This week in boondoggle vivisection: Plenty of good seats available in SF, Cleveland, Ottawa

We’ll get to the weekly news roundup in a minute, but first, I need to mention this editorial from yesterday’s Globe and Mail, which makes several eminently reasonable points about how Calgary shouldn’t capitulate to the Flames owners’ extortion attempts for arena cash (“using past bad decisions to justify terrible future decisions does not qualify as logic,” “arena financing is a hamster wheel, and here is an opportunity to jump off”), and then says this:

Everyone involved should take note of a remark this week by Neil deMause, renowned stadium boondoggle vivisectionist and creator of the website: “The number of mayors who’ve been voted out of office for standing up to sports team subsidy demands remains zero.”

That’s right, I am a major-newspaper-certified renowned boondoggle vivisectionist, y’all. Clearly it’s time to order some new business cards.

Okay, the rest of the week’s news:

  • The Los Angeles Rams aren’t the only California team having trouble getting fans to turn out for games in the September heat: The San Francisco 49ers are seeing so many empty seats on the sunny side of their stadium that they’ve hired architects to see if it’d be possible to add a sun shade. One problem: The stadium can’t get any taller, as it’s in the flight path of San Jose’s airport. Until then, the 49ers are handing out free water bottles and sunscreen to fans on the hot side of the stadium, which is nice and all, but probably isn’t what you want for your big marketing push. This once again points up how smart the 49ers management was to stick fans with PSLs before the team got lousy and people noticed how crappy the new stadium was for actually watching football in.
  • And speaking of empty seats, the Cleveland Indians won their American League–record 22nd straight game yesterday, but they still can’t sell out their ballpark, which not that long ago saw a record sellout streak of 455 straight games. Indians GM Mike Chernoff blamed Cleveland’s small size, the start of the school year, and “weekdays,” three things that apparently didn’t exist in the ’90s. At least he didn’t blame the 23-year-old stadium or demand upgrades as a solution — yet, anyway.
  • And also speaking of empty seats, the Ottawa Senators have begun tarping over part of their upper deck for every game, because they can’t sell tickets there. The Senators owner is already blaming his 21-year-old arena for that one (apparently the last owner built it in the wrong place), so team president Tom Anselmi was left to say: “We just need more of us to come to more games more often.” Can’t argue with that!
  • And also also speaking of empty seats, the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics have only sold about 5% of available tickets so far to actual fans (ticket brokers have bought up another 18%), with less than five months to go before the games start. If you’re looking to snap up a bargain to watch curling, though, be forewarned: Not all the new hotels planned for the Olympics are finished yet.
  • And speaking of seats that a team hopes won’t be empty, the Oakland A’s will be letting in fans for free to a game next April against the White Sox. Make jokes all you want about how dismal an A’s-White Sox matchup will be, it’s still free baseball, and you never know what you might see that you’ve never seen before.
  • NHL commissioner Gary Bettman declared that that the scaled-down Nassau Coliseum is “not a viable option” for the New York Islanders, two weeks before the team is set to present plans to Nassau County for a new arena near Belmont Park. A total coincidence, I’m sure.
  • The Rhode Island state senate started hearings on a new Pawtucket Red Sox proposal yesterday, with the team owners and their allies noting that “the team’s 54-percent share of stadium costs is the highest portion of private investment in 14 AA and AAA ballparks built over the last decade,” according to the Providence Journal. What was that someone was just saying about using bad decisions to justify terrible future decisions?
  • Deadspin’s Drew Magary has come up with a new nickname for the Atlanta Falcons‘ new iris-roofed stadium: Megatron’s Butthole. Drew Magary needs to be put in charge of all stadium nicknames, starting immediately.
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39 comments on “This week in boondoggle vivisection: Plenty of good seats available in SF, Cleveland, Ottawa

  1. Ironically San Francisco could have had a much easier time managing the sun & heat for much of the stadium if they had the wall of suites on the other side but then would likely not be as quite as premium. Come to think of it it would also get many more people closer to where they park but I digress.

