Friday roundup: OKC Thunder want their subsidies sooner, Indy Eleven want theirs later, let me repeat back your orders to make sure I have it right

I’ve already thanked everyone individually, but I’d like to give a collective shoutout to all the readers who signed up as FoS Supporters this membership cycle. The money you send translates directly into time I can spend covering stadium and arena news for you, and I remain extremely heartened by your support. If you sent me your mailing address, your magnets should be en route; if you didn’t, send me your mailing address already, these magnets aren’t going to ship themselves!

And speaking of covering stadium and arena news, let’s cover some stadium and arena news, why don’t we:

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Could an indy league revive Hagerstown’s stadium after MLB consigned the Suns to oblivion?

Reporting on plans for what to do with stadiums in the 18 cities that were completely jettisoned from minor-league baseball (separate from the 25 additional cities that are having their paid players replaced by college interns) has been sadly lacking since last months’ hit list announcement, likely because most news media in 2021 has the attention span of a gnat and the budget of one as well. But yesterday there was some news from Hagerstown, where the Suns have been dematerialized after 40 years, leaving behind a stadium that has hosted pro ball on and off since 1930, with several renovations along the way.

The Hagerstown city council held a work session on Tuesday to explore the options, and they are, in order of appearance in the Herald-Mail, the newspaper of the Maryland-Pennsylvania-West Virginia conjunction:

  • Host some “cost-neutral local events, such as high school baseball games” or concerts.
  • Build an indoor turf facility there (likely looking something like this), so locals don’t have to travel elsewhere for sports like youth soccer.
  • Bring in a baseball team in an independent league, two of which have contacted city officials already about using its existing stadium.

All these are reasonable ideas, as is surveying local residents about their preference before moving ahead with any of them. Mayor Emily Keller said that she doesn’t want to cost local residents more money, which also sounds good; there’s also the issue of who would staff games or concerts, since the city doesn’t have staff available. (Hopefully event organizers could either bring their own staff or pay enough of a fee for the city to hire some workers.)

The indy-league baseball option is especially interesting, not so much because it’s necessarily the best one, but because there’s been so much speculation that running unaffiliated minor-league teams wouldn’t be sustainable; one exec of an eliminated minor-league team told me his organization’s research showed it would take a guaranteed 3,000 tickets sold per game just to break even. If two independent leagues are at least sniffing around — the Atlantic League has to be one, thanks to its geography and the fact that it only has six teams currently including the newly created Gastonia Honey Hunters — that’s a good sign that maybe indy leagues will fill some of the vacuum left by the contraction of the affiliated minors.

All this would be significantly easier if North American baseball ran more like European soccer, with promotion and relegation, so that Hagerstown could just find some local willing to sponsor a semi-pro team and then watch it try to win its way back up to the professional ranks. That still wouldn’t be perfect, though — somebody has to buy enough tickets to pay the ticket takers and pay for turning the lights on — so if indy leagues can fill a similar role, that’s better than nothing. It will be very interesting to see how this unfolds as the season approaches, depending on when and if coronavirus levels decline enough for that to even happen.

 

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Worcester stadium hits $157m, is now the most expensive minor-league park of all time

The city of Worcester issued an update on Friday (actually dated tomorrow, but whatever) on its new Red Sox Triple-A stadium, which is full of small-type charts and lists and generally pretty dry. But Grant Welker of the Worcester Business Journal got out his abacus and went to work on the numbers, and was able to report this:

The cost of building Polar Park, the new home of the minor league Worcester Red Sox, has risen to $157 million, Worcester officials said Friday afternoon, reflecting cost increases stemming largely from the coronavirus pandemic.

With the increase, the public facility will become the most expensive minor league baseball stadium ever built, surpassing the inflation adjusted $153-million home of the Las Vegas Aviators.

May I be the first to say: Yikes!

The WooSox owners are paying for the latest $17.3 million in cost overruns, so at least this won’t cost Worcester more than the $100 million or so in subsidies that were approved back in 2018. Still, how on earth did this project’s costs balloon so rapidly?

The last time the stadium ran into overruns, it was $30 million in added costs that, according to Welker, mostly stemmed from “unexpected costs borne by the city for obtaining adjacent parcels, moving businesses and knocking down buildings to make way for the ballpark.” (Also because Worcester officials forgot how hills work. Let us never forget that.) This time it’s undefined pandemic-related costs: Some this appears to be “we had to stop work for seven weeks and still need to finish by spring 2021 (assuming there’s baseball in spring 2021)” and some of it something about supply chains mumble mumble, but still, $17.3 million seems like a lot for that.

