MLS commissioner doesn’t rule out non-soccer-specific stadiums while watching soccer in one

Don Garber went to an MLS match on Saturday, which makes sense since he’s the commissioner of MLS, at as the match was at Atlanta United‘s new stadium which is also the Falcons‘ new football stadium, he was asked whether he thought maybe demanding soccer-only stadiums as a condition for expansion teams wasn’t entirely necessary. His reply:

“It’s interesting; it’s a great question. The good thing about being new and trying to figure it out as you go along is you have a specific plan and then there are times when you have to modify that plan,” Garber said. “I think good business leaders and good businesses, ya know, don’t just get stuck in their previous strategies but try to evolve and see how things develop…

“We really wanted a soccer stadium here and Arthur said, ‘Hey, this stadium I’m going to build is going to be the best in the world, it’s going to be world class, we’re going to fill it up.’ And he did,” Garber said. “So, I don’t know that that changes our point of view in any other market, but certainly when I see what’s happening here and in Seattle I’m happy that we have stadiums that can have 70,000 people in ’em.”

So here’s the thing: Garber’s “soccer-specific stadiums only” demand has never actually been a strict rule, as witness not just Atlanta, but also NYC F.C. playing at the new Yankee Stadium. (Is it still new now that it’s eight years old? It’s certainly not the old Yankee Stadium.) MLS is always willing to make exceptions when it’s willing to make exceptions.

The problem is that then you have cities thinking, Hey, they’re willing to make exceptions. Like Cincinnati, where WCPO spun out a whole article last night on how Garber’s statements mean maybe there’s a chance for F.C. Cincinnati to get an MLS franchise while still playing at Nippert Stadium, where they keep breaking attendance records.

There’s a tendency to take sports league operators’ statements as policy dictates, when really they’re leverage gambits: Garber isn’t saying he wants new soccer-specific stadiums because his stomach roils at the notion of watching soccer anywhere else, he’s saying it because it’s the best way to get new soccer-specific stadiums. Which is fine, that’s his job — but trying to parse his every statement as if reading missives from the Politburo and not just listening to a guy trying not to paint himself into a corner is probably a bad idea.

Nenshi’s election rivals aren’t eager to throw public money at Flames arena, either

That whole “let’s blow up our arena negotiations and hope everyone gets mad at the mayor during the election campaign and forces him to make us a more lucrative offer” plan by the Calgary Flames owners is really not going as planned at all:

  • Asked whether he thought Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s plan to split both costs and revenues with the Flames was a good one, opposition candidate Bill Smith said: “There’s still a lot more to be looked at, and one of things I’m waiting to see is where the Flames sit on this … you need to see what the whole deal looks like. … One of the reasons we’re in this situation right now is a failure of leadership. We have a mayor who won’t deal fairly with anyone.”
  • Andre Chabot, another Nenshi opponent, declared the city’s plan “reasonable.”
  • Nenshi taunted Smith for not taking a position, saying, “If you want to be mayor, you’ve got to tell people who’s giving you money, who you’re working for and, for heaven’s sake, you’ve got to tell people how you’re going to spend billions of dollars. I think it’s kind of important.”

Also, Smith and Chabot are likely to split any anti-Nenshi vote, leaving the mayor likely to win election to a third term. So, yeah, this threat seems to have fizzled. How long you think before Flames CEO Ken King tries having himself photographed at the Seattle airport?

A’s preferred stadium site criticized for causing gentrification, killing waterfowl

The Oakland A’s decision to pursue a new stadium on a site owned by public Laney College didn’t exactly get off to a gangbusters start, with Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf saying she preferred other sites because there’s “less existing community to disrupt” and the councilmember for the district, Abel Guillen, saying two-thirds of residents were opposed to a stadium there. And now there’s criticism that a stadium near Lake Merritt won’t just produce gentrification and create public infrastructure costs, it’ll kill birds:

The [Golden Gate Audubon Society], which has more than 7,000 members in Oakland and nearby cities, said the proposed ballpark in the Eastlake neighborhood would be disastrous for nearly 200 species of ducks, herons, songbirds, nesting cormorants and fish that make their homes in Lake Merritt, the nation’s oldest wildlife refuge.