    1. Objectively, it’s simply that they are tired of living in Cleveland. It is the largest US metro area to be losing population. Yes, not even metro Detroit is losing population.

      (Full disclosure: I was born in Cleveland and like many people born in Cleveland don’t live there)

  2. I love how teams like the Senators switch to variable pricing to maximize revenue, and then complain there aren’t sellouts, because a sellout by definition doesn’t maximize revenue.

  3. Neil, Belmont park proposal is supposedly geared toward a Isles win. However with NYCFC bidding as well, for the same land the Cosmos didn’t get, I’m betting on them getting it 1st and the NYI being forced to move to an arena in the Citi field lot.

    1. NYCFC bid on the last RFP and was not successful. They are not bidding on the current RFP at Belmont Park so the Islanders are basically unchallenged.

  4. Btw…I think the 25y opt-out period for the isles is at the end of the month. I am anticipating another good article from you when they cry for another $500m after buying the franchise.

  5. The thing that didn’t exist in Cleveland during the Indians’ attendance surge in the 1990s is called “the Browns”.

    1. Actually the streak started while the “old” Browns were still around and ended when the “new (and improved)” Browns were two seasons old and in the process of preparing for their 3rd NFL Draft where they would select Gerald Warren with their first pick.

  6. I actually looked at the demographics of Cleveland since those glory days–I was somewhat stunned to learn that the population has gone from 500k in the mid 90s to under 400k now (a big decline for 20 years). While the population of the metro area has not declined as sharply–in general you have a smaller population, farther from the urban core, and likely older and poorer (reflecting regional trends). None of that is good for the Indians and their midweek games, especially given the corporate decline of the area.

    To be fair, in the dismal 1980s the Indians were famous for selling out Municipal Stadium (80k) on opening day and then having 4000 through the turnstile for the rest of the season.

    Cleveland was a real economic powerhouse in the early 1900s when it got a team. The reality is that its hard to have so many teams (Detroit, Cleveland, Cincy, Pittsburgh) in small cities in a compact area. But at the same time it is hard to find a metro area ready to replace the decades-long affinity for a team and its history.

    1. But they reduced capacity by eight thousand seats in the stadium since the late nineties and still can’t sell out.

      1. I’m not sure that selling out a stadium in September is either a requirement nor a fair measure of any virtue. Lots of teams struggle at that time of year–the Orioles come to mind, even when they’ve had good teams of late (and often didn’t sell out World Series games in their golden era).

        What separates Cleveland from many other MLB cities is that it has a small corporate market to buy season tickets and club seats. Their season ticket base is around 8k, which means they need a lot of advance/walk up sales to sell out. Nobody sells that many tickets that way.

        1. Which means that Cleveland might lose the Indians which could be a repeat of 1995 and the Browns. Possible baseball hungry locations might include New Orleans, Oklahoma City area, and maybe Portland OR with a few wild cards thrown in for good measure with Nashville, Austin TX, and Las Vegas leading that list.

          1. NO is shrinking even faster than Cleveland, and OKC is tiny. Portland has no stadium at all, and isn’t likely to cough up to build one. The other cities are all possibilities — maybe Austin/San Antonio is the best bet — but none seem like a clear step up from Cleveland.

            When does the Indians’ lease run out, btw? I forget, did they have to sign up for any more years to get that additional sin tax money?

          2. The lease runs out in 2023.

            The city missing from the list is Charlotte. It would be a very logical relocation threat and doesn’t seem to have any problem throwing money at pro sports (unlike Portland and Austin).

            The complication is the MASN deal Peter Angelos. My understanding is due to weird territorial rights and the deal Angelos worked out when the Nationals relocated, Angelos would effectively own the broadcast rights to a Charlotte baseball team, which makes moving to Charlotte less than a lucrative prospect.

