In September 2020, the HKS-designed SoFi Stadium opened in Inglewood, just outside Los Angeles, drawing accolades for its technologically impressive design and thoughtful urban integration. Imagined as a first-of-its-kind, programmatically and physically porous, year-round venue, the 70,000-seat stadium, home to L.A.’s two National Football League (NFL) teams, the Rams and the Chargers, anchors a 298-acre neighborhood in development that is now filling with offices, retail, and thousands of apartments. Nestled against a 25-acre public park, SoFi’s swooping, translucent roof touches down in only four places, leaving the stadium open to California’s ocean breezes and to the public eye.

SoFi is part of a development boom that is expanding the scope of stadium complexes—at least a dozen similar superstructures are in design or construction across the United States. This updated model builds upon the perceived success of intraurban sports complexes such as Baltimore’s Oriole Park in Camden Yards, innovative in the 1990s for eschewing the old conception of stadiums as fortresses surrounded by parking lots, and credited with the revitalization of the surrounding neighborhood. Armed with flashy designs, and promises of revenue and job opportunities, franchises and team owners have successfully bargained for public dollars and support for the opportunity to masterplan entire urban districts.

A $1.2 billion baseball stadium in Las Vegas, designed by Bjarke Ingels Group, to entice the Athletics to move from Oakland, is part of a master plan that includes an on-site hotel and casino. With its cost offset by $380 million in taxpayer-backed public assistance—and recent efforts to stop that financing deal, including a challenge from a teachers-union-backed group called Schools Over Stadiums, shot down in court—construction is slated to begin in 2026. The armadillo-like stadium will join a rash of other sport and entertainment development on the Vegas Strip, including Populous’s The Sphere and the $1.9 billion Allegiant Stadium (subsidized with $750 million of public funding), which hosted this year’s Super Bowl.

In St. Petersburg, Florida, the Tampa Bay Rays recently released renderings of a $1.3 billion Populous-designed stadium that includes the redevelopment of a surrounding 86-acre property, to be replete with hotels, restaurants, affordable housing, and a new African American History Museum. The city council is still discussing the stadium’s financing deal, which currently asks the city and county to take on half the cost of construction. Similarly, the 60,000-seat New Nissan Stadium in Nashville, for the Tennessee Titans, is imagined as the centerpiece of a 338-acre riverfront “stadium village” that will include park space, affordable housing, and a multimodal boulevard. The $2.1 billion stadium, by Kansas City, Kansas–based Manica (which also designed Allegiant Stadium), is receiving $1.2 billion in public funding, far and away the largest stadium subsidy in U.S. history.

Stadium proponents, including both team owners and government officials, have argued since the 1980s (when many U.S. cities faced fiscal crises) that economic revenue generated will “spill over” into the surrounding community. However, decades of research have consistently found that public investment in stadiums far exceeds returns for local communities. Even the case of the exemplary Camden Yards, now called “The Ballpark That Forever Changed Baseball™” by the team in an act of grandiose self-mythologization, was debunked in a 1996 study by Johns Hopkins University economists Bruce Hamilton and Peter Kahn. Camden Yards was great for the Orioles, which enjoyed a 40 percent increase in average ticket sales after its opening, and propelled the team to become one of the most financially successful in baseball. The city and state, however, got less bang for their buck: Hamilton and Kahn calculated that Maryland netted $3 million annually from the stadium, measured by tax revenue and job creation, at an annual cost to taxpayers of approximately $14 million. The adjacent Inner Harbor neighborhood remains a tourist mecca, but the area immediately surrounding Camden Yards has fewer jobs than it did in 1998.

A 2022 study by prominent sports economists surveying three decades of research into the purported link between stadium construction and urban revival confirmed the “near-universal consensus evidence that sports venues do not generate large positive effects on local economies.” The study found that these projects redistribute existing spending rather than create infusions of wealth, and that the negative externalities of large arenas—like traffic, crowds, noise, litter, and crime—may mitigate any positive economic effects. Yet public funding has nonetheless increased. In moving their sights from pleasure domes to entire districts, bundling infrastructure upgrades and community spaces into the deal, developers have found a clever way to ask for more.

The $5 billion SoFi Stadium was privately financed by Rams owner Stan Kroenke (Los Angeles–area municipalities are notoriously reluctant to mete out public funding) but garnered the support of Inglewood’s political leaders with promises of reviving the surrounding community. But nearly four years on, its economic benefits have yet to “trickle down” to residents of the surrounding area, many of whom have been pushed out by rampant real-estate speculation. Inglewood, whose population is largely Black and Hispanic, was once an affordable bastion in L.A. county. But between 2016, when the first component of the new development opened and the stadium’s construction was announced, and 2022, average rents spiked by 59 percent—compared to a 17 percent increase across the region. In the same period, the median sales price of Inglewood homes jumped 90 percent, from $345,000 to $655,000. Residents’ daily movements are disrupted by unprecedented traffic congestion, which also impacts revenue to local businesses. “[There’s] a large population of folks that are a paycheck away, a hundred-dollar increase away from having to move because the cost of living continues to go up,” Inglewood resident and activist Estefany Castaneda told Sports Illustrated in 2022.

As in Inglewood, the areas around the proposed stadiums in Nashville and St. Petersburg are historically Black and low-income neighborhoods, already victimized by decades of discriminatory housing policy and isolated by postwar highway construction. Housing advocacy groups in these cities have protested the use of public funding, warning of additional strain brought by rising property values and real-estate speculation on income-burdened communities.

Elsewhere, some residents and officials have been successful in pushing back. In March, Alexandria, Virginia, shot down a bill seeking $2 billion in public bonds and over $100 million in direct subsidies for a “visionary sports and entertainment development,” including an arena and facilities for the Washington Wizards basketball team and Washington Capitals hockey team, as part of the Potomac Yards megadevelopment. And in Chicago, the Bears are struggling to obtain $1.4 billion in public funding toward their $4.7 billion vision for a new stadium surrounded by 326 acres of restaurants, retail, and more on prime lakefront property. Though supported by mayor Brandon Johnson, the plan has faced derision from community leaders and reached a roadblock with governor Jay Pritzker.

In a 2019 interview with a local paper, Inglewood mayor James T. Butts, Jr., an enthusiastic proponent of SoFi and its accompanying development, compared the potential effect of the stadium to the “Genesis Device” from the 1982 Star Trek film The Wrath of Khan, a technology that could rearrange the subatomic particles of previously uninhabitable planets, and transform them into lush utopias. The reference feels apt—seen from above, SoFi resembles an alien starship straight out of science fiction, a glassy symbol of the future rising from a sea of drab urban blocks.

But this imagery also demonstrates the fantastical nature of the Genesis theory guiding these developments. The seductive fantasy of sports megadevelopments is ultimately self-contained, its supposed largesse manifesting in square footage rather than public benefit. What is presented as a civic boon exists as a utopia of consumption that repackages its host city in a sanitized form for visitors, leaving the real world, and accompanying social and economic troubles, outside its borders to fend for itself.