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Super Bowl XLIX seems to have been a bit of an economic bust

Billie Weiss/Getty Images

Mega-events like the Super Bowl are always sold to local communities as offering an enormous economic boost. But is it really true?

First Data, a company that processes about 50 percent of all electronic transactions in the United States (credit cards, debit cards, gift cards) shared with Vox some information that sheds light on the question and suggests that a Super Bowl may not have been a great idea for Phoenix:

This is a look at year-on-year sales growth in each metropolitan area in both the year it hosted the Super Bowl, and the year before. We see that while New York saw a substantial acceleration in its Super Bowl year, Phoenix did not — with sales growth actually decelerating compared to where it had been before.

Of course, that's not nearly enough to prove that the Phoenix Super Bowl was a bust. But the sector-by-sector breakdown is telling:

The most interesting thing about this chart is what's missing — hotels and leisure. That suggests that the influx of football fans crowded out tourists who would otherwise be coming to Phoenix. In New York, by contrast, hotels are less likely to be full in January, so there really could be a boom. One key difference here is that Phoenix is warm in the winter and New York is not.

The football fans drank more beer, but maybe spent less on other leisure pursuits. Meanwhile, the general retail sector  — everything from furniture to building supplies — was actually down 0.1 percent in Phoenix year-over-year on the Super Bowl weekend, with locals maybe cowering at home in fear of crowds rather than going out and shopping.

It's hard to get conclusive analysis of this sort of thing. But the First Data information is at least highly suggestive that cities should think about the calendar when deciding whether mega-events will have big economic benefits. The supply of hotel rooms doesn't really change whether or not you host a Super Bowl (or an Olympics or a World Cup or a presidential nominating convention). But almost every city has a high season and a low season for visitors. Staging an event during low season can fill rooms that would otherwise be empty, and give your city a boost. Staging an event during a low-occupancy period is more likely to shift spending around than to truly grow it.

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