Friday roundup: Sacramento soccer subsidies, Fire could return to Chicago, and a giant mirrored basketball

Did I actually write a couple of days ago that this was looking like a slow news week? The stadium news gods clearly heard me, and when they make it rain news, they make it pour:

Crew owner claims Columbus is bad for business, actual numbers show otherwise

SBNation’s Elliott Turner dug into Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt’s claim that he needs to move the team to Austin because the “business is struggling,” and, surprise surprise, it turns out this is not so much the case:

  • The Crew currently pay a piddling $72,000 a year in rent. In fact, they’ve only paid $1.14 million in rent their entire 19-year history.
  • The team pays no property taxes on its stadium, an annual savings of $414,000. The New York Red Bulls, by comparison, pay more in property taxes each year than the Crew have paid in their lifetime as a franchise.
  • The Crew brought in around $11 million in ticket revenue in 2017, plus about $1 million in parking revenue, plus an undetermined share of naming rights money. Turner doesn’t provide comparable figures for other MLS teams, but it’s worth noting that the Crew were right in the middle in terms of team revenues in past rankings.

Is that thriving? The team’s total payroll is under $6 million, so … really, it depends on how much it costs to run the rest of the operation. But the Crew’s costs and revenues are pretty comparable to other MLS teams, so this means that either 1) Precourt is lying about needing to move in order to turn a profit, or 2) pretty much all MLS teams are struggling financially. And either way, there’s no reason to think he’d be better off in Austin. It’s almost as if he’s trying to come up with an excuse to threaten to leave, in order to get subsidies for a new stadium out of Columbus — hmmmmmm.

Nashville MLS stadium lives, Virginia Beach arena dies (for now)

As expected, the Nashville Metro Council voted yesterday to approve $225 million worth of public bonds for a new soccer stadium for a proposed MLS expansion team, in a deal that will ultimately cost taxpayers at least $75 million, plus free land:

The financing overcame criticism over a part of the deal to give the Ingram-led ownership group 10 additional acres of city-owned fairgrounds land for a future private development next to the stadium.

Ingram, along with minority owners Steve and Jay Turner of MarketStreet Enterprises, has planned a mixed-use development with affordable and market-rate housing, retail, restaurants, a hotel and office space that he says is “essential” to the fan experience and the overall deal. Skeptics have slammed it as a “giveaway” to wealthy developers — on top of eight acres of fairgrounds land needed for stadium’s footprint.

“We’re giving away tens of millions of dollars worth of land to billionaires,” [councilmember Dave] Rosenberg said.

The Tennessean speculates that this could make Nashville, along with Sacramento, one of the frontrunners for an expansion franchise award in December, which, sure, maybe? It’s all the same to MLS where its $150 million expansion fee checks are coming from, so might as well reward the cities that provided public subsidies for the league’s prospective owners.

And also as expected, the developers of a proposed Virginia Beach arena couldn’t get their acts together by last night’s deadline to provide a financing plan for the project, even though more than 90% of the costs would be repaid by public subsidies. Or, at least, they claimed they’d gotten their acts together, but provided no concrete evidence of said acts:

Just hours before that deadline they stood before city council and said it was a done deal.
“We have JP Morgan, the United States largest bank, that is ready, able and willing to close this evening with direction from the city,” said Andrea Kilmer with Mid-Atlantic Arena. “We are ready to spend over $250 million dollars dollars in this city.”

However, city council did not believe the developer was ready.

“I would say that the city would disagree with what she represented to you,” said Mayor William Sessons.

Sessoms, however, said he was still open to the idea of a new arena, and even to working with these developers, so the deadline was apparently a bit of an abstraction? At this point, I’m never willing to call an arena plan dead until I see the wooden stake protruding from its chest.

Cobb County spending $14m on traffic cops because they forgot to ask Braves to pay for them

My sincere apologies for neglecting to inform you last week of this excellent article from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in which reporter Dan Klepal revealed that Cobb County is going to be on the hook for $900,000 a year for traffic police around the Atlanta Braves‘ new stadium. And before you say, “But isn’t free policing one of the services that government typically provides to sports teams and others alike?”, nuh-uh:

The Braves paid for traffic control during the team’s last eight seasons at Turner Field. At Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Falcons will reimburse the Georgia World Congress Center an estimated $2.5 million a year for traffic management during football games, soccer matches and other events…

An AJC survey of 11 cities with professional sports stadiums found only two other instances where taxpayers funded all or a portion of traffic control…

“The Falcons outcome is the norm. The Braves outcome is a throwback to the 1990s” when those kinds of subsidies were more common, [Stanford economist Roger Noll] said.

