Maryland approves $59.5m for Hagerstown ballpark to lure league whose teams have lifespan of mayflies

So, the Hagerstown Suns. They’d fielded a team in the South Atlantic League since 1993 and in other minor leagues for a dozen years before that, playing all that time in Municipal Stadium, built for an earlier set of minor-league teams way back in 1930. Then came the Manfred Snap, and the Suns were vaporized, along with 17 other minor-league baseball teams. The unaffiliated Atlantic League then offered a team provided that Hagerstown build “a facility that meets or exceeds the league’s standards,” a gambit that has worked stunningly poorly for a series of cities that ended up with no teams and stadiums abandoned before they reached drinking age.

You undoubtedly already know where this is going:

On Monday, a bill that would allow the Maryland Stadium Authority to serve as project manager for a new facility proposed for Baltimore Street and Summit Avenue cleared its last hurdle in the Maryland General Assembly. The authority can also issue up to $59.5 million in bonds to finance the acquisition, design, construction and related construction expenses.

Sixty million dollars! The Atlantic League stadiums for the now-defunct teams in Newark, Camden, and Atlantic City only cost about $24 million apiece, and while those were all built around the year 2000, that’s still only about $37 million in today’s dollars. I’m a fan of the Atlantic League (or used to be, before it shuttered all the teams I could easily get to), but that kind of money is crazytown. How could anyone in the Maryland state legislature — which passed the bill 44-0 in the senate, and 131-5 in the house — justify such a thing?

[State Sen. Paul] Corderman said previously the facility could also host movie nights, fireworks and other events, and bring more people through the city’s downtown to support other businesses in that area.

Because you absolutely couldn’t host movie nights at a baseball stadium that hasn’t been renovated since 1995! The mere idea is absurd!

Anyway, there’s another $59.5 million in cash transferred from taxpayers to baseball owners as a result of MLB’s minor-league contraction scheme, and even if it’s baseball owners in a league MLB doesn’t control, I’m sure they’re happy enough for the Atlantic League, which is now a “partner league” where MLB can do things like test-drive new rules. The best we can hope is that other cities that lost teams don’t follow suit in desperation to land any replacement franchise at all, and — oh, what now?

The city’s Economic Development Corporation is in discussions with the Atlantic League — a quirky eight-team league that signs former pros, but isn’t affiliated with Major League Baseball — to take over the lease from the defunct Staten Island Yankees at the Richmond County Bank Ballpark, THE CITY has learned…

[Former Staten Island Yankees president Will] Smith [not that one, or the other one, or the other other one] said the EDC and City Hall should be prepared to make numerous changes to the stadium — including installing synthetic turf, increasing parking capacity and adjusting seating.

I knew this was going to be bad — I believe the phrase I used back in December was “the next round of stadium roulette might not be too far off” —  but I didn’t quite think it would be this bad this soon. Give MLB commissioner Rob Manfred this: He may be kind of a mumble-mouthed doofus, but he’s carried out this game of multi-million-dollar musical-chairs extortion to perfection. Does Cooperstown have an Evil Genius wing?

Tennessee senator says Knoxville stadium would cannibalize tax money, mayor replies “But it’s newwww!”

The Tennessee Smokies stadium sales tax increment financing bill, which would siphon off $65 million in future sales taxes to build a new stadium in downtown Knoxville for a minor-league baseball team to local rich guy Randy Boyd, took another step forward last night, passing the state house’s finance committee. The night before that, though, the bill got a hearing in the state senate ways and means committee, and there was a bit of a dust-up over exactly how tax increment financing works:

[State Senator Bo] Watson expressed concerns the develop would encourage local people, those who already shop and dine in the region, to go to the new site instead, and bring less revenue to the state.

“Minor league baseball is more regional. So people who are coming to the games now, they’re eating at restaurants that the state is now collecting sales tax on. You’re going to simply transfer them to one area to another area, so at the end of the day the state loses tax dollars because we’re collecting even less in this zone than we would be collecting if they were in the other part of the city,” Watson said.

That’s the substitution effect, even if Watson didn’t quite explain it as clearly as he might have. (The idea in a nutshell: If you just substitute sales tax collections in one place for collections in another place, that doesn’t actually leave you with extra money to hand out to the Invisible Fence guy.) It too often gets overlooked in development deals, so it’s nice to see someone raising it as an issue here.