“We’re not antibaseball. We love the A’s, but we want them to stay where they are,” said Cindy Margulis, the executive director of Golden Gate Audubon. “When you put in a stadium and have all the additional cars and traffic, there will be additional contaminants coming into the lake. Oakland is a creative, imaginative city, and I think they can do better.”

This now makes a growing chorus of people who would like to see the A’s pursue a new stadium at the Oakland Coliseum site, which, as I’ve said before, isn’t a terrible idea from the city’s perspective. Sure, the A’s owners would no doubt rather be near Lake Merritt — everybody would rather be located in the cool part of town — but that wouldn’t necessarily be in the best interests of the city as a whole. I mean, maybe it would, but somebody would have to study whether a redevelopment of the Coliseum site would make more sense, and nobody’s done that yet.

This all raises another question, which is why everyone always sits around and waits for sports team owners to pick a site that they want, instead of a city saying, “Okay, you want a stadium site? Here’s what we have available, hope that works for you.” I guess doing it this way makes it seem like you’re being considerate of the team’s needs, but it also lets the team set the agenda instead of elected officials who were voted into office precisely to decide this things, which seems kinda problematic, to say the least.

Flames CEO says city recouping its arena cost via taxes means “us paying for everything”

As promised, on Friday the city of Calgary released its proposal for funding a new Flames arena that team owners rejected, and it looked pretty much exactly as previous reports had had it: Costs would be split one-third/one-third/one-third between the city, the team, and a new ticket surcharge, and the city would recoup its third via a combination of property taxes on the building, team rent, and revenue from non-hockey arena events:

Sounds simple, right? Split the costs, split the revenues. Unless you’re Flames CEO Ken King, who immediately fired back that this would leave his team paying “120%” of the costs:

“Their proposal has us not only paying for everything, but more, when you consider incremental taxes,” he said. “Flames’ cash comes from Flames’ revenue—I think we all agree on that. User fees comes from Flames’ revenue, I think we can all agree on that. And in whatever form they want this payback, that comes from Flames’ revenue, as well.

What’s going on here is a fundamental disagreement over the nature of “our money.” I could explain this in economic terms — King wants to count every scrap of arena income, and even taxes they’d be paying just as everyone else pays, as Flames revenue — or in metaphorical terms — as I told the CBC on Friday, the Flames’ position that they should get to pay off their costs with arena revenues but the city shouldn’t is like asking someone to dinner and saying, “Let’s split the check, but then I get to eat both meals.” But I’d prefer to direct you to the ultimate authority on this matter, which is the Odd Couple’s “casino night” episode. If you don’t want to sit through the ads, here’s a transcript of the relevant part, which starts at around the 11:00 mark and comes after one of Oscar’s friends has won big at the casino night fundraiser for Felix’s opera club:

Felix: What have you got there? Where’d you get all that money?

Oscar: From Arnold, he owed it to me.

Felix: What?

Oscar: Yeah. He owed it to me since the year one.

Felix: The “let it ride” guy owed you money?

Oscar: That’s my Arnold.

Felix (reaching for a pile of cash): Well, that’s wonderf—

Oscar: Don’t touch the money, Felix.

Felix: But what a—

Oscar: Don’t touch it, I told you not to touch it.

Felix: But now the opera club gets its money back. Yay!

Oscar: I don’t think I heard you.

Felix: We’re saved! We get our money back!

Oscar (hastily gathering up his money): Now I know I didn’t hear you.

Felix: Surely you’re not thinking of keeping that money?

Oscar: Why not? It’s my money!

Felix: No, it’s not! It belongs to the opera club!

Oscar: How do you figure that?

Felix: Well, Arnold got it from us, you got it from him, you give it back to us! Then everybody’s even!

Oscar: That can’t be right. See, I’d be out all this money.

Felix: No, you wouldn’t! You’d just be back where you started from!

Oscar: Yeah, but only Arnold wouldn’t owe it to me anymore. See, I had this money coming to me.

Felix: But it came from the opera club! From them to him to you to me! It’s like an isosceles triangle!