This free-traffic-cops clause apparently wasn’t part of the original Braves deal with Cobb County — traffic control costs weren’t addressed at the time, along with a lot else having to do with transportation — which left the county stuck with the costs by default. (Though it would be kind of fun to think of what would happen if the county said to the Braves, “Go get your players to direct traffic, it’s clear they’re not occupied by actually playing baseball.”) If we figure that the free patrolling is worth around $14 million in present value, adding that to the $355 million in existing public costs gets us to $369 million in subsidies to move the Braves from downtown Atlanta to the suburbs, totally not because any Braves fans think all urban black people are violent criminals. But hey, who can put a price on burgerizzas?

Braves fans over shiny new stadium after just 13 home games, would like good baseball now

If there’s one sure truism in the sports stadium world, it’s that the honeymoon effect drawing fans to a new building varies depending on the quality of the product on the field: Put together a winning team and you can get something like the Cleveland Indians‘ six-year sellout streak; a losing one, and you’re more likely to be the Miami Marlins.

The Atlanta Braves have a brand-new stadium, and are in last place with an 11-19 record. Fans aren’t exactly turning out in droves:

After a couple initial sellouts, the Braves have settled into 12th in major league attendance. They were averaging a bit more than 30,000 (tickets sold), a good number considering that the team hasn’t averaged that high for a season since 2013. But not exactly the eye-popping boost you’d expect from the lure of a new ballpark.

Okay, maybe it’s just that it’s early in the season, and more fans turn up once it’s summertime? We can check that by looking at Baseball Reference’s year-over-year attendance chart, which shows how teams are doing in attendance compared to the same number of games the previous year. The numbers show that Braves attendance is up an average of 4,980 a game from 2016 at Turner Field — the third-largest jump in baseball, but still nothing to write home about. It looks like any honeymoon effect from the Braves move from downtown to suburban Cobb County will be marginal at best, at least unless the team gets good in a hurry, in which case it’s less “build it and they will come” and more “build Dansby Swanson and they will come.”

If Braves’ new stadium is the future of baseball, we’re in for a weird ride

The Atlanta Braves‘ new stadium in Cobb County opened for its first exhibition game on Friday, and from what was shown on TV, it’s somewhat … odd. First off, for a stadium whose architect promised “intimacy” and which team owners promised would feature cantilevering of the middle and upper decks to bring fans closer to the action, holy crap is that a lot of not-especially-cantilevered decks:

You’ll notice no one is sitting in the top deck, which is probably a good move as you’d need bottled oxygen to ascend that high. (The Braves actually limited attendance to season-ticket holders and people who worked on the stadium project, so only 21,392 showed up.) Not to mention that, judging from on-field photos, fans up there may have a hard time seeing the field over their fellow fans heads, thanks to some curious decisions about the rake of the upper deck:

Then there’s — holy crap, what is that?

No, not Bartolo Colon, I’m used to seeing him on a ballfield. But what are those seats in right field, where fans appear to be sitting behind desks or flat-panel TV screens or something? According to the Braves seating chart, those are the “Chophouse Terrace” seats — because in the year 2017, it’s never a bad time to employ a play on words combining a term for a steakhouse with a reference to your team’s embarrassingly racist chant — so maybe those are just tables to help you better wolf down your $26 burgerizza? (Though actually, starting at $36 a person and coming with $15 in concessions credits, the prices on those seats aren’t too hideous, though it does seem a shame to eliminate several rows of not-bad seating so that fans don’t have to put their beers in cupholders.)

What else? There were some problems with the scoreboard and the LED outfield lights that the team promised to fix, and one New Jersey sportswriter said it was missing a “wow factor” and reminded him of Turner Field, which isn’t especially damning except that the Braves and Cobb County taxpayers just spent more than $600 million to replace Turner Field just 20 years after it opened, so “hey, this looks just like the old place” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. And the team has relented and allowed fans to bring in outside food, which is good, so long as it fits inside a one-gallon plastic baggie, which is less good. (The most sensible outside food policy to me remains the New York Mets‘, which a team rep memorably explained to me when their new stadium opened back in 2009 as “you can bring a turkey sandwich, but you can’t bring a whole turkey.”)

Oh, and the pedestrian bridge to get fans from their cars to their seats still isn’t open, but is promised to be by opening day in two weeks. Though “open” doesn’t mean “finished,” which apparently means you’ll be able to walk across it and it won’t fall down or anything, but it may still resemble a construction site.

