Friday roundup: Pistons disguise empty seats as other-colored empty seats, Olympics tourism is bad and likely to get worse, Suns have no clue about arena plans, and more!

Off we go! In my case, literally: I’ll be traveling all next week, so if you don’t hear much from me around here, hold tight and I’ll catch up with all the news on my return. In the meantime, keep yourself warm at night with this week’s worth of fresh items:

  • Pyeongchang’s surge in tourism for the Olympics is unlikely to be sustained in future years, according to a study that shows tourism levels quickly drop back to normal, when they even have an Olympic uptick in the first place. (Overseas visitors to London were actually down in the summer of 2012.) Given that you can still walk up and buy tickets to most of this year’s Olympic events, I wouldn’t count on it being an exception to the rule. Hope the locals enjoy all those new hotels!
  • Phoenix Rising F.C. is designing a new MLS-ready stadium on the site of its current temporary stadium on the Salt River Pima reservation, and claims it will pay the whole $250 million cost. That would sure be nice, but then that’s what we were told in Sacramento, too.
  • The Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity is sponsoring bills in state legislatures that establishing bans on spending public money on pro sports stadiums, which would kick in as soon as 25 states agreed to join the compact. Better they spend on that than on trying to buy Congress, certainly, but as sports economist John Vrooman noted to the Arizona Republic, this wouldn’t stop the other 25 states from continuing to spend to try to lure teams, at which point the whole system would break down. Vrooman said really any legislation needs to happen on the federal level, and “unfortunately for local taxpayers held hostage, that ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.” You gotta believe, John!
  • The projected cost to restore Miami Marine Stadium — remember Miami Marine Stadium? — has risen from $45 million to $59.6 million, and Miami has only $50.4 million set aside to pay for it, and yeah, that’s not good.
  • If you were wanting a long, fawning profile of the Golden State Warriors COO in charge of building their new arena, the Associated Press is here to serve. I’m more interested in the accompanying photo of a giant model of the arena, which makes the upper deck seats look kinda crappy thanks to an intervening clot of suites and club seats, but other images that show the end seats make it look not so bad, so I’ll withhold judgment until somebody (maybe even me!) sees the new place with their own eyes.
  • Hey, Phoenix Suns president Jason Rowley, how are your arena plans going? “‘What’s the best solution?’ It hasn’t been figured out yet.” Are you thinking of going in on an arena with the Arizona Coyotes? “There really hasn’t been a whole lot of conversation between us and the Coyotes.” Any hints at all about what your plans might be? “There are so many pieces to an arena conversation that it’s very difficult to identify one thing that would either be a go-forward situation or one thing that would impact where you’re ultimately going to end up.” The Suns have an opt-out in their current arena lease in 2022, so expect more heated rhetoric once we get closer to that date.
  • The Detroit Pistons are putting black seat covers over the red seats at their new arena during their home games, to make it less obvious how many empty seats there are. The covers are removed for Red Wings games, because the Red Wings’ team color is red, so I guess for them it’s not embarrassing, it’s promotion of their brand? The Pistons are also letting fans move down from the upper deck to the lower at no cost to make the empty seats look less bad on television. Hope Detroit is enjoying all that economic development!
  • At least Detroit got lots of local construction jobs from the arena, and that’s one thing no one can take away! Unless you believe the claims of a local construction worker’s lawsuit against one arena contractor, which says he was only hired to meet the project’s 51% local hiring quota and then immediately fired, while at the same time suburban workers were brought in under fake addresses. And even then, city data shows that only 27% of total workers on the arena project lived in Detroit.
  • MLB commissioner Rob Manfred says he approves of the Tampa Bay Rays‘ preferred Ybor City site for a new stadium — it’s literally his job to say this, so no surprise there — and has told Tampa business leaders that they need to be “engaged in this effort” because “it’s good for community over the long haul.” He then added, “It’s crucial that we get a facility here that allows the Rays to get more toward the middle of the industry in terms of their revenues,” which pretty much sounds like, Hey, local corporate titans, one of your brethren isn’t making as much profit as he’d like, please give him a bunch of your money so his bank balance looks better, okay? More power to him if that sales pitch works, I guess, but I’m in no way confident it will take a significant bite out of that $400 million-plus funding hole, and remain concerned it’s mostly misdirection so that whenever the Rays eventually go to taxpayers hat in hand, they can say, Look, the business community is already chipping in, you gotta do your part too, capisce?

