Friday roundup: Vegas MLB rumors, North American soccer superleague rumors, and everything just costs untold billions of dollars now, get used to it

I published two long articles yesterday — one on sports stadium and arena deals that haven’t sucked too badly, one on a particular non-sports subsidy deal that looks to be sucking pretty hard — so I wasn’t able to post anything here, despite a couple of news items that might have warranted their own FoS posts. But as the saying goes, Thursday omissions bring a shower of Friday news briefs (please don’t tell me that’s not a saying, because it is now), so let’s dig in:

Friday roundup: The Case of the Dead Beer-Tap Inventor, and Other Stories

This was the week that was:

  • The Denver Broncos are finding it slow going getting a new naming rights sponsor for their stadium because a used stadium name loses lots of its value, thanks to everyone still calling it by the old name. Yes, this is yet another reason why teams demand new stadiums when the old ones are barely out of the cellophane.
  • Here’s a Los Angeles Times article arguing that if rich sports team owners are granted permission to evade environmental review laws, small business owners should be too. I am not entirely sure this is the best lesson to take from this, guys.
  • Pennsylvania is preparing to legalize sports gambling, and the owners of the Pittsburgh Pirates think it would be great if the state imposed a gambling fee and gave some of the money to them, the only surprising part here being that they actually said this out loud.
  • F.C. Cincinnati‘s ownership group is preparing upgrades to Nippert Stadium as the team’s temporary home while a new stadium is built, and “isn’t concerned by the cost,” according to WCPO. Yes, these are the same owners who said they couldn’t possibly build a new stadium without $63.8 million in public money. Also who said Nippert Stadium couldn’t possibly be made acceptable as an MLS venue. I’m done now.
  • Fredericksburg, Virginia has scheduled a July 10 vote on whether to build a new $35 million stadium for the single-A Potomac Nationals, and paying off the city’s costs by siphoning off property, admissions, sales, meal, personal property, and business license taxes paid at the stadium and handing them over to the team. I guess that would make it a PASMPPBLTIF?
  • And finally, a man found dead in a walk-in beer cooler in the Atlanta Braves‘ new stadium turns out to have been there to install a revolutionary new fast-pour beer tap he’d invented, and no one yet knows how he died. This is going to be the best season of True Detective yet! (No, seriously, this is a tragedy for the man and his family, and I hope that everyone involved soon finds closure, at least, by determining the true facts of what happened. But also, no, I’m not going to go back and delete the joke. If this makes me a monster, at least I’m an appropriately social-media-driven monster.)

MLS decides Cincinnati has held breath and turned purple enough, awards city expansion franchise

Six weeks after voting to approve $63 million in soccer stadium subsidies and yet still not getting an MLS expansion team, Cincinnati finally has an MLS expansion team:

“We fought hard over the last six months … to get a stadium site that is unprecedented,” [MLS commissioner Don Garber] said. “This could be Bernabéu. This could be Anfield. You have a stadium that’s going to be built in a great, great part of the community.”

Nice name-checking of the homes of the two Champions League finalists, though I regret to inform you that F.C. Cincinnati is never going to be in the European Champions League finals, for many, many reasons.

Anyway, the holdup was apparently to get all the t’s crossed and i’s dotted with Cincinnati’s stadium plan, which makes sense from the MLS’s point of view. Though maybe less sense when one considers that the t’s aren’t actually any more crossed than they were back in April:

Opponents of FC Cincinnati’s West End stadium could launch a petition drive to put a key part of a $50 million public financing package on November’s ballot, a referendum effort that could deprive the club of $17 million in public funding from the city for infrastructure and site preparation.

If voters killed such funding, it probably would not derail the stadium for the new Major League Soccer franchise, but organizers see it as a way to make the project more fiscally responsible for taxpayers at a time when the city of Cincinnati faces a budget deficit of up to $34 million.

So okay then. Either MLS thinks that the referendum drive will fail because the city structured its stadium vote as a no-referendum-backsies-allowed “emergency” measure, or they figure they can get some public body to pay the $17 million either way, or they were just sick of waiting around and needed to start selling season tickets. In any event, Cincinnati is now MLS’s 238th franchise (press reports say 26th, but it sure feels like 238); Sacramento, Detroit, and everybody else, please come back later to begin a new bidding war, because everybody gets bees an MLS franchise!

