Great article. But I think the final argument you cite as possibly more convincing is even less so. The “intangible benefit” or “pride” argument presumes A) we even care about sports and B) that such vague qualities are worth enormous sums of money, money that as you cite is probably being sucked out of other things that some of us may care more about. I am a music fan, not a sports fan. And music DOES create some economic benefits as well. I would still be hard-pressed to justify tax dollars going to support Live Nation, much as there might be an “intangible benefit” to being able to go see Lady Gaga or Katy Perry or Arcade Fire in Cleveland.
The other things Zimbalist cites, such as parks and orchestras, that may have a “powerful cultural or social impact on a community” that we support with tax money are nonprofits that do not exist to make individuals fabulously wealthy. I am sure that even Franz Welser-Most makes less than most of the Cleveland Browns and is worth less than Jimmy Haslam. Regardless, he’s a hired employee, not the owner of the business.