Astrodome to get $105m renovation in less colossal waste of funds than prior proposals

Oh, yesssss, Harris County has approved spending $105 million to renovate the Astrodome into something called an “event center”! Is that sarcasm? I don’t even know anymore!

To recap: The Astros and the Oilers departed the Eighth Wonder of the World a couple of decades back, leaving it empty. Subsequent plans to spend $1.35 billion to turn it into a convention and science center, to spend $400 million to build a sports arena inside it, and to spend $217 million into a convention and event center all failed over the years. So if nothing else, $105 million seems like a more reasonable price tag, though some of that may just be due to anchoring.

In exchange for its money, the county will reportedly get the floor of the dome raised up two floors — no, I don’t know how high a “floor” is in dome measurements — which will allow for more parking underneath and reduce seating capacity, presumably. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the Houston International Boat, Sport and Travel Show are both excited, though if they’re that excited, they could have offered enough in increased rental fees to pay off the $105 million cost, instead of counting on property taxes, hotel taxes, and parking revenues to cover the bill.

So I guess if you want a take from me, it’s that while I’m always happy to see old buildings repurposed rather than just demolished, and also happy to see ten-digit price tags come down to nine digits, this still doesn’t seem like exactly a super use of public funds. Too bad they can’t have it serve as a rugby stadium, too — then we’d be talking!

South Korea’s Olympics may be the money pit to end all Olympic money pits

The Winter Olympics are underway, which for me means sitting through lots of ice dancing and people falling down mountains on various contraptions, while hoping to catch some curling. And, of course, wondering how much all this is costing. CNBC’s Squawk Box has the answer, via our old frenemy Andrew Zimbalist, and it ain’t pretty:

Speaking to CNBC on “Squawkbox,” he said: “At the end of the day, they’ve spent $13 billion and they’ll get back about $2.5 billion. The only way you can justify that kind of a terrible balance is if, in the long run, it’s going to promote tourism, promote trade and promote foreign investments.”

“There’s no evidence from other Olympics that that happens,” he added.

He’s not wrong: Multi-billion-dollar losses are de rigueur in the Olympic world, and by all accounts the only Olympic host to see a significant rise in tourism after the Games was Barcelona, which may now be having some second thoughts about that strategy. Still, a negative-80% return on investment is pretty impressive no matter how you slice it, so how exactly is South Korea managing this?

A $109 million Olympic stadium that will be torn down after only four uses is a decent start. Selling only 60% of the available tickets (according to Zimbalist) also helps, though Olympic officials claim that number is now down to 16%. I don’t have numbers for much of that $13 billion expense is cost overruns, but it’s typically a whole hell of a lot. A $3.7 billion bullet train to connect Seoul to Pyeongchang? Now we’re talking!

With the most impressive Olympic construction being its massive sea of red ink, cities like Oslo and Boston have to be breathing sighs of relief that they bailed out of their Olympic bids, while potential 2026 bidders — I’m looking at you, Sion, Erzurum, Innsbruck, Calgary, Stockholm, Sapporo, Denver, and Almaty — may want to start having second thoughts. I’m not honestly sure whether the best solution here would be to rotate the Olympics permanently among a few cities with permanent venues (but what city would really want to have to keep a velodrome sitting around that’s only going to be used for three weeks every 16 years?) or scaling back the Olympics to where they only involve sports that can be played in multipurpose venues (curling and ice dancing, you’re all good!) or what, but something’s gotta give eventually if we don’t want our planet’s most renowned sporting event to be all about setting fire to a giant pile of money every two years. Though come to think of it, that wouldn’t require a specialized venue or even a bullet train, so bring on the Money Bonfire as an Olympic event!

