Blue Jackets bailout could go from bad to worse as team seeks more “glamorous” locker rooms

When I’m asked what I think is the worst sports subsidy deal in history, and I’m asked that a lot, my go-to response is that every unhappy stadium deal is unhappy in its own way. But when pressed to pick a few for the all-time Hall of Shame, I’ll occasionally find room for the Columbus Blue Jackets arena bailout, if only because it turned a model of private arena financing into a massive public subsidy just because the team owners whined that they weren’t making enough money. And then the city of Columbus agreed to give Nationwide Insurance, which put up the money for the original private arena construction, $62 million in added tax money when it turned out casino tax revenues weren’t going to cover the original deal.

If you see this headed toward “more good money thrown after bad,” you’re way ahead of me. Take it away, Columbus Dispatch:

Okay, so maybe the Dispatch got so excited it couldn’t remember how verbs work. The point is, as the paper discussed in an accompanying story with a more grammatical headline, the 20-year-old arena needs not just a new roof, but “$94.4 million in capital-improvement expenses over the next five years.”

The good news is that arena authority director Don Brown says the general public won’t pay for the upgrade costs, because it has a repair fund already set aside, funded by “casino tax and admissions tax proceeds.” The less good news is that these taxes would otherwise go into the general fund if they weren’t being siphoned off for the arena fund; the even less good news is that thanks to casino and admissions tax shortfalls in recent years, the repair fund currently just has $454,000 left in it, plus a $2.4 million reserve fund, which is a lot less than $94.4 million.

The Dispatch article goes on to say that the Blue Jackets and their partners in operating the arena — Nationwide and Ohio State University — will be on the hook for arena upgrade costs, but also that the team’s lease requires that the building be kept in “first class” condition, which seems likely to be a point of contention in any disputes over where to come up with $90 million. Among the items that the arena authority cited the hockey team as wanting to have improved:

The locker room for Blue Jackets players is “reasonably well-appointed but is not as glamorous as NHL home locker rooms in newer facilities,” and could use a “thorough” upgrade. The player lounge and training areas are well-maintained “but not impressive,” and the players’ family lounge “does not present an NHL-level image.”

Well, we certainly can’t have that! What will the neighbors say?

There’s a lot of confusing language in the arena operating arrangement — the public arena authority is part of the management group, but isn’t responsible for upgrade cash unless OSU backs out — but given that we’ve already seen Columbus bail out the private parties for no good reason other than that they asked for it, it’s hard to rule out anything. The main takeaway here is that the Blue Jackets are publicly seeking $94 million to replace their roof and bling up their locker rooms, which is always a sign that taxpayers should hold onto their wallets.

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Jaguars owner demands “major” stadium renovations, or NFL will shoot this team

Remember just last week when we discussed the $200 million-ish that Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan wants to subsidize a giant development in his stadium’s parking lot? At the time it seemed like a perfect example of the new wave of sports subsidy demands: If you can’t get public cash for a new or renovated stadium, then ask for a sweet deal on some related project, since that’s easier to fudge the numbers on.

Until Monday, that is, when Jaguars president Mark Lamping told the Florida Times-Union that oh yeah, Khan wants a renovated stadium, too, or else:

“If you’re going to be making a long-term extension of a lease, there needs to be certainty that you’re going to have an NFL-quality stadium during the term of that extension,” Lamping said. “That’s obvious, no different than when the Jaguars came to Jacksonville.”

Lamping elaborated on this yesterday:

“If Shad [Khan] were to ask fellow NFL owners and the league to approve a lease extension right now, there are really two questions that are unanswered that need to be answered before you even consider that,” Lamping said.

Lamping said 75% of NFL owners have to vote “yes” to any lease extension. One of those outstanding items, Lamping said, would be asking: “Does the stadium meet the needs of NFL fans and other stakeholders?”