FC Cincinnati won its stadium vote thanks to dodgy campaign contributions

F.C. Cincinnati, you will recall, is getting $63.8 million in public subsidies thanks to a 5-4 vote of the city council last month, one that was held as an emergency measure so that regular citizens couldn’t overturn it in a public vote. And that key fifth vote, it turns out, is only in office thanks to a narrow winning margin helped along by $73,000 in campaign contributions from questionable sources:

It’s fair to say Republican Jeff Pastor’s questionable $54,600 personal campaign loan and $18,500 in “dark money” were likely good enough for 223 votes in last year’s City Council election. That was the slim margin the rookie candidate defeated Democrat Michelle Dillingham, whose 10th-place finish kept her off Council.

Questions are swirling about where Pastor got the money to loan to his campaign and whether a “dark money” nonprofit obeyed the rules when it electioneered for a candidate. That’s not to mention Pastor’s bizarre decision to pass out five-figure checks to churches during the campaign – money supposedly from his day-job boss Charlie Shor’s epilepsy foundation.

The story, as far as I can tell, is that Pastor loaned money to his own campaign at the same time as his boss loaned him money for a home mortgage, while also accepting that $18,500 from a Super PAC that doesn’t disclose its donors. None of that is necessarily illegal, but not keeping track of how he raised the money or spent it is — and Pastor’s campaign records didn’t bother to include any expense information.

Now, no one is suggesting that F.C. Cincinnati had anything to do with the dodgy campaign funds — I mean, they could theoretically be the Super PAC donors (so could me or you or Sheldon Adelson), but that would have taken a remarkable degree of foresight to realize he’d be their key stadium vote five months later. But it does mean that, but for some petty breakage of campaign finance law, Cincinnatians might today not have a new soccer stadium in the works, and still have $63.8 million. But at least now they have a shot at soon watching the glory of MLS soccer in the flesh!

Cincinnati: Citizens can’t vote on soccer stadium deal, because it’s an “emergency”

A group of West End residents calling themselves the Coalition Against an FC Cincinnati Stadium have begun gathering signatures to put a referendum on the November ballot to decide whether to repeal the city’s deal to spend $64 million in cash and tax breaks on a new MLS stadium for F.C. Cincinnati, assuming F.C. Cincinnati gets invited to join MLS. But in any case, the city of Cincinnati is having none of this whole “popular vote” nonsense, arguing that because the stadium deal was passed as an “emergency” measure, it’s not subject to referendum:

The FC Cincinnati deal was passed as an “emergency” ordinance, and the city’s law department told The Enquirer Friday “if an ordinance is passed with an emergency clause, it is not subject to referendum.”

Emergency clauses allow ordinances to go into effect immediately instead of after 30 days…

“That this ordinance shall be an emergency measure is necessary for the preservation of the public peace, health, safety and general welfare,” the ordinance reads. “The reason for the emergency is to enable the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) to be executed as soon as possible so that the Club can promptly move forward with its attempt to secure a bid for membership as a Major League Soccer franchise, which if granted will result in the construction of the stadium, the creation of job, and the stimulation of economic growth in the area at the earliest possible date.”

That takes a lot of balls, passing legislation as an “emergency” on the grounds that it will create such desperately needed economic growth that waiting even a month would put at stake the general welfare. (I’m going to assume here that “creation of job” is a simple typo and not a Freudian slip.) It’s not clear that there are any limits on the Cincinnati council’s power to determine what is and isn’t an emergency, though; as the Cincinnati Enquirer notes, a similar challenge to a 2013 emergency measure that would have privatized the city’s parking system — man, Cincinnati sure does have a lot of emergencies that involve handing public assets over to for-profit entities, don’t they? — was rejected on appeal, though it never received a final verdict as the parking privatization plan was eventually withdrawn.

In general, the history of after-the-fact attempts to repeal stadium subsidies isn’t a great one, going back to 2002 when the people of St. Louis voted to require that any sports subsidies be required to go up for a public vote, only to have the courts rule that this couldn’t apply to the then just-approved Cardinals stadium subsidy because it had already happened before the 2002 referendum. And then when it was time to approve subsidies for the Blues the St. Louis city council just went and decreed that it wouldn’t require a public vote. But don’t be too judgey of the councilmembers — it was probably an emergency.