FC Cincinnati proposes tearing down stadium to build stadium, building stadium to replace stadium that was torn down

The owners of F.C. Cincinnati have finally revealed their plans for a new stadium in the city’s West End — well, a plan, since if this doesn’t work they can still presumably pursue one in Oakley or in Newport, Kentucky — and if you enjoyed the now-rejected Detroit plans for an MLS stadium that involved tearing down a half-built jail and building a new jail elsewhere, you’ll love the Rube Goldbergness of this one, which goes a little something like this:

  • F.C. Cincinnati would tear down Taft High School’s Stargel Stadium, a 3,000-seat stadium that is named for a revered local community activist, and which was only opened 13 years ago.
  • The team would buy land across the street that’s currently planned to hold a community of model homes, and replace Stargel with a new stadium there of the same name.
  • The team would replace the housing with new units on scattered sites it has the option to buy from the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority. (The team owners paid $100 for the option, but it’s not clear how much they would pay for the actual land.)

The West End is Cincinnati’s traditional African-American neighborhood, and lots of locals are already not thrilled about being used as part of a game of three-card stadium monte, especially given that the neighborhood was largely obliterated once already by urban renewal in the 1950s. There are also questions about how much public money the team would want — they’ve promised to build the replacement high school stadium with private funds, but there are a lot of moving parts here that could involve subsidies — and which parcels will pay property tax.

So, lots still to be determined, and that’s not even counting the fact that there’s still about a $25 million funding gap in F.C. Cincinnati’s initial stadium proposal. Now that the Detroit expansion group has backed down and proposed playing at the Lions‘ stadium instead, and Indy Eleven is playing at the Colts‘ stadium and NYC F.C. and Atlanta United are both playing in NFL (or MLB) facilities, you really have to wonder why the Bengals‘ stadium isn’t being considered as an option — not being considered by anyone but the Hamilton County Commission, that is. I know the trend now is for every sport to have its own stadium, but it’s kind of wasteful and ridiculous, especially when all of Europe is probably pointing and laughing at the U.S. at this point.

People are now designing sports venues based entirely on abstract geometric shapes, this is truly the future

Okay, the Tampa Bay Rays may have just won vaportecture for all time, as team owner Stuart Sternberg declared Saturday that he wants his new stadium to look like this:

Or not look exactly like Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi’s 1923 sculpture Bird in Space — it would make for some really short foul lines — but at least use that as “our guiding design” towards a building that will be a “minimalist, iconic, porous facility.” (“Porous” here appears to be a hip architectural term that means “relating to its surroundings,” as coined by Richard Goodwin in his memorably named Porosity: the Architecture of Invagination.)

“We’re going to continue to push the designers really hard,” Sternberg said the day after announcing the Ybor project was the team’s choice for a new home. “If the stadium is done correctly, it’s going to be iconic yet you won’t even know it’s there.”

It’s an invisible stadium, you guys! Or maybe one that’s just so in tune with its surroundings that it disappears into them, like a Mayan pyramid or this guy.

All this, of course, is roughly 50% bluster and 50% misdirection, since the whole point of Sternberg’s current push, what with announcing a stadium site and all with no idea how to pay for it, is to get people all excited about this and hope the sense of momentum gets them to view a multi-hundred-million-dollar funding gap as an obstacle to be overcome, rather than a reason maybe not to do this at all. The Tampa Bay Times editorial board is already down with this, writing on Friday that “significant progress has to be made by the end of the year” because “it will take regional support to ensure baseball remains in Tampa Bay” and this “could be the last, best option.” (To be fair, they also said Sternberg will have to kick in more than the $150 million he’s promised, but still, this is how-do-we-get-it-done-ism in a nutshell.)

In fact, I would dismiss Sternberg’s Brancusi references to just the ravings of a rich dude hoping to sweet-talk the public out of their tax dollars if not for the fact that Madison Square Garden has announced it’s building an 18,000-seat arena in Las Vegas that will be shaped like a sphere, and called, naturally, the MSG Sphere:

This will be for concerts only, no sports, and will cost nobody knows how much, and will feature “high-speed internet at every seat” and “beamforming” technology so that people in adjacent seats can hear different things and 36 miles of LEDs on its exterior that will enable projection of anything they want, including the event taking place inside or even:

A different camera system set up around the city will be able to virtually cloak the dome with real-time images and video of its surroundings, making it seemingly disappear.