            …and yes, I have seen a map and no Charlotte is nowhere near Baltimore.

          3. Keep in mind that MLB territorial rights are different from MLB TV rights. Territorial rights are limited, so there’s no team that could block another team from moving to Charlotte. For TV rights, every single scrap of America (and Canada) belongs to somebody, or is shared by multiple somebodies, so it’s possible the Orioles could demand some compensation for losing a chunk of their TV rights.

            Charlotte is still about 300,000 TV households smaller than Cleveland, so I don’t know that it’s a great option. Maybe in another 10-20 years?

      2. Charlotte is in the middle of college sports country, which has made pro sports (including the Panthers) a tough proposition. Just North Carolina has something like 7 Division I football and basketball schools, and South Carolina is similar for scale.

        Austin/San Antonio is a logical point for a team, but would need an air conditioned baseball stadium. SA is a big military town, which doesn’t mean much for corporate sales.

        Truth is, many cities don’t seem prepared to do what teams demand for “game day revenues” in terms of volume or price points. This is why the established pro leagues move to cities like Las Vegas where governments are willing to front the cost for the so-called “prestige” of having a team.

        MLB right now supports the smaller teams through national and regional TV deals (which serve as a form of “local sports team support tax”). This probably allows the Indians to survive for now, since it might not be better elsewhere yet. But if cable continues its slide and revenues aren’t made up, MLB might have to make some choices.

        Incidentally, 30-40 years ago MLB would have been delighted with Cleveland’s attendance–back when many teams struggled to even reach a million for a season. Expectations have changed, apparently.

        1. The pooled revenue impact of MLBAM is not to be discounted either.

          The Indians are not selling out. Big deal. It’s September, games are becoming even longer than usual because managers can deploy the “expanded rosters” now and change pitchers every batter in the 7th, 8th and 9th inning if they wish.

          There isn’t an MLB team that is in financial trouble (at least on baseball operations) thanks to pooled revenues. Eventually the RSN fees for the larger markets will either expand to the point that big clubs have recaptured their advantage of years past, or they will collapse and make the financial playing field virtually level apart from game day revenues.

          Because of the number of games in a season MLB will never be like the NFL, where all teams are profitable without selling a single ticket. So long as the pooled revenues stay comparatively strong, though, we’ll never see a return to the days where the Yankees local cable revenues alone were more than the total revenue of most other clubs.

  7. “NHL commissioner Gary Bettman declared that that the scaled-down Nassau Coliseum is “not a viable option””

    Did he see the layout for hockey at Barclay’s before he approved their move?

  8. Nice to see that the Globe & Mail wedged in your factually incorrect statement that nobody has ever gotten voted out of office for standing up to sports teams!

    1. Nice to see you calling me factually incorrect without providing a shred of evidence!

      The only counterexample that’s arguable is Greg Nichols in Seattle, and it’s pretty clear that he would have gotten booted even if the Sonics had stayed and won the NBA championship. Remembering to clear the streets when it snows is kind of a minimum requirement for the job.

      1. Or being garbage commissioner and not spending your entire yearly budget in one month. Not sure if this really happened, but “The Simpsons did it.”

  9. That Globe editorial was a nice counterpoint to Eric Francis’ Sportsnet column from a couple of days ago – – which carried all the water for the Flames.

    1. Yep. Sportsnet is the equivalent of an RSN for the Flames. We should not expect impartial reporting from networks for which the teams have right of approval of announcers and print stories.

  10. One of the downsides to having fair skin: If I sat in the east side of Levi, I’d have such a bad sunburn by halftime, I’d have to leave.

    On the bright side, I’d then have yet another reason to leave. The more reasons, the merrier.

    I thought you might want to know how the Sleep Train Arena Repurpose Project is going: Very poorly. Thanks for asking.

  11. Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo… lots of manufacturing and shipping centres from the 1950s have suffered severe population decline in the last half century.

