NYCFC stadium plan remains a quagmire wrapped in a swamp wrapped in a morass

When last we checked in on NYC F.C.‘s never-ending quest for a new soccer stadium in the Bronx, it was going nowhere fast, weighed down by problems with everything from obtaining the necessary land to rezoning the site. And it hasn’t sped up any during Covid, but a report by The Outfield (no, not those guys) has used public record requests to shed a little light on what the team has been up to in the meantime:

  • Developer Maddd Equities, which is working with the team on the project, has hired lobbyists to work on getting state approval to decommission a ramp to and from the Major Deegan Expressway, since the street it leads to would now be buried beneath the stadium. A big sticking point: The state “would have no interest in owning or maintaining a bridge which is not open to public traffic” and neither does the city, so Maddd or the team would presumably have to buy the thing, which would end up being turned into a pedestrian bridge sticking weirdly out of the side of the stadium like so:

    The bridge would be used to provide access to the Bronx waterfront, which has been an issue ever since a bunch of recreational space was displaced when the new Yankee Stadium nearby was build atop a public park and moved to the other side of the Deegan. That would maybe be a plus for local residents, though the necessity of having to climb a flight of stairs to get to a deck outside the soccer stadium before walking across the bridge would put a bit of a damper on its utility.

  • Maddd and NYC F.C. still have to arrange to buy a large chunk of the proposed stadium land, which is currently owned by an elevator company called GAL. But first GAL needs to find another site to relocate to, which according to public records has involved hiring more lobbyists to pressure the Bronx Borough President’s office to help out, on the grounds that GAL’s current home is “the lynch pin” of the soccer development. (Note to lobbyists: While that spelling is allowed, you probably don’t want to use it.)

The headline that The Outfield put on all this is “Is NYCFC’s Stadium Ready To Ramp Up?”, to which the answer appears, as Ian Betteridge would predict, to be “nope.” Which isn’t to say that it won’t happen eventually — lots of stadium deals happen eventually, and “eventually” is a long time — but for now it should probably remain classified under “reply hazy, ask again later.”

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MLB’s plan for fans at World Series should work fine if viruses agree to take a break while you’re eating

Once the MLB playoffs get past this current war of all against all stage, they will retreat to two sets of “bubbles,” with the National League headed to the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros home parks, while the American League will be hosted at the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres stadiums. And since Texas is a state that allows fans to attend outdoor sporting events at 50% capacity, MLB announced yesterday that it will be selling tickets to the N.L. Championship Series and World Series at Globe Life Field in Arlington. About 11,500 tickets will be made available per game, which is about 28% of the stadium’s 40,518-seat capacity.

The reason for doing this is obvious: LCS seats are slated to go for between $40 and $250 and World Series tickets between $75 and $450, so if both series go seven games MLB can expect to rake in from $20 million to $40 million just from ticket sales, not even counting concessions and souvenirs and all the other crap well-heeled baseball fans will plunk down money on after a summer of having nothing baseball-related to buy other than cardboard cutouts of themselves. But MLB is concerned about your safety too, so they will be imposing Covid protocols for those who wish to attend games:

  • Tickets will be sold in “pods” of four, with each pod separated from its neighbors by at least six feet. No seats will be sold within 20 feet of the field.
  • Masks will be mandatory “except when actively eating or drinking at their ticketed seats.”
  • Food sales will be pre-packaged and “contactless,” with no filthy money changing hands.
  • No bags will be permitted except for diaper bags or those required for medical reasons.

On the surface, this nods to all the science of preventing coronavirus spread — distancing, masks — but there are some worrisome loopholes. First off, while the pods will be sacrosanct, with no breaking them up to sell them to other fans, there’s no way to ensure that people seated in the same pod are members of the same household. That means — unless ticket buyers have to provide names of everyone in their party at purchase and IDs will be checked on entry, like for airplane flights, which seems like it would involve a lot of contact and non-distancey lines — there’s nothing stopping someone from buying four tickets and then inviting along three “friends” who they know from their long acquaintance at the other end of a Paypal transaction.

