Friday roundup: Ohio could cut stadium funds, A’s could delay stadium plans, sports could return, world could end, anything’s possible

A little distracted this morning with a new work project and the usual pandemic stuff and the not-so-usual riots on TV, but there’s a passel of stadium and arena news I didn’t get to, so let’s get to ’em:

Phoenix Suns unveil frenzy of public health theater to pretend they can keep fans safe from viruses

Suns incorporating changes to arena renovations with COVID-19 in mind,” that sounds like a promising headline! Perhaps we will learn more about what our post-pandemic sports future could be like — personal plexiglass booths around each seat? — and how the Phoenix Suns owners are spending that $168 million in taxpayer money the city council gifted them last year. What’s the deets, Arizona Sports 98.7 FM?

“What we’re looking at is technology and how we can utilize technology to improve that sanitation level,” Suns president and CEO Jason Rowley said Tuesday. “Make people more comfortable with maybe going cashless … making sure your escalators have UV lighting that kills viruses and bacteria and all those things … hiring outside professionals who can come in and do audits of the building to make sure that any high touchpoints (can be safer).”

I don’t think Rowley actually means “going cashless,” since things like debit-card touchpads are stews of microbes. Presumably he means going contactless, which lots of people seem to be doing already for their purchases, but I guess if this encourages the Suns to install lots of Venmo routers or whatnot, that’s probably a smart move regardless.

As for UV lighting on escalators, that’s not a terrible idea either, though the Centers for Disease Control continue to note that you’re way more at risk from other people than from surfaces they touched, so riding an escalator alongside thousands of other fans is way more of a concern than touching the same escalator railing as them. But if UV lights make fans feel safer, then bring on the public health theater!

So, what else we got?

That even goes as far as putting down antimicrobial paint, which makes it more difficult for things to stick and bacteria to linger.

Apparently antimicrobial paint can be very effective against bacteria, which is somewhat less helpful in our current situation given that viruses aren’t bacteria. (Both are considered “microbes,” which literally just means “really small living things,” even though viruses aren’t really living things. Maybe.) Some companies are experimenting with antiviral paints, it looks like, but it looks to be too soon whether you can stop Covid with a paint sprayer. And, of course, there’s still that pesky problem of fans not wanting to have their mouths painted shut.

So, no, it looks like this was just an article about a bored sports reporter getting an interview with the local team exec, and the exec mumbled some stuff about miracle paint, and hey look, there’s something to file today to keep your editor happy! (Ha ha ha, like anyone still has editors.) It does seem like an indication that team execs are moving swiftly ahead into the public health theater phase of things, where they’re going to have to convince fans that they’re using high tech to keep them safe from germs just like they convinced fans they were using high tech to keep them safe from terrorists, either because they’re afraid of fans staying home otherwise or because they want to cover their butts in case of lawsuits should something bad happen. This really should be considered part of the team’s marketing budget rather than its construction budget, but it’s harder to charge marketing costs to the city council, so UV-lighted escalators it is!

Trump threatens to move convention out of Charlotte if demands not met, like former sports owner he is

A former sports team owner threatened yesterday to move a planned event out of town if his arena demands weren’t met, and the only surprise, really, is that the culprit was the president of the United States:

Let’s for the moment ignore the bit where the nation’s leader is demanding to pack 20,000 people into an indoor arena during a pandemic where the one thing we know is that packing people into indoor spaces is the worst possible thing you can do. (And the bit about “building the Arena to a very high standard,” since in fact it was Charlotte taxpayers who just spent $27.5 million on upgrading the Hornets‘ arena.) Instead, I’d like to focus on Trump’s claim that if he isn’t allowed to fill the Charlotte arena to capacity, he will take his “jobs and economic development” and go elsewhere. How many jobs do political conventions create, anyway?

The usual lazy way (or self-interested way, if you’re in the business of staging conventions) of calculating convention economic impact is to add up all the visitors to a city and multiply it by how much you think they spend, which results in numbers as high as $230 million. The better way would be to look at all the cities that have hosted conventions and see if there was any discernable change in job growth or personal income as a result — and sports economists Robert Baade, Robert Baumann, and Victor Matheson did just that in 2008, finding that “the presence of the Republican or Democratic National Convention has no discernable impact on employment, personal income, or personal income per capita in the cities where the events were held confirming the results of other ex post analyses of mega-events.”

