Thursday roundup: NBA mulls expansion to raise quick cash, 60-year-old community-owned team sold to local rich dude, Crew may seek more tax breaks somehow

Happy pre-Christmas, everybody! (That’s the name for today, right? I really should Google that.) Here’s the stray news for the short holiday week:

  • NBA commissioner Adam Silver has called expansion the league’s “manifest destiny” and said that “it’s caused us to maybe dust off some of the analyses on the economic and competitive impacts of expansion” (what “it”? shh, don’t ask questions, the important man is talking) but “not to the point that expansion is on the front burner.” The implication is after losing like $1.5 billion in revenue, some quick cash from expansion fees sounds real good about now, but Silver’s not going to be the one to say that out loud, not when it might make him look desperate, not when it’s expansion cities and prospective owners that should be begging him to expand, that’s just how this is supposed to work, you know.
  • The Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, since 1958 run by a community-owned non-profit, have been sold to a local rich guy because, um, something about Covid. Also the non-profit’s chair, Tom Lehr, said “100% of the profits from the sale of the team to Third Base Ventures will be invested back into the team,” according to the Appleton Post-Crescent, which, what? This guy gets to buy the team, and also use the money he paid for it on the team as well? What is even happening.
  • The Columbus Crew‘s old stadium, which is set to become the team’s training ground plus public soccer fields, still belongs to the team while the land under it belongs to the state, and the team has to make $210,000 in payments in lieu of property taxes each year under a 2007 court settlement, but they’re working on a long-term lease now and a term sheet proposed by the team mentions “Ownership of existing MAPFRE Stadium to be discussed and examined in connection with real estate tax and other considerations,” and all this is a red flag but no one’s quite sure of what exactly. Maybe something that should have been considered before giving the Crew $98 million toward a new stadium? Ennnnh, that seems like a lot of work.
  • This year’s Rose Bowl is going to be played in Texas because that California has one of the nation’s worst coronavirus surges (Texas isn’t far behind, but Texas’s governor doesn’t care), and also this year’s Pro Bowl is going to be played on Madden, which warms my heart that our glorious future may finally arrive soon. If you’re wondering if the Pro Bowl had to be moved because its home stadium in Honolulu is on the verge of being condemned, nope, it was going to be in Las Vegas this year anyway, but, you know, Covid. Also, Honolulu’s outgoing mayor Kirk Caldwell warns that the city’s indoor arena is even older than the stadium and even though it’s getting a $43.6 million upgrade, “at some point you run out of life” and okay, yes, Caldwell’s plan for a $700 million replacement arena was already rejected and also he’s only mayor for another week, sorry, I don’t know why we’re actually talking about him.
  • There’s now an online petition against “any taxpayer funding being used to finance, construct, acquire, renovate, equip, enlarge, or operate a new baseball stadium within the City of Knoxville or Knox County.” Allow the debates over what counts as “taxpayer funding” to commence now!
  • If you want to work at F.C. Cincinnati‘s new stadium, they’re hiring! What about all the people who worked at the team’s old stadium, which actually averaged more fans per game than the new one will hold? Sorry, no room in the article for that!
  • The owners of the New York Yankees have agreed to provide ten $5,000 grants to local businesses suffering amid the pandemic — wait, seriously, $50,000? That’s roughly how much the Yankees pay Gerrit Cole for each batter he faces. “We are extremely appreciative of this support from the Yankees,” local bar owner Joe Bastone said, according to a statement issued by the Yankees, which ended up getting a bunch of media coverage out of it, all of it positive. Until now.
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What we know about Knoxville’s plan to spend $65m (or more!) on a new Smokies stadium

The Knox County Commission joined the Knoxville city council in approving the creation of a sports authority yesterday, the first step toward building a new stadium for the Tennessee Smokies. The next step is (checks assembly instructions) figuring out what to build and how to pay for it, which looks simple enough. Who’s got an Allen wrench?