Cincinnati’s new stadium doesn’t actually win it MLS franchise, at least not yet

MLS owners met yesterday, one day after Cincinnati approved $64 million in subsidies for a new F.C. Cincinnati soccer stadium, and … didn’t actually approve F.C. Cincinnati as an expansion franchise as boosters had hoped:

There are a couple of ways to read this: Either the Cincinnati stadium approval was too unexpected for MLS owners to get all their voting ducks in a row; or they really are intent on keeping this bidding war going, and seeing if maybe Cincinnati upping the ante convinces Sacramento to throw in a few more million dollars. (Sacramento the ownership group, Sacramento the city, it almost doesn’t matter.) Regardless, MLS has to be thrilled with how this expansion shakedown is going — it wasn’t that long ago that the league was at most looking at one subsidy-rich option to choose from — so holding off a little longer can’t hurt. I mean, it’s not like Cincinnati can revoke its stadium subsidy approval now just because it’s been told it has to wait 4-6 weeks for shipping, right?

Cincinnati council approves MLS stadium, West End residents remain pissed

Sure enough, the Cincinnati city council voted 5-4 to approve spending $34.8 million on a new MLS stadium in the West End (it will also get $15 million in county money plus around $14 million in discounted property-tax payments), clearing the way for F.C. Cincinnati‘s expansion bid. If that’s approved today, as expected — and it’s hard to see MLS turning down all this stadium cash for a team that has been wildly successful in attendance in the USL — Cincinnati will become the 517th MLS franchise (more or less, I’ve stopped counting) and Sacramento and Detroit will have to wait until the next round of expansion in a few hours (estimated).

That’s a whole bunch of money from a city that’s already poured even more than that into poorly received stadium deals for the Reds and Bengals — the latter of which famously required selling a public hospital to pay off — and it only took place after team owners arm-twisted a final vote by hashing out a last-second community benefits agreement to provide $100,000 a year for local organizations and provide some community oversight of elements like lighting, parking, and traffic. But at least West End residents got some say in what they’d get out of having their local high school football stadium torn down and rebuilt to make way for an MLS stadium, right?

The fight over the benefits agreement will continue on Tuesday, when the West End Community Council meets. Some members are calling for council president Keith Blake, who signed the agreement on Monday, to be impeached.

Ah, democracy.

Cincinnati could approve $63m stadium subsidy today, get MLS team tomorrow

The Cincinnati city council is set to vote on approval for an F.C. Cincinnati soccer stadium in the West End today at 4 p.m., which could lead to the city being awarded an MLS franchise as soon as tomorrow:

The vote would come just ahead of Tuesday’s Major League Soccer board of governors meeting in New York City. MLS has twice delayed awarding the next round of franchises, although Nashville did get one in late December. FC Cincinnati is in competition with Sacramento and Detroit.

Five votes are needed to pass the stadium plan, which would involve $63 million in public subsidies, and right now there are four sure votes, with councilmember Jeff Pastor reportedly holding out for a written community benefits agreement before signing off on the funds. Team president Jeff Berding, though, says he’s confident Pastor will vote yes:

“We’ve had great leadership at City Hall. I expect that tomorrow the ordinances that provide the public infrastructure to support our privately funded stadium will be approved,” Berding said Sunday after three days of last-ditch meetings in hopes of sealing the deal…

Berding said he worked through the weekend to meet Pastor’s demand to put the CBA in writing in time for council to review it before it votes at a 4 p.m. special session.

Um, that’s not really a community benefits agreement if you don’t negotiate it with the community, only with one councilmember in secret? [CLARIFICATION: Berding did say he’s been meeting with the West End Community Council to discuss the CBA, or at least with its executive board.] But you know, never mind, far worse deals have been cut for votes in other cities.

If there’s one thing for sure, it’s that the Cincinnati police department has not been leafletting the West End with flyers calling the neighborhood a “high violent crime area” just so that the soccer team owners can buy up land on the cheap. Probably.

