This week in boondoggle vivisection: Plenty of good seats available in SF, Cleveland, Ottawa

We’ll get to the weekly news roundup in a minute, but first, I need to mention this editorial from yesterday’s Globe and Mail, which makes several eminently reasonable points about how Calgary shouldn’t capitulate to the Flames owners’ extortion attempts for arena cash (“using past bad decisions to justify terrible future decisions does not qualify as logic,” “arena financing is a hamster wheel, and here is an opportunity to jump off”), and then says this:

Everyone involved should take note of a remark this week by Neil deMause, renowned stadium boondoggle vivisectionist and creator of the fieldofschemes.com website: “The number of mayors who’ve been voted out of office for standing up to sports team subsidy demands remains zero.”

That’s right, I am a major-newspaper-certified renowned boondoggle vivisectionist, y’all. Clearly it’s time to order some new business cards.

Okay, the rest of the week’s news:

  • The Los Angeles Rams aren’t the only California team having trouble getting fans to turn out for games in the September heat: The San Francisco 49ers are seeing so many empty seats on the sunny side of their stadium that they’ve hired architects to see if it’d be possible to add a sun shade. One problem: The stadium can’t get any taller, as it’s in the flight path of San Jose’s airport. Until then, the 49ers are handing out free water bottles and sunscreen to fans on the hot side of the stadium, which is nice and all, but probably isn’t what you want for your big marketing push. This once again points up how smart the 49ers management was to stick fans with PSLs before the team got lousy and people noticed how crappy the new stadium was for actually watching football in.
  • And speaking of empty seats, the Cleveland Indians won their American League–record 22nd straight game yesterday, but they still can’t sell out their ballpark, which not that long ago saw a record sellout streak of 455 straight games. Indians GM Mike Chernoff blamed Cleveland’s small size, the start of the school year, and “weekdays,” three things that apparently didn’t exist in the ’90s. At least he didn’t blame the 23-year-old stadium or demand upgrades as a solution — yet, anyway.
  • And also speaking of empty seats, the Ottawa Senators have begun tarping over part of their upper deck for every game, because they can’t sell tickets there. The Senators owner is already blaming his 21-year-old arena for that one (apparently the last owner built it in the wrong place), so team president Tom Anselmi was left to say: “We just need more of us to come to more games more often.” Can’t argue with that!
  • And also also speaking of empty seats, the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics have only sold about 5% of available tickets so far to actual fans (ticket brokers have bought up another 18%), with less than five months to go before the games start. If you’re looking to snap up a bargain to watch curling, though, be forewarned: Not all the new hotels planned for the Olympics are finished yet.
  • And speaking of seats that a team hopes won’t be empty, the Oakland A’s will be letting in fans for free to a game next April against the White Sox. Make jokes all you want about how dismal an A’s-White Sox matchup will be, it’s still free baseball, and you never know what you might see that you’ve never seen before.
  • NHL commissioner Gary Bettman declared that that the scaled-down Nassau Coliseum is “not a viable option” for the New York Islanders, two weeks before the team is set to present plans to Nassau County for a new arena near Belmont Park. A total coincidence, I’m sure.
  • The Rhode Island state senate started hearings on a new Pawtucket Red Sox proposal yesterday, with the team owners and their allies noting that “the team’s 54-percent share of stadium costs is the highest portion of private investment in 14 AA and AAA ballparks built over the last decade,” according to the Providence Journal. What was that someone was just saying about using bad decisions to justify terrible future decisions?
  • Deadspin’s Drew Magary has come up with a new nickname for the Atlanta Falcons‘ new iris-roofed stadium: Megatron’s Butthole. Drew Magary needs to be put in charge of all stadium nicknames, starting immediately.

Rams to charge record PSL price, Cavs arena subsidy moves ahead, and other news of the week

It’s Friday again, so let’s go spanning the world:

  • The Los Angeles Rams are considering charging a top personal seat license price of as much as $225,000, just for the right to then buy season tickets for $350-400 per game. This seems like a bit of a reach when the payoff is just that you get to watch Rams games, but I guess Stan Kroenke needs to try to recoup his $2 billion in stadium costs somehow — and at least if it all goes south, he’ll be the one on the hook, not taxpayers.
  • Some Canadian bank bought the naming rights to the Toronto Maple Leafs arena away from some Canadian airline. Is this going to buy it valuable market exposure and name recognition that will justify the $40 million a year expense? Not on this blog!
  • The LED lights at the Atlanta Falcons‘ new stadium make football look all weird.
  • Shreveport Mayor Ollie Tyler says spending $30 million on an arena for a minor-league basketball team is a great idea that only “naysayers” don’t appreciate. “I think sometimes we don’t believe in ourselves and some of our urban areas we don’t believe that we are able to make things happen,” she says. If Mayor Tyler needs a reelection campaign theme song, I have a suggestion.
  • “The Federal Aviation Administration has determined that the Oakland Raiders‘ proposed stadium in Las Vegas would not be a hazard to aircraft.” Huzzah!
  • Would-be St. Louis MLS owner Paul Edgerley says he’s still ready to pay $150 million for a franchise, and $100 million toward a stadium, as soon as someone comes up with the other $60 million in construction costs. Noted.
  • Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert has officially reinstated his plan to do $140 million of renovation work to the team’s arena, with Cuyahoga County paying for half the cost. ”This is corporate welfare at its worst,” said Steve Holecko of the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus, after his erstwhile coalition partners the Greater Cleveland Congregations withdrew petitions against the arena subsidy after getting a promise of two mental health crisis centers from the county. Holecko’s group doesn’t plan to mount another ballot challenge on their own, though, so construction work is set to begin later this month.
  • Mikhail Prokhorov is ready to sell the Brooklyn Nets, but will hold onto the Barclays Center, after renegotiating the team’s lease so that it will pay less rent to the arena. This … does not seem like the smartest way of going about things, but maybe Prokhorov is figuring he’ll give up future rent revenue in exchange for a higher sale price now on the team? Or maybe he’s just not very smart.

Friday roundup: Everybody still has lots of dumb stadium ideas, sun keeps rising in east

And aside from the Cleveland Cavaliers arena subsidy returning from the dead, Mrs. Lincoln, here’s how some of the rest of the week in stadium and arena news went:

  • Chicago is looking at closing some streets to accommodate DePaul University’s new city-subsidized basketball arena, because of course they are.
  • The new arena for the Detroit Red Wings and Pistons will have a Kid Rock-themed restaurant, because of course it will.
  • San Diego mayor Kevin Falconer wants to build a professional lacrosse stadium, even though the owners of the city’s newly created lacrosse franchise say they don’t need one, because of course he does.
  • Rhode Island state senate president Dominick Ruggerio says he hopes the state legislature will vote on $38 million in public funding for a new Pawtucket Red Sox stadium in November, despite not believing the team has a viable threat to move to Worcester if it doesn’t get what it wants, because “You know what, we’ll get criticized for anything.” And you know, he’s got a point: No matter what elected officials do, there’s somebody somewhere who won’t like it, so might as well do whatever they want, right?
  • The Las Vegas Raiders’ stadium construction could be delayed because nobody realized until now that they needed Army Corps of Engineers approval to remove a flood culvert. (The Raiders have agreed to pay the $1 million cost, at least.)
  • Dave Zirin at The Nation has examined how Joel Osteen’s dithering over whether to let Hurricane Harvey evacuees into his megachurch has its roots in the Houston subsidy deal that turned the Rockets‘ old arena into the church in the first place, and I put in a cameo to note that while littering the landscape with redundant current and former sports venues is one way to create a lot of hurricane shelters, it’s probably not a very cost-effective one.
  • Wells Fargo released a report that “real stadium construction spending” on new sports facilities has “climbed 80 percent over the past five years” to $10 billion per … something. And are they counting money committed, or actual construction money spent, and does this count both private and public funds? I guess we should cut Wells Fargo some slack, they have a lot on their minds these days.

Worcester mayor: Do whatever it takes to land PawSox (but this doesn’t mean, like, subsidies)

The sports move-threat game requires two elements, or really three: 1) a league with monopoly control over franchises, so that losing a team means it’d be tough to recruit a replacement; 2) a semi-viable city to threaten to move to; and 3) city officials there willing to start a bidding war for your team. The first is easily met by most North American sports leagues, the second for most minor leagues (since the bar for “semi-viable” is so much lower), and the last, in the case of the Pawtucker Red Sox, has a willing volunteer in Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty, because man, just listen to this guy:

“The City Council does hereby support in principle the relocation of the Red Sox Triple A baseball team to Worcester including building a stadium to accommodate this team and further, request the City Manager do all that is reasonably in his power to facilitate this move,” Mr. Petty wrote in a proposed resolution the council will take up Aug. 15.

In an interview Monday night, Mr. Petty said the resolution is meant to show the Red Sox Triple A affiliate that the city and its people are enthusiastic about professional baseball returning to the city.

“We have a chance to get them here, and we just want to convince them Worcester is the place to be,” Mr. Petty said.

“All that is reasonably in his power”! Does that include “fire and fury“?

