The timing could not be more ideal. Days after President Obama fired the CEO of General Motors, and instructed GM and Chrysler to fix up fast or drive headlong into bankruptcy, college basketball's annual bonanza, the Final Four, has arrived in the Motor City to provide a much-needed distraction. What's even sweeter: Michigan State University, located just 90 miles west of Detroit in East Lansing, made the national semifinals this year, giving the locals more reason to cheer (unless, of course, they bleed the University of Michigan's maize and blue and wouldn't dare root for an archrival). For a few days at least, the city can lose itself in the rah-rah world of college hoops. (Read TIME's special report: "Is This Detroit's Last Winter?")
And for a few days, more importantly, the Final Four will jolt the local economy. Thousands of fans have flocked to Detroit for the big games, and they'll spend money in the city's downtown hotels, restaurants, bars and retail shops. The games are being played at Ford Field, the downtown home of the Detroit Lions, which will seat some 70,000 fans. Fan-festivals and free concerts throughout the weekend will also draw visitors downtown. The NCAA anticipates that the Final Four will generate anywhere between $30 million and $50 million in new direct spending for the ailing area. (Hear Dick Vitale's Top 10 NCAA Tournament Moments)
Detroiters are optimistic that it's the beginning of a turnaround. "We think this will have a long-lasting effect for the city's economy," says Renee Monforton, communications director for the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The people who visit here will want to come back again, either as leisure tourists or for a meeting. And people watching on television will see Detroit as a viable place to live, work and visit."
To economists, however, blissful predictions like these are bunk. "I don't believe it's that big of a bonanza, frankly," says Smith College sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, who predicts an economic impact of about $15 million. "It's kind of silly to suggest that it is." Festive fans of North Carolina, the University of Connecticut, and Villanova University the other three teams that made the Final Four will likely have a nice time in spruced-up Detroit. But it's a stretch, Zimbalist says, to figure they'll suddenly think of Detroit as a repeat destination and even more of a stretch to hope that television viewers will be impressed. "People aren't going to sit there and think, 'Oh my God, I'm going to Detroit for my next vacation,'" says Zimbalist. "Corporate executives aren't going to say, 'I need to open an office in Detroit.'"
History would seem to side with the economists. In 2006, Detroit hosted the America's most gargantuan sports event, the Super Bowl, also at Ford Field. Fans gave the area a $274 million boost, according to one economic research firm. Over 90 million people watched the face-off between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks on television. Did the game lift Detroit long-term? Well, Detroit's unemployment rate is 13%, worst in the country among major metropolitan areas. The city's bonds have junk ratings. Because its school system has run up a $305 million deficit, the city may have to close up to 50 schools. Thanks for the help.
One misconception is that every dollar a fan spends in a host city directly benefits the city. Some of the money coming into Detroit will leave it just as quickly. Take hotels, for example. The Marriott and Sheraton may be full, but a chunk of that revenue flows to corporate headquarters outside of the city. The same holds for national restaurant chains like McDonald's. And the NCAA takes about 65% of the revenues from game tickets.