    While there is always a practical limit to how small a city can get and still support it’s teams (in the parasite/host sense. And yes, Green Bay is an outlier), the business model of pro sports has changed a lot in that time as well. All the major leagues used to live and die on game day attendance a half century ago. Not so much now.

    It looks bad on TV if you can’t sell out your stadium when you are very successful on the field. But does it actually matter? If the club seats are empty and sponsor boards are dark/unsold, probably. Sports owners really don’t care about the cheap seats or their inhabitants. They consider them low revenue necessities (although the necessity part could easily change in the near future), and would just as happily tarp them over as sell them.

    1. The Detroit MSA is larger than it was in 1960. Cleveland isn’t. Buffalo isn’t either. However, many manufacturing centers have lost population in their city center but aren’t shrinking at a metro level.

      As for more recently shifts (2000-2016):

      In term of current shrinkage, only one metro area in the US out of the top 100 is shrinking faster than Cleveland: Scranton.

      1. Detroit’s population since 1900 (from the US Decennial census)

        1900 285,704
        1910 465,766
        1920 993,678
        1930 1,568,662
        1940 1,623,452
        1950 1,849,568
        1960 1,670,144
        1970 1,514,063
        1980 1,203,368
        1990 1,027,974
        2000 951,270
        2010 713,777
        2016 672,795 (est)

        No, Detroit is not larger than it was in 1960. It is less than half the size. Using (ever shifting/expanding) CMA areas makes for rosy projections, but it doesn’t reflect the actual conditions in the host city itself.

        Cleveland Municipal Pop since 1900 (same source)

        1900 381,768
        1910 560,663
        1920 796,841
        1930 900,429
        1940 878,336
        1950 914,808
        1960 876,050
        1970 750,903
        1980 573,822
        1990 505,616
        2000 478,403
        2010 396,815
        2016 385,809 (est)

        1. If you use city limits and not MSAs, though (what CMAs are called in the U.S.), then urban areas look like they’re shrinking when all that’s happening is people are moving just outside of the city limits. The city of Detroit may have way fewer people now, and that may hae consequences for its tax base, but it’s not what’s most significant for the number of people who might show up at Tigers’ games.

          I always prefer to use Nielsen households, since that’s really what team marketers care about. Unfortunately I don’t know of a good historical data set for those.

          1. Indeed. There are many cities that have shrunk but far few metro areas. For example, take Boston. It has dropped from a peak of 801k in 1950 to 673k (and was down to 562k at its trough in 1980). However, over the same period the MSA has grown from 3.1M to 4.7M.

            Or to put a fine point on it, no one in their right mind would say “the Red Sox and Patriots should move to San Antonio since San Antonio has more than double the population.

            My point the Cleveland metro area is shrinking whereas, for example, Detroit is not. As someone born in Cleveland I take no joy in saying that but it is a fact.

            As for Nielsen households, it’s not a bad metric but it has its flaws too. Some TV markets are much larger than others. For example, Baltimore and Washington are separate TV markets, whereas San Francisco and San Jose are the same one even though San Jose is further from SF than Baltimore is from Washington. Plus, plenty of teams can draw from multiple TV markets if there is not a closer team. My grandfather would follow the Pirates and Steelers and make it to games even though he was in the Wheeling-Steubenville TV market…which was located just 10 miles further than San Jose is from San Francisco.

            In general Eastern TV markets are geographically smaller than Western ones just as Eastern cities are geographically smaller than Sun Belt cities.

            There’s no perfect proxy. That said, no matter how you measure it, it can be fairly said that Cleveland is hurting economically and in terms of population more than even other so-called Rust Belt cities.

          2. Agreed on there being no perfect metric. As for Cleveland, has anyone tried to figure out why it’s such an outlier? It certainly doesn’t stand out as any less appealing than other Rust Belt cities — in fact, it was one of the first places to get a high-profile “revitalization” with the Flats and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and all that. (Not that such things appeal to me, particularly, but other cities have done more with less.)