The WooSox also have agreed to a lease, which is good because nobody remembered to do that before approving the subsidies and starting construction; I haven’t read through it fully yet, but it looks unremarkable. And the update also includes a whole bunch of new renderings, so let’s enjoy some of those now:

That’s unremarkable enough, though it’s amusing that some ad sponsors have been specified (Shaw’s grocery store) while others still just say “SPONSOR.” (Where the first-base coaching box should be. I’m not sure that’s allowable under baseball rules.) Also the team logo appears to be a smiley face with arms and legs. And Red Sox two-time All-Star shortstop Xander Bogaerts appears to have been demoted to the minors, or maybe is there on a rehab assignment. Otherwise, nothing too alarming.

Now it’s getting alarming. Why are there giant statues of Red Sox championship rings, and what does that small child and his mom find so fascinating about them? Other than that, looks like a pleasant enough plaza, though I’m not sure it’s advisable for the couple at the far right to walk through it barefoot.

What the hell? As a parent, I know something about what kids want in a baseball-themed playground, and it would either be 1) a miniature ballpark where you can play wiffle ball or 2) a big-ass slide. Baseball-themed boulders and a basepath covered in giant golf tees seem like odd design choices, and that’s even before we get to the smiley-face mascot (which must be inhabited by either a person with an abnormally short torso or with no head) playing keepaway with a baseball bat with a small child. We are well on our way to Boschian hellscape here.

This image, of a grassy hill outside the ballpark called Home Plate Hill because it’s kind of adjacent to the home plate grandstand, I guess, is unremarkable except for the woman at left who appears to be taking a photo of her dog using a large cinnamon roll as a camera.

Big Blue Bug Solutions is, as you might expect, a pest control service. It has apparently contracted to show off its solutions for pest removal by sponsoring an area where a select few fans can enjoy close-up views of the game without any protective netting, the better to be squashed like bugs by any foul balls.

Okay, it turns out Xander Bogaerts hasn’t been demoted — or rather, he’s been demoted to an unearthly realm where various Red Sox players of the last 50 years are all consigned to play out their declining years in a minor-league ballpark. Also Jim Rice has to play first base which he never once did in real life, even though Carl Yastrzemski, who did play lots of first base, could easily be moved there from Rice’s preferred position of left field. Clearly whoever constructed this image really has it in for Jim Rice — look, he’s even batting 9th, while the unheralded Jarrod Saltalamacchia bats cleanup — which is fair, Jim Rice was one of the most overrated players in baseball history.

Finally, we have the Ecotarium, Museum of Science and Nature, which seems to consist entirely of an exhibit on pitch speed, which you would think would at least include a radar gun and a place where kids could try out their feeble throwing arms and learn something about how radar works or something. But no! It’s just a cardboard cutout of a kid throwing a ball, at a distance of maybe ten feet from a photograph of a catcher. I’m almost willing to believe that this is supposed to be a real kid but the colorist screwed up, but if so why is he being forced to deliver his pitch over a counter? And won’t errant throws grievously injure those two older kids nearby admiring the ceiling? Oh wait, I get it — the science here is medical science, and kids will be able to see it in action up close and personal when EMTs have to rush to the aid of someone who’s just been concussed by a baseball delivered to their noggin at close range! I take it back, these people totally know what will entertain a small child — can’t wait to make my first visit!

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Hartford hopes spending $100m on new restrooms and coffee bars will make arena profitable (it won’t)

A hearing on Connecticut’s planned $100 million renovation of Hartford’s sports arena has been pushed back to February so that the city can hold more talks with the owner of neighboring retail space, which, whatever, unless you’re really so bored under lockdown that you’ve resorted to watching arena renovation hearings. But the Hartford Courant article on the delay does provide an opportunity to see exactly what the state is planning to spend the money on, and why.

The state already spent $35 million on renovations in 2014 and $18 million more in 2017. Initial plans for a $250 million renovation that would have added new concessions concourses on both the upper and lower levels were rejected because $250 million, and also because hardly anybody ever sits in the upper level what with the arena mostly only hosting minor-league hockey and the occasional college basketball game. So instead the state is focusing on redoing just the lower level concourse:

The renovation will include industry standards restrooms, concessions, premium seating and other systems for the average 12,000 seats that events typically draw rather than the arena’s full 16,000-seat capacity.

