The Sacramento Republic stadium explainer, explained

In case you missed it, old-school print publication (which, like everything else, is just as much an online enterprise these days) New York magazine was just bought by Vox Media, a collection of sites best known for its “explainers.” And explaining things is good! We turn to the media to explain things, not just report them, because the world needs explaining, and we count on journalists to have the expertise needed to do it, at least in their particular subject areas.

Which brings us to KCRA’s explainer on the proposed new Sacramento Republic F.C. soccer stadium that just had a public financing authority created for it yesterday, an article that is framed as “3 things to know.” And those three things are:

1) When can I get my MLS tickets?

2) How much will the stadium cost?

3) What are soccer fans saying about the development?

Maybe not exactly the three questions I would have wanted answered, but it’s a start. Skipping over 1 (not yet!) and 3 (they like soccer!), let’s turn to 2 to see if it can shed any light on the stadium’s price tag and funding:

The soccer stadium is expected to cost $252 million and will be financed privately by Ron Burkle and his investment group. No taxpayer dollars will be used to build the stadium.

However, the city of Sacramento has committed $33 million in fee waivers for improvements that will lead to new housing and retail developments. Those new developments are expected to generate taxes that will help pay for the infrastructure.

This again. Almost two years ago, the Sacramento Bee suggested that while having city taxpayers pay for an MLS stadium was a bad idea, a good idea might be to “reduce or defer some building fees, to donate land for a training facility, to give the team the revenue from new digital billboards, or to help with roads, sewers and other infrastructure near the stadium.” Because while all those things cost money, they go into the team owners’ pockets before coming back out to be used on stadium construction, and that’s, um, better, I guess, somehow?

This kind of Rube Goldberg funding mechanism is increasingly common, and might actually be worth a new entry in the stadium playbook if we ever do another update of Field of Schemes the book, or at least an extended footnote. But as I wrote when the Bee first proposed it in January 2018:

Let’s say it all together: MONEY IS MONEY, SPORTS TEAM OWNERS DON’T CARE HOW THEY GET IT. If very rich dude Kevin Nagle can get a pile of tax or fee breaks or free land or a pile of billboard revenue that would otherwise go into city coffers, that’s going to be just as fine with him as getting city checks with “4 STADM BLDG” written in the memo field. To pretend there is any moral or fiscal difference is, well, the kind of thing you do when you’re a mayor and want to propose a sports team subsidy but don’t want it to look like one.

Now, $33 million isn’t a super-exorbitant public cost on a $252 million stadium, so this is still better than most other recent MLS stadium deals. And the money is going toward things that are more legitimately public infrastructure, including new roads and a new light rail station — though a rail station that just serves the soccer stadium is arguably less a general public benefit than a benefit to the team. Also, the term sheet for the stadium (not mentioned by the KCRA explainer) grants the team five digital billboards, so that’s an additional means of the city defraying the team’s costs; and the term sheet is just preliminary, not an official lease or contract, so we can’t be sure just yet if $33 million is the final public cost. (The team does promise to pay property taxes on its stadium, at least, which is refreshing, even if paying property taxes on your property isn’t normally something that should be worthy of singling out for praise.)

All of which, you might say, is too detailed for a basic explainer to get into. But that’s one big drawback of explainer journalism: By choosing what information is deemed necessary to readers and what isn’t, it can effectively frame a story to direct readers’ attention away from elements that aren’t deemed important, all while telling them they have all the basics to understand what’s going on. Which, I suppose, is one big drawback of bad journalism in general — but somehow it feels more egregious when you’re being steered away from important information under the guise of an explanation.

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One comment on “The Sacramento Republic stadium explainer, explained

  1. It is hard to take Vox seriously when it was headlined by Matt Yglesias. Who is one of the more credulous and obtuse people I encountered regularly when I used to bump into him all the time on Slates business/econ coverage.

    Him and Farhad, writing regularly about things they only half understood, misinforming people left and right, and failing upwards…

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