We already went over some of the details back in August, but that’s like a decade ago in 2020 time, so a quick recap and update:

  • Smokies owner Randy Boyd, an invisible dog fence baron, failed gubernatorial candidate, and current president of the University of Tennessee, as well as owner of the Johnson City Cardinals, Greeneville Reds, and Elizabethton Twins of the just-demoted-to-amateur-college-ball Appalachian League, would put up 11 acres of land and $140 million toward a new stadium complex that would also include a “mixed-use development.” The city and county would put up an additional $65 million.
  • Does squeezing a baseball stadium plus a bunch of apartment buildings onto one 11-acre site look like a topological impossibility? You bet it does! (Boyd has said the development would include “apartments with balconies overlooking the field,” which it kind of would have to; he has not said whether the Smokies’ left fielder would double as a doorman.)
  • Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs has said that “in order for me to be supportive, this project cannot and will not put any additional tax burdens on Knox Countians,” which will be a neat trick given that $65 million public price tag. Presumably there will be some sort of TIF deal where future taxes from the project will be kicked back to pay for construction, or something similar, but no details have been released yet.

That still leaves a ton of questions, including how Boyd’s land “donation” will work: If it means he gets to use his land to build a lucrative development project but hand over the deed to the public so he can get out of paying property taxes on it, that could be a significant hidden subsidy on top of the $65 million in taxpayer cash. There also remains the issue of who would pay Boyd’s buyout fee for the remaining years of his lease on the Smokies’ current stadium in suburban Kodak, which could cost as much as $10 million.

This is all taking place against the backdrop of MLB’s downsizing scheme for minor-league ball, which if nothing else makes having a traditional farm team with actual prospects paid actual salaries seem a more scarce commodity. Which isn’t to say that Boyd will threaten anything like “If you don’t approve this, I can ask MLB to move my Double-A team to Johnson City and stick you with a bunch of college sophomores on summer break” — Knoxville still has the advantages of population and fan base — but you and I and he and the sports authority all know he could, and that’s the kind of leverage a savvy negotiator likes to have.

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Friday roundup: Titans seek overhaul of 21-year-old stadium, FC Cincy subsidy nears $100m, plus: bored sportswriters go rogue!

A quick programming note: The next two Friday roundups will be on Thursdays, since the next two Fridays are Christmas and New Year’s. Not that I’ll be doing much special those days — I’ve done pretty much nothing since March other than sit and stare at my laptop screen — but I’m doing this anyway as a courtesy to readers who may feel the need to go out and infect extended family members with a deadly disease or something.

And on to this week’s news remainders:

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Friday roundup: Throwing good money after bad edition

This will be remembered as the week that all 30 MLB teams played at once, after the Cincinnati Reds returned from being sidelined by a positive Covid test … for one whole day, until the New York Mets were sidelined by two positive Covid tests. Is this a sign that having 900 players plus coaches plus other staff flying around a country with some of the highest Covid rates in the world is likely to keep resulting in occasional infections? Probably! Is it a sign that the MLB season is doomed to fail? Probably not, given that the season is almost halfway over already, though it’s going to get interesting once the “Everybody Plays!” postseason kicks off and a positive test result means delaying the entire schedule, and/or maybe playing entire playoff series as seven-inning doubleheaders. There’s increasing talk of playing everything after the first round in a bubble in, uh, Texas and Southern California, which sounds like a terrible idea but the NBA has managed to keep its players uninfected in the eye of the Covid hurricane in Florida, so who knows, really. Maybe there are no good ideas right now, only more and less terrible ones.

Anyway, enough about the goofy baseball season that could end up with a sub-.500 team winning the World Series, let’s talk about what you’re really here for:

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Santa Cruz considering replacing eight-year-old arena with new one to “woo” minor-league basketball team

Move over, Knoxville — Santa Cruz is ready to take the lead in the “looking to build a new sports venue despite the Covid budget crunch” race. The Santa Cruz Warriors G-League team’s lease expires after next year, and the city is reportedly looking to “woo” the team into staying put beyond that, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel. And what, precisely, do they mean by woo?

A city-sponsored market and arena project feasibility study by consultant Victus Advisors concluded in 2017 with support to build a permanent arena in an expanded footprint on the existing location, top among several preferred locations. [Santa Cruz economic director Bonnie, I’m assuming, the Sentinel article didn’t actually bother to give her first name or ID] Lipscomb said Tuesday that she recognized that right now was, “from a fiscal standpoint in the middle of a pandemic, the worst time to come forward asking for a public subsidy.” Lipscomb clarified she was not asking city leaders for that this week. City Manager Martín Bernal later further elaborated that building a new arena would be a public-private effort, not a “100% or primarily a public type of project.”

So nobody is asking for any kind of public subsidy, just a “public-private” effort that wouldn’t be “primarily” public. Got it.