The premium seating includes bunker suites at center court, a club with seating for 100 or more — both on floor level close to the action. More loge seating would be added elsewhere in the arena.

State officials hope the renovation will increase revenue with more premium seating and amenities; push the venue to make a profit, which it traditionally has not done; and reduce expenses, eliminating costly repairs to outdated equipment for which parts are difficult to find.

So, some math: The arena has previously been reported to be losing about $1 million a year in recent years. Interest rates are low right now, but even if $100 million in renovation bonds can be sold at a low rate like 3%, that’s still going to add $5 million a year in red ink to the arena’s books. So just to get the arena back to break-even, it will take at least $6 million a year in new revenues from the added concessions and luxury seating. I haven’t been able to find current concessions revenue numbers, but this article indicates that premium seating currently only generates $1.4 million a year currently, so this would require Hartford Wolf Pack and UConn basketball fans to be willing to increase their spending a whole lot to be able to sit and go on their laptops while the game plays on a screen somewhere in the background, which seems speculative, to say the least.

About that earlier article, by the way: It’s about a study from last February by everyone’s favorite dysfunctional stadium consultant, Convention Sports & Leisure, which projected that the Hartford arena renovations would indeed increase annual revenues, but would still leave the arena running about a $500,000 annual loss. The study also indicated that the arena is currently running a $2-3 million loss, not the $1 million previously reported, and that the new luxury seating would generate $3.6 million in new gross revenues, and — you know, honestly, trying to do math on CSL reports is hopeless, because they’re just number salad. But “even a consultant who’s paid to make arena renovations seem worthwhile can’t figure out how to make this one look profitable” is a perfectly legit takeaway here, if “people will spend millions of dollars more at the arena if you give them nicer bathrooms and coffee bars” wasn’t doing it for you.

 

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How MLB’s war on the minor leagues screws over both players and taxpayers

Speaking of the impacts of MLB’s minor-league putsch and downsizing plan, I have an article up at Defector today that runs down the history and strategy of the move, from its origins in the brain of Astros GM Jeff “Trash-Can-Banging” Luhnow to the ways in which it will enable big-league owners to convert entire leagues into work-for-exposure internships and turn up the heat on cities to cough up for minor-league stadium improvements. Two brief excerpts for those who don’t want to read the whole thing (though you should, I spent long enough writing it):

The nine-team Pioneer League would become an independent “partner league,” with MLB providing some seed money and a bunch of radar guns; the 109-year-old Appalachian League, meanwhile, was converted to a “college wood-bat league,” of which there are already several throughout the U.S. Though the name sounds like a training service—you young’uns come learn how to hit with real lumber, and keep your NCAA eligibility too!—in practice it means that the 10 Appalachian League teams will be replacing paid employees with unpaid ones.

And:

Shaking down bush-league cities has traditionally offered both advantages and drawbacks for baseball owners. Sure, teams had more places to threaten to decamp to—hello, Worcester!—but there were also enough teams out there that cities could hold out reasonable hope of digging up a replacement elsewhere.

With each farm system limited to no more than four affiliates, that hope fizzles, tightening the remaining teams’ monopoly on pro ball.

As noted this morning in relation to the Tennessee Smokies‘ stadium plans, reducing the number of minor-league teams — and placing the decision over which teams survive solely in the hands of MLB league office functionaries — increases team owners’ leverage in shaking down cities for new or upgraded stadiums. But while that may be the more lucrative benefit to MLB from its minor-league takeover, possibly even more alarming is that hundreds of ballplayers will now be expected to play for free, either as college students on summer break or, in the case of the new “MLB Draft League,” as college (or just high school) graduates seeking to showcase their skills to earn a spot in the MLB summer draft. As a former NLRB chair told me, this is kind of a gray area in labor law: Normally if someone tells you when and where and how to work, you’re an employee and subject to laws about minimum wage and overtime and the like; but labor law has traditionally looked the other way when it comes to college athletes, so it may well do the same in the case of college-graduates-but-still-amateurs-until-MLB-says-they’re-not.

Anyway, hopefully this is just the start of a longer discussion about baseball’s cartel power — maybe the 2020s will be the decade that antitrust action finally makes its long-awaited comeback? Plus the start of a longer relationship with Defector, which has hit the ground running after its September emergence from the ashes of Deadspin and is even offering its freelance writers decent wages and rights, against the tide of modern news (and sports) industry practice; consider throwing them some money for a subscription and a tote bag, journalism will be glad you did.