These statements move the goalposts in a bunch of ways at once: They declare that TIAA Bank Field, which was opened in 1994, is no longer “NFL-quality”; that without renovations, the Jaguars won’t sign a long-term lease; and that if they don’t, it’s not because Khan doesn’t want to, heaven forfend, it’s those nasty old NFL owners that won’t let him stay in a substandard stadium. And, of course, that the team could leave town without stadium upgrades — Lamping said he wanted to make sure “that there will be NFL football in Northeast Florida for generations to come,” proving that he’s well-versed in the Army Protection Racket sketch.

How much money Khan is looking for as part of a lease extension isn’t clear. He just got $45 million from the city of Jacksonville for stadium upgrades in 2015, and Lamping said what’s now needed is a “major stadium renovation,” so presumably it would require a lot more money than that. Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry has already responded that he’s willing to talk:

That could be just boilerplate of course we’re willing to sit down and talk, but it’s still a slightly alarming response to the local billionaire doubling down on his under-consideration $200 million subsidy demand by asking for maybe a couple hundred million more, or else he’ll leave town. Sorry, or else the other NFL owners will forcibly remove him and his team, maybe to London? Did Lamping neglect to mention London? Oh well, there’s always next week.

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David Perdue lobbied for tax break to benefit fellow Georgia senator (and WNBA owner) Kelly Loeffler

If the names Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue aren’t immediately familiar to you, they will be soon, as they’re the two Republican U.S. Senators facing runoff elections in Georgia on January 5 that will determine which party controls the Senate. (The Democrats need to take both to reach a 50-50 tie, which would be broken in their favor by vice-president Kamala Harris.) Loeffler is also co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, whose players have called her out for her pro-Trump and anti-Black Lives Matter stances (Loeffler wrote to the WNBA’s commissioner at one point blaming BLM for “the removal of Jesus from churches and the disruption of the nuclear family structure” and promoting “violence and destruction across the country”), even taking the court during pregame warmups wearing shirts endorsing Loeffler’s Senate race opponent.

So while it wasn’t surprising to see Loeffler and Perdue show up together in a ProPublica story on Friday, this one was a bit unexpected:

Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., privately pushed Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to give wealthy sports owners a lucrative tax break last year, according to a previously unreported letter obtained by ProPublica…

The Treasury ultimately declined to adopt the revision Perdue sought. If the regulation had been altered as Perdue wanted, it would have been a boon for some of his largest donors. Perdue has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the owners of professional sports clubs, including now-fellow Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who co-owns Atlanta’s WNBA team, the Dream.

The tax break in question has to do with pass-through entities, which are corporations whose net profits are declared on the tax returns of the individual owners. When the GOP’s 2017 tax law cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20% (among lots of other changes, including double-taxing residents of high-tax states that just happened to be mostly Democratic), it allowed many pass-through business owners to deduct 20% of their business income, effectively lowering their personal income tax rate to the lower corporate one. But not all, and one of the exceptions was owners of pro sports franchises, meaning that Loeffler was set to lose a pile of money as a result of not being included.

Enter Perdue, who as ProPublica writes with eyebrow exquisitely raised, “was not on the committee that crafted the legislation, making his in-the-weeds lobbying on the arcane regulation unusual, congressional experts said.” He did have another reason to be interested in the tax break, though:

A review of his campaign contributions shows that Perdue has taken more than $425,000 from the owners of professional sports teams and their relatives. Some of the top donors include the DeVos family, which owns the Orlando Magic; John Ingram, who owns the Nashville SC soccer team; Los Angeles Kings owner Philip Anschutz; and Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam.

On the same day Perdue sent Mnuchin the letter, he received $3,000 in donations from three lobbyists at GeorgiaLink Public Affairs Group, a lobbying firm that was representing the Atlanta Braves. Because of the Braves’ ownership structure, it’s unlikely the team would have been affected by the regulation, but around that time, MLB was lobbying on the rule, urging the Treasury to give its team owners the tax break.

Perdue also got $108,000 in donations from Loeffler, her husband, and her Dream co-owner Mary Brock.

