Friday roundup: MLB billionaire owners cry poor, Rangers stadium reviews get worse and worse

What a week! I know I say that every week, but: What. A. Week. In addition to the World Series insanity, I spent some time this week writing an article about other ways that giant monopolistic cartels screw over regular folks, but it’s not up yet* so you’ll just have to find out about it next week (or keep refreshing my personal website, or follow me on Twitter or something).

In the meantime, there’s lots of sports stadium and arena news to keep you occupied:

  • NYC F.C. may have announced progress on its new soccer stadium this week while providing no indication of actual progress, but the Washington Football Team one-upped them when team president Jason Wright earned an entire NBC Sports article about their stadium plans by saying he didn’t even have a timeline for the process. Meanwhile, the Sacramento Republic likewise issued a statement on their new stadium construction plans that amounted to nothing (“I do have a hard hat in my trunk!” said team president Ben Gumpert, by way of news). At this rate, team owners will be able to get reporting on their stadium campaigns after denying they even want one — oh wait, we’ve gone there already.
  • MLB commissioner Rob Manfred says the league now has $8.3 billion in debt, $3 billion of it accrued during 2020’s pandemic season, which doesn’t actually tell you how well baseball is doing — presumably some of it was borrowed against future revenues from TV contracts and naming-rights deals and the like — but sounds impressive when you’re about to go into union contract talks. Also, notes Marc Normandin, that’s really only a $100 million loss per team, which isn’t an unfathomably huge sum for the billionaires who own most teams; plus we have to take Manfred’s word on that debt figure, and it already doesn’t include things like teams’ ownership of regional sports networks. MLB owners, he writes, are “hoping, as they so often do, that you have no idea how anything works, and will just take them at their word. So that they can do things like, oh, I don’t know, decline the 2021 option on basically everyone with one in order to flood the free agent market with additional players they can then underbid on and underpay, claiming that this is all financially necessary because of all the debt, you see.” Or as we may start calling it soon, getting Brad Handed.
  • Philadelphia public schools lost $112 million in property tax revenues in 2019 that were siphoned off to tax breaks for developers, according to a new Good Jobs First study, nearly double their losses from just two years earlier. Good thing the 76ers‘ plan for an arena funded by siphoned-off property taxes was rejected, though there are more plans where that came from, so Philly schools should probably still hold onto their wallets.
  • One more review of the Texas Rangers‘ new stadium that team owners Ray Davis and Bob Simpson got $500 million to help build because the old one lacked air-conditioning, this one from a fan who’s visited every stadium and arena in North America: “This would probably end up probably down near the bottom.” He added that the upper decks are too far from the field, the place is too dark, the scale is “ridiculous,” and on top of that fans were taking off their masks as soon as security is out of sight, which, yup.
  • Las Vegas has extended its negotiating window again for a new soccer stadium to lure an MLS team, which makes you wonder why they even bothered to set a window in the first place instead of just hanging out a shingle saying, “Have Stadium $$$, Inquire Within.”
  • Sports team owners make tons of “dark money” to political campaigns to try to get elected officials to support their interests, according to ESPN, though disappointingly their only real source is an unnamed NBA owner. But that source did say, “There’s no question,” in italics and everything, so you know they’re serious.
  • Maybe the NHL should just play games outdoors so they can allow in fans? There are dumber ideas, but they might want to figure out how to get fans to keep their damn masks on first.
  • There are some new renderings of the New York Islanders‘ luxury suites at their new arena, and I can’t stop puzzling over what that weird counter-like thing is in this one, or why the women are all wearing stiletto heels to an NHL game. I’ll never understand hockey!

*UPDATE: Now it’s up.

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World Series ends with Covid-positive Justin Turner celebrating on field without mask, sportswriters sum up Rangers’ $1B stadium as “unnecessary,” all is as it should be

The baseball postseason that would never end has finally ended, fittingly enough with a late-inning Covid controversy as Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner had to be removed from the final game of the World Series in the 7th inning after receiving a positive test result, went back on the field without a mask to celebrate with his teammates, then complained that he “couldn’t be out there to celebrate with my guys.” Truly, the only way this could be more cringey would be if MLB chose this moment to bring back the ad slogan “Baseball Fever: Catch It!