Way more concerning, though, is the bit about masks being required “except when actively eating or drinking.” Aside from being hard to enforce — we’ve already seen lots of fans taking masks on and off at NFL games — it’s not like the virus is going to see if you’re eating or drinking at the moment and go, “Oh, that’s cool, I won’t spread right now.” Having more people masked for more of the time is useful harm reduction, but adding a loophole for eating or drinking is a major potential disease vector.

(The bag thing has nothing to do with viral spread — what, are they afraid people are going to sneak in virus in a backpack? — and everything to do with making sure people eat only food they buy from the league.)

And then there’s the biggest elephant in the room, which is that Globe Life Field is a roofed stadium; in fact, that’s its entire reason for existence. If there’s one thing that’s become clear about the virus that causes Covid, it’s that it spreads far more effectively indoors than outdoors, thanks to stagnant and recirculating air. I’m not aware of any studies that investigate whether roofed sports stadiums should count as “indoor” or “outdoor” for viral spread purposes, but suffice to say there won’t be any passing breezes refreshing the air at the Rangers ballpark if the roof is closed.

But don’t just take it from me. Listen to an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Public Health on that school’s plans to all fans into (outdoor) football games:

Audrey Pettifor, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Gillings School, said reopening the stadium is not a good idea, calling it “crazy.”

She said she had doubts about just how safe thousands of people gathering in a stadium could really be, especially considering the amount of infrastructure required for safe entrance and exit from the stadium, as well as the difficulty of enforcing sanitation and mask protocols on individuals.

“If everyone wore masks, then we would say the risk of transmission is probably really low, no matter the size of the crowd,” Pettifor said. “But if there’s a hole in that chain, depending on the number of positive people in that crowd, the number of people who are unmasked and the number of people who are closer than six feet apart, then our risk starts going up.”

MLB’s plan to sell tickets to postseason games is full of holes. (In its chain. Which normally has a hole in each link, but okay, it’s not a perfect metaphor, just go with it.) So far there don’t appear to have been any major outbreaks at NFL or MLS games that have allowed in fans, so maybe MLB will be able to roll the dice here and everything will be fine. Or maybe the league is inching up to the line where it will recreate Game Zero in Milan, and then loose tons of newly infected fans to bring the virus back to their home towns once the games are over. We still have a limited number of risk bullets, and we — or at least MLB officials and the governor of Texas — are choosing to spend them on rich people getting to watch baseball games in person.

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Anaheim approves stadium land sale to Angels owner at $350m discount, because who needs more than two public meetings, really?

Last night, news watchers were treated to a chaotic public shouting match that seemed like it would never end — no, not that one. Across the country in Anaheim, the city council met for eight hours last night to debate the city’s plan to sell $500 million worth of land to Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno for $150 million plus promises of a new park and affordable housing; finally, after 1:30 am, the council voted to approve the deal by a 5-2 margin, with the same two no votes — councilmembers Jose Moreno and Denise Barnes — as when the preliminary deal was passed last December.

Bill Shaikin in the Los Angeles Times sums up the aftermath neatly in a pair of quotes:

“This is a spectacular day for Anaheim,” Councilman Stephen Faessel said.

“This was not a deal,” Barnes said. “It was a mess.”

Because the council now holds all its meetings via Zoom, public comments were required to be submitted by email, and more than 250 came in. As Shaikin reports, these “included dozens of submissions of the same form letter in support of the deal” after Moreno’s management company, SRB, sent out text-message alerts asking people to write the council in support of the deal.

For the best take on the Kafkaesque proceedings, go read Spencer Custodio’s report in the Voice of OC, which includes many wonderful passive-aggressive journalism takedowns, like this one after Moreno and Barnes tried to delay the vote until the council could hold an in-person meeting:

“We’re in the eleventh hour. We’ve been talking about this for a year and a half. And we’ve had over 30 meetings where this has been mentioned,” Councilman Trevor O’Neil said.

There were only two public meetings last year when the Council discussed specifics about the deal.

The council is required to repeat its vote next Tuesday to finalize the deal, but it’s clear that another week isn’t going to change anybody’s minds. Which means that the city of Anaheim has performed the astonishing feat of taking a position of strength — Moreno having terminated the team’s lease with nowhere else to play, gifting the city with the option of trying to impose whatever demands on him it wanted — and turning it into a deal that gives the Angels’ billionaire owner $350 million worth of free land, more than six years after then-mayor Tom Tait shot down a similar plan by pointing out that giving away land is the fiscal equivalent of giving away money. That’s seizing defeat from the jaws of victory in a way that even the Angels never managed.

