Friday roundup: Tokyo Olympics back on, NFL doesn’t understand vaccines, and other hygiene theater stories

It was yet another one of those weeks, where you finally look up from the news that’s obsessing everybody only to find that while you weren’t looking, monarch butterflies had moved to the verge of extinction. There doesn’t seem to be an end to this anytime soon — which is pretty much the motto of this website, so let’s get on with it:

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Maybe they should just cancel the Tokyo Olympics already, or all Olympics

The 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics are scheduled to take place this July and August — yeah, sports dates are just like that now, don’t get me started about the 2020 Copa Del Rey final — and the coronavirus pandemic isn’t looking likely to be over then, which has some people wondering if this is really such a great idea:

“Do you have to risk that? Risk by holding the Olympic Games? I don’t think so,” Kentaro Iwata, a prominent infectious diseases expert from Kobe University told Reuters.

“We are facing far more danger than last year, so why do you have to hold the Olympic Games, cancelled last year due to risk of infections, this year?”

And it’s not just public health experts: London’s former Olympic chief says Tokyo should be “making plans for a cancellation,” and more than 80% of Japanese residents say the Olympics won’t be able to be held as scheduled. (The poll just asked if the Games “can” be held, seemingly conflating the questions of whether they should or will be held, though maybe there’s some nuance that was lost in translation to English.) A final decision must be made by mid-March, and given the current spread of more highly transmissible forms of the virus plus the slow rollout of vaccines, it seems pretty unlikely that athletes from all over the world will be able to gather safely in Tokyo this summer.

The main reason not to cancel — other than that athletes have been training for this their whole lives, but that was the case during World War II as well — is the $15 billion that the Japanese government has already spent on staging the Olympics. That’s a sunk cost, though, and Japan isn’t getting any of that money back even if the Olympics are held this summer. While spending $15 billion on an event that never happens would be a bitter pill to swallow, spending even more on staging an event that could bring even more added costs from a renewed wave of virus spread — not to mention additional deaths — would be throwing good money after bad.

The next step would be addressing that bad spending in the first place, which seems to be starting to happen, anyway. Maybe a canceled 2020 Games would accelerate discussions of whether the current Olympic model is worth pursuing at all? Probably not, but it’s nice to dream.

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Arena operator to pay Minneapolis $100k toward costs of 2019 Trump rally, should it always work like this?

Yesterday’s inauguration of Joe Biden as president wasn’t the only thing about the Donald Trump era that was wiped from the books. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has also announced a settlement of a longstanding dispute over a 2019 Trump campaign rally whereby Target Center operators ASM Global (part of AEG, with the A in both cases standing for Anschutz, as in Los Angeles Kings and Galaxy owner Phil Anschutz) will pay part of the city’s security costs of staging the event:

According to a release from the City, $100,000 is half of the $200,000 worth of municipal costs the City believes are eligible for reimbursement. The costs cover traffic control, installation of temporary barriers, public works construction, and other service outside the Target Center.

A hundred thousand dollars isn’t all that much — Frey had previously estimated total costs to the city at more than $500,000, but only sought reimbursement for security costs inside the arena — but it’s still more than cities usually get repaid for ancillary expenses of hosting big events. Judith Grant Long, in her book outlining the full cost of sports stadiums including hidden expenses like tax breaks and operating costs, estimated an annual municipal price tag for services like added police and fire protection of $2 million per year for each stadium and arena. Miami spent about $4 million just on public services for last year’s Super Bowl, which is even more of a pain to have in your town than a Trump rally.

Public services like police and fire protection, of course, are public services, so talking about who should pay for them starts getting into questions of exactly which public costs should be counted as public subsidies. Everyone in a municipality is entitled to have firefighters on duty to keep their buildings from burning down — at least unless they live in a place where fire protection is a subscription service — so it’s not exactly a special dispensation. On the other hand, having tons of police turn out and set up barricades and do crowd control is a service that is disproportionately used by large event operators, so one could make an argument that they should shoulder a share of the costs.

It doesn’t sound like the Trump rally settlement is going to be much of a precedent: Even Frey said he hopes in the future the federal government will reimburse cities for political rally costs via the Secret Service, which sounds like a worrisome slippery slope. (Does that include costs for political rallies for local office? If not, what if there’s a joint rally for federal and local candidates?) While I wouldn’t want to see a world where political candidates can’t get police protection unless they pay a subscription fee — with maybe a couple of exceptions, for schadenfreude purposes — and even less so a world where political protestors are asked to pay the cost of their own policing, it’s also undeniably true that sports and other big events are able to reduce their costs by leaning heavily on public services, from crowd control to traffic control. It’s a discussion worth having, anyway, even once it’s mostly things like the Super Bowl racking up the bills, which are less controversial even if maybe they shouldn’t be.