But even as we wonder how Turner contracted the coronavirus while supposedly in a bubble and why he then sat next to a cancer survivor with no mask on, let’s not allow this bizarro World Series to pass into history without enjoying the glimpse that it gave us of the Texas Rangers‘ new $1 billion stadium, about half a billion dollars of which came from Arlington residents so that the team would no longer have to suffer the indignity of playing in a stadium without air conditioning. We’ve already heard the few fans in attendance extremely inappropriately calling the place “breathtaking”; now ESPN has polled its reporters on the scene of what they think of the place, and the reviews (edited for length and maximum hilarity) are decidedly meh:

Alden Gonzalez: It’s a modern, bigger, more comfortable, yet less charming — and in my opinion, unnecessary — version of the old place.

Jeff Passan: It’s fine. … Aesthetically, there’s nothing particularly inspiring about it.

Jesse Rogers: It feels cozy, especially if you’re in the lower bowl, but the tradeoff was going straight up. If you have a fear of heights, this is not the park for you.

Gonzalez: My least favorite part is that it doesn’t feel intimate.

Passan: From above, the place looks like what would happen if a Costco and a barn had a baby.

Gonzalez: What’s better is that it has a roof.

Rogers: OK, it’s cool when it opens and closes, but this is Texas. Besides the occasional storm, what’s the need for a dome?

Okay, I left out a few nice things the ESPN trio had to say about Globe Life Field — apparently the fence height is “perfect,” according to Gonzalez, which is totally a reason to spend $1 billion to build an entirely new stadium — but the upshot is that they think this is a “middle-tier” stadium, not the best or the worst, with a “corporate” feel but some nice brick columns. That’s something that could be said of lots of modern stadiums, including the one it replaced, but I guess they had to come up with something to say beyond “it would have been more impressive if they’d kept the old stadium and set a billion dollars on fire in center field.”

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NYCFC exec reports “a ton of progress” on stadium, cites no actual specific progress

One of the more thankless tasks of being a CEO of any kind has to be trying to spin bad news or no news into a pretense that you have inevitable forward momentum for whatever project you’re desperately scrabbling to make work. This is obviously easier if you’re a natural scammer who even changes her voice to sound more authoritative, but it’s part of the job for everyone, even if you’re just a longtime sports exec who was hired to lead an MLS club that has been insisting for years that it’s about to build a new stadium, just as soon as it figures out the pesky financing details.

And so, we present NYC F.C. Brad Sims, telling YES Network (the sports cable network owned by his team co-owners the New York Yankees) how despite two years having passed since it first leaked news of a possible South Bronx stadium, and despite reports that the plan still faces numerous obstacles including decommissioning an entire highway ramp, things are going really super well:

“I think that’s something that remains a huge, huge priority of the club, something that’s extremely important to us. I know, I feel the fans’ pain. I know how badly they want it. I know how badly they want news on confirmation of it and I can assure all of our fans that there is no stronger sense of urgency possible than what we have right now to be able to deliver that to our fans. And we have a team that’s working on it full-time, 100 percent of the time.

“And we’ve made a ton of progress. We really have,” Sims continued. “And we’re very optimistic, as optimistic as we’ve ever been. Having said that, it’s a long process and for us arguably the most important part of that process is the community, the community input, working with community leaders and making sure that this project is something that reflects what they want and what’s important for their community. We feel that this is something — not just the stadium, but the overall project that we’re going to be working on — that’s going to be transformational for the South Bronx and we need to make sure that everyone is aligned with that vision.

“But we’re making progress, we’re feeling good about it and we’ve never been as optimistic as we are right now. And hopefully we’ll have some good news to share with our fans as soon as we can.”