Perdue’s letter ultimately went nowhere: Mnuchin didn’t direct the IRS to change the tax law to benefit sports team owners, so Loeffler’s tax bill remains undiminished. But it’s nice little moment to remember the next time you wonder how come so many corporate titans can duck paying taxes so easily: When you can ask the senator who sits next to you to write a letter to the IRS requesting you get a tax break, and enclose $108,000 in checks to sweeten the pot, that’s going to get you a lot more consideration than the average taxpayer.

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Today in “Is It Stupid?”: Fans to return to English sporting events

U.K. prime minster Boris Johnson has announced the end of England’s month-long second Covid lockdown, with the country set to switch to a three-tier system that will allow some fans to attend live sporting events for the first time since spring. And while there are many questions about how it all will work — who will get to buy tickets at reduced-capacity events, how much will they cost, can they be discouraged from hugging each other when a goal is scored? — let’s focus today on one question: Is this very very stupid?

The details of the sports fan plan:

  • In “tier 1” areas where virus levels are relatively moderate, outdoor sports venues can allow in a maximum of 4,000 fans or 50% of capacity, whichever is less. Indoor venues will face an attendance limit of 1,000 fans or 50% of capacity, whichever is lower.
  • In “tier 2” areas with high virus levels, the same attendance caps apply, but the outdoor maximum is 2,000 or 50%, whichever is lower.
  • In “tier 3” (very high alert) areas, no fans are allowed at all.

Is this stupid? For many sports venues, not at all: 4,000 fans at Arsenal‘s Emirates Stadium, for example, is under 7% of capacity, and so should leave plenty of room for fans to spread out. (London is actually likely to be a tier 2 zone, so Arsenal would be limited to 2,000 fans at first.) Given both the experience of U.S. stadiums and what we know about the spread of the virus outdoors, that seems relatively safe, especially if everyone is wearing masks (which hasn’t been announced as a requirement yet, but is likely) and is kept from from spending significant time gathering in indoor areas like concessions concourses or restrooms (which also hasn’t been spelled out yet).

For other stadiums, the flat cap looks very different. A.F.C. Bournemouth, for example, plays in the second-tier Championship level in an 11,000-seat stadium; since Bournemouth is in the low-virus south of England, they’re likely to be allowed the full 4,000 fans per game, which is getting close to half capacity. That’s maybe okay in a low-virus area, but does it really make any sense to make it the equivalent of 2,000 fans rattling around Emirates in a higher-virus zone?

Allowing 1,000 fans/50% capacity for indoor sports, meanwhile, seems patently insane: Most of the British Basketball League, for example, plays in arenas with capacities of under 2,000, so they’ll be able to pack in fans in every other seat. That’s not very much distancing, and six-foot distancing is essentially useless indoors anyway, meaning Surrey Scorchers fans will be at a massively higher risk than Arsenal or Chelsea or Tottenham fans — if anything, it seems like it would make much more sense, epidemiologically, to ban fans entirely at indoor sporting events and allow somewhat more at outdoor ones.

But epidemiological sense surely isn’t the guiding factor here; rather, this feels more like an attempt to level the playing field, so that every sports team can bumble through some sort of reopening, at least once every region has worked its way out of Tier 3 status. That’s par for the course for sports leagues right now — just look at college basketball in the U.S., which is determined to restart play (without fans, but with lots of players traveling to and from high-virus areas and then breathing on each other during games indoors) even though college football has barely managed to limp along with partial seasons. But it’s not the kind of guidance one would hope for from a national government, even one with a pretty lousy track record in this area. Verdict: Pretty stupid.

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Nassau County to give Coliseum operator $2m in free rent once concerts resume, because “the future”

When it was announced back in August that former Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov was handing over operations of Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum to one of his lenders, Florida financier Nick Mastroianni, one of the big questions was whether Mastroianni would agree to pay the millions of dollars in back rent that Prokhorov had been racking up since Prokhorov announced that he was shutting the arena down now that the New York Islanders were set to move out to play in their own new state-subsidized arena at Belmont Park. And the answer, Newsday now reveals, is that Nassau County wants to absolve Mastroianni of all rent payments until the Covid pandemic ends, and then another six months after that for good measure:

Nassau County has agreed to let the new leaseholder of Nassau Coliseum off the hook from paying rent until at least the summer in a deal that also guarantees that the Islanders can use the arena if needed during the COVID-19 shutdown.