 

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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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Hartford unveils $100m arena upgrade so fans can ignore the game in comfort

The city of Hartford is taking advantage of pandemic downtime to move ahead with $100 million in state-funded renovations to its arena, something that would otherwise require interruptions to … the minor-league hockey Hartford Wolf Pack, I guess some concerts, whatever else they use the place for these days. The 45-year-old arena was previously described by its director as “out of its prime” and “tired,” and today we get a bunch of rendering showing how untired it will be with $100 million thrown at it:

Okay, this is some kind of dining area, I think? At least, that looks like a steam table of some kind off to the right, though one without any actual food on it. The woman in the shiny new Adidas appears to be taking a photo of it, because in the future, Instagramming empty plates will be a way to, I dunno, express solidarity with climate famine victims or something?

And this is … a cafe? The two identical bearded servers look to be pouring coffee, anyway. Not that anyone is drinking coffee, or doing much of anything else, other than using laptops and talking on their phones, while both hockey and basketball games play on ignored screens in the background.

This is a “bunker suite,” which would be built below the lower seating level. (You can glimpse the actual arena bowl at the top of those stairs to the right.) There would be a seating area for four to eight people outside the suite, while everyone else could sit on a sofa and watch on TV, or maybe in a comfy chair arranged so they couldn’t see the TV at all, in case the game is too painful to watch.

The Hartford Courant says the goal of all this is to “bring spectators closer to the action,” but if there’s one common theme, it’s that none of the renderings actually show people being able to see the action at all, or even paying the slightest attention to it. The reasonable conclusion is that the state of Connecticut has decided that the way to get people to go to more sporting events and concerts is to make doing so as much like sitting at home or watching at a bar as possible — which is definitely not an uncommon strategy, but does seem a little weird given that watching at home or at a bar doesn’t require shelling out for a ticket. We’ll see how it goes, I guess — the state will need to bring in several million dollars more a year to recoup its $100 million expense, so Connecticut sports fans had better be ready to drink a whole lot of invisible coffee.

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Friday roundup: Phoenix to get USL stadium with giant disappearing soccer ball, plus more fallout from MLB slashing minor league teams

Too much going on this week to have time for more than a brief intro, but I do want to note that “’Company announces advertising campaign’ is not a story, no matter how easily that campaign can be metabolized by the publications it’s aimed at” is something that should be tattooed on the foreheads of all journalists, even if it is a quote from an article about Pantone colors.

And now, how sports team owners and their friends are trying to rip you off this week:

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MLB just killed 18 minor-league teams that got $249m in public stadium funding

MLB issued its final list yesterday of which 120 minor-league teams will get to continue as farm teams for big-league clubs, and which will be left to join a series of independent or amateur leagues or disappear altogether. While a few teams got official notice that they’d be switching levels — the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp jump from Double-A to Triple-A, the San Antonio Missions drop from Triple-A to Double-A, the Frederick Keys are bounced from Single-A to the new MLB Draft League where players will have to play for free to showcase their skills for the annual player draft, and the Fresno Grizzlies just yesterday afternoon accepted their demotion from Triple-A to Single-A once they saw what the alternative was — let’s focus on the truly SOL franchises, those that USA Today listed under the heading “No Current League” (state and former affiliation in parentheses):

  • Lowell Spinners (MA, Red Sox)
  • Hagerstown Suns (MD, Nationals)
  • Burlington Bees (IA, Angels)
  • Clinton LumberKings (IA, Marlins)
  • Kane County Cougars (IL, Diamondbacks)
  • Lexington Legends (KY, Royals)
  • Charlotte Stone Crabs (FL, Rays)
  • West Virginia Power (WV, Mariners)
  • Florida Fire Frogs (FL, Braves)
  • Salem-Keizer Volcanoes (OR, Giants)
  • Staten Island Yankees (NY, Yankees)
  • Batavia Muckdogs (NY, Marlins)
  • Auburn Doubledays (NY, Nationals)
  • Norwich Sea Unicorns (CT, Tigers)
  • Tri-City ValleyCats (NY, Astros)
  • Vermont Lake Monsters (VT, A’s)
  • Lancaster JetHawks (CA, Rockies)
  • Boise Hawks (ID, Rockies)