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Everybody and former pitcher Dave Stewart wants to buy Oakland Coliseum for some reason

The Oakland A’s stadium plans seem to be moving at a glacial pace, but in recent months things of a sort have actually started happening: Team owner John Fisher bought Alameda County’s 50% share of the Oakland Coliseum site for $85 million, and entered negotiations to buy the city’s half as well. This would allow them to tear down the Coliseum, build new development on the site, and use the proceeds to help pay for a new stadium at Howard Terminal (probably not in that order, since the A’s would need somewhere to play in the interim); or else build a new stadium there maybe; or anyway at least have some options.

The Bay Area real estate market being what it is, though — even if it’s not quite what it was pre-pandemic — lots of other people are offering to buy the city’s share of the land, too:

  • We’ve already covered the African American Sports and Entertainment Group, headed by San Francisco nightclub owner Ray Bobbitt, which has offered $92 million to buy the city’s share of the Coliseum land, then hopes to buy the A’s share as well, then build a new NFL stadium, then get an NFL team, then be the first African-American-owned football franchise. That is, let’s just say, a lot of steps, but they’re still in the mix.
  • Former ace A’s pitcher and terrible Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Dave Stewart has bid $115 million for the city’s haf of the site, saying he wants to build affordable housing and “nice restaurants and shops” and “employment opportunities” and maybe a baseball stadium, he hasn’t decided yet, in the place where he grew up. (He didn’t actually grow up in the Coliseum — that’d be M.C. Hammer — but nearby.) Stewart says he still needs to “turn in the vision,” which presumably means some renderings, and “at some point I need to prove the financials, but that’s not a problem.”
  • Justin Berton, a spokesperson for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, says there are “several offers” on the table for the property. (Does two count as “several”? Merriam-Webster says “several” can mean “more than one” or “more than two but fewer than many,” which doesn’t narrow it down at all.) “Any proposed sale or disposition will go through an extensive, transparent and public review process,” adds Berton.

Having multiple bidders, let’s be clear, is a good thing: Given how almost impossible it is to calculate fair market value for a uniquely huge parcel of land, having lots of bidders is a great way to be sure you’re getting the highest possible price. (Ideally you would have wanted the city and county to market the entire ownership of the land together, since Fisher holding half the property could hold the bids for the city’s half down somewhat, but it’s better than nothing.) So if nothing else, having Dave Stewart offering $115 million means maybe the city can demand that Fisher offer $116 million, which would be a better deal than the county rushed into.

As for what this all means for the A’s building a new stadium, though, either at the Coliseum site or Howard Terminal, who the hell knows. There are still questions about how that plan would be financed, and whether it will require hundreds of millions of city spending on “transportation infrastructure,” and what’s up with all those cranes. Presumably if asked, Fisher would say that at some point he needs to prove that he can pull this off, but that’s not a problem; for the rest of us, it’s probably best to believe it when we see it.

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Friday roundup: OKC Thunder want their subsidies sooner, Indy Eleven want theirs later, let me repeat back your orders to make sure I have it right

I’ve already thanked everyone individually, but I’d like to give a collective shoutout to all the readers who signed up as FoS Supporters this membership cycle. The money you send translates directly into time I can spend covering stadium and arena news for you, and I remain extremely heartened by your support. If you sent me your mailing address, your magnets should be en route; if you didn’t, send me your mailing address already, these magnets aren’t going to ship themselves!

And speaking of covering stadium and arena news, let’s cover some stadium and arena news, why don’t we:

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Could an indy league revive Hagerstown’s stadium after MLB consigned the Suns to oblivion?

Reporting on plans for what to do with stadiums in the 18 cities that were completely jettisoned from minor-league baseball (separate from the 25 additional cities that are having their paid players replaced by college interns) has been sadly lacking since last months’ hit list announcement, likely because most news media in 2021 has the attention span of a gnat and the budget of one as well. But yesterday there was some news from Hagerstown, where the Suns have been dematerialized after 40 years, leaving behind a stadium that has hosted pro ball on and off since 1930, with several renovations along the way.