An invisible arena. Maybe that way Las Vegas can pretend it doesn’t already have 43 other arenas. Vegas is headed for the Arena Event Horizon any day now.

Friday roundup: Tons of news, but you’ll forget it all once you see that Houston is spending public money on a pro rugby stadium

And in other news that doesn’t involve proposed Tampa Bay Rays stadium sites:

  • United Airlines is spending $69 million on naming rights to the Los Angeles Coliseum in advance of the 2028 Olympics, but IOC rules prohibit corporate names during the Olympics, oops. Hope you enjoy the most expensive college-football naming rights deal in history, United!
  • Hotel revenue fell 16% in San Diego last year after the Chargers left town, but went up 0.2% in St. Louis after the Rams left. I’m not honestly sure what if anything this means — you’d really have to look at hotel revenue on football weekends to do this right, and it doesn’t look like this study did — but feel free to speculate wildly.
  • Did I mention the Yahoo Finance article yet that compares the Amazon HQ2 chase to the competition to host the Super Bowl, and cites me saying that while Amazon will bring more jobs, “that said, there’s almost no way it’s worth the kind of money that cities are talking about”? Well, now I have, enjoy!
  • AL.com has recalculated the public costs of a proposed University of Alabama-Birmingham football stadium and come up with a total of $18.2 million a year — $10.7 million from a bunch of county taxes, $3.5 million from a new car rental tax surcharge, $1 million from other county funds, and $3 million from city funds — not the $15.7 million I had previously reported. UAB and a naming rights sponsor and other private contributors, meanwhile, would only put in $4 million a year, and only for the first ten years. Out of his goddamn mind, I tell you.
  • Norman Oder of Atlantic Yards Report filed a Freedom of Information Law request to see the competing bids for the Belmont Park site that eventually got awarded to the New York Islanders, and was shot down on the grounds that it would “impair present or imminent contract awards.” Wait, wasn’t the contract already awarded? Will it be okay to ask again once it’s too late to do anything about it?
  • The WNBA’s Chicago Sky are moving to the new DePaul basketball arena that the city of Chicago helped pay for, which I guess is marginally good for Chicago in that it gets to steal a tiny sliver of economic activity from Rosemont, screw those guys, right? (Actually, Rosemont is apparently a gated community, so maybe screw those guys.)
  • A New Orleans Pelicans game was delayed because the arena roof leaked. No one is demanding that a new arena be built just yet that I’ve heard, but given that the current one is 19 whole years old, it’s gotta to be a matter of time, even if this one does have a fire fountain.
  • The Pittsburgh Pirates are threatening to sue the city-county sports authority over who’ll pay how much for $10 million in improvements to their stadium, because apparently the people who write these stadium leases are idiots.
  • If you enjoy this site but were thinking, “Wouldn’t this be better as a YouTube video with lots of animated charts?”, Vox has got you covered.
  • The Houston city council has approved spending $3.2 million in tax dollars on a pro rugby stadium for the Houston SaberCats, who are a pro rugby team that is going to play in a pro rugby league, which councilmember Jack Christie calls “a beautiful example of public-private partnerships that we ought to look at in the future, because as far as I have heard, there’s not been one city tax dollar used for this development.” I’m done. Have a good weekend.

Sternberg picks Rays stadium site, will pay for it mumble mumble, look, shiny!

That day we’ve all been waiting for has finally arrived: When Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg and local officials will announce where they intend to build a new half-billion-dollar-plus stadium, but not how on earth to pay for it:

The team told St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman it plans to put all site selection efforts into the Ybor City location first identified last October, Kriseman said during a City Council meeting Thursday…

The team will formally announce its stadium site preference at a press conference scheduled for the Tampa Baseball Museum in Ybor City, Friday at 1:30 p.m., Kriseman said.

