No, I don’t think the $38m PawSox stadium subsidy plan is a “win-win,” here’s why not

Joe Nocera, late of the New York Times op-ed page, has a new Bloomberg View opinion piece up titled “You Can Pay for a Ballpark Without Fleecing Taxpayers,” which namechecks this site and even provides a link, for which I should be grateful. Nocera and I failed to connect before it was published, though (he emailed me, I didn’t respond in time), so instead he is going to get berated here for misrepresenting my perspective, because that’s just how I like to bite the hand that feeds me clicks.

Anyway, here’s Nocera’s nut graf, where he brought me into the story:

In searching “Field of Schemes,” the go-to website for news about sports stadiums, I came across a rather different story, about the efforts of the Pawtucket Red Sox, the Triple-A minor league affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, to get a new ballpark. Although the dollars are far smaller (though not so small for Rhode Island), it does show that a team and a government can put together a deal that includes public financing but doesn’t hose the taxpayer. It’s kinda heartwarming, actually.

From there, it goes into a long, accurate description of former owner James Skeffington’s demand for $60 million in stadium subsidies, threatening to move the team out of Rhode Island if he didn’t get them. And then a long, not quite as accurate description of how after Skeffington’s death, team part-owner Larry Lucchino asked again for only $38 million in stadium subsidies, where the “city and state would receive a revenue stream that would not only cover the debt service but would probably make it a profitable venture for the government,” and “there were no threats” to move the team.

Okay, couple of things here. First off, the only revenue stream that the city and state will receive is “tax revenue generated in and around the stadium” — i.e., money that the city and state would normally collect anyway, but which would now be siphoned off to help pay for stadium construction costs via a tax increment financing district. There’s no way to reasonably project how much the TIF fund would collect — these things have failed spectacularly before — and more to the point, this is regular old tax money, not any actual revenues that the team would be giving up to help repay the public’s debt.

Secondly, about that “no threats” thing — not only did Lucchino just last week say he was going to look into moving the team out of Rhode Island, after promising two years ago not to do so until 2020, but Nocera actually linked to my post on that in his article. So, WTF, Joe?

Anyway, if Nocera wants to opine that the new PawSox deal is a better one for the city than the old one, it’s his column. (And he’s certainly right that it’s a better deal than Miami got for the Marlins stadium, though there are bank robberies that were better deals than that one, so that’s a pretty low bar.) But for the record, I would never call the new Pawtucket stadium plan a “win-win” — more of a “well, at least we got them to knock a few million dollars off their ridiculous subsidy demands, even if they’re still threatening to move Worcester.” Sadly, that’s a less grabby headline, but I’ll go with what I’ve got.

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8 comments on “No, I don’t think the $38m PawSox stadium subsidy plan is a “win-win,” here’s why not

  1. Looks as if the Coyotes are going to make another attempted legislative run with hiring former ASU Athletic Director Steve Patterson.

    But Patterson’s quote about arenas being like vampire movies is the best part.

  2. Different band of players, same tune from the new Coyotes owner, Andrew Barroway:

    “We figured out the hockey side. We figured out, internally, the management side. Everything is running on all cylinders. This is the last big piece, but it’s a big piece. We need it to succeed. Once you have the stadium in the right location and then the fans love it, it generates more revenue. We can put the revenues back into the players. It becomes a virtuous cycle.”

  3. Its almost like many of the “public intellectuals” in this country are fatuous fucking morons who don’t read the things they cite most of the time.

    With thought leaders like this its no wonder we have Trump as President. I cannot even pay attention to most media anymore because the actual level of discourse is less than what I get out of my damn 4 year old.

    1. Whoa, Joe Nocera may have missed to boat on this one, but he’s a very good writer. His takedowns of the NCAA are awesome. (and no, I’m not Joe’s sock puppet, I’m just a guy who hates the NCAA and is not really at all invested in the Pawtucket thing)

      1. Ah but this is the problem with these people. It is like Malcolm Gladwell et al. They sound really clever with novel takes and tell compelling narratives.

        Until they stumble onto some topic where you actually have a firm background….and then it becomes clear they are badly distorting the current consensus, presenting the speculation of people on the fringes as facts, and generally chopping off large sections of important context and information in the service of narrative to the point where the overall point misinforms more than it informs.

        It happens once and you think it is an outlier. It happens another time, and you start to get worried and start looking for it and checking people’s fact. And pretty soon you see if everywhere, including here.

        That fact the Mr. Nocera has sensible opinions on the NCAA should not function as some blanket pass to pass off half baked incorrectly cited opinions as wisdom on Bloomberg or elsewhere.

        These people are hurting society as much as they are helping it. We need better.

        1. For the record, Joe Nocera’s takes on the NCAA are not that fresh and not particularly well thought out. His “pay athletes” mantra has some resonance but the bigger issue is that the vast majority of colleges pay lots more for college athletics than they receive in revenue (the great piles of revenue are pretty limited to the well known colleges) so the whole pay athletes thing only fractures college athletics (maybe there is a solution there but Joe Nocera does not point it out).

          It all comes down to the fact that most sports fans, sports columnists, and business columnists do not understand college (and presumably non-profit) finance. Once you realize that colleges actually lose money on nearly every sport just in terms of athletic department budgets you have the start of intelligent commentary but further that colleges pay 3 times as much for having a college athlete at school than a non-athlete student outside of athletic departments as well then you would have a competent analysis of the subject’s economics. To use a FOS-esque take if there is so much money in college athletics there would be nothing prohibiting a for-profit educational institution from using athletics as a revenue leader and yet that never happens.

          1. This is partially true. Most DI colleges do indeed “lose money” on their athletic departments–outside of a few outliers like Michigan, North Carolina, and the like.

            However, the reasons this is true are rather more complicated. And blaming non-revenue sports like wrestling or track is not at all fair. The reasons schools “lose money” on sports is because they’d rather “make money” on football (and basketball).

            I had the pleasure of working for a very prominent athletic department as a student. I was stunned at the overall selfishness of the place–with tons of revenues, the department funded dozens of very well-paid administrative positions and gave themselves handsome raises after “good years.” Coaches were also extremely well compensated–though of course players and graduate assistants were not. Trips to even minor bowl games were occasions for fully funded trips for lots of hangers-on who had nothing to do with the team, meaning that the school “lost money” on these trips. But in the overall scheme–where athletic money was used for the benefit of older adults–this was absolutely fine.

            Since then, the desire for football superconferences has made this even worse–witness the salaries for even minor assistants at some colleges. Conference expansion has meant that the track team (as an example) instead of taking a bus to away events now has to fly at much higher prices. What in the world is West Virginia doing in the Big 12, where it has no opponents within a reasonable drive, instead of the Big East or ACC? This mismanagement for the benefit of football has been a common theme in the wastefulness of college athletics.

            As usual, sports fans will say that there is no money for paying athletes or non-revenue sports in general. I think there are a few levels of decisions that need to be explained before we agree this is true.

          2. Consider Michigan, with its money printing machine that is Michigan Stadium and Crisler Center, and an athletic department that is completely self-sustaining. Compare that with Eastern Michigan, no more than ten miles down the road, whose athletic department is so completely behind the eight-ball, that 10% of student tuition, room and board, and all other fees go directly to keeping the athletic department afloat.

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