The lease amendment, which requires approval by the Nassau County Legislature, calls for rent relief that continues until six months after the state lifts all restrictions on arena events…

“This extension coupled with the suspension of rent payments in recognition of the economic impact of the pandemic, will give Nassau and the HUB Team the opportunity to plan for the future, post-COVID, when the entertainment industry restarts,” [Nassau County Executive Laura] Curran said.

The current Coliseum rent is a little over $4 million a year, so the rent break will cost Nassau County maybe $5-6 million if arena events can resume at full capacity next spring or summer — plus an additional $2 million for the six months after that, when Long Islanders can again pack into the Coliseum to see Disney on Ice or whatever. That’s starting to run into some real money, even before you take into account that $6 million that New York state has promised toward arena renovations so that the Islanders can play one more lame-duck season at the Coliseum, before empty seats in all likelihood, if an NHL season even happens this winter.

One of the dilemmas of reporting on business subsidies during a public health crisis is drawing a line between legit economic stimulus and creating corporate windfalls for banks and Kanye West. Providing $8 million or so in rent rebates for an arena during a county budget deficit that could exceed $300 million, in exchange for exactly no promises about whether it will stay open or who will be employed there, does not seem like the best gamble; we’ll see what the Nassau County legislature says about it.

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Staten Island official endorses spending $5m on empty baseball stadium to steal rugby team from Brooklyn

As I reported here a week and a half ago, New York City is set to spend $5.1 million on upgrades ti the Staten Island Yankees‘ home stadium even as the Staten Island Yankees may cease to exist, or at least will certainly no longer be a Yankees affiliate. This weekend the New York Post took notice of this, and got Staten Island borough president James Oddo to say he thinks throwing public money at an increasingly empty stadium is a great idea:

Borough President James Oddo said it’s about time the city steps up to the plate and invests in the ballpark with vistas of the downtown skyline, adding that the Yankees’ decision two weeks ago to drop the “Baby Bombers” as part of Major League Baseball’s minor-league consolidation “needs to serve as a wake-up call.”

“This is a moment of time where we have to extract something more than the status quo,” he told The Post. “You have this great stadium that’s underused, and we have to make it a bigger part of the Island’s community than it’s been.

“It was a major investment in tax dollars to build, yet the stadium is dormant for the overwhelming majority of the year.”

It was indeed a major investment to build — $71 million in city dollars, in part thanks to environmental cleanup costs at the site near the Staten Island Ferry terminal — but what would the value be in throwing another $5.1 million on the fire? According to “officials,” says the Post, “the pro rugby franchise Rugby United New York has expressed interest in playing there once it’s reconfigured.”

If you’re not familiar with Rugby United New York, that makes you and most of the population of New York City. The team has played a season and a half so far, with announced attendance settling in at under 2,000 per game following the franchise’s home opener, playing at the Brooklyn Cyclones‘ home stadium in Coney Island. So the primary announced goal of the city rehabbing the Staten Island stadium, apparently, would be to add artificial turf in order to move a team in an extremely minor sports league from one city borough to another.

This is dumb enough, apparently, to even draw opposition from Fansided’s Staten Island Yankees blogger, who writes that spending money on a stadium after its main tenant has left “makes no sense,” and that the prospect of a rugby team is “kind of bleak” and “a tough sell.” Which is maybe what you’d expect from a minor-league baseball blogger suddenly faced with the prospect of not having a team to write about, but it’s also completely accurate. Unfortunately, the New York City Economic Development Corporation is spending this money out of its own budget, so it isn’t likely we’ll get any city council hearings — which is a shame, as I’d love to hear what Brooklyn elected officials think about this move.

