World’s most expensive minor-league stadium may cost Worcester taxpayers $150m+ now, who can even keep track

I’m not exactly sure how something called the Worcester Airport Blog ended up closely covering the Worcester Red Sox‘ stadium subsidy controversy, but on Saturday it posted this:

Go to page 21 of the lease, section 4.5(b). It outlines who is responsible for cost overruns. The important sentence begins with “Notwithstanding … exceeds $18,000,000, the parties will work cooperatively to find alternative funding sources.” 

This says to us that the City may have to renegotiate with the Team if cost overruns exceed $18,000,000. Exhibit F states the cost overruns are currently $17,304,793 (as of 1/8/21) so the likelihood of there being cost overruns over $18,000,000 are probably high.

Backing up a minute: The new stadium being built to lure the Pawtucket Red Sox Triple-A baseball team to Worcester has been reported to cost a minor-league record $172 million, counting $157 million for actual stadium construction plus $15 million in “infrastructure” (mostly road work). The costs so far are broken down as follows:

  • $100.8 million in initial costs from the city of Worcester, of which WooSox owner Larry Lucchino and his partners are repaying $6 million in cash upfront, plus a little over $1 million a year via rent payments for the next 35 years. That’s been portrayed as worth $35 million, but getting $1 million in the year 2056 isn’t the same as getting it now (not just because of inflation, but because of the interest rate on bonds), so really it’s worth only, let’s go to the Present Value Calculator, use a low 3% interest rate because money is cheap right now, and we get $21.5 million. So the other $73.3 million is on the city.
  • $35 million for parking garages and other “infrastructure,” plus $3.5 million for a ballpark entryway, from the state of Massachusetts.
  • $20 million extra from the city for additional costs of acquiring and preparing the site (in part because the city neglected to account for hills requiring retaining walls so they don’t fall down).
  • Another $15 million from the city for that latest batch of road work.
  • Lucchino & Co., meanwhile, will be on the hook for the $6 million in cash, that $21.5 million worth of future rent payments, $9.5 million in added construction costs from January 2020, plus $17.3 million in new overruns this past year.

That comes to $146.8 million in public costs, and $54.3 million in team costs, which totals $201.1 million. A sizable chunk of that isn’t technically “stadium costs” — it’s costs for things like roads and garages that are needed by the stadium, but not the stadium proper — but the total cost of the project is now right around the $200 million mark.

Which, finally, brings us to that section 4.5(b) of the WooSox’ lease:

(b) Tenant shall be responsible for all Ballpark Design and Construction Costs that exceed the Cost Estimate (“Additional Ballpark Costs”) except for those that are caused, directly or indirectly, by (i) the delay or negligence of, or failure to act by, Landlord, City, or any of their representatives or contractors, including the failure to comply with the applicable Commonwealth public procurement laws, for which the Landlord shall be solely responsible; (ii) Excusable Tenant Delay; or (iii) Excusable Landlord Delay. Notwithstanding the foregoing, in the event that Additional Ballpark Costs exceed $18,000,000, the Parties will work cooperatively to find other, alternative funding sources. The foregoing cap applies to and includes any Ballpark Design and Construction Costs that are necessary in order for the Ballpark to meet the Comparable Facilities Standard.

I am, as usual, not a lawyer, but that language seems clear as mud: The team is on the hook for all overruns, but notwithstanding that, for any overruns above $18 million the city will help find “alternative funding sources” (knocking over a liquor store?) to cover the rest. If the cost overruns go up by more than that — and as noted at the top, they’re already within $700,000 of the cap — and no alternative funding sources are available, the lease is all ¯_(ツ)_/¯ about what happens then.

That’s bad, but those earlier clauses in 4.5(b) aren’t great either, since they leave open the possibility of the team claiming that overruns are due to “delay” by the city, and there’s certainly been a ton of delays and likely to be more given, you know, everything. So the total public cost of this project is probably best described as “$150 million plus or minus ¯_(ツ)_/¯” — it’s almost certainly the most expensive minor-league baseball stadium in history either way, though, so at least they can start designing the historical plaque now.

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Friday roundup: Tokyo Olympics back on, NFL doesn’t understand vaccines, and other hygiene theater stories

It was yet another one of those weeks, where you finally look up from the news that’s obsessing everybody only to find that while you weren’t looking, monarch butterflies had moved to the verge of extinction. There doesn’t seem to be an end to this anytime soon — which is pretty much the motto of this website, so let’s get on with it:

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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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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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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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