That is an awful lot of words to expend on “nothing new to report,” but again, it’s not the content of the words that’s important but the tone: Progress! Optimism! Transformational! Those aren’t the words of a CEO overseeing a death ride to nowhere, but rather someone hard at work on a plan that takes time, you know these things do, but it’ll all work out in the end. I mean, look at David Beckham’s Inter Miami stadium, which took years but now … okay, maybe that’s a bad example. But anyway: Optimism! You gotta believe!

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49ers owner spends $3m to unseat Santa Clara politicians who crossed him, says he’s promoting “diversity”

San Francisco 49ers owners the York family successfully won approval in 2012 to build a $1.2 billion stadium in Santa Clara with the city taking on much of the risk, but ever since then has butted heads continually with local government, clashing over insufficient team financial reports and how much taxes the team would pay and whether the Rolling Stones could set off fireworks and who gets to manage the stadium and whether the team could withhold rent when two exhibition games were canceled thanks to Covid. What’s a poor sports billionaire family to do? Buy a new local government, of course!

[Jed] York has contributed $3 million to Citizens for Efficient Government and Full Voting Rights, a PAC whose stated mission is to bring diversity to the city council​…

”It would be unusual for a sports franchise owner or let’s just say any corporation or business to spend this kind of money even in a mayor’s race,” John Pelissero, the senior scholar at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, said​ Thursday​. “Instead this has all the appearance of attempting to buy four city council seats just to improve the private interests of the 49ers.”

While the PAC is organized to promote diversity, the candidates it’s supporting this year go extremely white guy, Indian-American guy, Indian-American woman, Korean-American guy; they’re looking to unseat a white woman and a woman so white she has a Celtic knot in her campaign page banner design, plus capture two open seats. So that’s either a plus or a minus depending on whether you’re looking at racial or gender diversity, and of course assuming by “diversity” you mean “access to just enough power for non-white-guys to not make white guys uncomfortable,” but that’s a battle that was lost decades ago.

Anyway, the issue here is less whether York is backing diverse (or good) candidates than whether he’s trying to unseat elected officials who are a pain in his butt by throwing money around. Three million dollars may not be a lot to an NFL owner, but it’s a fortune in small-city political circles: SFist notes that one of the incumbents (it links to a dead campaign finance page, so we can’t tell which one) has only raised a total of $6,234 this year. And whether or not York is successful — and whether or not the challengers he’s supporting would necessarily be beholden to his interests — he’s certainly making a public statement that anyone who clashes with him will be firmly in the crosshairs of his wealth come election time. If that’s enough to get current or future local pols antsy enough to get them looking to cut deals with him rather than taking a hard line, that should prove money well spent.

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Friday roundup: World still on fire, let’s remember 1989 when the greatest sports horror imaginable was Alan Thicke in a tuxedo

Very busy week here at FoS HQ, so let’s dispense with any introductory chitchat and get right to the news we didn’t already get to this week:

That’s all for now, see you all Monday!

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Columbus has no clue how Crew is spending $98m in city stadium money, can’t be bothered to check

I missed this news story from earlier this week about the Columbus Crew‘s new stadium spending until an eagle-eyed reader pointed it out to me, but unless you’re a regular reader of the Columbus Dispatch already, it’ll likely make your jaw drop as it did mine. I mean, the first line alone:

During the past year, tens of millions of public dollars have flowed toward construction of the Columbus Crew SC’s new Downtown stadium and its Mapfre training facility, but the local officials who approved the payments haven’t requested or received any details about how the team spends that money.

The Crew stadium project has never exactly been known for its transparency: Last year at this time, it was revealed that the city of Columbus had hidden $48 million in stadium costs in its “Other Projects” budget, effectively doubling the amount of city money being devoted to the stadium. (There’s at least another $65 million in county and state money as well, plus the value of public land being provided for the project.) Not even asking how taxpayer money is being spent, though, that’s pretty hardcore. And local officials are adamant that it’s not their job to pay attention to this stuff:

Asked how the public is to know what percentage of the total project cost it will pay, Ty Marsh, executive director of the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio and chairman of the Confluence Community Authority board, said: “I think the public would have to ask them,” referring to the team….

