Friday roundup: More on MLB attendance decline, plus stadium rumors and the reports of rumors

In case you missed it, I revisited the question of MLB’s attendance decline for Deadspin this week, by way of picking apart a New York Times article on the topic that got a couple of things right and a whole bunch of things less right. The upshot is that team owners don’t really need lots of fans to show up, but they sure would like them to, but only if they can accomplish this without cannibalizing the luxury seat sales that are their bread and butter these days — all of which makes all the “Whither baseball?” handwringing even less justifiable. Lesson: Don’t try to measure the demand curve just by looking at product sales. (Okay, maybe that’s only the lesson I take from it, but it’s one lesson.)

Meanwhile, news!

Hamilton hockey owner: Build me a smaller arena, or I’ll leave town

The Hamilton Bulldogs arena kerfuffle is reaching one of the lower DEFCONs, with the discovery of a confidential proposal to the city by team owner Michael Andlauer to have taxpayers build a new arena at Lime Ridge Mall, for which Andlauer would “partially offset” the costs:

No construction costs are included in proposal documents viewed by The Spectator and team owner Michael Andlauer declined through a spokesperson Monday to talk about how much he is willing to pay. Past estimates floated for a Mountain arena have been around $60 million.

That would be smaller than the 10,000-seat arena that the city council was discussing just last week to replace the city’s 17,400-seat arena. And Andlauer has upped the ante by threatening to move his team out of town if an arena isn’t completed quickly:

Team owner Michael Andlauer isn’t prepared to wait the four or five years the proposed project is expected to take.

Andlauer says if the city can’t get a new arena up and running before that, he’ll be forced to look at moving his OHL hockey team elsewhere.

“I don’t want to be put in that position, but I think timing is going to create that.”

He can certainly do that, but as the second-largest Canadian city without an NHL team, Hamilton would be well-positioned to pick up another hockey franchise if the Bulldogs left town. In fact, that’s how the city ended up with these Bulldogs in the first place, after Andlauer’s previous American Hockey League team of the same name moved to St. John’s, Newfoundland in 2015.

Also, Andlauer has threatened this before, using the same Hamilton Spectator columnist, Andrew Dreschel, as his mouthpiece. One hopes that the two-minute warning ploy wouldn’t carry as much weight anymore now that so many team owners have tried it over and over again, but nobody ever went broke gambling on the gullibility of local elected officials.

Hamilton could tear down arena and build new one to trim 7,000 seats

It was only a decade ago that Hamilton’s Copps Coliseum was being considered as a potential relocation target for various NHL teams, or at least being used as a threat by them. The Ontario city ended up without a franchise, though, and now the 34-year-old arena — since renamed something about a bank — is being targeted for possible demolition and replacement, not because it’s too old, but because it’s too big:

The city’s general issues committee voted Wednesday to set up a steering committee, hire a project manager and look at partnering with private companies to replace the city’s largest entertainment venue with a smaller one.

The move came after city staff said Hamilton needs a “right-sized” venue to replace the former Copps Coliseum — one with about 10,000 seats rather than the 17,400 the aging arena has now…

The Bulldogs are the current main tenant, and the staff report predicts attendance at those OHL games would increase 20 to 50 per cent with a new facility. Increased revenue, staff say, would bring in $20 million over the next 30 years.

But it would cost as much as $130 million to build a new facility, the report says. And some councillors are hesitant to tackle that price tag.

Okay, so a couple of things: First off, the idea that sports teams and the cities that love them too much should be building smaller venues is an old one, and makes sense if the new sports marketing strategy is to sell fewer higher-priced tickets and charge everyone else to watch on TV at home. But that’s if you’re building new — the idea of spending $130 million just to get a new arena that is 7,000 seats smaller is pretty crazy, when you can reduce capacity at an existing building just by throwing a tarp over the upper deck.

