How Sports Reduced the Crime Rate in Chicago

Do sports reduce crime? It's a relationship that's been suggested by many people, notably ex-Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. In the midst of an NFL lockout in 2011, he told ESPN: "Do this research if we don't have a season -- watch how much evil, which we call crime, watch how much crime picks up, if you take away our game." A new study followed his advice and did the research. What they found may surprise you.

Sports and crime in Chicago
Ryan Copus and Hannah Laqueur, currently at UC Berkeley's School of Law, analyzed crime in Chicago during the metro area's sporting events. The city is just one of 12 in the U.S. to have representation among all four major leagues: the NFL (Bears), MLB (Cubs and White Sox), NBA (Bulls), and NHL (Blackhawks).

The Michael Jordan "Spirit" statue at the United Center, Chicago, IL. The arena hosts the Bulls and Blackhawks franchises. Image via Hywell Martinez, Flickr.

According to the findings, televised baseball, basketball, and football games in Chicago lowered aggregate crime rates by as much as 25% between 2001 and 2013.

The researchers explain: "These reductions are largely explained by potential offenders spending their time watching the game on television rather than engaging in criminal activity ... at least in the short term ... [they] appear to represent foregone criminal opportunities -- crime does not increase before or after most games."

Crime reports of all types -- including those related to violence, drugs, and property damage -- were measured during the city's sporting events. After comparing them with historical crime data when no games had been played, the duo discovered the variance. Copus and Laqueur remark that through distraction, it's possible sports "can pacify the population." Sci-fi films like The Hunger Games and The Running Man convey a similar message, they write, though one could presumably argue, in a more dystopian manner.

Do some sporting events work better than others?
As you might expect, crime rates -- at least in Chicago -- appear to be affected differently depending on the sport. Here are the highlights:

"Chicago Crimes Prevented by a Professional Sporting Event (2001-2013)," Copus and Laqueur (in percentages)
  Total Property Violent Drug
Super Bowl -26% -17% -14% -63%
Monday Bears Game -13% -3% -11% -29%
Sunday Bears Game -3% -1% -1% -17%
NBA Finals Game -3% -4% -4% 3%
Bulls Playoff Game -2% -4% 0% -4%
World Series Game -2% -1% -4% -1%
Cubs or White Sox Playoff Game -7% -5% -4% -20%

Estimates shown with the highest level of significance include: All Super Bowl figures, Monday Bears "total" and "drug," Sunday Bears "drug," Bulls Playoff "property," and Cubs or White Sox Playoff "total." All others range between significance at the 1% level to significance at the 10% level. Data originally reported in Copus and Laqueur, 2014, page 11. Chart above only shows a portion of all data reported.

The biggest declines occur during the Super Bowl. Despite the fact that the Bears only appeared in one during the study's time frame, the game represents the best crime deterrent. In a way, it makes sense: an estimated 111.5 million people watched the last Super Bowl, a much larger viewership than any other sporting event tested.

The large drop-off in drug crime is also noteworthy. On this, Copus and Laqueur suggest two possible explanations: 

While it is likely the declines in drug offenses during games are ... explained by fewer individuals on the streets engaging in drug activity ... [it also] may well be explained by the failure of police to pursue drug activity because they are themselves distracted by the game.

By their very nature, drug crimes are more sensitive to whether or not law enforcement is actively searching for them. Violence and property damage, on the other hand, are typically reported to the police.

The dollars and cents
Crime is costly, that's not exactly a secret. The Center for American Progress estimates that in total, violent crime costs Chicago a little more than $5 billion a year -- an hourly rate of nearly $600,000. By that math, the typical four-hour Super Bowl, which reduces violent crime by -14% (seen above), saves Chicago over $300,000. A three-hour Monday night Bears game, by comparison, reduces violent crime costs by almost $200,000.

It's tougher to pin a value on the other types of offenses Copus and Laqueur tracked. And thus, it's impossible to know exactly how much money each sporting event saves city law enforcement. But most reasonably, the dollar amount ranges between four and six figures. Bears games, as mentioned above, likely reduce crime-related costs to a greater degree than the city's MLB or NBA contests do.

The bottom line
These savings pale in comparison to the economic impact of Chicago's sports teams. The Cubs alone are responsible for $600 million in local spending each year, for example. A typical Bulls playoff run, meanwhile, generates between $30 million and $50 million in economic activity, according to some estimates.

But beyond the dollars and cents, Copus and Laqueur's findings are important for another reason: They find evidence that sports, quite literally, can save lives.

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