In fact, the Confluence Authority hasn’t met in more than 10 months, has reviewed no financials on the construction of the stadium it will lease back to the team, and has no immediate plans to meet in the future, Marsh said.

Okay, so the authority handing out the city’s money can’t be bothered to check on it, or even to meet. What about the city itself?

Asked if the city knows what had been spent to date by all parties involved, including the team, Robin Davis, spokeswoman for Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther, replied in an email: “You would have to reach out to the Haslams for that.”

This is great reporting by the Dispatch, and since we’re coming to it late, we have the opportunity to see all of the fallout that’s already coming from the paper’s bombshell. And the answer is … a Dispatch columnist wrote a long allegory about a crooked magician? Other than that, it doesn’t appear that the story has had any consequences: Pretty much all the reporting on the Crew this week was limited to reporting on how they had rescheduled last week’s game that was postponed after two staff members tested positive for the coronavirus.

So I guess it’s up to me to shout about this: Hey everybody, the city of Columbus is writing $98 million in checks to the owners of its pro soccer team without bothering to keep track of how they’re spending it! Did that do the trick? SHOULD IT TYPE IT IN ALL CAPS? This entire website, not to mention the book that inspired it, not to mention my entire life’s work as a journalist, is dependent on the idea that if you expose bad behavior, someone will notice it and call attention to it and maybe, eventually, things will start to change. If instead we’re just laughing and pointing to keep from crying, I guess that’s valuable too, but someone please tell me so that I can recalibrate my already-low expectations.

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Saints lobbied to pack fans into Superdome less than six feet apart, say #1 priority is “safety”

Sometimes when I write a post here assuming the worst intentions of sports team owners, I feel slightly bad. Sure, sports barons may have a long history of using everything possible in the pursuit of personal profit, but does that mean it’s always the case? Maybe when the New Orleans Saints owners say they’re thinking of temporarily relocating to Baton Rouge so they can have fans in the seats, they’re genuinely trying to make the best of a bad situation and not just trying to pressure the city of New Orleans into opening up the Superdome to paid attendance?

Turns out: Naaaaaaaaah.

In August, before the season began, the Saints made a pitch to Gov. John Bel Edwards for a bolder idea: 35% capacity — a plan that would put almost 24,000 fans in the stadium for games…

The plan featured a detailed “seating manifest methodology” that showed how patrons would be spaced from several angles. In all, 23,875 people would have been allowed in the stadium under the proposal, to which Edwards did not agree.

That “seating manifest technology,” NOLA.com goes on to report, was mostly based on advanced fudging the numbers, as fans would have been seated less than six feet apart, the minimum distance recommended by the CDC, even though it’s also noted that the virus can spread across greater distances “under special circumstances.” Whether those special circumstances may include football fans taking off masks to eat and cheer in an indoor stadium is not specifically mentioned in any CDC reports, but it’s certainly a concern.

Also, luxury suites would have been filled to 100% capacity, because everyone in a luxury suite can clearly be trusted to stay six feet apart and masked within their extremely indoor space, which is then only a problem if you spend several hours together there uh-oh. (An official from Louisiana’s Ochsner hospital, who argued on behalf of the Saints’ plan, said that suite denizens would be assumed to be “cohorted group,” which given that Superdome suites hold up to 24 people would require some pretty huge households.)

The 35% plan was rejected by Gov. Edwards, who later approved attendance of up to 25% at Louisiana sporting events. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell later rejected any in-person attendance, though, saying her approval would depend on whether she got more state money to help deal with the pandemic, which doesn’t actually seem like great epidemiology either. And the Saints are keeping up the lobbying just in case:

The Saints met with Cantrell, medical professionals at Ochsner and Cantrell’s medical advisors on Monday about potentially phasing in fans for this weekend’s game and beyond, [Saints spokesperson Greg] Bensel said Monday evening.