To his credit, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi was calmer than Oscar about the whole thing, replying that “our argument is that the city needs to share in the upside, if we’re going to share in the cost,” and that he was open to any and all ideas for achieving this: “If it makes more sense for the city to own and the [Flames] owners to pay rent we can absolutely look at that. If it makes more sense for there not to be rent, but a revenue-sharing agreement we can look at that.”

As for what the Flames ownership were asking for, meanwhile, the Globe and Mail reports (citing unnamed city sources) that the team wanted not only to pay no property taxes and share no arena revenue, but to have taxpayers foot the bill for police presence at games and give Flames fans free public transit rides on game days:

The requests would put a multimillion-dollar dent in the city’s finances and could result in higher taxes. Waiving transit fares on game days, for example, would mean giving up about $10-million in revenue annually, according to one of the sources. Calgary would then have to fill this gap, perhaps by cutting transit services to other parts of the city or raising property taxes, the source said. Covering the cost of extra policing would also amount to an operating subsidy, according to the source who provided the detail about security expenses to The Globe and Mail.

What we have here, folks, is a good old-fashioned impasse, though only one of the two parties has math (or geometry) on its side. I’d suggest Nenshi and King settle this by trying to double their money at the pool hall, but I’m not sure the showrunners would go for it.

 

Rams, Chargers continue to play home games in relative privacy

NFL fever is still at an ice-cold pitch in Los Angeles, where both the Rams and Chargers saw tons of empty seats yesterday. Take it away, sports Twitter:

As with last week, the empty seats are scattered throughout the stadiums, so this looks like a case of people buying tickets and then not using them, either because they’re trying to get on a season-ticket waitlist for when the teams’ new stadium opens in 2020, or because tickets are cheap enough that they figure they’ll buy a season strip and only go when there’s a good opponent and there’s nothing good on TV that day. (Or maybe just when a team they actually care about comes to town: The hottest Chargers ticket on StubHub is vs. the Oakland Raiders.) Also, by one estimate half the maybe 20,000 fans if you’re being generous at yesterday’s Chargers-Miami Dolphins game were rooting for the Dolphins, which apparently was a problem at times in San Diego, too, but still.

None of this is a crisis just yet: It can take a while to build a fan base for a relocated team, and obviously the big push is for fans to go see the teams at their new stadium in three years. Still, when you’re trying to charge record seat-license prices, you really want to see pent-up excitement about your team, and that’s not exactly what’s going on here. There’s been talk for years that L.A. football fans have been happy just to watch the best games of the week on TV without having a home rooting attachment; if so, the no-shows could be a sign that it’s going to be tough to build actual fan bases for the Rams and Chargers, beyond just having games be a thing people just want to go to when their actual favorite team from somewhere else shows up. More data points are needed, so let’s keep an eye on this throughout the season.

This week in boondoggle vivisection: audio edition!

Thanks to my recent Deadspin article on how Seattle may be showing the way to negotiating better sports deals (something Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat agrees with me on, for what it’s worth), as well as all the other stadium and arena news that’s suddenly been exploding, I’ve been on the radio — or podcasts, which I’m going to persist in calling “radio” even if actual radio waves aren’t involved, because who listens to the radio on the radio anymore anyway? — a lot the last week or so. Handy links for those who’d rather get their stadium commentary via their earholes:

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 fieldofschemes.com 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.

A’s pick Peralta as stadium site, vow all-private money except for tons of infrastructure cash

It’s been reported for a couple of months now that the site of the Peralta Community College administrative buildings was the Oakland A’s owners’ preferred place to build a new stadium, and team president Dave Kaval made it official yesterday, declaring, “Finally, we’ve got our site.”