That is a whole lot of intercaps being thrown to the wolves, not to mention both of the minor leagues’ Burlington teams. (The Lake Monsters played in Burlington, Vermont.) And while some of these franchises may yet end up joining an existing non-affiliate league — the MLB Draft League has two spots available, according to the Washington Post, and the indy Atlantic League is currently down to just six teams and could add more — many will almost certainly follow the Staten Island Yankees into oblivion.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how much public money was spent on stadiums for teams that have now been annihilated by MLB fiat:

  • Lowell Spinners: $11.2 million (construction, 1998)
  • Hagerstown Suns: $1.06 million (construction, 1930; renovations, 1981 and 1995)
  • Burlington Bees: $3 million (renovation, 2005)
  • Clinton LumberKings: $4.35 million (construction, 1937; renovation, 2006)
  • Kane County Cougars: $19.5 million (construction, 1991; renovations, 2008 and 2015)
  • Lexington Legends: privately funded
  • Charlotte Stone Crabs: $32.2 million (construction, 1987; renovation, 2009)
  • West Virginia Power: $25 million (construction, 2005)
  • Florida Fire Frogs: $45.9 million (construction, 2019)
  • Salem-Keizer Volcanoes: $6.8 million (construction, 1997)
  • Staten Island Yankees: $71 million (construction, 2001)
  • Batavia Muckdogs: $3 million (construction, 1996)
  • Auburn Doubledays: $3.145 million (construction, 1995)
  • Norwich Sea Unicorns: $9.3 million (construction, 1995)
  • Tri-City ValleyCats: $14 million (construction, 2002)
  • Vermont Lake Monsters: privately funded
  • Lancaster JetHawks: $14.5 million (construction, 1996)
  • Boise Hawks: privately funded

A couple of caveats: The Stone Crabs and Fire Frogs played at their big-league affiliates’ spring training sites, so those stadiums will still be in use on a lesser basis; and a couple of other stadiums get use as high school or college fields. Still, that’s $249 million in tax money down the toilet, with little hope of finding replacement teams in the future.

Little hope, I should say, without throwing more public money at the situation. You’ll note that a lot of those stadium construction dates above are from the 20th century — Centennial Park in Burlington, Vermont opened way back in 1906! — which is ancient in the what-have-you-built-for-us-lately world of pro sports. One of the reasons MLB gave for seeking to cut teams when it was first announced last year was to “improve Minor League Baseball’s stadium facilities,” and in fact the Boise Hawks owner specifically said he was told his team was marked for death because it was an age-defying 31 years old:

“We were told our current facility ultimately led to the decision,” [Hawks president Jeff] Eiseman said in a statement. “As we have stated since the day we purchased the Hawks, the venue is a challenge. The failure to not have replaced it in all of these prior years led to this move.”

Not having to pay as many minor-league salaries — in part by forcing minor leaguers to play as amateurs, whether in the new MLB Draft League or the conversion of the entire Appalachian League to a “college wood-bat league” — was obviously a prime reason for MLB’s restructuring of the minors, but increasing leverage for new or renovated stadiums could turn out to be the far more lucrative result. If Boise or Lexington or Batavia wants a new team, they will almost certainly be asked to upgrade their stadiums first; and if the cities that do get rewarded with teams, that will allow MLB to cast existing teams onto the scrap heap, in an endless cycle of stadium shakedowns.

Even now, the new minors structure isn’t 100% finalized: MLB and the surviving minor-league teams still need to work out a player-development contract that will determine exactly what each side will pay toward minor-league team costs; the Tacoma Rainiers owners have already released a statement that they “cannot accept the invitation until we’ve had time to review the deal that will govern our sport, and this relationship, for decades to come.” And there is still the possibility of antitrust lawsuits to fight the elimination of teams, since MLB has effectively taken control of all of its competitors for baseball fan dollars and ordered a bunch of them to shut down — recall that last year an unnamed MLB official told the New York Daily News’ Bill Madden, “My God, we’ll be sued all over the place from these cities that have built or refurbished ballparks with taxpayer money, and this will really put our anti-trust exemption in jeopardy.”

Still, a whole lot of minor-league baseball fans are about to lose their teams, and a whole lot of cities are about to see their investments in stadiums go up in smoke. And a whole lot of minor-league players are about to be, in essence, redefined as unpaid interns. Thus has it always been.

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