“The city continues to see COVID positivity rates remain stable,” Bensel said in a statement. “The city currently has one of the lowest rates in the nation. We all agree that the priority is to make sure our city’s residents and our fans are safe and not to regress from the progress that has been made. We look forward to providing our fans more information shortly.”

Cantrell’s office declined to comment on the matter Monday.

Keeping people safe: When has the NFL ever made anything else its priority?

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If Covid is supposed to be slowing stadium spending, someone forgot to tell Albuquerque

If there’s one thing that’s given a boost to the stadium-building industry in the U.S., it’s the rapid growth of pro soccer, which is metastasizing franchises in a spree that’s somewhere between Ponzi scheme and dot-com bubble. While Major League Soccer is now up to 30 franchises, the second-tier United Soccer League already has 35 teams and plans for five more, and all those clubs have got to play games somewhere, and they would just die if it had to be in some old college football stadium or something, so, what are you going to do about this, city officials?

In the case of Albuquerque, home to the USL’s New Mexico United, the answer is apparently pay for a study of where to build a stadium before figuring out how to pay for one:

Mayor Tim Keller’s administration announced Friday it’s recommending a firm called the “Creative Arts Agency Icon” (CAAICON) to do a feasibility study for a proposed future multi-purpose soccer stadium…

The city hopes the feasibility study once and for all takes the guess work out of where to build the long-hyped venue.

“What I really want is a good answer, meaning here’s how much it will cost, here’s the available land, here’s how traffic could work, because we also know that if it is near a neighborhood or it is near businesses, they have an important role too,” Mayor Keller said at a news conference Friday. “Right now, everyone’s just discussing hypotheticals.”

Knowing how much a stadium would cost before setting out to build one is an important step, admittedly. So is how much the feasibility study would cost (KRQE reports that the city hasn’t agreed on a price yet with CAAICON, the entertainment industry behemoth founded by Michael Ovitz), and how much would be spent on a stadium or by whom — KQRE notes there’s “no clear estimate” on cost but that “in the past, state lawmakers have discussed the project as a possible public-private partnership.”

The idea of public funding for a new New Mexico United stadium has been kicking around since late last year, when the numbers being thrown around were $30 million in state money toward a $100 million stadium. Just before the pandemic hit, United’s owners stoked the fires with some crazy-ass stadium renderings featuring a giant robot Muffler Man kicking a soccer ball, and suggested incorporating art galleries into the stadium, because that’s a synergy whose time must surely be ripe.

What no one is much talking about is why New Mexicans are being asked to pay to build a new stadium for their two-year-old soccer team. Right now the club plays at the Albuquerque Isotopes‘ minor-league baseball stadium, which is less than ideal, but also not really the city’s problem — if Peter Trevisani, the investment fund manager, art installation funder, and CrossFit enthusiast who owns the soccer team, figured he needed a soccer-only stadium to make it work, maybe he should have thought of that before plunking down the $7 million franchise fee. (Though admittedly, potentially getting use of a $100 million stadium by just paying $7 million for the team plus some undetermined slice of stadium costs is exactly the kind of arbitrage you’d expect from an investment fund manager.)

Anyway, some local officials seem to think that a new soccer stadium is just what New Mexico needs to heal its now 12.7% unemployment rate. Here’s Democratic state representative Moe Maestas:

“There’s no better thing that a government can do in tough economic times than build things, you know, roads, bridges, sewer. I see this as similar in terms of being a public good.”

And here’s Trevisani himself back in June, shortly after he managed to get himself to the governor’s “economic recovery council”:

“I think one of the things that can help keep our economy going and can help be a catalyst for our economy and also build a bridge to a more normalized environment that we all want to get back to are public projects, and the stadium certainly would fall in is one of them,” Trevisani said.

