The Super Bowl is for losers

[But selling projects well isn't. There are five things every project organizer can learn from the stadium builders…]

The Times reports that the people of Minnesota spent half a billion dollars (more accurately written as $500,000,000.00) to build a stadium and make concessions that led to being able to host the big game today. And, like every other city that has invested heavily in the NFL over the last decade or more, they will certainly lose money, probably a lot of money. More money than we can easily visualize.

So why does it keep happening?

Why, despite volumes of documented evidence, do well-intentioned people spearhead new projects like this? There's a valuable set of lessons here about human behavior:

  1. The project is now. It's imminent. It's yes or no. You can't study it for a year or a decade and come back to it. The team creates a forcing function, one that turns apathy into support or opposition.
  2. The project is specific. Are there other ways that Minneapolis could have effectively invested five hundred million dollars? Could they have created access, improved education, invested in technology, primed the job market? Without a doubt. But there's an infinite number of alternatives vs. just one specific. 
  3. The end is in sight. When you build a stadium, you get a stadium. When you host a game, you get a game. That's rarely true for the more important (but less visually urgent) alternatives.
  4. People in power and people with power will benefit. High profile projects attract vendors, businesses and politicians that seek high profile outcomes. And these folks often have experience doing this, which means that they're better at pulling levers that lead to forward motion.
  5. There's a tribal patriotism at work. "What do you mean you don't support our city?"

For me, the biggest takeaway is to realize that in the face of human emotions and energy, a loose-leaf binder from an economist has no chance. If you want to get something done, you can learn a lot from the power of the stadium builders. They often win. 

[Update: I heard from some kind readers in MN who shared numbers that show that the state was very careful with their investment, and it might be one of the better long-term stadium bets on record. Well done. If you have to do a giant stadium project like this one, it sounds like this is the way to do it…]