In other words, political conventions are much like the Super Bowl: They bring a ton of people into town, but they also drive away other potential visitors who steer clear of the convention week crowds (and convention week hotel prices), as well as local residents who may stay at home if they think restaurants and such will be too crowded. As Baade, Baumann, and Matheson noted, “During the week of the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, for example, attendance at Broadway shows fell more than 20 percent compared with the same week a year earlier despite the presence of tens of thousands of visiting conventioneers and journalists.”

(Matheson and Baade also previously crunched the numbers for the NCAA tournament, another brief “mega-event” similar to political conventions, and found that the men’s tournament appeared to have a small negative impact on host cities’ economies, which is impressively bad.)

Reached via email, Matheson further observes that political conventions don’t even provide the “feel-good” effects of a major sporting event, where residents at least report an increase in warm fuzzies from having been in proximity to greatness. (The 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, he notes, seem to have been an exception.) Political conventions, by contrast, are generally remembered in story and song for less cheery reasons.

Now, there’s an obvious caveat here, which is that a pandemic economy is not a normal economy; hotel stays in North Carolina are way down what with much of America not leaving the house, so there may not be many tourists to drive away with a convention (though that’s already starting to change as the state slowly reopens). Matheson writes:

No one is going to fill those rooms up if the convention were to not take place. Hotel occupancy across the country has essentially fallen to zero, so the crowding out effect of mega events has disappeared during COVID-19, leading to real economic damage done by the cancellation of sporting (and political) events.
This also gives Trump’s threat slightly more teeth. In normal times, Trump’s threat to move the convention would be just another inane bit of bluster from a guy who likes to make threats he has no ability to carry out. There would be no city in the country with available hotel rooms and convention space that you could move the event to with this little notice. Nowadays, however, there are probably 30 different cities that actually have availability to host an event like this with last minute notice.

A chunk of the convention spending that advocates like to crow about, however, is from going out on the town during the event: Another paper by Matheson (with co-authors Lauren Heller and Frank Stephenson) found that convention-goers would have to spend seven times as much on food and entertainment as on hotel rooms to justify the most common economic impact claims. Restaurants, though, remain limited to 50% capacity in North Carolina, and if my experience getting takeout food in Brooklyn last night is any guide, there’s plenty of demand for restaurant food from bored, hungry locals right now, so it’s extremely likely that at least some Charlotte residents would choose to stay home rather than line up to sit six feet from Republican convention visitors from who knows where, with their icky who-knows-where germs.

Gov. Cooper hasn’t yet responded to Trump’s demands beyond a brief press statement saying North Carolina will make its decisions based on “data and science,” which certainly could be read as “Yeah, yeah, the president is tweeting at us, give him 24 hours and he’ll be off tweeting at clouds instead.” But don’t sell Donald Trump short: In his time as New Jersey Generals owner, he surely learned something about ways to leverage his power to get concessions from his foes. Or, you know, not.

Friday roundup: Sacramento faces cuts to pay arena debt, Henderson approves arena debt, music festival to be held in phantom Yankee Stadium parking lot

Sorry, getting a late start today, let’s get straight to the news without delay:

Billionaire Oakland A’s owner wants a coronavirus rent holiday, but only for him

Times are undoubtedly tough for pro sports team owners, who are looking collectively at billions of dollars in lost revenue thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, though the exact amount will depend on whether they can still play enough games to collect on TV contracts, how much they’ll save on reduced player salaries, and a bunch of other as-yet-indeterminable factors. It helps that the big four North American sports leagues normally bring in almost $40 billion a year in revenue and earn around $6 billion a year in profits (the latter estimated from eyeballing Forbes’ operating income figures, so don’t take that number as gospel), but still the current crisis has team owners looking for ways to pinch pennies, whether it’s telling players they won’t be allowed to play games unless they take huge pay cuts or laying off stadium workers even after they promised they wouldn’t.

Or, if you’re Oakland A’s owner and billionaire Gap heir John Fisher, you decide to simply stop paying rent because their stadium is being considered for use as an emergency medical treatment site while baseball is shut down:

In a March 31 letter, A’s general counsel D’Lonra Ellis cited the stadium authority being “unable to make the Coliseum available for our use” in light of shelter-in-place orders and restrictions on large gatherings enacted by Alameda County and the state.