The mayor said the statement is not meant to imply financial backing for a stadium from the city. He said any discussion of funding or stadium location would be premature since the two sides have not even commenced negotiations.

Of course not! “Including building a stadium” would never imply spending public money to build a stadium, because that would just be silly! Besides, the mayor was directly asked about public money and responded with this firm statement:

“We’re not going to negotiate in the press,” Mr. Petty said when asked whether he supported the idea of public dollars going toward a deal.

It’s unclear whether the city council will go along with Mayor Petty’s proposal — one councilor, Konstantina B. Lukes, told the Worcester Telegram she was worried not only by the blank-check nature of the resolution but that “we may be the bride left at the altar after we’ve been courted,” which is a perfectly cromulent fear. But man, is Petty ever going for Cartoon Blowhard Mayor of the Year. I don’t know when Joe Quimby is up for reelection, but he could face a tough challenger here.

Bridgeport Bluefish will fold so city can host more Doobie Brothers concerts

The Bridgeport Bluefish, one of the founding members of the independent minor-league baseball Atlantic League, will cease operations after this season after 20 years. That in itself isn’t all that unusual: Indy-league baseball teams don’t have much of a shelf life, and only one other original Atlantic League franchise survives. (Bonus points to whoever can name them in comments.) The weird part here is the reason: The Bluefish are being evicted from their home stadium by the same mayor who built it for them in the first place, so that he can convert it into an outdoor concert amphitheater.

Yeah, you read that right:

Developer Howard Saffan on Monday night revealed — and the mayor’s office later confirmed — that his and concert promoter Live Nation’s competing proposal to turn the 20-year-old Harbor Yard ballpark into a warm-weather amphitheater was selected by City Hall over a new contract with the Bluefish…

He promised 29 concerts annually in a season running from May to October, and eventually hoped to include other events, from beer festivals to graduations. The amphitheater will open in spring 2019, Saffan said…

Saffan said he and Live Nation will pay for $15 million worth of renovations to the 5,000-seat ballpark, but added he does anticipate a public/private financial arrangement with the city.

This is crazy in many, many ways: The Atlantic League plays a 140-game season, so even if the amphitheater sells better than minor-league baseball, it’s going to be a tough push to bring more people to Bridgeport with 29 concerts than 70 ballgames; Harbor Yard is only 20 years old, and is a generally well-liked stadium, and furthermore is shaped like a baseball stadium so will be a weird fit for concerts; Bridgeport already has an indoor concert arena right next door to the ballpark; and then there’s that “public/private financial arrangement,” which means Bridgeport will be hit with an as-yet-undetermined bill.

The only way this makes sense is if Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, who had the city pay to build Harbor Yard during his first term as mayor and has now returned to the office [EDIT: after spending more than six years in prison for corruption (thanks, commenters)], got a sweet offer from Live Nation, which is entirely possible — the concert promoter is currently engaged in a war with rival AEG to dominate the summer-outdoor-concert market, so they could easily be throwing some money around to ensure their share of the lucrative Deep Purple/Alice Cooper concert market. Though not so much money that they’ll actually pay for the whole amphitheater conversion, goodness me, no.

And then there’s this:

Ultimately the City Council must approve the amphitheater deal, which comes as Ganim explores running for governor in 2018. The returned mayor wants splashy development news to grow the city’s tax base and impress Democratic primary voters.

And there you have it: A city mayor is trying to curry favor with voters by kicking out the local baseball team so he can bring in outdoor summer concerts for “development.” There’s a first time for everything.

FC Cincy mulling Kentucky tax kickbacks to pay its entire stadium cost, and other week’s news

All the news that wasn’t fit to print this week:

  • FC Cincinnati now wants the Port Authority of Greater Cincinnati to own its stadium since Hamilton County doesn’t want to. (Does “own” mean “pay for”? Reply hazy, ask again later.) Or maybe Newport, Kentucky, since, according to team president and former city council members Jeff Berding, that would allow the team to recoup its entire $100 million through tax increment financing kickbacks of property taxes paid on the property. How would it generate a whole $100 million in TIFs? Reply hazy, ask again later.
  • Would-be Seattle arena builder Chris Hansen hired University of Washington public finance professor Justin Marlowe in May to compare the economic impact of his Sodo arena proposal to that of the KeyArena renovation plan, and he has issued his report, which says that the Sodo plan would create three times as much tax revenue for Seattle ($103 million over 35 years vs. $34 million for Key). On the other hand, the Key plan would include some kind of sharing of arena revenues, though that wouldn’t kick in until the Key developers got their share, and, yeah, basically it’s a muddle. On the whole, it seems to give the edge to Hansen’s plan, if only because that arena would pay property taxes, but I’d need to sit and break down the math to say exactly by how much, and I’ve been waiting for time to do that all week, so clearly it’s not happening. Reader exercise!
  • Oakland A’s executive VP Billy Beane promised that once the team gets a new stadium, it will stop trading all its decent players once they start to get expensive: “There’s only one way to open a stadium successfully, and that’s with a good, young team. … Really what’s been missing the last 20 years is keeping these players. We need to change that narrative by creating a good team and ultimately committing to keep them around so that when people buy a ticket, they know that the team is going to be around for a few years.” Which could make sense if a new stadium draws enough fans that having a winning team boosts revenues enough to pay for player salaries, though we’ve heard this song and dance before elsewhere.
  • The Nashville Sounds‘ new stadium was supposed to cost taxpayers $37 million, but it ended up costing $91 million.
  • What does $74 million in public subsidies buy Minnesota Timberwolves fans and staff? New seats, new restrooms, new locker rooms, an ice floor that doesn’t leak, two new loading docks, and a big glass wall, because everybody’s gotta have one of those.
  • The athletes’ village from the 2016 Rio Olympics is now a wasteland of unsold condos, because everything the Olympics touches turns to trash.
  • A homeless camp has arisen on the site of the planned Las Vegas Raiders stadium. Make your own metaphors.

County officials: No big money for Cincy MLS or arena redo, but maybe tax breaks or something

Hamilton County commissioners continue to make unhappy noises about funding either a new FC Cincinnati stadium or a renovation of Cincinnati’s arena, saying they have a lot of priorities other than new sports facilities right now:

All three commissioners are wary of repeating the mistakes they say county and city officials made more than 20 years ago, when new stadiums for the Bengals and Reds saddled county taxpayers with huge financial obligations.

“We’ve all lived to regret that,” said Commissioner Todd Portune.

Fellow Commissioner Chris Monzel said building stadiums, including the two the county already owns, shouldn’t be the business of county government.

“We have two facilities already,” he said. “That’s two too many.”

That’s pretty cut and dried, then, and—

The commissioners did not, however, rule out the possibility of helping proponents of a new arena and soccer stadium, even if they don’t approve a large public investment. While putting a higher sales tax on the ballot is the most likely way to raise big money, the county and city could pursue more modest measures, such as donating land, granting tax breaks or seeking help from state and federal grants.

So it appears the commissioners just don’t want to own a new stadium, but they’re maybe open to giving it public money? Or, more likely, they’re sending a signal that $100 million is a lot of money, and raising the sales tax just to renovate an arena that only really needs minor upgrades is a little nuts, but maybe ask for less and we’ll consider it. Which could be a reasonable “let’s not close any doors” approach, or could be a way to tell constituents that they’re not throwing money down any more stadium holes while secretly considering doing just that, or a combination of the two.

No, I don’t think the $38m PawSox stadium subsidy plan is a “win-win,” here’s why not

Joe Nocera, late of the New York Times op-ed page, has a new Bloomberg View opinion piece up titled “You Can Pay for a Ballpark Without Fleecing Taxpayers,” which namechecks this site and even provides a link, for which I should be grateful. Nocera and I failed to connect before it was published, though (he emailed me, I didn’t respond in time), so instead he is going to get berated here for misrepresenting my perspective, because that’s just how I like to bite the hand that feeds me clicks.

Anyway, here’s Nocera’s nut graf, where he brought me into the story:

In searching “Field of Schemes,” the go-to website for news about sports stadiums, I came across a rather different story, about the efforts of the Pawtucket Red Sox, the Triple-A minor league affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, to get a new ballpark. Although the dollars are far smaller (though not so small for Rhode Island), it does show that a team and a government can put together a deal that includes public financing but doesn’t hose the taxpayer. It’s kinda heartwarming, actually.

From there, it goes into a long, accurate description of former owner James Skeffington’s demand for $60 million in stadium subsidies, threatening to move the team out of Rhode Island if he didn’t get them. And then a long, not quite as accurate description of how after Skeffington’s death, team part-owner Larry Lucchino asked again for only $38 million in stadium subsidies, where the “city and state would receive a revenue stream that would not only cover the debt service but would probably make it a profitable venture for the government,” and “there were no threats” to move the team.

Okay, couple of things here. First off, the only revenue stream that the city and state will receive is “tax revenue generated in and around the stadium” — i.e., money that the city and state would normally collect anyway, but which would now be siphoned off to help pay for stadium construction costs via a tax increment financing district. There’s no way to reasonably project how much the TIF fund would collect — these things have failed spectacularly before — and more to the point, this is regular old tax money, not any actual revenues that the team would be giving up to help repay the public’s debt.