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Friday roundup: Jacksonville council holds screaming match about Jaguars subsidy, Braves to charge county for fixing anything that wouldn’t fall out of stadium if you turned it over, plus Texas cricket wars!

I admit, there are some Fridays where I wake up and realize I have to do a news roundup and it just feels like a chore after a long week, and, reader, this was one of those Fridays. But then I looked in my inbox and there was a new Ruthie Baron “This Week In Scams” post for the first time in months, and now I am re-energized for the day ahead! Also despondent about how the fossil fuel industry is trying to catfish us all into thinking global warming isn’t real, but that’s the complex mix of emotions I have come to rely on “This Week In Scams” for.

And speaking of complex mixes of emotions, let’s get to this week’s remaining sports stadium and arena news:

  • Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry on complaints that Jaguars owner Shad Khan’s $200 million development subsidy deal is being rushed through the city council: “What does that mean, it’s rushed? What does that mean? We are following the process we follow as a city. The administration has put forth legislation that includes the development of Lot J. The City Council will take their time and do their work. And then they’ll ultimately have to press a green button or a red button — a yes or a no.” Now I really want to know if the Jacksonville city council actually votes by pushing a green or red button, and if so what they do if a city councilmember has red-green color blindness, and oh hey, what happened at yesterday’s council hearing? “Finger-pointing, name-calling and what some members say was a big embarrassment for government”? Excellent, keep up the good work.
  • The Atlanta Braves owners have tapped their first $800,000 from their $70 million stadium repair fund, half of which is to be paid for by Cobb County, to pay for … okay, this Marietta Daily Journal article doesn’t say much about what it will pay for, except that one item is a new fence, and there was dispute over whether a fence counted as a repair (which the fund can be used for) or an improvement (which the team is supposed to cover). It also notes: “Mike Plant, president & CEO of Braves Development Company, described capital maintenance costs in 2013 by using the example of taking a building and turning it upside down. The items that would fall out of the building represent general maintenance, which is the responsibility of the Braves, while the items that do not fall out, such as pipes, elevators and concrete, fall under capital maintenance.” This raises all kinds of questions: Would elevators really not fall out of a stadium if you turned it upside down? What if furniture, for example, fell off the floor but landed on an interior ceiling? Would you have to shake the stadium first to see what was loose and just stuck on something? So many questions.
  • The Grand Prairie city council has approved spending $1.5 million to turn the defunct Texas AirHogs baseball stadium into a pro cricket stadium, which the Dallas Morning News reports “could cement North Texas as a top U.S. market for professional cricket.” (If this sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of nearby Allen, Texas, which thought about building a cricket stadium a couple of years ago but then thought better of it.) I went to a pro cricket match in the U.S. once, years ago, and there were maybe 100 people in the stands, and later the league apparently folded when none of the players showed up for a game, but surely this will go much better than that.
  • Angel City F.C. has announced it will be playing games at Banc of California Stadium, which made me look up first what league Angel City F.C. is in (an expansion team in the National Women’s Soccer League) and then what stadium named itself after Banc of California (the Los Angeles F.C. stadium that opened in 2018, I’m pretty sure at no public expense but you never know for sure with these things, and which is not supposed to be called Banc of California Stadium anymore since Banc of California bailed on its naming-rights contract in June) and then why Banc of California insists on spelling “Banc” that way (unclear, but if it was an attempt to put a clean new rebranding on the bank after its creation in a 2013 merger, that maybe didn’t go so well). So now, burdened with this knowledge, I feel obligated to share it — if nothing else, I suppose, it’s a nice little microcosm of life in the early Anthropocene, which may be of interest to future scholars if the cockroaches and microalgae can figure out how to read blogs.
  • The Richmond Times-Dispatch says that even if the Richmond Flying Squirrels get eliminated in baseball’s current round of minor-league defenestration, “Major League Baseball’s risk is our gain” if the city builds a new stadium that … something about “a multiuse strategy”? The editorial seems to come down to “Okay, the team may get vaporized, but we still want a new stadium, so full speed ahead!”, which is refreshing honesty, at least, maybe?
  • When I noted yesterday that the USL hands out new soccer franchises like candy, I neglected to mention that a lot of that candy quickly melts on the dashboard and disappears, so thanks to Tim Sullivan of the Louisville Courier Journal for recounting all the USL franchises that have folded over the years.
  • Six East Coast Hockey League teams are choosing to sit out the current season, and that’s bad news for Reading, home of the Reading Royals, according to Reading Downtown Improvement District chief Chuck Broad, who tells WFMZ-TV, “There is lots of spin-off, economic development, from a hockey game for restaurants and other businesses.” Yeah, probably not, and especially not during a time when hardly anyone would be eating at restaurants anyway because they’re germ-filled death traps, but why not give the local development director a platform to insist otherwise, he seems like a nice guy, right?
  • In related news, the mayor of Henderson, Nevada, says the new Henderson Silver Knights arena she’s helping build with at least $30 million in tax money is “a gamechanger” for downtown Henderson because “it’s nice to have locations where events can happen in our community.” This after she wrote a column for the Las Vegas Sun saying how great it will be for locals to be able to “attend a variety of events that create the vibrancy for which our city is known” — a vibrancy that apparently Henderson was able to pull off despite not having any locations where events can happen, because that’s just the kind of place Henderson is.
  • In also related news, the vice president of sales and marketing at New Beginnings Window and Door says that the Hudson Valley Renegades becoming a New York Yankees farm team could be great for his business (which, again, is selling windows and doors) because “the eyeballs are going to be there” for advertising his windows and doors to people driving up from New York City who might want to pick up some windows and doors to take home with them, okay, I have no idea what he’s talking about, seriously, can’t anybody at any remaining extant newspapers ask a followup question?
  • And in all-too-related news, here’s an entire WTSP article about the new hotel Tampa will have ready for February’s Super Bowl that never even mentions the possibility that nobody will be able to stay in hotels for the Super Bowl because Covid is rampaging across the state. Journalism had a good run.
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Fort Worth councilmember wants to build $150m stadium to steal youth soccer away from dastardly Frisco