The A’s had also learned the Coliseum complex was being evaluated as a potential “surge site” for treating COVID-19 patients, the letter stated, and would defer the payment “until we have a better understanding of when the Coliseum will be available for our use.”

Coliseum Authority head Henry Gardner was a little unclear on what justification A’s officials used for withholding this year’s $1.2 million rent payment, telling the Bay Area News Group that “they said because they haven’t used it, they were not able to generate revenue and they have no ability to pay,” then turning around and telling the San Francisco Chronicle that “the A’s never said they didn’t have the money.” There are also mixed reports on whether the ballclub is seeking to defer its rent payment or skip it altogether; BANG has apparently seen the letter, but has chosen not to share it with readers.

Now, there are legitimate arguments for a rent holiday during the pandemic: Some state lawmakers have proposed suspending all rent and mortgage payments for the time being so people don’t lose their homes and businesses for inability to pay, and some nations like Portugal are allowing low-income renters and small business owners to defer rent payments until after the economy has recovered. None of this, needless to say, is what Fisher has in mind, especially since his family investment holdings are thought to include tons of valuable Bay Area real estate — he just wants to be able to skip his own personal stadium rent payment, presumably while all of his tenants go on sending him checks. (It’s worth noting that The Gap has also stopped paying rent on its closed stores, saving an estimated $115 million in April alone.)

Fisher could still be forced to pay up — Coliseum authority member Ignacio De La Fuente responded to the A’s owner’s move by calling his justification “bull” and saying he was “full of it” — but it’s yet another stark reminder of how certain people have the power to simply stop paying rent, while others face eviction proceedings. If you’re Portugal, you try to draw this line based on ability to pay; if you’re the U.S., apparently, you draw it based on the ability to pay high-priced lawyers.


Seattle’s convention center seeks a $300m federal bailout because it forgot to budget enough money to finish its expansion

That enormous gnashing-of-teeth sound from the Puget Sound area? Those wails of frustration and upset from downtown Seattle? No, it’s not a response to the pandemic and its human toll, or even to the economic dislocation that has followed. It’s the pain of downtown boosters, Chamber of Commerce leaders, and local officials faced with the pressing need to find an extra $300 million to finish the $1.8 billion (yes, billion) expansion of the Washington State Convention Center.

The expansion, termed by the Seattle Times “one of the city’s largest-ever construction projects,” has been underway since 2018, with the goal of adding 440,000 square feet of new convention space, effectively doubling its current size. In the last week, the need for an immediate federal government bailout was promoted in the media by an array of dignitaries, with King County executive Dow Constantine arguing there would be “statewide” ripple effects if the expansion isn’t completed: “The visitor industry is the core of our regional economy, with the Convention Center at its heart.”

So how did a $1.8 billion convention center expansion end up needing federal dollars? In fact, how did an expansion of a modest convention center end up costing $1.8 billion? For that, you have to go back to 2008. An expansion in 2001 had utterly failed to produce the promised new business. But by late 2008 the center’s leadership had begun to promote another expansion, with board chair Frank Finneran claiming, “We are losing more business than we are booking.” At that point, the expansion cost was pegged at a mere $766 million. But the governor and state legislature were thoroughly uninterested, and actually raided the center’s surplus hotel tax revenues to make up a state budget shortfall in the wake of the recession.

Finneran, along with the business and labor interests that backed a larger center, approached the state government again in 2010 with a plan to shift from state control to ownership by an independent King County public facilities district, with funding from the area hotel tax. The state legislature blessed that plan, and the new district sold bonds to pay off the center’s debt, preparing the way for pursuing the expansion. And the new entity turned in 2014 to outside consulting firm Conventions, Sports and Leisure International (CSL) for a feasibility study and a forecast of the new business a bigger venue would attract.

CSL — those would be the same folks who forecast that Philadelphia’s big 2011 expansion of its convention center would bring 786,000 annual hotel room nights, a number that by 2018 remained at only about 370,000 — endorsed an even larger expansion than the one proposed in 2009, forecasting that it would bring an additional 22 annual international and national events, boosting attendance by about 79,000 to just over 220,000. With a bigger expansion came a larger pricetag: By late 2015 the projected cost was up to $1.4 billion. Still, an outside financial feasibility analysis concluded that growing local hotel tax revenues would be more than enough to cover the required annual debt service.