F.C. Cincinnati gets its stadium land after school board lowers its price

F.C. Cincinnati‘s once-dead West End stadium plan continued its resurrection tour yesterday, as the Cincinnati Public School board approved a land swap that will provide the team with the site of Willard R. Stargel Stadium in exchange for a vacant lot where a new high school football venue will be built to replace it. And the crowd went wild:

A crowd of nearly 50 people, some of them holding signs opposing the deal, chanted “Shame!” following the vote.

The school board said it got what it wanted in exchange for the land, but it really didn’t: It’s getting roughly $1 million a year in property tax payments instead of the $2 million a year it initially said it was due. And while F.C. Cincinnati’s owners agreed to add a community benefits agreement with local community members, they’ve already decided unilaterally how much they’re going to put into any community fund, and anyway the stadium deal will be approved before the CBA is negotiated, so the West End will pretty much end up liking it or lumping it, or at best haggling over how to divide the boodle — which is pretty much par for the course with CBAs.

CPS Board President Carolyn Jones said the board made the decision after weighing the benefits of getting new revenue for schools and the opposition of many vocal West End residents, concluding, “Like I always said, it’s a no win-win situation.” I’ve never actually heard that particular idiom before, but it’s oddly apropos for stadium subsidy deals.

 

F.C. Cincinnati cuts deal with councilmembers for $63m in West End stadium subsidies

Oho, so this is why F.C. Cincinnati kept moving the goalposts on its stadium deadline, and then released a statement pivoting back to the West End site it had previously rejected: The team had been secretly — or at least behind-the-scenesedly — working on a deal with the city council to revive subsidies for a West End stadium:

The deal, presented by Councilmen P.G. Sittenfeld and David Mann, calls for FC Cincinnati to build a $200 million soccer stadium, pay $25 million in property taxes to Cincinnati Public Schools and infuse $100,000 a year for 10 years into the neighborhood.

City and county taxpayers would contribute $48.8 million, vs. $51 million for the Oakley site.

Okay, let’s back this up a sec. When the West End site was last in play, F.C. Cincinnati was looking to have its property taxes capped at between $100,000 and $500,000 a year, while the school district thought the team should be paying more like $2 million a year. The deal proposed by Sittenfeld and Mann would set property taxes at closer to $1 million a year, which would still be a tax break worth around $14 million in present value, if the school district’s valuation is correct.

Meanwhile, taxpayers would spend an additional $48.8 million in straight-up cash: $17 million from local hotel taxes, $6.3 million from the sale of the former Blue Ash airport site, $8 million in tax-increment financing kickbacks, $2.5 million in city capital funds, and $15 million in county money to build a parking garage for fans. Add in the tax breaks, and that’s $62.8 million that Cincinnati residents would be contributing toward the $200 million stadium project. (F.C. Cincinnati would also build a new high-school football stadium as part of the deal, but as the West End already has a perfectly good one that it would lose to make way for a soccer stadium, that’s really a net gain.)

So what now? The support of Sittenfeld and Mann should give F.C. Cincinnati five votes on the nine-member city council, though the other three nominally pro-stadium members haven’t actually chimed in on this latest plan. The school board has to approve selling the stadium land in a vote tomorrow; presumably the councilmembers wouldn’t have announced this deal if the school board hadn’t signed off on it, but who really knows. And then MLS has to actually award Cincinnati an expansion team, but given that the league has been twiddling its thumbs since December waiting for Cincinnati to put together a stadium deal that makes the team and league happy (read: pays for a large chunk of the costs with somebody else’s money), that’s probably a slam dunk.

If it all pans out, there is some happiness here, in that Cincinnati boasts by far the strongest fan support in the second-tier USL, and so arguably deserves a shot at an MLS club. (We will ignore the fact that in most of the world, Cincinnati could earn this promotion without anyone paying a dime just by winning games.) But man, $63 million is a lot of dough, nearly as much as Nashville is coughing up toward its MLS stadium. Soccer is still a relatively cheap date in terms of subsidies compared to the Big Four U.S. sports, but MLS is doing its best to change that, and this whole multi-city bidding war thing is working out about as well as the league could have hoped, even if it’s taking a while to get there.