Any Braves season ticket holders out there who actually attended this game? Very curious to hear your impressions, so please chime in in comments. (As should anyone who watched the game on TV and has thoughts.)

Atlanta mayor proposes giving Hawks $142.5m for arena renovations, because they asked nicely

Nine months after saying he wanted to offer up to $150 million to the owners of the Atlanta Hawks for arena renovations to get them to sign a lease extension, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has offered $142.5 million to the owners of the Atlanta Hawks for arena renovations:

The city will put $142.5 million into the renovation, with the Hawks contributing $50 million.

About $110 million will come from extension of car-rental tax and the city will contribute $12.5 million from the sale of Turner Field, which is expected to close by year end. The remaining $20 million from the city will come from a series of expected future land sales, Reed said…

Hawks officials have previously said they are looking to, among a number of upgrades, replace the bank of suites that dominate one side of the arena, install a variety of different-size suites, improve the connectivity so fans can navigate around the arena on one level and create better floor seating by changing the layout which originally had oval ends to accommodate hockey.

So how bad would this deal — which still requires approval by the Atlanta city council and the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority — be for city residents? Let’s come at it from a variety of different angles:

  • Having the public put up 74% of the renovation costs for a privately run sports facility sounds pretty bad, unless the Hawks are agreeing to share more arena revenues with the city in exchange. The deal is just being described as a “lease extension,” though, so presumably they’re not.
  • On the bright side, $142.5 milllion is a lot less than the almost $700 million in public funds that the Falcons are getting for their new stadium. On the less bright side, they’re getting a whole new stadium out of the deal, whereas this is just rejiggering the suites and concourses.
  • Philips Arena only cost $213.5 million to build in the first place, so this is almost paying for its construction cost all over again.
  • The Hawks’ lease already runs through 2028; this would extend it through 2046. That makes this a public tithe of a little less than $8 million per each added year, which is cheaper than the $14.6 million per year that Charlotte is paying the Carolina Panthers for their lease extension, so, um, good negotiating?
  • Now Hawks fans don’t have to worry about the team moving out of town in 2029! Which will be a real worry following the economic upheaval in the first year of the Farkas Administration.

In short, then, the owners of the Hawks complained that their 17-year-old arena was designed wrong and needed a $200 million upgrade 12 years before their lease was to run out, and the mayor of Atlanta said, “Sure, we’ll pay for three-quarters of that, if you extend your lease some.” It’s not the worst deal in the world — it’s not even the worst deal that Reed himself has brokered — but it’s not an especially good one either, especially if anyone in Atlanta was hoping to use that future tax money for something that would benefit more than one group of local rich guys. Atlanta city council, ball’s in your court.

Cobb County gave Braves monopoly on all game-day parking, says it’s a “safety” thing

Just when you think the Atlanta Braves stadium deal can’t get any worse — it goes and gets worse! The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Dan Klepal dug up the latest gift that Cobb County has awarded the Braves owners: a ban on any private entities within a half-mile of the new taxpayer-funded stadium renting out their parking spaces to Braves fans.

Commissioners in February quietly passed an ordinance that outlaws property owners within a half-mile of the stadium from charging for parking during games and other special events at the stadium…

“This irks the (heck) out of me,” said [local office building owner Fred] Beloin, who has previously tangled with the county over zoning around the stadium, and was unaware of the ordinance until told about it an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter. “They say they’re increasing my property value and then they do everything in their power to make sure I get no benefit out of it.”

The ordinance closes off potential revenue for dozens of businesses that own more than 10,000 private spaces — many of which could compete with the team for parking revenue.

The way that it works: The new ordinance says that you need an “accessory special event parking license” to rent out your parking spots during Braves games, and such a license “will not be issued if primary access to the accessory special event parking area is from public right-of‐way within the limited access zone.” (I.e., if you drive there on a public road, i.e., everywhere within half a mile of the stadium.) The Braves themselves are exempt from needing a license, as a “major tourist attraction.”

Klepal’s article says that “the restriction could mean fewer parking options on game days, making it less convenient or more expensive to go to a stadium with no direct MARTA access,” but it’s unlikely that this is the Braves owners’ intent. Rather, it puts private parking lot owners over a barrel as the Braves try to negotiate to rent their spaces for use during games — as I told Klepal for his story, “One good way to get leverage is to make the thing you’re negotiating for worthless to the other party. And that’s precisely what Cobb County’s ordinance tries to do.”

As for the county and team officials that put this Braves parking monopoly in place, they say they never meant to discriminate against private parking lot owners, who they said can file appeals to the county if they want to rent out their own spaces on game days. Rather, they said, it’s about … safety. Safety?