The Hagerstown city council held a work session on Tuesday to explore the options, and they are, in order of appearance in the Herald-Mail, the newspaper of the Maryland-Pennsylvania-West Virginia conjunction:

  • Host some “cost-neutral local events, such as high school baseball games” or concerts.
  • Build an indoor turf facility there (likely looking something like this), so locals don’t have to travel elsewhere for sports like youth soccer.
  • Bring in a baseball team in an independent league, two of which have contacted city officials already about using its existing stadium.

All these are reasonable ideas, as is surveying local residents about their preference before moving ahead with any of them. Mayor Emily Keller said that she doesn’t want to cost local residents more money, which also sounds good; there’s also the issue of who would staff games or concerts, since the city doesn’t have staff available. (Hopefully event organizers could either bring their own staff or pay enough of a fee for the city to hire some workers.)

The indy-league baseball option is especially interesting, not so much because it’s necessarily the best one, but because there’s been so much speculation that running unaffiliated minor-league teams wouldn’t be sustainable; one exec of an eliminated minor-league team told me his organization’s research showed it would take a guaranteed 3,000 tickets sold per game just to break even. If two independent leagues are at least sniffing around — the Atlantic League has to be one, thanks to its geography and the fact that it only has six teams currently including the newly created Gastonia Honey Hunters — that’s a good sign that maybe indy leagues will fill some of the vacuum left by the contraction of the affiliated minors.

All this would be significantly easier if North American baseball ran more like European soccer, with promotion and relegation, so that Hagerstown could just find some local willing to sponsor a semi-pro team and then watch it try to win its way back up to the professional ranks. That still wouldn’t be perfect, though — somebody has to buy enough tickets to pay the ticket takers and pay for turning the lights on — so if indy leagues can fill a similar role, that’s better than nothing. It will be very interesting to see how this unfolds as the season approaches, depending on when and if coronavirus levels decline enough for that to even happen.


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Jacksonville kills $200m Jaguars Lot J subsidy, Khan says he’ll ask for money for some other project instead

So! Last Thursday the Jacksonville city council’s committee of the whole voted 15-4 in favor of granting more than $200 million in subsidies to Jaguars owner Shad Khan for his Lot J development project, making it a fait accompli that the plan would get the needed 13 votes for approval when the full council (the exact same people as the committee of the whole) voted on it last night. And then this happened:

The Jacksonville City Council on Tuesday rejected a $233 million development deal with Jaguars owner Shad Khan to build his proposed Lot J development next to TIAA Bank Field, as the deal was unable to overcome a barrage of criticism that it required too much of taxpayers and offered too little in return

Supporters of the bill defeated an attempt made Tuesday by Council President Tommy Hazouri to strip a controversial $65.5 million interest free “breadbox” loan from the deal, which Khan’s development team said was a necessary condition for them to build the development.

However, their efforts were a pyrrhic victory. Without the removal of the loan, the deal lost supporters and died in a 12-7 vote, one shy of the two-thirds majority it needed to pass.

Wha’ happened? In last night’s vote, councilmembers Randy DeFoor, Garrett Dennis, and Joyce Morgan switched sides to join Al Ferraro, Matt Carlucci, Danny Becton, and Tommy Hazouri in opposing the deal. Media reports aren’t entirely clear on what caused the defections — the Jacksonville Daily Record cited concerns about “an expected low return on investment for the city, lack of hard construction costs and a financial viability gap analysis being withheld by Cordish and what the public perceived as a lack of transparency in the deal,” but all that was as true last week as this one. (A financial analysis of the deal by the city auditor way back in November projected that the city would only get back 44 cents in revenue for each dollar it spent on subsidies.) It surely didn’t help when Dennis and Mayor Lenny Curry had a Twitter war last week accusing each other of cheating on their wives, but that still doesn’t quite explain why all three members voted one way last week and the other way yesterday.

Anyway, since the council still approved more than $155 million in Lot J subsidies (the $65.5 million interest-free loan would have only been worth maybe $30-40 million in value to Khan), what normally happens next is that the team will go back to the drawing board to see if it can rework the deal, maybe splitting the difference to, wait, what’s that now?

“We’ve pulled the plug on Lot J. It’s dead, but it doesn’t change the way we started this,” [Jaguars president Mark] Lamping said…

Lamping said Khan now will shift his focus to negotiation with the Downtown Investment Authority for his proposed Four Seasons hotel and medical, residential and retail development on the St. Johns riverfront at Metropolitan Park and the Shipyards.