By 2018, with a better estimate of site acquisition costs, and a series of deals with neighborhood and community groups that added over $90 million, the cost estimate was now $1.73 billion and climbing. The district still planned to sell bonds, a total of $1.08 billion in July 2018. But it now didn’t have enough projected revenue to cover the full expansion cost. The district staff and board pressed ahead anyway, anticipating that it could sell a second bond issue, for about $168 million, in 2020. The district was warned in a May 2018 analysis that the “WSCC could be vulnerable to a potential economic downturn in the 2019-25 time frame,” but still went ahead without the money to finish the project. Simply put, convention center officials bet that hotel revenues — and hotel taxes — would keep going up, year after year, which was a little like promising the bank you’ll be able pay for that big, new house with the huge raise you’re sure to get next year. They lost.

Costs have kept growing, and with the convention center expansion now 30% complete, it needs $300 million more — money that the district doesn’t have and that it likely can’t sell bonds for. With Wall Street apparently not particularly interested right now in long-term debt backed by hotel tax revenues, for some reason, officials have turned to federal stimulus dollars on offer in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic; Washington state Sen. Patty Murray told KING5 that she is “working now to explore what can be done at the federal level to help support the project’s timely completion.”

The convention business has been on the decline for years, even as convention centers continue to expand to compete for a dwindling number of events — and it’s expected to take years to recover from the current bans on large in-person public gatherings, especially if organizers start experimenting with online meetings in the interim. Nonetheless, Visit Seattle president Tom Norwalk told the Seattle Times that his organization is “very confident” that demand for conventions will continue to be strong. Just what the federal government should bet on.

Ward Harkavy never met a corrupt blowhard he didn’t like to joyfully skewer

Of all the editors I’ve had over the years, Ward Harkavy might just be my absolute favorite, both as a journalist and as a human being. He arrived at the Village Voice as the new sports editor in 2000 after long stints at alt-weeklies in Phoenix and Denver and a brief one at the short-lived Long Island Voice, and immediately seemed like he’d been there forever, his Oklahoma twang notwithstanding. Though he didn’t know me at all beyond my occasional Voice bylines, he greeted me like an old friend and enthusiastically assigned me countless articles on various instances of sports owner nefariousness; when the Voice sports section vanished out from under him as abruptly as the Long Island Voice had, he shifted over to news editor (and, briefly, interim editor-in-chief) and we kept up our partnership without interruption, expanding it to include state politician nefariousness and federal official nefariousness and developer nefariousness and city officials conspiring with sports team officials to siphon off public funds to pay for lobbying to extract even more public funds. (If you’ve been reading this site over the years, a lot of the reporting here was underwritten by paid articles that were commissioned on Ward’s watch.) Nothing tickled Ward more than taking down powerful people who used their power to screw over the greater public, especially when it could be done with the combination of righteous — but never self-righteous — indignation and cynical good humor that was his daily approach to our crazy world.

Ward died yesterday morning, of Covid, which he apparently contracted at a rehab facility where he was recovering from complications of dental surgery. It’s unthinkable that I’ll never hear his voice again — not just his actual voice, greeting me with a “Hi, twin!” because of one long-ago day when we both turned up at the Voice dressed in identical office garb of t-shirts and shorts, but his writing voice, which since he was summarily fired from the Voice in 2011 (everyone got summarily fired from the Voice, eventually) he had dedicated to creating a parallel universe of equally hilarious and incisive nefariousness coverage on Twitter and Facebook. A world whose absurdities aren’t chronicled by Ward Harkavy doesn’t seem like a world at all; it’s a small comfort to know that the countless people who loved and admired him will do our part to pick up his mantle, but only a small one. Goodbye, Ward — the world has too few genuinely good people in it to lose you so soon.

Friday roundup: Rattling sabers for Panthers stadium, leagues large and small seek bailouts, and a very large yacht

So how’s everyone out there, you know, doing? As the pandemic slowly feels less like a momentary crisis to be weathered and more like a new way of living to be learned (I refuse to say “new normal,” as nothing about this will ever feel normal), it’s tempting to occasionally look up and think about what habits and activities from the before times still make sense; I hope that FoS continues to educate and entertain you in ways that feel useful (or at least usefully distracting) — from all accounts the entire world being turned upside down hasn’t been enough to interrupt sports team owners’ important work of stadium shakedowns, so it’s good if we can keep at least half an eye on it, amid our stress-eating and TV bingewatching.