As for the outmoded arena in need of replacement, it was opened way back in … I’m sorry, did you say 2012?

Okay, so technically this is classified as a temporary building: It’s a metal frame with an air-supported roof. (The city loaned the Warriors $4.1 million to help build the place, most of which has been paid back, according to Lipscomb.) Still, air-supported roofs have been used for plenty of permanent structures in the past, and nothing seems to be falling apart at the current arena. The Warriors owners — who are, let’s be clear, the same billionaires who own the Golden State Warriors) may want a snazzier place, but that wouldn’t seem to be Santa Cruz’s problem.

Except, of course, for that expiring lease, which gives the team owners that all-important leverage. Along with the fact that basketball is unusual among North American sports in having only a single 29-team minor league when there are hundreds of cities that could potentially support a minor-league basketball team — while Joe Lacob and Peter Guber would have been insane to move the Golden State Warriors out of the Bay Area, their G-League affiliate could probably do just fine in Fresno or Sacramento or Vacaville, which makes it way easier to get a bidding war going, or at least threaten your city with the possibility of a bidding war, which as we’ve seen time and time again is a great way to get local development officials talking about “public-private partnerships.”

And all this makes me wonder whether, even if the Covid recession causes a brief lull in sports subsidies, we could see a huge surge once it’s over, if not before then. We already have the likelihood of a large swath of minor-league baseball teams getting disappeared next year; and still more minor-league teams across several sports may go belly-up if they run out of cash while waiting for fans to return. And while that may be terrible for the sports industry as a whole, for the teams that survive, it hands them a convenient gun to hold to the heads of their current homes: With plenty of other empty stadiums out there to choose from, give us what we’re asking for, or else.

That’s going to be a tough call for city officials: Dip into recession-ravaged budgets to give money to the local sports team, or risk losing one of your few local businesses. (I almost wrote “major businesses,” but that’d be pushing it for a business that’s only open at most 70 days a year — though there is some evidence, at least, that minor-league teams are better at siphoning off spending from the next town over than their big-league counterparts.) Again, we’ve seen which way most cities tend to go on that decision, so it’d be crazy for minor-league sports owners not to at least try.

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Tennessee Smokies owner looking for “public-private partnership” to build new stadium in Knoxville, here we go

All this talk of Covid infection control protocols is fun to pass the time, but I know you’re all wondering: When are some rich dudes going to resume the real national pastime of grubbing for taxpayer dollars to build sports stadiums? And today you shall wait no longer, because Randy Boyd, multimillionaire invisible dog fence baron, failed gubernatorial candidate, University of Tennessee president, and Tennessee Smokies owner, has asked the city of Knoxville to build him a new stadium. The basics:

  • The Smokies currently play in Kodak, about 15 miles east of Knoxville, having moved there from the city when a new stadium was built for them by Sevier County in 2000.
  • Their lease expires in March 2025, but Boyd can leave early if he buys out the remaining years, which would cost him either around $10 million or $300,000 a year, depending on which news source you believe.
  • Boyd spent $6 million in 2016 to buy seven acres of land in Knoxville that he hopes to use for a stadium.
  • Knoxville Chief Economic and Community Development Officer Stephanie Welch says the city is exploring funding options, and is “excited about exploring the opportunity with other partners” and seeking a “public-private partnership”; this translates as “Boyd doesn’t wanna pay for all of it, so we’re trying to find some local business suckers to split the cost with the city.” There’s also talk of a “mixed-use development” on the site, which would be a lot to fit on Boyd’s 11 total acres along with a ballpark, but is definitely the kind of thing you say when you’re looking for ways to involve other investors.
  • Are there renderings? Do they involve ballplayers the size of Volkswagens standing in positions bearing little resemblance to actual baseball? You bet they do:

This is all just the kicking-the-tires stage, but it’s certainly worth noting that Knoxville officials seem perfectly eager to throw some kind of public money at a new stadium even in the midst of a pandemic recession that has forced budget cuts to such things as libraries and public health. And that’s before Boyd has even rattled any sabers about moving out of the Knoxville area entirely — don’t forget that once minor-league baseball restarts, it will likely be without 42 affiliated teams including the Chattanooga Lookouts, any one of whose cities could be interested (or at least cast as interested) in becoming the new home of the Smokies. I know it may seem like the world has changed irrevocably under Covid, but the underlying business model of the sports industry and its relationship to local political forces is still there, waiting patiently for this to all be over. Or not so patiently, if there’s an expiring lease and an unemployed sketch artist with no sense of proportion ready and waiting to go.