The premise here seems to be that the Bulldogs junior hockey team — that’s under-21s — would draw enough more fans in a smaller arena to make it worth the expense, which is at best an extremely speculative notion: Yes, watching sports in a “right-sized” venue can be more pleasant, but enough so that an additional 1,000 to 2,500 people are going to turn up every night just because there’s no upper deck? (The Bulldogs currently average just under 5,000 fans a night in attendance.) And to make a $130 million investment pay off, adding even 2,500 fans apiece at 34 home games would have to spend about $100 each for the arena just to break even on increased attendance alone. (A city report projects that ensmallening the arena would also save a little under $1 million a year in maintenance costs, in which case an additional 2,500 hockey fans a night would just need to spend $90 each to make the numbers work.)

There are other possible upsides to replacing your arena — you can get more modern facilities including revenue producers like ad boards and luxury seating, you can relocate it elsewhere in your city and redevelop the old arena land, etc. — but that seems to be less of a motivation than this “the old one has 7,000 too many seats” thing. Though most likely the real motivation has more to do with the Bulldogs owner making noise about wanting a new arena, after the previous minor-league Bulldogs moved to Newfoundland and were replaced by the junior hockey franchise. So while a new Hamilton arena may not necessarily be the dumbest idea on the face of the earth, it seems only reasonable to consider it dumb until proven smart.

Friday stadium news: Warriors subway delays, MLS expansion scuttlebutt, ungrateful Hamilton

Oh hey, yeah, I forgot to mention that it’s the most important holiday of the year this week (and part of next), so posting may be a bit sporadic until Wednesday or so. But I could never ignore the weekly news roundup, so let’s get to it:

  • San Francisco’s new Central Subway likely won’t open until 2021, more than a year later than planned, which will mean a couple of seasons of Golden State Warriors fans walking or taking shuttle buses. Honestly, it’s not all that far, but I’m sure there will still be complaining.
  • David Beckham got some new minority partners for his MLS team that still doesn’t quite exist yet. Supposedly the league will issue an “update” on the Miami stadium situation soon, which maybe sounds ominous only to me because I think that way?
  • The city of Phoenix has now spent $200,000 on a Suns arena consultant, and still the city council doesn’t have any information yet even on what kinds of upgrades the arena might need, because the mayor says he has to keep negotiations with the team secret. From the city council. No, it sounds crazy to me, too.
  • The owner of the Hamilton Bulldogs junior hockey team offered to build a new arena and only ask taxpayers to foot half the bill, and he’s mad that the city hasn’t thanked him yet.
  • Cincinnati’s highway bridges are falling down, but the city is spending money on a new MLS stadium (maybe?) before addressing that, because hotel taxes and other money going to the stadium isn’t allowed to be used on highway infrastructure. You know, maybe cities and counties should start allowing things like hotel taxes to be used to improve other things that benefit tourists, like roads that don’t have overpasses fall on them when you drive under? Just a thought.
  • The Republican tax bill isn’t finalized yet, and we don’t know if the ban on tax-exempt stadium funding will survive, but the Detroit News speculates that if it does, it might help Detroit’s MLS expansion chances because it’s the only city that wouldn’t be building a new stadium. MLS already supposedly voted on the expansion cities yesterday, though, so you think the league owners called Congress for a sneak peek at the final bill? Does MLS have that kind of pull with Congress?

Canada: No arena subsidies if it’s for a pro team

In yet another indication that Canada remains a different country from the U.S., the federal government is threatening to withdraw funding for an amateur hockey rink in Laval, Quebec, because it’s learned that a minor-league pro team might move there:

There are growing rumours that the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League — the farm team of the National Hockey League’s Montreal Canadiens — are planning to move into the Laval arena when it will be built.

Ottawa is now warning that it will pull the plug on the project unless if obtains guarantees that the arena will not be used by an AHL or a major-junior hockey team. Otherwise, the government fears that it will be hit with a new round of lobbying for other sports infrastructure projects in cities like Quebec City, Edmonton and Regina.

“If we allow a breach in our policy, we’re toast,” a federal official said.

From the sound of it, part of the reason for the reversal was griping by city officials in Quebec City that the Laval arena was getting federal stimulus money and their own proposed NHL arena (which still isn’t any closer to having a team than when it was approved last year) wasn’t. Still, the concept that giving public money to one team might be a bad idea because it will encourage other teams to ask for it too is a notion that most U.S. officials would likely find … well, foreign.