If the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) makes good on its threat to pull college sports championships from states that pass anti-LGBTQ laws, those states will suffer little in the way of financial losses, say professors who study the economics of college sports.

“This is not primarily an economic story,” says Smith College’s Andrew Zimbalist. “This is a reputational story.”  

In a statement on Monday afternoon the NCAA, the Indianapolis-based nonprofit that regulates sports at more than 1,200 colleges, said “only locations where hosts can commit to providing an environment that is safe, healthy and free of discrimination should be selected” for championships.

In March, Mississippi became the first state to adopt a transgender sports ban when Republican governor Tate Reeves signed a bill that prohibits transgender athletes from competing on girls’ and women’s teams at public schools and universities. More than 40 states have introduced anti-LGBTQ legislation this year.

LGBTQ rights groups, which have been pressuring the NCAA to take a stand on transgender athletes, praised the NCAA’s move. “If you continue to pass these misguided laws state taxpayers risk not only costly litigation but the loss of revenue from these tournaments,” said Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice at the ACLU, in a statement.

But Zimbalist and three other economics professors say that if the NCAA were to order its member schools not to hold championships in anti-LGBTQ states, the lost revenue would be minimal. “The economic impact of NCAA playoffs is very very small,” says Victor Matheson, who teaches courses in sports economics at College of the Holy Cross. “But the symbolism is big.”

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The NCAA does not control the scheduling of the most popular college sport—football— which is handled by the bowl system. The next-most-popular franchise is the men’s and women’s basketball finals, known as the Final Four. But even those games are only attended by a thousand or so fans who may displace other tourists avoiding a playoff city when it’s crowded with people attending games.

In non-pandemic times, sports fans rent hotel rooms and spend money in restaurants. But Zimbalist says the total amount of dollars flowing into a city’s economy during finals is at most $300,000. Cities like to claim that college tournaments promote tourism, he says. But unlike the Olympics or tennis grand slams, college sports do not attract broadcast coverage of the host city. “Viewers are looking at the basketball court,” says Matheson.

Negligible economic impact aside, the NCAA’s move is significant, say the professors. Colleges tend to comply with the NCAA’s demands and their host states care about that. After North Carolina passed a law in 2016 restricting bathroom access for people who are transgender, the NCAA banned championships in the state. The N.C. state legislature subsequently repealed the so-called bathroom bill and the NCAA lifted its championship ban.

The NCAA made its statement on LGBTQ rights this week after Major League Baseball announced early this month that it would not hold its all-star game in Georgia because the state had passed a law that puts new limits on voting. Ten minutes after it issued its LGBTQ rights statement, the NCAA posted a statement on voting rights. “[E]qual and fair opportunity for all Americans to vote cannot be diminished in any way,” it says, “and we wholeheartedly support efforts to assist all in exercising this fundamental right.”

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