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Former Anaheim mayor tells council that voting for Angels land sale would be “embarrassment,” council likely to vote for it anyway

The Anaheim city council is set to vote tonight on selling $500 million in stadium land to Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno for $150 million plus some promises to build stuff, and one former mayor is not mincing words when it comes to telling councilmembers that they should vote “no”:

In a Sunday letter to Mayor Harry Sidhu and the City Council, Assemblyman Tom Daly (who was mayor from 1992 to 2002) urged them to reconsider the $320 million deal and “avoid the embarrassment and lawsuits that are sure to follow this one-sided deal.”

I would love to tell you more about what Daly said, but the Orange County Register doesn’t link to the letter, and it’s not on Daly’s state assembly website and he doesn’t appear to have a Twitter, so we’ll just have to imagine the rest.

The OCR spoke to two other former Anaheim mayors as well. Curt Pringle, who succeeded Daly at City Hall in 2002, said that getting full market value for the land isn’t an issue because the city “didn’t buy [the stadium site in the 1960s] to be land speculators, they really bought it to be an economic engine,” which would actually seem to be an argument for seeing if any other bidders would present a plan with more economic impact — maybe one without an empty-most-of-the-year baseball stadium in the middle of it. Tom Tait, who succeeded Pringle in 2010 and immediately put a halt to plans to hand over the stadium land for next to nothing, notes that when the city was looking at selling one-third of the parcel for $53 million for an NFL stadium, Sidhu, then a city councilmember, “jumped out in the middle of the press conference and said that land’s worth at least $150 million.”

All of which is very entertaining #drama, but all that really matters is what the members of the council think, and as we saw last December, the majority were happy to sit on their hands while everyone shouted about the deal and then quietly vote to approve it. (Tonight’s meeting will be via Zoom, but local residents can submit comments by email until 2:30 pm Pacific time today.) Two incumbents, Denise Barnes and Steve Faessel, are up for reelection in November, but Barnes was actually one of the two no votes already, so even fear of facing angry constituents at the polls isn’t likely to do much to sway the council’s decision. Maybe it can be reversed later with lawsuits? Or, even better, with embarrassment? Man, would it be a great world if that worked.

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Friday roundup: Coyotes late with arena rent, Winnipeg move non-threats, and good old gondolas, nothing beats gondolas!

If you missed me — and a whole lot of other people you’ve likely read about here, including economist Victor Matheson and former Anaheim mayor Tom Tait — breaking down the Los Angeles Angels stadium deal in an enormous Zoom panel last night, you can still check it out on the Voice of OC’s Facebook page. I didn’t bother to carefully curate the books on the shelves behind me, as one does, so have fun checking out which novels I read 20 years ago!

And on to the news, which remains unrelentingly newsy:

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Pawtucket developer slashes size of soccer stadium project, still wants same $70m in tax subsidies

The Covid economy has developers all over rethinking construction plans, especially office projects, since it seems pretty likely not nearly as many people will be going in to the office in our future. And so it goes with Fortuitous Partners’ soccer stadium project for a USL team in Pawtucket, which was going to involve $360 million in apartments, shops, offices, and a hotel and conference center to go along with the $40 million stadium, and which now will include something less than that:

Brett Johnson, one of the cofounders of Fortuitous told the Pawtucket City Council on Wednesday night that the project was being scaled back. The former Apex site — the centerpiece of the project due to its highway visibility — is now being eliminated.

Johnson, who is also owner of the Phoenix Rising USL team, told the Providence Journal that his new price tag was “likely in the ‘low $300 million’ range.” The pandemic, he explained, has reduced demand for office space, though he could still add more offices later if those become a thing again.

But at least if the project is slimmed down, it won’t need so much in public tax subsidies, right? Hahahahahaha, no:

The project is still looking for $70 to $90 million in public financing. The company has hired high-powered Rhode Island lobbyists to try and secure the funding.

Or as the Journal says, in a sentence that manages to contradict itself in a single clause:

Johnson said Fortuitous still intends to privately finance the project using Opportunity Zone investments aided by tax increment financing with the city and state.