Texas voters may be having second thoughts about building $60 million high school football stadiums, but that isn’t stopping everyone in the state from dreaming big about youth sports venues. Take, for example, Fort Worth city councilmember Cary Moon, who is tired of his friends having to drive 50 miles to Frisco to watch their kids play youth soccer, and wants to build them a $150 million soccer stadium to save them the trip:

“As a parent, I see many of my friends travel to Frisco, out of Fort Worth, for soccer tournaments,” said Moon, who has represented District 4 since 2015.

So the council member is spearheading a plan to build a $150 million, 8,000-seat stadium in north Fort Worth. On Monday, he presented his idea to Keller ISD’s school board…

Moon, a KISD parent, said Keller’s fields are outdated and the project would bring a much-needed upgrade to the district’s facilities.

Yes, I’m sure that would be an upgrade, considering that $150 million is more than MLS stadiums like those in Houston, Philadelphia, and Salt Lake City cost to build. It’s almost as much as the 131 million euros ($155 million) that S.C. Freiburg, a top German soccer club, is spending to build a new 34,700-seat stadium.

To be fair, Moon’s proposed project wouldn’t be just a soccer stadium, but also include 16 additional soccer pitches, retail, and for some reason a performing arts theater, because everyone loves to top off a kids’ soccer tournament with a trip to a dance performance or maybe a kiln room. He says it’s modeled on Frisco’s The Star, which is a 12,000-seat indoor stadium for Dallas Cowboys practices, high school football, and failed pro lacrosse and arena football teams. Frisco spent $115 million in 2013 to build The Star, paid for via tax-increment financing (aka kicking back area property taxes to the developer), and apparently ever since then Moon has been fuming that Fort Worth doesn’t have one of those things. (He also cites a 2019 Fort Worth Sports Authority study that claimed $12-16 million a year in added economic activity from a soccer complex, which is a good time for a reminder that economic activity is a garbage stat.)

