Sports in La Crosse deliver clear—and intangible—benefits

Kathy Cobb | Associate Editor

Published January 1, 1994  | January 1994 issue

La Crosse, Wis., is not unlike other Ninth District cities that look to professional sports to provide an economic boost and add vitality to the community.

And just like in other Ninth District communities, tangible effects of these sports are hard to measure. "What's difficult to assess is the actual dollar impact. What is unquestionable, and harder to quantify, is the enhancement to the community's reputation," says Jim Hill, executive director of the La Crosse Area Development Corp.

Located about 160 miles southeast of Minneapolis/St. Paul along the Mississippi River, La Crosse, with a population of 51,000, is the regional center for nearly 100,000 and is home to the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) Catbirds and the summer headquarters of the National Football League's (NFL) New Orleans Saints, whose training camp is at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Football—A summer sport in La Crosse

They may only be in town for six weeks each year, but since 1988 the New Orleans Saints have made an impact in La Crosse and on the University of Wisconsin campus. "Not a day goes by that La Crosse doesn't appear in a byline across the country during the Saints' training camp," Hill says.

While the university does not make a direct profit from the training camp, whatever the team purchases to upgrade facilities stays with the university. The Saints outfitted their dorm with about 125 air conditioners and paid for materials to build portable goal posts, thus making the university practice fields more versatile.

Students also benefit from the university's relationship with the Saints. Each summer about 75 students work in the residence halls, dining halls and other campus facilities during training camp. And the team has donated $5,000 for a sports management scholarship, as well as offering summer and season-long internships to sports medicine students.

The impact reaches beyond the university, though. Small businesses near the campus welcome the added activity at a time when most of the students are gone. The university purchased about $90,000 worth of food from a local company for last summer's camp. "The training camp brings the campus to life at a time when it's generally dead," says Brad Quarberg, University of Wisconsin—La Crosse news service manager.

The Saints training camp is estimated to generate up to $2.5 million for the La Crosse area's economy, says Joe Sweeney, president of the Wisconsin Sports Authority, which coordinates NFL training camps in the state. Last summer a scrimmage game with the Chicago Bears drew about 10,000 people, many from other states. "That was good, but if we could ever get a scrimmage with the [Green Bay] Packers, we'd have to put up a roadblock into the city," says James Morgan, University of Wisconsin—La Crosse controller.

One of four NFL teams that train in Wisconsin, the Saints are part of the "Cheese League." The Kansas City Chiefs and the Chicago Bears train at University of Wisconsin campuses in River Falls and Platteville, respectively. And since 1919 St. Norbert College in De Pere, a Green Bay suburb, has been summer home to the Green Bay Packers. In addition, the Minnesota Vikings train across the border at Mankato State University.

It was the proximity of teams for scrimmage activity that drew the Saints to La Crosse, says the Sports Authority's Sweeney. The university facilities and weather are also factors, he adds. "It's not as hot and humid in Wisconsin as it is in New Orleans and Kansas City in August."

While only six of 28 NFL teams practice out of state, Sweeney expects that number to grow. The Sports Authority is negotiating with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to hold their 1995 training at yet another Wisconsin university campus. And down the road, Sweeney hopes to draw one of the NFL expansion teams to Wisconsin, too.

"We're talking $10 million for the state," Sweeney says of the current Cheese League's impact. But more important, he adds, is the positive exposure for Wisconsin. "The training camps help put Wisconsin on the map," Sweeney says.

Basketball—La Crosse in the Catbirds' seat

While the football Saints make a big splash over a short time period, the CBA Catbirds play 28 home games over five months in La Crosse. And that team's economic impact on the community appears harder to determine.

If attendance data is any indication, the Catbirds, who recently began their ninth season in La Crosse, can be called a success. The team plays at the La Crosse Center arena, which seats over 6,000. Averaging 4,507 fans per game, the Catbirds have won five league attendance titles since 1985. And although Catbird game attendance has dropped over the past three seasons, it is still just one of five teams that drew more than 100,000 for the 1992-93 season.

The team also is competitive in the league: The Catbirds have appeared in post-season playoffs all but one year since they were purchased by local businessmen in 1985 and moved from Louisville, and they have won two CBA championships. In addition, nearly 50 percent of Catbird team members over the years have played in the NBA.

"With 28 home dates and 4,000 to 6,000 people at each game, it's a nice boost to downtown," says Art Fahey, marketing and sales manager for the La Crosse Center.

Doug Fox, executive director of the La Crosse Convention and Visitors Bureau, agrees. But he also says most of that money coming into downtown is spent on food and drink by fans who get in their cars and drive home after the games.

The Radisson Hotel La Crosse attributes $120,000 in revenue from its two restaurants directly to Catbird game crowds, says hotel general manager Frank Wagner. Although he can't determine exactly how many extra rooms have been booked because of the Catbirds, Wagner says CBA and NBA (National Basketball Association) team scouts and visiting team fans stay at the Radisson, along with the visiting teams.

The regional audience is the focus of Catbird promotions, such as the annual Boy Scout weekend, which draws troops from surrounding communities, and an ongoing high school band competition. Local businesses also have advertising vehicles in the game programs and display ad space within the La Crosse Center to promote themselves to the regional crowd. And with some CBA games telecast in the Twin Cities, La Crosse businesses are reaching another strong market, Wagner says.

Although the Catbirds' financial impact on the area can't easily be measured, local business people seem to agree that without the team business might not be as good. Thus, when the team had a season-ticket revenue shortfall, the La Crosse Center Board reduced the Catbirds' rent in 1991 to avoid any possibility of losing the team. "It would be a terrific blow to lose them," Wagner says.

Baseball—They didn't build it ... so they didn't come

La Crosse might have had a baseball team to round out the seasons—if voters had approved construction of a new stadium in 1989.

At that time La Crosse was courted by new owners of the Class A Wausau Timbers, who intended to move the team out of that central Wisconsin community. The plan was contingent upon Midwest League approval and construction of a new stadium in La Crosse for the 1990 season.

A mayor's task force went to work immediately to address the stadium issue and smooth the way for the team's arrival. From the beginning there were skeptics who expressed concern over committing resources to the team.

But there were also supporters, like the local businessman who pledged $1.25 million to pay half the cost of the new stadium, and other team representatives who spoke of the economic benefits of landing a baseball franchise.

La Crosse Common Council members, however, thought the city was moving too fast, before all the financial implications were clear. Although the mayor's task force had lined up stadium contributors, council members looked at related costs for site preparation and infrastructure.

Proponents touted the economic impact on La Crosse—up to $4.3 million, according to one group of stadium backers, but most estimates were more cautious. In addition, skeptics voiced concerns about the public costs involved.

Despite predictions of the economic benefits the team would generate, voters were not swayed. And in a November 1989 referendum, the stadium issue was voted down 60 percent to 40 percent, or 6,632 votes to 4,374. Voter response was partly a concern of spending tax dollars, but the site itself, on an island landfill, generated concerns about accessibility and potential environmental cleanup costs, says the La Crosse Area Development Corp.'s Hill.

The team instead settled in Kane County, Ill., northwest of Chicago—where a stadium site was ready for construction.