Sunday, August 21, 2011

Looking back at Andrew Zimbalist's work for hire: bad math, obliviousness to the news of a Newark arena, and several updated reports never made public

Responding to criticism of the self-serving Atlantic Yards fiscal impact study he prepared on behalf of Forest City Ratner, sports economist Andrew Zimbalist told the 6/29/04 New York Times, in an article headlined A Plan Passes And an Arena Is Protested In Brooklyn, "I was very careful in my use of numbers."

I'd call that a classic example of the "journalism of assertion" the Times purportedly eschews in favor of the "journalism of verification."

While I've spent a lot of time dissecting Zimbalist's work, I--and everyone else, I believe--missed a sloppy, careless error that was not fundamental to his argument but exemplifies, I'd argue, the casual manner in which he prepared his for-hire study.

That math error misreported the number of estimated jobs.

Beyond that, Zimbalist, as if oblivious to any responsibility for verification, missed the news that a new arena was coming in Newark.

Still, Forest City Ratner's business savvy in hiring Zimbalist led to credulous editorials, like this one, from the 5/4/04 New York Sun, headlined Sports, Jobs, and Taxes (echoing the title of one of Zimbalist's books):

Mr. Zimbalist is the nation's leading expert on the financing of sports arenas and co-author of the bible on the subject, a report issued by the Brookings Institution called Sports, Jobs, and Taxes: The Economic Impact of Sports Teams and Stadiums. He has a national reputation for arguing against the use of public dollars to pay for sports arenas. But even Mr. Zimbalist likes the proposed Brooklyn arena deal.
It also led to slapdash coverage like a New York Post article headlined "NETS GOOD SPORT$," in which Gersh Kuntzman (now editing the Brooklyn Paper) asserted that "developer Bruce Ratner's proposed arena for the New Jersey Nets in Downtown Brooklyn would pump more than $800 million into city and state coffers over the next 30 years."

Neil deMause noted that the sum referred to revenues from the entire project, not just the arena, prompting Kuntzman to comment that, while he understood Zimbalist's findings, he was just using "shorthand."

More work for FCR

And, as I've learned from a look at his curriculum vitae (as of 2008), Zimbalist did not simply do one report for Forest City in May 2004 and update it in June 2005.

He produced a supplementary report in July 2004; an updated report in January 2005; a second updated report in June 2005; a June 2005 document comparing the May 2004 and June 2005 reports; a third updated report in May 2006  and a fourth updated report in November 2006.

To my knowledge, none but the May 2004 and June 2005 reports were released publicly. The substantial amount of time Zimbalist was retained suggests that he did have time to address the significant criticisms raised, such as in the June 2004 Kim/Peebles report or my March 2006 critique, but never did so publicly.

From 2004 report: correct math

In his initial report (below), dated 5/1/04, Zimbalist stated Atlantic Yards would contain 7599 office workers (2533 x 3) in 1.9 million square feet.

That's confirmed by doing the math: 1,900,000/250 sf per worker = 7600 spaces.

From 2005 report: bad math

In his follow-up report (below), dated June 2005,  Zimbalist mistakenly asserted there would be 1461 office workers (487 x 3) in 1,217,505 square feet.

That math doesn't add up. Actually 1,217,505/250 sf per worker = 4870 spaces.


What about that Newark arena?

Zimbalist, uncritically endorsing his client's estimates, wrote in the 2004 report:
I have discussed these estimates [in the report] with FCRC and they seem reasonable to me. FCRC projects that the arena will not host an NHL team and that it will host 224 events during the year (assuming the eventual closing of CAA [Continental Airlines Arena, later Izod Center], no new arena in Newark, no NHL and no minor league hockey events at the Atlantic Yards arena.)
As Gustav Peebles and Jung Kim pointed out in their June 2004 response (below) to Zimbalist, that left no place for the New Jersey Devils to play hockey.

Zimbalist's 2005 report contained a small but significant switch in credit, attributing various estimates concerning attendance, ticket prices, construction costs, and other items to the Nets as opposed to Forest City:
I have discussed these estimates [in the report] with the Nets and they seem reasonable to me. The Nets project that the arena will not host an NHL team and that it will host 226 events during the year (assuming the eventual closing of CAA, no new arena in Newark, no NHL and no minor league hockey events at the Atlantic Yards arena.)
By the time of the 2005 report, Zimbalist either did not notice or chose not to acknowledge that a new arena was coming in Newark, as indicated in the below 10/7/04 report in the Bergen Record.


This is the world's most famous sports economist?

Updated reports (from resume)


Andrew Zimbalist Report 2004 on Atlantic Yards, for Forest City Ratner

Andrew Zimbalist Report 2005 on Atlantic Yards, for Forest City Ratner

Kim-Peebles report on Estimated Fiscal Impact of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project, response to Z...

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