Here’s a photo of the site, courtesy of Tampa Bay Business Journal:

And here’s a mockup of how a stadium would fit there, courtesy of WFTS-TV:

That’s certainly workable, if a bit compact. But then, compact sites have led to some good stadium designs, like the San Francisco Giants‘ AT&T Park, and — gaaaaaah, no, wait, we’re just playing into their hands! This is right out of the standard stadium playbook: Make a big deal of announcing a site, get everyone debating whether it’s the right site and what it would mean for fans  — no more driving across the bay bridge if you live in Tampa! more driving across the bay bridge if you live in St. Petersburg! — and hope no one notices that you still have at minimum a $400 million funding gap, or at least that you can shift the debate from “should we build a stadium?” to “we’ve picked where the stadium will go, now we just have to see who draws the short straw to pay for it.”

The only discussion on that front yesterday came from Hillsborough County commissioner Ken Hagan vowing that some local business leaders will lead a push for more corporate sponsorships, which, spoilers, ain’t gonna raise no $400 million. Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn immediately called Hagan’s announcement “bush league” (for announcing it before Sternberg got to, I think?) and that he intends to focus on “whether this deal makes sense,” which the Fox 13 News headline writer turned into “Buckhorn vows to make ‘best deal’ for Rays, taxpayers,” though that quote isn’t actually in the article.

In any case, feel free to debate the pros and cons of the Ybor City site, but try not to get distracted from the real issue here: Stuart Sternberg wants a new stadium, and wants somebody to pay for it who isn’t him. Because forgetting about that while staring at a shiny stadium site is exactly what he wants you to do.

Virginia votes down bills to block stadium subsidies, because won’t anyone think of the business decisions?!?

Hope you weren’t excited by the prospect of an interstate pact not to engage in a public bidding war for the Washington NFL team, because that’s not happening now:

A House of Delegates panel quickly shot down two bills Wednesday that would have barred state subsidies for a new Washington Redskins stadium in Virginia and blocked localities from spending public money on professional sports facilities.

A House budget subcommittee voted 7-0 to lay the bills on the table, effectively killing them for the year…

The subcommittee voted down the bill with no discussion.

This is par for the course, and the main reason why most experts predict the Economic War Among the States won’t be ended by mutual ceasefire: It’s way too tempting for one side or the other to try to cheat and lure all the businesses to their side of the state line. Federal legislation is the best way to stop bidding wars for sports franchises and businesses of all kinds — and there’s no benefit to the U.S. as a whole when one municipality steals a business from another, obviously — but that didn’t get far when it was proposed, either.

Meanwhile, the Virginia house of delegates also shot down another bill by the same delegate, Republican Michael Webert, that would have barred all stadium subsidies starting in 2019, on the grounds that, as Republican delegate Riley Ingram put it, “It’s a business decision. And this would bar localities from making that decision.” I guess that’s the subsidy equivalent of “They knew the risks when they chose to play football”?

Cobb County is closing libraries so it can keep paying its Braves stadium debt service

Cobb County, Georgia, is proposing to close or consolidate eight public libraries to save money in the midst of a budget crunch, and Deadspin has blamed this on the county spending $369 million on a new Atlanta Braves stadium. Is this a fair accusation? Let’s turn to our old friend math!

  • Property tax levies are up, but the county still faces a $30-55 million budget deficit.
  • Cobb County is spending at least $8.6 million a year out of its general fund on stadium construction and operations costs.
  • The county could try to raise more money by, say, increasing hotel and car rental taxes, except it already did that for the Braves stadium, and is likely approaching blood from a stone territory.

Verdict: The stadium isn’t the only reason Cobb County residents are going to have a harder time finding books to read — as Deadspin notes, former county commission chair Tim Lee also cut taxes (I think he cut millage rates, so while property tax valuations are up, actual revenues are down, but I have a cold and don’t have the patience for the googling it would take to piece this together from media reports, so feel free to correct me in the comments if I got this wrong) — but it sure ain’t helping.

