When Cities Get a Pro Sports Team, Flu Deaths Rise

TUESDAY, Aug. 8, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- Bringing a professional sports team to a new city often includes a big taxpayer-funded stadium subsidy, but new research shows that has a health downside: a spike in flu deaths.

“Most, if not all, of the sports venues in the cities we studied received direct and/or indirect public financing,” said researcher Brad Humphreys, a professor in the John Chambers College of Business and Economics at West Virginia University.

“Since 2000, U.S. state and local governments have committed nearly $20 billion 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," he said in a university news release.

But these new stadiums were costly in other ways. U.S. cities that gained pro teams between 1962 and 2016 saw increased influenza deaths of up to 24% after the teams arrived, according to the researchers.

The study included an analysis of Major League Baseball, National Football League, National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League teams.

“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,” Humphreys said. “We hope taxpayers will be less likely to subsidize professional sports facilities if they realize those teams are making them sicker, burdening health care systems and harming businesses’ bottom lines as workers use sick days."

The average increase in flu deaths was 17% when NFL teams moved to cities that had never had pro sports teams before, the analysis showed. That was about 13 additional deaths each year.

When an NBA team moved in, flu deaths increased by 4.7%. MLB had the smallest impact, with three additional deaths each year.

However, the NHL had the largest impact, with a 24.6% increase in flu deaths per 100,000 people. That was about 20 more flu deaths per year in each city.

“As for why hockey is so deadly, we believe it is both the timing of the season and location of the teams,” said researcher Jane Ruseski, a professor at the John Chambers College of Business and Economics. “The NHL season overlaps almost perfectly with the flu season, and NHL teams are more likely to be in colder cities."

It isn’t possible to say decisively that the overlap in the flu and sports league seasons is a major driver of flu mortality, she said.

"Since seasons are almost always played at the same time each year, we don’t know what might happen if, say, the NHL played during the summer,” Ruseski said in the release.

Researchers used data on flu deaths in 122 cities over 54 years from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with arrival dates of new teams.

They controlled for factors relevant to the spread of viruses, like a city’s population, temperature or rainfall, and yearly dominant flu strains.

The same trends likely apply to COVID-19, said Alexander Cardazzi, who worked on the study. He is now an assistant professor at Old Dominion University in Virginia.

"Sporting events at stadiums and arenas place large numbers of people in close proximity,” Cardazzi explained. “These fans touch many surfaces and are talking, yelling and engaging in person-to-person contact like high-fives," which could spread both the flu and COVID-19, he said. Gathering to watch games in bars, restaurants and homes would create similar conditions.

The findings were published recently in the Sports Economic Review.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on flu.

SOURCE: West Virginia University, news release, Aug. 7, 2023

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