There are a couple of things that could be going on here. The first, and less likely, one is that Khan is trying to grease the skids for a move out of Jacksonville by making a series of crazy demands and then throwing up his hands when the council rejects them, saying, hey, I tried. Or, the Lot J scheme was genuinely such a money-loser that Khan really only was into it if he could get a huge pile of city cash to do so; and now that the city has only offered a chintzy $155 million, he’ll move on to his next project and see if that raises less of a stink with the council. (And/or helps him revive interest in his Shipyards plan, which was fading as of last summer.) And, of course, the as-yet-unspecified amount of money he’s seeking for renovations to his stadium, which was just renovated in 2014 and again in 2017. Shad Khan is determined to have his publicly supported payday someday, somewhere, it’s just a matter of figuring out where to squeak his wheel.

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Worcester stadium hits $157m, is now the most expensive minor-league park of all time

The city of Worcester issued an update on Friday (actually dated tomorrow, but whatever) on its new Red Sox Triple-A stadium, which is full of small-type charts and lists and generally pretty dry. But Grant Welker of the Worcester Business Journal got out his abacus and went to work on the numbers, and was able to report this:

The cost of building Polar Park, the new home of the minor league Worcester Red Sox, has risen to $157 million, Worcester officials said Friday afternoon, reflecting cost increases stemming largely from the coronavirus pandemic.

With the increase, the public facility will become the most expensive minor league baseball stadium ever built, surpassing the inflation adjusted $153-million home of the Las Vegas Aviators.

May I be the first to say: Yikes!

The WooSox owners are paying for the latest $17.3 million in cost overruns, so at least this won’t cost Worcester more than the $100 million or so in subsidies that were approved back in 2018. Still, how on earth did this project’s costs balloon so rapidly?

The last time the stadium ran into overruns, it was $30 million in added costs that, according to Welker, mostly stemmed from “unexpected costs borne by the city for obtaining adjacent parcels, moving businesses and knocking down buildings to make way for the ballpark.” (Also because Worcester officials forgot how hills work. Let us never forget that.) This time it’s undefined pandemic-related costs: Some this appears to be “we had to stop work for seven weeks and still need to finish by spring 2021 (assuming there’s baseball in spring 2021)” and some of it something about supply chains mumble mumble, but still, $17.3 million seems like a lot for that.

The WooSox also have agreed to a lease, which is good because nobody remembered to do that before approving the subsidies and starting construction; I haven’t read through it fully yet, but it looks unremarkable. And the update also includes a whole bunch of new renderings, so let’s enjoy some of those now:

That’s unremarkable enough, though it’s amusing that some ad sponsors have been specified (Shaw’s grocery store) while others still just say “SPONSOR.” (Where the first-base coaching box should be. I’m not sure that’s allowable under baseball rules.) Also the team logo appears to be a smiley face with arms and legs. And Red Sox two-time All-Star shortstop Xander Bogaerts appears to have been demoted to the minors, or maybe is there on a rehab assignment. Otherwise, nothing too alarming.

Now it’s getting alarming. Why are there giant statues of Red Sox championship rings, and what does that small child and his mom find so fascinating about them? Other than that, looks like a pleasant enough plaza, though I’m not sure it’s advisable for the couple at the far right to walk through it barefoot.

What the hell? As a parent, I know something about what kids want in a baseball-themed playground, and it would either be 1) a miniature ballpark where you can play wiffle ball or 2) a big-ass slide. Baseball-themed boulders and a basepath covered in giant golf tees seem like odd design choices, and that’s even before we get to the smiley-face mascot (which must be inhabited by either a person with an abnormally short torso or with no head) playing keepaway with a baseball bat with a small child. We are well on our way to Boschian hellscape here.

This image, of a grassy hill outside the ballpark called Home Plate Hill because it’s kind of adjacent to the home plate grandstand, I guess, is unremarkable except for the woman at left who appears to be taking a photo of her dog using a large cinnamon roll as a camera.

Big Blue Bug Solutions is, as you might expect, a pest control service. It has apparently contracted to show off its solutions for pest removal by sponsoring an area where a select few fans can enjoy close-up views of the game without any protective netting, the better to be squashed like bugs by any foul balls.

Okay, it turns out Xander Bogaerts hasn’t been demoted — or rather, he’s been demoted to an unearthly realm where various Red Sox players of the last 50 years are all consigned to play out their declining years in a minor-league ballpark. Also Jim Rice has to play first base which he never once did in real life, even though Carl Yastrzemski, who did play lots of first base, could easily be moved there from Rice’s preferred position of left field. Clearly whoever constructed this image really has it in for Jim Rice — look, he’s even batting 9th, while the unheralded Jarrod Saltalamacchia bats cleanup — which is fair, Jim Rice was one of the most overrated players in baseball history.