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Islanders to split games between Brooklyn and Nassau while awaiting Belmont Park arena — which may have a train problem

The New York Islanders made it official yesterday: Until their new Belmont Park arena is ready in 2021-ish, they’ll split time between Brooklyn and Nassau County, with 12 home games (out of 41) at the Nassau Coliseum next season and a total of 48 (out of 82) over the following two seasons. (Though those numbers could also include a few exhibition games; the announcement wasn’t super clear.)

If you’re wondering why the Islanders will still play any games in Brooklyn at all when the team owners hate the place and the feeling is mutual, team owner Jon Ledecky spelled that out:

“To be a max cap salary team you have to maximize revenue,” he said. “The Coliseum amenities are not as good as Barclays. There are over 100 suites at Barclays and less than a dozen here. Nassau Coliseum does not have an optimal situation at this point.”

In other words, we can make more money in Brooklyn, even if our fans hate it and we do too. But at least by splitting the difference Ledecky and his partners can avoid alienating fans further while waiting for that new arena to open.

And, oh yeah, about that new arena: The Village Voice’s Aaron Gordon has been looking at the possibilities for running Long Island Railroad trains there on a regular basis, as Ledecky is insisting the state of New York pay for, and discovered that this may run up against the bounds of the physical universe.

Currently, [Center for Transportation Research at University of Tennessee, Knoxville director David] Clarke says, there are no switches east of Belmont that allow trains to navigate the tracks in such a way that allow them to get to Belmont. The only option using existing infrastructure would be, as Clarke put it, to “zigzag”: overshoot the Y connection by a few hundred feet and then reverse across the switches to get to the Belmont spur. It would be like a three-point turn in the middle of a highway, but for a train.

And it gets worse: The LIRR could install new switches to the east of Belmont Park to avoid this zigzag solution, but thanks to a bridge over a highway immediately adjacent to the racetrack, this would require running westbound trains on eastbound tracks for a long stretch. During rush hour.

Then there’s the problem that even if a defunct rail spur were activated to get fans from Long Island to Belmont, the layout of the tracks would mean most of them would have to switch trains at a little-used station that would need massive upgrades to handle the surge of passengers, and … you know, just read the whole thing, it’s worth it. Suffice to say that when the MTA says it can’t begin to guess how much this will end up costing taxpayers, it probably has good reasons to.

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Consultant that’s never been right about anything tells Knoxville to build $200m minor-league hockey arena

As I frequently point out, I don’t have the bandwidth to cover all of minor-league sports, but occasionally a venue deal there stands out as especially noteworthy. And that’s the case with the proposal to replace the Knoxville Civic Coliseum, home of the Knoxville Ice Bears, with a new 10,000-seat arena for a whopping $205 million.

The price tag is alarming — I’m almost certain this would be the most expensive minor-league hockey arena ever, and it’s not close — but even more so is the consultant who made the proposal:

“It’s not state-of-the-industry, at all,” Bill Krueger, principal of Conventions, Sports and Leisure International, said in his presentation on the coliseum and auditorium during a public meeting.

Yes, it’s our old friends CSL, the venue consultant arm of the Dallas Cowboys/New York Yankees-owned concessions company Legends Hospitality, the same consultants who had to withdraw its own economic impact projections for a D.C. United stadium after it admitted screwing them up, overestimated the impact of the San Diego Padres‘ new stadium by including attendees at an unrelated convention center, and cited approvingly a study of LeBron James’ economic impact that the study’s own author had said didn’t mean what CSL said it meant. These are the guys that Knoxville called in to tell them what to do with their arena.

Really, shouldn’t there be some truth-in-labeling requirement that anyone who has been proven to be so spectacularly wrong on previous occasions should have to be presented as such? (I’ve been thinking about this ever since Iran-Contra co-conspirator Elliott Abrams started showing up as a TV pundit, and I thought one of the conditions of his plea deal should have been that he be IDed as “Elliott Abrams, convicted liar.”) The Knoxville News Sentinel can’t be bothered, apparently, so it’s left to me to mock them on my blog instead. I mock thee, Knoxville News Sentinel! How do you like them apples?

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