Reading between the lines of the Dallas Morning News report, Moon faces an uphill battle: He’d need the approval of both the city and the school district, and Keller school district superintendent Rick Westfall told the News via email, “Nothing was approved by Keller ISD on Monday, but we look forward to staying in contact with Councilman Moon and learning more regarding the progress of the project,” which sounds an awful lot like Thank you for your application, we’ll be in touch. Moon also says he would need to find a private developer for the rest of his dream project and, oh yes, a pro soccer team of some kind, which actually could be the easiest part because you can just find soccer franchises at the bottom of Crackerjack boxes these days. At least trying to lure a pro soccer team is a well established dumb reason to build a stadium; if cities are really going to start competing to steal each other’s youth soccer matches, this website is going to need a bigger boat.

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Jerry Jones spews hot air from mouth over everyone about Cowboys stadium being safe for fans

There’ve been a bunch of small news items about plans for allowing fans to return to live sporting events — here’s an article on Britain considering allowing fans back into soccer matches, for example, and here’s one on the Carolina Panthers receiving special permission to host a couple thousand fans more than the legal limit because they asked nicely or something — but then Jerry Jones, as Jerry Jones will do, parachuted into the conversation and made it all about him and the crazy things coming out of his mouth.

The 78-year-old billionaire Dallas Cowboys owner has his own radio show, because of course he does, and yesterday he used it to say a whole lot about allowing more fans in the stands even while putting team coaches in a bubble after a player testing positive:

“I see a continued aggressive approach to having fans out there.”

“Aggressive” is the word for Jones’ approach to attendance this season: After five home games, the Cowboys are averaging just over 25,000 fans per game, by far the highest number in the NFL and about a fifth of the entire league’s attendance so far this season. (Jones called it “almost a third of the attendance in the NFL, the whole NFL in our games” and added, “I’m proud of that.”) Here’s what it looked like last week against the Steelers, with 31,700 fans in attendance:

There appear to be a decent number of empty seats between fan groups (though here it looks like fans were closer together on the field level), but also four of the five fans visible in the shot aren’t wearing their masks, which isn’t great. Especially with record-breaking levels of Covid cases in the state, is that something to be concerned about, Jerry?

“That’s not being insensitive to the fact that we’ve got COVID, an outbreak, some people say, ‘well maybe it is,’” said Jones. “No, not when you’re doing it as safe as we are and not when you’re having the results we’re having. We’ve had literally, literally we’ve had no one report that they’ve had contact and gotten any contact with COVID from coming to our football games; no one.”

According to the NFL, there haven’t been any reported cases of coronavirus transmission via Cowboys games or any games at all, with league spokesperson Brian McCarthy saying this week, “No local case clusters have been reported traced back to NFL games.” That’s tentatively good news, but also fairly inconclusive given that it takes a large number of cases before epidemiologists can spot a virus-spreading event, especially with contact tracers in Texas often not bothering to call people who’ve tested positive. The vast majority of superspreading events so far have been in indoor spaces, but it’s worth noting that one of the outliers is that Milan soccer match in February that infected a staggering 7,000 people. (Jones bragged that “our stadium is particularly suited for airiness, openness, air circulation,” though its roof has been closed three games out of five so far this year. Also, a whole lot of attending football games involves sharing spaces indoors.)

“Don’t let your guard down because tomorrow all of that could change,” Jones said. “And that’s a fact. Don’t let me think for one second we’ve got the key to how to not have this COVID outbreak. We don’t. But the things we’re doing are working here.”

“Working” is more than a bit of an overstatement, but it’s fair to say that Jones has been able to inch up in-person attendance week by week without catastrophe. That’s been pretty much the NFL’s entire approach to playing football amid the pandemic, and it’s a strategy that by design works fine until it suddenly does not. Right now the Cowboys and the league as a whole are playing Russian roulette, while soaring Covid case rates are putting more and more bullets into the chambers; with the season more than halfway over, there’s a chance that they make it through without sparking a major outbreak, but also a chance that some future game becomes Sturgis 2.0. The most important thing, Jerry Jones wants you to know, is to not let your guard down, but also not keep too many fans from sitting near each other at football games, because the price of liberty is eternal vigilance so long as it doesn’t interfere too much with selling tickets.