There are obvious reasons for the A’s to prefer the Peralta site (or the Laney College site, if you prefer, since that’s the specific community college that’s located there): It’s right near the I-880 freeway and the Lake Merritt BART station, and offers views of both the lake and the Oakland hills. It’s also crazy small, though — only about 500 feet wide north to south, which is going to make fitting a baseball field and grandstand a challenge — and the team still has to figure out how to pay off the community college for the trouble of relocating its administrative offices, something the San Francisco Chronicle says the team hopes to do by building a bunch of added development nearby:

To try to win over the Peralta district’s Board of Trustees, the A’s are proposing to construct housing and commercial space on an 8-acre Laney parking lot just north of the site — a spot now known for its Sunday morning flea market — and funnel revenue from it to Laney. The A’s would also help build a garage there with the idea of boosting the college’s overall parking capacity.

“We believe there are opportunities for mixed-use development … that could generate significant long-term revenue to support the college’s educational mission, and deliver a valuable and comprehensive community benefits package,” Kaval said in his letter.

Far be it from me to criticize a plan that apparently would use entirely private money to build a stadium and purchase land — and would free up the Coliseum site to redevelopment, more about that in a second — but this seems like it’s going to get really expensive for the A’s. Kaval called the Peralta site “really the strongest location when it comes to private financing,” so maybe he knows something we don’t know, or maybe he’s thinking he can get lots of land around the college on the cheap and then build lucrative stuff on it, or get development rights to the Coliseum on the cheap and then build lucrative stuff on that, or who knows. This is why it’s hard to get too excited about site decisions when they don’t come with publicly released financing plans.

And then there’s this:

Although they plan to privately finance the ballpark’s construction, the A’s will need support from the Oakland City Council to come up with what outside experts say could be hundreds of millions of dollars in federal, state and local funding for new freeway ramps, improvements to the Oakland estuary shoreline and other infrastructure upgrades.

That could be an issue, yeah! And makes one wonder why the A’s owners are no longer considering the Coliseum site for a new stadium, now that the Raiders are leaving town, since at least there the highway ramps and stuff are already in place. There’s something that feels slightly off about all the moving parts here, where it’s not clear where the magic beans will come from to make an exceptionally pricey project pay off; maybe it’ll all make sense when and if Kaval reveals how all the financing is supposed to work, but I’m withholding judgment until then.

Flames rejected Calgary’s arena plan because taxpayers would’ve gotten paid back

Following Calgary Flames CEO Ken King’s announcement on Tuesday that his team was going to take its arena-negotiating ball and go home, the Calgary city council voted yesterday to release the city proposal that King had called “spectacularly unproductive.” The details aren’t public yet, but the basics, according to Toronto Metro:

  • An estimated $500-600 million in construction costs would be shared one-third by the city, one-third by the Flames, and one-third by a ticket surcharge.
  • The city wanted to get its third repaid either by new property taxes or by getting a cut of arena revenue.

That’s … perfectly reasonable? That second item would be, in fact, required by law if this were Seattle, and in any event “We’re splitting the costs, let’s split the revenues” is a sensible proposal in any world other than the sports one.

The Flames owners, according to Metro, “balked” at this, and asked for an exemption from property taxes on top. That wasn’t going to get a deal done. So while the talks may have been “spectacularly unproductive,” that doesn’t appear to have been the fault of Mayor Naheed Nenshi or the council.

Declaring an impasse now is clearly meant to put pressure on Nenshi with elections coming up; already two of his opponents in the upcoming election tried to take advantage by saying how they think a new Flames arena is important, though only at the right price, which is actually what the mayor himself is saying, so. There’s also, as Maclean’s columnist Jason Markusoff points out, an element of “the Edmonton Oilers got a new arena, we deserve one too”: Flames CEO Ken King grumbled yesterday, “If we can beat the guys up north—apparently we can’t beat them on the building front, but maybe we can beat them on the ice.” This will not go over well, predicts Markusoff:

A large portion of the Calgary populace will view ceding the arena-building race to Edmonton not as a loss, but as a win: that Cowtown didn’t acquiesce to its hockey barons’ demands. Until the Flames owners can appreciate that, they’ll be stuck in their current saddle.

Maybe? Certainly the mayor and the council’s first reaction — we made a perfectly good offer, here, look at it — doesn’t smack of panic, but we’ll see where things head as the election campaign continues. Ham-fisted threats and unintentionally hilarious self-promotion are kind of Flames exec trademarks by now, but there is that old saying about blind pigs and acorns.