A government-built soccer stadium is certainly a public project, and public spending is certainly one way to dig yourself out of an economic hole caused by feedback loops of nobody spending money because nobody has money because nobody is spending money. But there are all kinds of things the government can be spending money on, and unlike roads and bridges and sewer lines that can be used by everyone for free, a soccer stadium would be operated by a private sports franchise that would charge admission to get in. Also, I think soccer is just maybe less of an essential public good than not having raw sewage in the streets? I guess that’s the kind of thinking that’s keeping me off of the New Mexico economic recovery council — that, and not being one of the businessmen set to profit from New Mexico’s economic recovery spending. I knew there was synergy at work here somewhere.

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Friday roundup: County might buy Richmond a minor-league ballpark, ticket prices soar at new Crew stadium, plus more athletes giving each other the ‘Rona

It was a big news week, what with the Anchorage mayor who resigned after being slandered as a pedophile by the anti-masking news anchor he’d been sexting with before she was arrested and fired for beating up her boss/fiance, and the new book about the libertarian town in New Hampshire that was ravaged by bears, and probably something about the election, I dunno, who can remember? So you are forgiven if you missed some of this week’s stadium and arena news, much of which focused on fans breathing all over each other inside them, but not all, not by a longshot:

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Bombshell Rays stadium plan probably doesn’t exist, also Nelson Mandela didn’t die in jail

I promised you I would report back if anything came of that Tampa Bay Buccaneers podcaster who said he had an inside scoop on a new Rays stadium being about to be announced, and I am here to tell you that somebody asked Tampa Mayor Jane Castor about it in a Facebook Live event. Upon which she said:

“I guess there is a blogger that said that we were getting ready to break ground on the Rays stadium here in Tampa Bay. To which my response was ‘news to me.'”

And then Rays president Brian Auld, who was also on the Facebook Live because of course the mayor of Tampa and the guy she’s sitting across the negotiating table from are hanging out and exchanging long protein strings, added:

“News to me also, and I feel like at least one of us would know about that.”

So that’s that. Unless Castor and Auld are just covering up the real truth! There’s a headline about it on WTSP-TV’s site and people are talking about it on Twitter, so there must be something to it!

WTSP included a video of Castor and Auld saying all this stuff, because they could, but I’m way more interested in what exactly J.C. Cornell said in the podcast he had been teasing the previous week. Let’s see, it’s on Spotify, and oh god, 44 minutes long? Let’s see (44 minutes of my life I’ll never get back later…) — he didn’t even mention it! He talked about how people in Chicago hate him, and Enemies of the Pod (which somehow didn’t include bears), but nothing about a new stadium. Clearly he’s just covering up the real truth!

Seriously, though, when something like this turns into a news story out of literally nothing, I think we’re edging past proportionality bias and into Mandela Effect territory. The idea that Tampa is about to announce a new stadium fits with past claims (even though those turned out to go nowhere) and is no doubt what many people sick of the Rays stadium saga would love to believe to be true. Add in that at this point the rumor has been repeated multiple times (yes, including on this site, it is the curse of media criticism that there’s no way to report on false rumors without also amplifying them) and it starts to feel true, or at least truthy, regardless of whether it ever happened.

In a very similar vein, Ault took the occasion of his Facebook Live appearance that he’s still working on the idea of the Rays splitting time between two new stadiums in Tampa Bay and Montreal:

“We’re excited about it. We’re working on it. Let’s state the obvious in that it’s on the back burner right now. Plenty of stuff occupying our time,” Auld said.

I mean, maybe they are? Or maybe they’re just trying to Mandela-Effect the Tampontreal Ex-Rays plan into existence so that the mayor of Tampa will keep meeting with them in order to avoid losing half the team to Canada? This is where it’s important for the news media to 1) exist beyond just a bunch of people with podcasts and Twitter accounts and 2) report on when things aren’t true, not just rumors of what might be, but they’re not all that great at doing either of those things lately. In the meantime, try to unremember things that you heard a lot but have no basis in reality — either that or decide that you’ve slipped into an alternate plane of existence. Clearly the Berenstain Bears are just covering up the real truth!

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