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Jaguars owner’s $200m-plus subsidy demand would be massive money loser for Jacksonville, says council audit

The Jacksonville city council is meeting this Thursday to discuss Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan’s request for a couple-hundred-million-dollars-ish (more on that in a second) in subsidies and tax breaks for a ginormous development project in his football stadium’s Lot J, including a Live! entertainment district, office and residential buildings, a hotel, and new garages. When Khan proposed the deal last month, the subsidy figures were still kind of squishy; now the Florida Times-Union has crunched them and come up with this list:

  • $50 million in city cash toward building the entertainment district
  • $77.7 million in city “infrastructure improvements” (mostly the new parking structures)
  • a $15.1 million city contingency fund for cost overruns on the infrastructure
  • $12.5 million in cash after the hotel is completed
  • a $65.5 million no-interest loan to Khan’s development team
  • a complete tax exemption on the Live! district, which would be owned by the city and leased to Khans group for a nominal fee of $100 a year

This is hard to come up with a total for, since there are a lot of apples on that list and then two extremely large oranges, or maybe an orange and a quince. The first four items are pretty straightforward: $155.3 million in city cash.

The last two are trickier. The value of the no-interest loan depends on when Khan would have to pay it back and what interest rates on normal loans are right now (pretty darn low, but still nowhere near zero); if I’m calculating right, for a 30-year interest-free loan at a 3% discount rate, this would be worth about $40 million.

As for the Live! area’s property tax break, it would be 75,000 square feet, which is about 1.7 acres. The property tax rate in Jacksonville is about $11 a year per $1,000 in value; Texas Live!, the similar entertainment space next door to the Texas Rangers‘ stadium, cost about $200 million to build, which if we take that as the value for Jacksonville would be $2.2 million a year in savings, or about $30-40 million in present value. But that’s a lot of assumptions, so it could be less.

Regardless, it seems pretty clear that this is north of $200 million worth of city money that Khan is asking for. And what would the city get in return? Jacksonville’s Office of Economic Development estimated the city would get $1.69 back for each $1 it spent, which sounds good; City Council Auditor Kim Taylor estimated a return of 44 cents in revenue for each $1 spent, which sounds awful. The difference: The OED didn’t count either the $50 million in city cash payments or $92.8 million in garage costs (because reasons), and did count as a benefit the $50 million in private money that Khan’s group would be spending on the Live! project (which Taylor excluded as double-counting, since she already included the tax revenue that Live! would generate — and the city owning $50 million in private development but not getting any direct revenue from it isn’t really a net benefit).

Clearly somebody needs to sit down with a spreadsheet and figure out whose numbers are correct, and Councilmember Matt Carlucci is hoping to make that somebody the Downtown Investment Authority, which normally vets projects like this but would be excluded in the legislation being discussed. (“They were waived out and I’m trying to waive them back in,” Carlucci told the Times-Union.) Absent that, I would go with the above numbers to say that Jacksonville would be spending more than $200 million on a private development project by a billionaire NFL owner and getting back less than half that in new taxes — and that’s only if you assume that all Jacksonville Live! spending would be new, and not include some locals who otherwise would spend money elsewhere in the city.

We’ll have to check back in on Thursday to see how this goes. In the meantime, let’s enjoy some vaportecture of Jacksonville Live!:

There’s nothing too hilarious here, though I do appreciate how many people are just standing around impatiently or staring at their phones, which is indeed my experience of entertainment malls. Also, Tavern & Beer Hall features some unfortunate typography/lettering placement that makes it appear to be a Tavern & Beer Fiatt. And it’s sponsored by Professional Bull Riders for some reason? I guess it makes sense: When you think giant construction projects in football stadium parking lots funded with hundreds of millions of dollars in tax money because the city says it will pay off by resorting to dubious bookkeeping, you think professional bull.

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