          3. It’s an interesting question. I haven’t seen any.

            It should be worth caveating that it is not the worst of the Rust Belt cities. Smaller metros (think Dayton or Scranton) tend to do worse. Cleveland proper also isn’t the biggest loser. That would be St Louis. But even metro St Louis is growing whereas metro Cleveland isn’t. The reason I mention that is things like the Flats basically are meant to get people from the suburbs to stick around after work or even move into the city. It’s not really a big factor in a region.

            The short answer is I don’t know. One theory is that Cleveland had a less diversified economy than some others. Another is it lacked ballast institutions like a state capitol or large prominent university (no offense to Case Western, it’s just small) to help it through rough times. Columbus, in contrast, seems to be doing fine due to having all of this. At the extreme people forget that New York City once was an industrial town and went through the sharpest decline of any city in the 60s and 70s, but recovered because it had lots of other assets to eventually reinvent itself.

            That said, greater Milwaukee continues to expand, though slowly despite having few assets I can think of. I mean Cleveland at least has the Cleveland Clinic. On the flip side, metro Pittsburgh is shrinking despite what’s now a pretty diversified economy (Heinz is their biggest employer) and strong universities. So I guess beats me. Know any economists looking for a research study?

          4. Metro NYC still grew in the ’60s and ’70s, though. (The kids of those suburbanites are largely the ones “rediscovering” the city now.) For a major metro area to shrink is frankly kind of bizarre outside of some natural disaster.

    2. Using CMAs creates a separate problem, though. In some districts, it is simply a matter of people moving out of city centres to suburbs with easy access. In those cases it is reasonable to include the surrounding population.

      In other communities, the commute becomes prohibitive. Anyone who has spent time in the LA basin understands this implicitly. You can be 6 miles from a stadium and still be more than an hour away. And this is not just an LA problem… many major centres have it.

      The ‘suburban stadium’ was supposed to solve this, but did not do so (some suburbanites took advantage of the short commute, many downtowners or residents from other suburbs would not trek out to the stadium (think Glendale vs Scottsdale).

      Add to that the fact that CMAs tend very much to expand in area over time as the population grows and larger/new bedroom communities spring up. As the metro area expands, it becomes harder for residents in one portion of the district to reach another, often despite increased transport options.

      Regardless of the impact on sports, we see this effect in large centres all the time. People live a a particular quadrant of the city and won’t cross town to see an attraction that is really only a few miles away.

      That’s why I see CMA/MSA increases as something of a double edged sword. If the stadium is in your “area”, it might increase the chance you attend. If it’s not, it may make it impossible.

  12. Cleveland’s attendance is up by over 5,000 fans per game. Right now they have drawn 1,862,000 so they will draw over 2 million. Go back 50 years and teams were happy if they drew 1 million and ecstatic if it was 2 million. As a kid, I used to look at the 1948 Indians drawing 2.6 million in absolute amazement and feeling it would stand as a record forca long time. Right now, 9 teams have drawn that many.
    Let’s also realize Joe Sixpack has all kinds of entertainment options that didn’t exist 20 years ago.

    1. Very true. I remember teams gloating about going over 2 million in the 1970s and 80s. It was a big thing.

      Now 4 million is the goal for the top clubs, even with the fragmented audiences (not that surprising, given that the nation’s actual population is up some 45% since 1960).

  13. Keep in mind,Cleveland, like many other legacy teams, has a regional fan base. I live 60 miles from Cleveland and the fans live and breathe Indians baseball(when they’re winning). I’m sure it’s like that all over NE Ohio. So, I think arguing over population stats can get you sidetracked when measuring local fan support. IMHA

    1. Well those fans don’t seem to show up at games as Cleveland has been in the bottom 5 in attendance for quite a while.

      In fact that’s another issue with Cleveland–the adjacent markets are in even worse shape than Cleveland. Cleveland looks pretty good when you put it against Akron or Youngstown.

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