Finally, we have the Ecotarium, Museum of Science and Nature, which seems to consist entirely of an exhibit on pitch speed, which you would think would at least include a radar gun and a place where kids could try out their feeble throwing arms and learn something about how radar works or something. But no! It’s just a cardboard cutout of a kid throwing a ball, at a distance of maybe ten feet from a photograph of a catcher. I’m almost willing to believe that this is supposed to be a real kid but the colorist screwed up, but if so why is he being forced to deliver his pitch over a counter? And won’t errant throws grievously injure those two older kids nearby admiring the ceiling? Oh wait, I get it — the science here is medical science, and kids will be able to see it in action up close and personal when EMTs have to rush to the aid of someone who’s just been concussed by a baseball delivered to their noggin at close range! I take it back, these people totally know what will entertain a small child — can’t wait to make my first visit!

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WTF is up with that “vote” on a new Madison Square Garden: an investigation

Checking back in on a Friday afternoon because I have a bit more information about that new Madison Square Garden proposal that, according to a very bad website, “the City Council voted [on] this week in a Community Board Five meeting,” which is not a sentence that makes any sense.

Turns out the vote had nothing to do with the New York City council, but rather was of the Land Use, Housing & Zoning Committee of Manhattan’s Community Board 5, which is a just slightly less significant body. (Community board consideration is a required piece of the city’s land use process, but their votes are just advisory.) The meeting took place on Wednesday on Zoom, and can be watched in its entirety here.

The board’s unanimous vote was actually on several things, including endorsing including this project in the environmental impact study for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Penn Station expansion project, and also allowing for a shorter extension of MSG’s operating permit — you know what, let me just quote myself here by way of explaining what that is:

Madison Square Garden itself is privately owned, but an obscure section of city zoning law (Section 74-41, if you’re playing along at home) requires any arena of more than 2,500 seats to obtain a special permit from the city. MSG’s initial permit was issued in 1963, and for whatever reason was set to expire after 50 years; when that date rolled around in 2013, the city council, bowing to the wishes of Penn renewal advocates, granted only a ten-year extension, ostensibly to give the Garden’s owners time to make plans to decamp to a new site. (Technically, MSG could stay put, but only if it reduced its capacity to 2,500 seats—the arena can currently pack in over 20,000 spectators, depending on the event.)
Since 2023 is right around the corner, and it would almost certainly take years to get this mammoth project approved and built, CB5 has now formally endorsed the idea of a short-term extension to let the Knicks and Rangers hang out for a few more years at the current MSG in the meantime.

What happens next is not much, at least immediately. Committee member E.J. Kalafarski said during the meeting that a draft scope of the project, which is the very first step in the land use process, was “published on the internet this last week”; I haven’t been able to find it yet, but will keep digging. In any case, after that it needs to have a draft environmental impact statement done, and then it goes back to the community board for consideration, then to the borough president, then the city planning commission, and finally the city council. (If the state takes over the property, it would go through a different approval process — as the Brooklyn Nets arena did — but would still take a while.) So, nothing final for a year or two at least, but this is the beginning of the beginning.

As far as how much this would cost or who would pay for it, none of that is even remotely sketched out yet. And the design documents published by New York Yimby are just some sketches done by former Manhattan city planning director and current local resident and architect Vishaan Chakrabarti, which may or may not be adopted by whatever developer may or may not be interested in building this monster.

So, this is still very early days, but it does seem like there’s at least a little momentum for “clear out the current MSG space to make for better Penn Station access by building a new MSG a block away something something something.” This is very much worth keeping an eye on, but it’s also very likely that nothing much will be happening immediately, especially what with no one knowing whether big urban office buildings have a future anymore or not. More news as events warrant.

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Friday roundup: Jacksonville doubles down on $200m+ Jaguars subsidy, MSG replacement vaportectured, Norfolk arena sabers rattled

So, yeah, some stuff happened this week, and is continuing to happen now. But let’s not let rampaging Viking cosplayers distract us from the fact that the new year has also brought a resurgence in sports subsidy activity, with a whole lot of news that normally I might write individual posts about if I hadn’t been up too late refreshing Google News, so instead you’ll have to bear with me through some long bullet points:

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