right into those sectors most devastated by Covid,” Matheson said.
Baseball’s decision may have ripple effects if other industries follow in shunning Georgia. The state drew similar boycott calls in 2019 when Governor Brian Kemp signed a bill that would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected.
In that case, Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who ran against Kemp for governor, actually urged Hollywood filmmakers not to pull production out of the state. On Friday, Abrams, who is widely expected to face Kemp again next year, said she was “disappointed” that the MLB moved the All-Star game. But she commended the players, owners and league commissioner for speaking against the bill.
Democratic politicians scrambled to host the game. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker said his state would welcome the event while trumpeting that lawmakers recently expanded voting access. The mayor of Kansas City tweeted his support for a Missouri-based game, saying the city “respects voting rights.”
In contrast, Texas’s Abbott said he’ll no longer participate in any MLB event. The Rangers hosted the World Series in 2020 as a neutral-site bubble during the pandemic. “It is shameful that America’s pastime is not only being influenced by partisan political politics, but also perpetuating false political narratives,” Abbott wrote in a Monday letter addressed to the baseball organization’s chief operating officer.
The state’s lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, who pushed a bill through the Texas Senate that would allow poll watchers to videotape activities they consider suspicious, also lashed out at the league.
“I’ll tell you how people of color are hurt: When Major League Baseball pulls the All-Star Game out of Georgia, the city of Atlanta is 51% Black,” Patrick said. “They’ve moved it to Denver. Denver is 9% Black. Major League Baseball just hurt people of color.”
Some Republicans proposed retaliation against the MLB and companies that criticized the Georgia law. South Carolina Representative Jeff Duncan said he’ll push to end baseball’s antitrust exemption, a position supported by Senate Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas and Utah’s Mike Lee.
Still, calls to boycott baseball or stop attending games are unlikely to have much of an effect on the MLB’s bottom line, judging from the experience of other major professional leagues, said Roger Abrams, an emeritus professor at the Northeastern University School of Law in Boston.
“The Republicans came down hard on the football players that took a knee and the last time I checked, the NFL is doing fine. And when the basketball players stood up for the Black Lives Matter movement, there was an equal amount of noise in the system and the NBA is doing fine,” he said. “I don’t think there is much political hay to be reaped from attacking those people who stand up for what they believe.”
In fact, Denver officials predict that vaccination progress and falling coronavirus infections in Colorado could mean a packed crowd just in time for the All-Star Game.
“We’re all operating on the expectation that we’re going to have a 100% capacity ballpark,” said Matthew Payne, executive director of the Denver Sports Commission.
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