“We know that when fans come to a Braves game, no matter where they park, they associate their experience with the Braves,” Plant said. “Our concerns focused mainly on two areas — safety of the fans and the free flow of vehicles through the areas around the ballpark.

“With that in mind, we requested that the county create an ordinance covering an area around the ballpark to protect fans who are attending the game and ensure that they receive the same safety, security and convenience provided in the lots we control.”

Run that by me again? Denying private parking lot owners the right to let Braves fans park there helps provide fans with “safety, security and convenience” because, I guess, quality control? Except that there’s nothing in the ordinance talking about the quality of the parking — the only way this ensures fan safety is if you assume the Braves can provide a safer experience than local business owners, which would be dubious even if we weren’t talking about a team that regularly has people fall to their deaths at games.

FoS reader Andrew Ross points out that this may be the lamest excuse for a self-interested policy since the Philadelphia Eagles tried to ban outside food at their stadium on the grounds that someone might smuggle in an exploding hoagie. It may well end the same way that controversy did, with team officials sheepishly repealing their attempt at a revenue grab amid the public uproar, but expect a few months of lawsuits first, at the least.

Orlando’s MLS stadium deal not as taxpayer-friendly as reported, still better than a poke in the eye

Elliott Turner, aka Twitter’s @futfanatico, also had a piece in Vice Sports on Friday, this one a long analysis of Orlando City S.C.‘s stadium deal, which I’d previously praised as a rare moment when “a professional sports franchise is actually agreeing to pay to build its new stadium, and pay (something) for the land to build it on, and pay property taxes on the stadium once it’s complete,” though the next day I had to unpraise it when it turned out the team was still expecting the city to use its eminent domain powers to force private owners to turn over part of the stadium land. Turner has even more problems with the deal, though, calling it “a new way to milk taxpayers”:

  • The team will now operate the stadium, not the city, meaning it will cover operating expenses but also won’t share revenues.
  • The team’s non-relocation clause has been cut from 15 to ten years, and it will no longer pay a $20 million fine if it moves before then.
  • The city is still on the hook for sewer and infrastructure upgrades that could amount to $16 million, which will wipe out the $9 million profit the city will turn on the land it bought and re-sold to Orlando City S.C.
  • Under the previous deal, the club was going to pay $675,000 in annual rent; by owning the stadium itself it won’t pay rent but will pay property taxes, but those will likely amount to less than the rent would have.
  • Under the new contract, Orlando City S.C. can deduct future construction cost overruns from the $18 million purchase price it’s paying the city for stadium land.

So how bad is all this? Not real bad, honestly: Operating costs can easily outstrip any revenues. The non-relocation clause is likely a non-issue if the team owns the stadium and would be saddled with it if it moved. Sewer costs are a standard city expense that property taxes are supposed to help cover. And most importantly, that “rent” wasn’t going to pay back the city and county’s $40 million in construction costs under the old deal, but toward paying back a $10 million loan that the city was going to provide toward the team’s share.

The most salient item uncovered by Turner is that the $18 million land purchase price may get eaten up by cost overruns, which is a real concern. But even then, getting a lousy price on land sales is a perfectly cromulent tradeoff for getting out from under $40 million in taxpayer cash obligations. The Orlando City soccer deal may not be the stadium utopia we had hoped for, but it’s at least close, and much closer than the original deal that the team owners originally proposed. I may not be quite shocked and awed by it, but if all stadium deals looked like this one, the world would be a significantly better place.

 

Atlanta mayor “comfortable” giving $150m he doesn’t have yet to Hawks owner for arena remodel

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed still really wants to throw money at the Hawks for an upgrade to their 17-year-old arena:

“We have not settled on the number, but what we have looked at is our own capacity of what we can comfortably finance,” he said in an hour-long meeting with AJC reporters and the newspaper’s editorial board. “We think that number is between 100 million and 150 million (dollars).

“The total project would be anywhere from 200 million to 300 million (dollars),” he said.

Reed said the sources of funding haven’t been determined, but rental car taxes are likely to be part and he did not rule out funding from the Westside Tax Allocation District.

So… wait, what? The city can comfortably finance $100-150 million, but doesn’t know where the money would come from? I thought that $150 million figure was supposed to be from money available after the city sells Turner Field? Now it’s just a big ol’ number that Reed is offering Hawks owner Tony Ressler because that’s just what Atlanta does, even though the team can’t move anywhere without paying massive penalties? Come on, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I’m counting on you to raise your eyebrows at least a little more at this.