Kicking back $70-million-plus in tax revenues to get a $40 million minor-league soccer stadium (and a pile of other stuff) never seemed like the best idea, but it’s singularly worrisome at a time when minor-league sports is reeling and may never fully recover. Here’s Holy Cross economist Victor Matheson back in April on Pawtucket’s USL plans:

“This is a league with 100 teams and different tiers. Minor league sports are above everything the sort of thing to get crushed by coronavirus — everything they do is about getting people into the stadium. That’s not going to be happening with this team,” said Matheson.

“And this isn’t Lucchino — this isn’t John Henry, or Bob Kraft. These are often shoestring operations. [Coronavirus] could bankrupt a reasonably large number of teams in that league and suddenly this isn’t the league it was before,” added Matheson.

The tax increment financing plan still needs to be approved — I think by the state legislature, though it already approved a Pawtucket TIF district, so maybe just the city or the governor needs to okay it, really the reporting on this has been terrible — so there’s still time for things like public hearings, if anyone believed in those anymore. Maybe I’ll see if I can ask Matheson about it when he and I join up as part of this big Zoom get-together on the Los Angeles Angels stadium deal tonight at 9:30 Eastern/6:30 Pacific. I’m told it’s going to be broadcast live on the Voice of OC’s Facebook page, so check that out if you’re interested — I anticipate being very active in the comments…

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Raiders renting out parking spaces at new stadium so fans can watch games on TV for $80 per person

Good news, Oakland Los Angeles Oakland Las Vegas Raiders fans! Even though you can’t buy tickets to see games in person, because of that whole “deadly pandemic” thing, you can still sit in a parking lot and watch the game on TV, and it’ll only cost you $400 per carload!

The Las Vegas Raiders sent an email to season ticket holders late Tuesday advertising the Tailgate Zone at Allegiant Stadium, where fans in vehicles with five or fewer occupants can park in a stadium lot and watch the team’s game Sunday versus the New England Patriots.

Fans will watch the action on a large LED screen and a stage will be constructed where Raiders special appearances and performances are planned…

Options range from $400 for the Tailgate Ticket package to $500 for the VIP package, with both including food and beverage packages. Fans are also allowed to bring additional food and beverages from home, including alcohol, which isn’t served at the event.

Okay, so on the one hand this isn’t the most outrageous thing ever. Tailgating is super-popular among football fans for reasons I still can’t quite fathom — it mostly seems to involve being drunk in public and something about jumping on folding tables? — but if people really want to pay $80 per person to sit in a parking lot and watch a big screen instead of doing the same in their living room, more power to ’em, I guess? And the $80 does come with some free nachos or something, and there will be a system of alternating cars and tailgate spaces so that people can still socially distance (because surely drunk football fans would never dare wander out of their designated zones to socialize with each other), so clearly at least a little bit of thought has been put into this.

On the other hand: This is the most outrageous thing ever! A team owner who just got $750 million in taxpayer cash to help build a new stadium so he could move his team out of its previous home is now making up for not being able to sell high-priced tickets to watch the game in person by selling high-priced tickets to watch the game on TV in a parking lot! In a just world, Mark Davis would open up the damn parking lot for free as thanks to Nevada residents for helping buy his new bauble, and maybe offer to sell them some damn overpriced nachos if they want! What is this world even coming to?

Also, I’m pretty sure that photo accompanying the article depicts a Raiders fan dressed as Cthulhu. This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with severely overpriced cosplay. It had a good run — roll the tape.

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Very bad article predicts where Sixers arena will go without discussing who would pay for it, this is just how journalism works now

Want to read a really bad article about Philadelphia 76ers owner Josh Harris’s quest for a new arena? Sure, who wouldn’t! But, you may be asking yourself, how do I know that I am identifying every possible bit of badness, for maximum schadenfreude action? Fret no longer, for here is a step-by-step guide:

  • Start by looking at the URL to see if it’s from a legitimate news source, or whatever passes for one these days. “Play Pennsylvania” appears to be a site about gambling in Pennsylvania, but all of its domain registration contacts are in Malta. This, it turns out, is because it’s owned by a Maltese lead generation company, “lead generation” being corporate jargon for “getting people interested in things.” The author of the article is at least an award-winning freelance journalist and former standup comic, but we’re not off to a great start.
  • On to the article itself: “The Sixers have made it clear they do not intend to rent the Wells Fargo Center (owned by Comcast Spectacor) beyond the expiration of their lease in 2031.” Sure, and I don’t intend to still be driving a 2013 car in 2031, but you know what? Unless I find one that saves me so much on operating costs that it’s a better deal, or someone buys me one, I probably will be.
  • “When you own a venue, you own the development rights and collect rent from every concert promoter, trade show and college team to whom you lease the space.” You also own the debt from building the place, and the additional revenues from renting it out are seldom enough to pay that off, especially in a city that would then have two similar-sized arena competing for concerts and trade shows. (Remember concerts and trade shows? Those were good times.)
  • “They have options. Of course, matters like ‘who pays for it/tax incentives’ and infrastructure will ultimately drive the decision.” Yes, matters like that! Now let’s never speak of who’ll pay for it again, because this is not that kind of article!
  • “Building another arena next to the existing one doesn’t make economic sense. … A new arena will need to be somewhat removed geographically from the existing Sports Complex and have the opportunity to develop other uses with it.” This is a worthwhile nod to the above point about arena glut, but also completely misses the point about how arenas compete: Being across town from another arena isn’t sufficient to avoid conflicts. That’s why New Jersey’s Izod Center shut down in 2015 after competition from Newark’s Prudential Center ten miles away (and also Brooklyn’s Barclays Center across two rivers) when it was paid to shut down by, hey look, it’s Josh Harris!
  • “Here are three locations the Sixers should consider for their new home.” This is the real point of the article, and look, I get it, the Sixers are in the news, and you write for a somewhat sports-adjacent sort-of publication, and “Where else could the Sixers go?” is the kind of thing that might get you a few clicks, and you’re probably being paid based on your traffic numbers. But “Where will the local team owner build his inevitable arena?” is a tired bad-journalism cliche at this point, especially if you’re not looking at how it would be paid for or if he would even want one if somebody else weren’t helping to foot the bill. Especially if you’re just speculating wildly without any apparent sources for where Harris might actually be looking. (Top three wild speculations, if you’re wondering: Camden, on the Schuylkill River near 30th Street Station, and “I dunno, maybe the suburbs somewhere?”)

To be fair, this post actually isn’t much worse than the kind of thing one frequently reads in the actual daily news media — but that’s more an indictment of the actual news media than an endorsement of this. Coverage of sports stadium demands has been pretty bad for decades, and now that reporting is being left to overworked, underpaid writers working for shadowy offshore gambling-promotion companies, it’s only going in the wrong direction. Media literacy is the only real solution at this point, so as long as there’s still money for quality schooling instead of it being siphoned off to pay for private development projects … oh. I see what you’re doing, sports barons — well played!

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UK just closed soccer stadiums to fans for virus rates that wouldn’t bat an eye in most US states

Bad news if you’re an English soccer fan who was hoping to, say, check out one of those crazy high-scoring Leeds United games in person: Plans to reopen British soccer stadiums at limited capacity on October 1 have been scuttled by the U.K.’s fast-rising Covid rates.

Speaking to the BBC on Tuesday, cabinet office minister Michael Gove said that the Oct. 1 plans will now be paused.

“We were looking at a staged programme of more people returning,” Gove said. “It wasn’t going to be the case that we were going to have stadiums thronged with fans.

“We’re looking at how we can, for the moment, pause that programme, but what we do want to do is to make sure that, as and when circumstances allow, get more people back.”

Britain is indeed seeing a surge in Covid cases, even if predictions of 50,000 cases a day by mid-October assume that current rates of exponential growth continue, which even the government scientist who made the prediction called “quite a big if.” Here, check out the rolling seven-day average chart of new cases per capita:

That’s very ungood, and looks a lot like the abrupt rise back in March that led the U.K. to shut down stadiums and pretty much everything else in the first place, so good public health policy there!