Knox County Mayor Glenn “Kane” Jacobs, though, had an answer for Watson’s argument:

“It’s one of the most prime locations in Knox County. It produces no money in sales tax. No money whatsoever. So whatever that it does produce will be an increase,” Mayor Jacobs said.

Um, no. I mean, yes, the stadium site itself would produce more tax revenue, but that’s not the same as saying the state would get more tax revenue overall — especially when the Smokies would just be moving from the suburbs to the city. The only way it would increase state tax revenue would be if more people came to visit from out of state, which is certainly possible, but $65 million worth of people? That would require a study, but admittedly it’s far easier just to point at a plot of land and say, “Empty! Let’s make it not-empty!” and leave it at that.

I wish I could tell you more about the bill’s chances in the state senate, but aside from a quote from the TIF district bill’s sponsor, Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, that the stadium would be a “transformational economic development project,” the local news outlets don’t have much on what the other 36 senators think. (Republicans hold a 30-8 advantage in the chamber, but Watson, Jacobs, and Massey are all Republicans, so this clearly isn’t breaking down along partisan lines.) I’ll see what I can do to find out more; in the meantime, if anyone wants to be Field of Schemes’ Tennessee legislative correspondent, let me know.

Worcester’s $150m minor-league stadium will be awesome, says newspaper owned by team’s parent club

The Worcester Red Sox are about to open their new $157 million stadium — okay, about to open when the minor-league season starts, which isn’t until May, but anyway, isn’t two months in advance still a good time for the local newspaper to write a piece about how great the place will be once it’s finished? The local newspaper that is owned by the owner of the WooSox’ parent club? Surely this will be a reasoned and objective assessment, so let’s dig in:

Worcester didn’t want its new stadium to be Fenway Park.

Easily accomplished. Moving on!

There’s capacity for 9,508 fans, but the seating bowl of 6,000 seats — all with cup holders — is almost entirely around the infield.

That’s true of almost every minor-league ballpark. And, actually, most major-league ballparks, which have a grandstand wrapped around home plate, and usually at most some more cursory bleachers in the outfield. Glad to hear about the cupholders, though, because if there’s one thing American sports fans hate, it’s having to put their beers on the ground.

Polar Park will be unique. There’s a Woo Shop where purchases are recorded on an app without any checkout or waiting in line. There are heart-shaped light towers and a heart adorned on the side of each seat.

“Without any checkout” sounds like the Amazon store system, which is made possible by an insane number of surveillance cameras, so maybe that’s what the team has planned here? One hopes they will be heart-shaped cameras, at least, to honor Worcester’s nickname of “the Heart of the Commonwealth,” because it’s so close to the middle of the state, which, I guess?

On June 12, 1880, Worcester pitcher Lee Richmond threw the first perfect game in Major League history, against the Cleveland Blues.

Interesting! But not actually about the stadium, if we’re getting technical here.

“One of the things we’ve been good about is making sure that there is a customization factor in every ballpark, so it looks and tastes and feels and smells like the city in which it is located,” Lucchino says.

I’m not sure which is more disturbing, the notion of a stadium that “tastes like” Worcester, or what the construction crew needed to do to ensure quality control on that.

They could have built the stadium on flat land, but instead they shoehorned it into the historic Canal District with multiple levels, a nod to Worcester’s three deckers and the up-and-coming downtown restaurants.

Yes, they could have built on flat land, saving themselves and Worcester taxpayers $58 million. But they chose to build on a hill, because … I dunno, say something about restaurants, the Globe will print whatever we tell them.

“So you should be able to experience a two-dimensional ballpark. Both a low-priced ballpark where tickets are eight or nine dollars, and we have higher-priced tickets that come with more creature comforts,” says [WooSox owner and former Boston Red Sox CEO Larry] Lucchino.

That is not what two-dimensional means.

A long ball hit to left field could land in an open boxcar and wind up in Chicago.

Freight rail companies don’t leave boxcar doors open anymore, but nice thought!

The home bullpen is just a few feet past the dugout and built into the stands. To sit in a box seat sandwiched between the dugout and the bullpen is unique. Fans get an umpire’s view of pitchers warming up, and hear the pop of the catcher’s mitt up close and personal.