I’ll sometimes get criticism for being skeptical of all plans that involve spending a whole lot of public money on stadiums and coming out ahead because “economic impact,” but there’s a reason for that: When you start in a several hundred million dollar hole, it’s damn near impossible to climb out of that thanks to whatever money trickles in from new spending. Sure, in a best-case scenario you steal some consumer spending from neighboring jurisdictions, and the “multiplier effect” of money recirculating in the local economy isn’t mythical, just overblown. (Especially when most of the money never enters the local economy because it goes to athletes and owners who live and spend out of town.) But you’re counting on pennies to pay off dollars, and that’s never a good business plan — whether it’s for stadiums or for movie shoots.

Anyway, Cobb County is hosed, but we knew that already. Just set this one aside for the next time anyone says, “It’s not like this stadium money would be going to fund schools or libraries otherwise!”, because sometimes — oftentimes — that’s exactly what it means.

Hillsborough officials holding secret meetings with secret consultants to keep secret on where $400m in Rays stadium funding will come from

A correspondent accidentally referred to me yesterday in email as “Noah,” then immediately apologized; I said no apology was necessary, because I assumed (correctly) that he’d momentarily confused me with WTSP reporter and Shadow of the Stadium blogger Noah Pransky, which I took as a compliment.

And you want to see why, oh man has Pransky been on fire lately in his reporting on the Tampa Bay Rays stadium mess. The short version: Hillsborough County elected officials have been holding stadium meetings so secret that they have been hiding them from their official calendars, while the county has hired outside consultants who appear to be hiding public documents from the public, and even from the members of the county commission.

Here’s a sample, via Pransky:

10Investigates repeatedly requested public records related to stadium discussions from County Commissioner Ken Hagan, and after multiple responses indicating none existed, a county attorney produced a series of text messages and emails between Hagan and Raij from the commissioner’s personal phone and email accounts.

Those messages reveal a pattern of private meetings and behind-the-scenes negotiations on a project that could include hundreds of millions of dollars in public subsidies. One text, sent from Raij to Hagan on Nov. 14, references a “marked up Rays document,” which has not been turned over.

Other texts between Raij and Hagan coordinate negotiations with local landowners, as well as the county’s response to media questions about the prospective new Tampa stadium – a surprise to several Hillsborough County commissioners interviewed by 10Investigates…

Florida’s public records laws require most records Hagan creates to be turned over when requested by any member of the public, including documents Hagan created and later gives to either the Foley or O’Melveny firms. But no such records have been produced yet in response to 10Investigates’ requests and a pair of county staffers have confirmed the existence of such documents.

Hagan has a long history of refusing to turn over public records to 10Investigates.

Transparency is important here, because the proposed Rays stadium is currently facing a funding gap in the hundreds of millions of dollars: Previous estimates for a retractable-roofed stadium say it would cost about $800 million, and while Pransky’s sources say a fixed-roof stadium could be built for $500-600 million — which, the team already has a fixed-roof stadium, just saying — team owner Stuart Sternberg only wants to kick in $150 million of his own money. So where will the additional $400 million or so come from?

“I would never put the taxpayer on the hook for that entire difference … that doesn’t work at all,” said Commissioner Pat Kemp. “What’s going to have to be seen is … to the extent (the Rays and county) can privately leverage (financing).”

Ah, yes, leveraging. That’s … not actually a way of making money grow on trees, you know that, right, Commissioner Kemp? A private investor is going to want a return on their money, which means getting either rent from the team of some cut of stadium revenues, and if Sternberg wanted to give up that he could just go to a bank and finance it himself, which is what he said he doesn’t want to do.

Of course, “what Stu Sternberg wants” shouldn’t be the guiding principle for Tampa area government, so maybe this is a sign that local officials are trying to find a way to kick back some of the costs for a Rays stadium onto the Rays owner, while using nice words like “leverage” to pretend that that’s not what they’re doing. Or, maybe this is a way to foist costs onto the public while pretending you’re not. Or to just kick the can down the road by pretending a $400 million funding gap isn’t a big deal. Your guess is as good as mine — sure would be nice if there were some public documents to let us know what Hillsborough County officials were discussing here, huh?