Secondly, about that “no threats” thing — not only did Lucchino just last week say he was going to look into moving the team out of Rhode Island, after promising two years ago not to do so until 2020, but Nocera actually linked to my post on that in his article. So, WTF, Joe?

Anyway, if Nocera wants to opine that the new PawSox deal is a better one for the city than the old one, it’s his column. (And he’s certainly right that it’s a better deal than Miami got for the Marlins stadium, though there are bank robberies that were better deals than that one, so that’s a pretty low bar.) But for the record, I would never call the new Pawtucket stadium plan a “win-win” — more of a “well, at least we got them to knock a few million dollars off their ridiculous subsidy demands, even if they’re still threatening to move Worcester.” Sadly, that’s a less grabby headline, but I’ll go with what I’ve got.

PawSox threaten to move just two years into five-year pledge not to threaten to move

Twenty months after promising not to move the Pawtucket Red Sox for at least five years in order to do “a repair job” on “wounds that were suffered by fans,” the team’s owners are back threatening to move the team:

“For more than a year, the Pawtucket Red Sox have worked cooperatively and exclusively with the City of Pawtucket and the State of Rhode Island to find a long-term solution to keep the PawSox in Pawtucket. The club promised such exclusivity through the state’s regular legislative session ending in June. This understanding was clear and made public on numerous occasions.

“While the dialogue with Pawtucket and Rhode Island officials will continue through a fall session, if called, the club will now also respond to other cities who seek to present proposals for potential ballpark sites. Given the uncertainty we face upon the expiration of our lease, and the timetables involved with these sorts of projects, we believe it is prudent and fair to follow this course of action.”

Now, I’m sure that the PawSox owners will claim that they’re sticking to the letter of their promise — even if the team were to move or try to, a new stadium elsewhere most likely wouldn’t be ready until after that five-year date in 2020 — but let’s be real: What’s going on here is that the Rhode Island state legislature wasn’t showing much urgency in approving its share of $48 million in requested subsidies, and team execs are hoping the threat of Worcester will light a fire under them. It’s a traditional part of the stadium-grubbers’ handbook, and “We don’t want to consider moving, but we have no choice” is a traditional “non-threat threat” way of presenting it.

So how realistic is the threat? More so than if this were a major-league team, if only because there’s no shortage of cities big enough to play host to a Triple-A franchise. So far there have been only “back channel” communications between the PawSox and Worcester, so presumably they haven’t started talking actual monetary figures — which, again, is in the team’s interest, because “Worcester is interested in us, better give us whatever we want!” is a much more effective threat than “Here’s what Worcester is offering us, can you match it?” Especially if Worcester doesn’t come up with a ton of cash, either. I’m not sure where “Get your customers to bid against themselves, it saves time” falls in the Rules of Acquisition, but I’m sure it’s in there somewhere.

FC Cincinnati: We need $100m in stadium cash because soccer fans use bathrooms differently

With FC Cincinnati Carl Lindner III demanding $100 million in public subsidies for a new soccer stadium, there has naturally enough been speculation about why the team can’t just keep playing at Nippert Stadium, where the team leads the USL in attendance, and it’s not even close (19,678 to second-place Sacramento Republic FC‘s 11,569). On Friday, however, team president Jeff Berding called using Nippert “implausible due to some insurmountable challenges.” Those challenges, according to WCPO-TV?

Entrances are relatively narrow, especially for soccer, where fans tend to march in together en masse.

Concession stands and restrooms are used differently, too, with soccer fans tending to rush to them together after the uninterrupted 45-minute first half.

Okay, so as ridiculous as “restrooms are used differently” sounds, there is some truth to this: You don’t want to go to the restroom or run out for a hot dog during play in soccer, since you might end up missing the one goal of the whole match. So there does tend to be a stampede to the concourses at halftime.

However, 1) it doesn’t appear to be dissuading fans from turning up at Nippert for soccer currently, 2) Nippert just underwent an $85 million renovation to, in part, build new concourses, 3) new stadiums haven’t done much to solve the problem of halftime soccer crowds, and 4) even if more restrooms are needed, surely those could be added for less than $100 million?

These are all important issues that WCPO seems not to have asked about, possibly because the station didn’t talk to anyone other than an FC Cincinnati exec. (And the University of Cincinnati’s athletic director, who just said they haven’t had any discussions yet about extending FC Cincinnati’s lease.) For an important topic like this, you’d think you’d want your reporter to talk to more than one team source, but maybe that’s just me and my old-fashioned notion of journalism where getting things right matters.