So get your half an eye ready, because a whole bunch of stuff happened again this week:

The Columbus Crew are here to cure your pandemic doldrums with fresh bonkers vaportecture

I know that it’s rough out there, with the economy in freefall, and much of the U.S. still seeing rising Covid case numbers even as governors (and judges) tell businesses they can reopen, and Netflix starting to run out of TV shows to keep us distracted. So I could not be more pleased to report that the Columbus Crew have got our backs with some brand-new vaportecture renderings of what their new stadium will (probably, maybe, almost assuredly not) look like when it opens next year, if there is a next year:

This shot is weirdly underlit, so it’s hard to tell exactly what all these late-arriving fans are carrying into the arena: U.S. flags? Liberian flags? There does appear to be at least one yellow-and-black striped Crew flag for sale that bears a passing resemblance to the American flag, but it doesn’t appear to be the most popular design, so maybe the renderers thought they could get away with some U.S. flag clip art and no one would notice if the scene was dark enough? Also, what’s up with the giant soccer ball hovering over the people on the sidewalk? If that’s a balloon, they’re not going to be allowed to bring it into the stadium and obstruct their fellow fans’ views, are they?

Moving on:

Just a bunch of soccer fans suspended midair along a drink rail while outside a spatially distorted pedicab cuts across traffic to prepare to mow down unsuspecting pedestrians, nothing to see here!

We’re all used to seeing all kinds of things added to the air above stadium renderings — fireworks, mostly — but this is the first time I can recall seeing a flock of birds. Do we think someone actually put those in to enhance the attractiveness of the image, or did they just find “flock of birds” in some pulldown menu and figured they might as well use it somewhere, if only to justify claiming the clip art expansion pack as a business expense?

This is a normal enough soccer scene — players contesting a ball, smoke bombs going off in the supporters’ section — unless you actually pay attention to the soccer. Number 6, mark your man! Somebody on the navy blue team, get open for a cross! And where’s the keeper? Was he so confused by the fact that the touchline wasn’t laid out at a 90-degree angle that he couldn’t figure out where to stand? Was he mowed down by a rogue pedicab? So many questions.

Now there’s some fireworks! Plus people pointing randomly at the sky and holding up scarves, because you know that’s what vaporfans love to do.

Feel better now? I sure do! MLS may be busy with wacky schemes to put up all 26 teams in Orlando for a summer tournament, but vaporsoccer is alive and well and, if those ecstatic fans are any indication, way more entertaining.

City of Henderson explains $60m hockey arena subsidy by releasing cloud of random numbers

One of the sports arena projects still moving ahead despite the uncertain future of both sports and arenas is the minor-league hockey arena in Henderson, Nevada, which had $60 million in public bonds approved last month, though official approval of the project itself is still a ways off. So the Henderson city government is still hard at work justifying its expense, and yesterday they came up with a doozy:

City of Henderson says new arena would create 106% return on investment in first year

“The economic output of the Event Center will, directly and indirectly, enhance sales tax in the area, and the City will benefit from taxes related to construction of the new venue,” said Jim McIntosh, Chief Financial Officer…

The analysis outlined the City of Henderson would benefit $40.9 million over 20 years in projected savings and tax revenue.

In addition, the one-year return for the proposed center was projected at 106.57 percent based on the matching investment from the Vegas Golden Knights.

That is some impressive math salad! Spending $60 million in public money would create $40.9 million over 20 years in savings (on maintaining the amphitheater currently on the site) and new tax revenue, which would amount to a 106.75% return in one year! No need for 3 News Las Vegas to question that, or to provide a link to the actual report!

Coverage in the Las Vegas Review-Journal wasn’t much more illuminating, though it did provide two different uninstructive numbers: the arena would “generate a projected economic output of about $17 million to $26 million” (per year? does this account for any spending just siphoned off from other local businesses?) and “could sustain 89 to 122 jobs” (full-time equivalent or part-time?). And I can’t find anything on the City of Henderson website, or on the site of the analytics company that conducted the study, so your guess is as good as mine as to what it all means. Other than “People are griping about us spending $60 million in tax money on a private sports arena in the midst of a global pandemic, somebody come up with some numbers to throw at them, stat! No, I don’t care if they add up, you think journalists have time to find a calculator and check them? This isn’t 2010, people!”