But it does make one wonder: How do those wild Covid case rates in Britain compare to those in U.S. states that are allowing sports stadiums to admit fans? The current U.K. rate (against, seven-day rolling average) is 59.1 new cases per day per million residents; looking at which U.S. states are above that rate, we get, let’s see:

Gah! That’s 29 states plus the District of Columbia, if you don’t want to have to count for yourself. And even if not all those states are currently seeing upswings in positive tests, many are: Missouri, for example, which was the site of the very first NFL game of the season to allow fans, and where some fans were subsequently ordered to quarantine because they sat near a fan who subsequently tested positive. Missouri currently has a new-case rate of 238.8 cases per day per million, which is more than quadruple what’s led Britain to close its stadiums.

None of which makes open-air stadium attendance any more (or less) dangerous than we’ve discussed here before. But the best way to have safe public events during a pandemic, it’s extremely clear, is to tamp down the pandemic as far as possible, since it’s tough to catch a virus from a fan neighbor who isn’t infected in the first place. This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be universal precautions — masks are still good — but things like allowing fans into stadiums (or reopening indoor dining, where people are taking their masks off to eat and breathing the same air and really, it skeeves me out just thinking about it) should really be reserved for places where the virus rates are very low, like, yeah, New Zealand still looks good. Maybe the entire NFL should relocate there for 2020, if New Zealand would let germy Americans in, which you know it won’t.

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Anaheim stadium protest raises question: When is $500m in land worth only $150m?

The People’s Homeless Task Force OC, the same group suing to block the Los Angeles Angels‘ stadium land sale for violating open meetings laws, held a small (about 20 people, per the OC Register) protest in front of Anaheim city hall yesterday, with signs reading “Stadium ‘Deal’ Sucks” and “Recall The Corrupt Mayor Harry Sidhu.” (Actually “The Corrupt Recall Mayor Harry Sidhu,” but I’m assuming they just forgot the caret.) The interesting part, though, came via the canned response they got from city spokesperson Mike Lyster:

“There’s nothing like baseball to generate speculation and strong opinions, and we welcome all voices. We stand by our process and still have more public consideration ahead of us. The only way to see more money from this site is to sell it without baseball, and that was not our goal. Development under this proposal would drive much-needed revenue for our city for years to come.”

Let’s break this down:

  • Opinions are good and part of the public process! Even when they’re wrong, like yours are!
  • The $500 million estimate for the value of the Angel Stadium property is for delivering it unencumbered by a baseball stadium, so unless you want to force the Angels out really it’s only worth the $325 million that Angels owner Arte Moreno agreed to. But no, that’s not how land value works: As we discussed here last December, the fact that Moreno is seeking a less-lucrative use of the land because he wants to keep the stadium on it (as does the city of Anaheim) doesn’t make it less valuable — if the land were for sale on the open market, he’d have to outbid rival developers who didn’t give a crap about baseball who’d be willing to pay around $500 million. So really Lyster is saying here “We’re giving Arte Moreno $175 million in free land to be sure Moreno wouldn’t have to choose between paying what the land would normally be worth or finding other land to buy for a stadium somewhere else,” which sounds a lot less defensible when you put it that way.
  • Lyster also evades the issue of the $175 million in kickbacks that Moreno is getting to build affordable housing and parks, because a new park in the middle of a baseball stadium development is totally worth the same to Anaheim residents as $46 million in cash they could use to build a park (or anything else) wherever they want, right?
  • This will provide the city with revenue, and revenue is good! This is the argument for pretty much all tax and land cost breaks for development on vacant or underutilized land: Without this development we would get nothing, so it’s all free money! It’s also a variant on the Casino Night Principle, where discounts for developers aren’t really discounts because if you go looking for your heart’s desire and it’s not already in your own backyard, you never had it to begin with, hey maybe I should call this the Wizard of Oz Principle?

This should all be a lesson in stadium subsidy economics, Rule No. 1 of which is Pick any number as the amount of public money going into a project, and you can probably find someone who can find a way to justify it. That’s not a justification for throwing up your hands and declaring the impossibility of objective reality — Arte Moreno really is getting $500 million in land for $150 million in cash plus some promises to build housing and parks — but it does help explain how one person’s massive subsidy can be another’s great deal. Toronto Blue Jays exec (and later MLB official) Paul Beeston once famously said of baseball finances, “Under generally accepted accounting principles, I can turn a $4 million profit into a $2 million loss and get every national accounting firm to agree with me,” and the same principle applies here: There are people who make big bucks to change big numbers into small ones and vice versa, so it’s always important to take a hard look at the man behind the curtain.

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