Seats right next to the bullpen actually sound kind of neat, though also something that can be experienced at a bunch of other stadiums, including Fenway Park. Though in Worcester this view will be reserved for high-paying patrons, so maybe that’s the unique part here.

Not mentioned at all in the article: The controversy over the stadium’s high public cost, not to mention the overruns that now have taxpayers on the hook for $146.8 million, or more than eight times what it cost to build Fenway Park in 1912, adjusted for inflation. On the other hand, the original Fenway seats didn’t have cupholders or surveillance cameras watching your every shopping move, and who can put a price on things like that? (A: Larry Lucchino, and that price was $146.8 million.)

Knoxville council asks state to siphon off $65m in sales taxes to pay for Smokies stadium

The Knoxville city council voted 8-1 last night to ask the state legislature to create a sales tax increment financing district to siphon off state and local sales taxes from a swath of downtown and put them toward paying off a $65 million Tennessee Smokies stadium.

And … really, that’s about all I’ve got on this one, given that the only news outlet that seems to have reported on the council vote seems to be the dreaded WBIR. How big a swath of downtown? Has anyone done a study to confirm that the sales-tax money would actually be new revenue, and not just taxes on spending relocated from elsewhere in the city or state? (Moving baseball spending from the Knoxville suburbs to downtown Knoxville seems an especially zero-sum prospect for state legislators, whose approval is required for this plan.) What are the plan’s prospects in the legislature? And so on.

I’m getting tired of posts here that just complain about how bad local news reporting has gotten, as I’m sure you have too, but sometimes that’s the only option — I don’t have the resources to independently research every sports subsidy deal ongoing right now, though I’ll see what more I can find out about this one. I’m deeply concerned about how the gutting of journalism is making it impossible for democracy to function, because it’s increasingly hard for anyone to tell what even to call their elected representatives to yell at them about. And no, the rise of a few Substack celebrity pundits isn’t going to help much with getting city council hearings covered properly.

Anyway, tl;dr: Handing over $65 million in tax money to the University of Tennessee’s president/invisible dog fence plutocrat took another step closer to reality last night. All else is ¯_(ツ)_/¯.

Friday roundup: A’s stadium goes lopsided, another Cali soccer stadium stalls, plus how to skip rent payments and use them to fix up your own home

I’m very busy this morning, busy enough that one entire news item will have to wait till Monday when I can give it its due, but that means an extra post on Monday, so what are you complaining about, really? Anyway, there’s still plenty of stadium and arena news from this week, let’s have at it:

Friday roundup: Climate-doomed sports cities, a $500m video-game arena, and tax breaks to allay pirate fears

Happy Friday, everyone! If you’ve been thinking, Gee, what with vaccines rolling out and the end of the pandemic maybe finally imaginable, I could really use some other global catastrophe to experience existential panic about, Defector and I have you covered with an article about which U.S. sports cities are most likely the first to be made uninhabitable by climate change. No spoilers here, but suffice to say that if you’ve been holding out the last 64 years for the return of the Rochester Royals to the NBA, this might be your lucky century.

And in the newsier news:

  • Pittsburgh Penguins owners Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux were among the slew of developers and landholders who successfully lobbied the Trump administration last year to redraw Census maps to expand Opportunity Zones, earning who the hell knows how much money in tax breaks as a result. This may sound like a blatant cash grab that isn’t available to normal people who don’t have lobbyists on payroll, but just wait until you hear about the St. Croix hemp farmer who says that without tax breaks he would have trouble finding investors in the U.S. Virgin Islands because “people have ideas of pirates and all this sort of thing,” and then think about how little he probably paid for his land there after telling the seller, “I dunno, man, it’s probably infested with pirates,” and then you’ll know for sure.
  • The owner of two separate Toronto esports teams (one an Overwatch team and one a Call of Duty team, if you think I’m going to dignify them with boldface team names you’re nuts) has announced plans for a 7,000-seat venue to host them, at a cost of $500 million. Wut? I mean, it will also be able to host concerts (its designer called it neither “a sports arena nor an opera house” but “a new typology that straddles the two,” which he got “new” right, anyway), but still, half a billion dollars for a 7,000-seat theater with lots of big screens? Also, the developers already announced this last July, just without the $500 million price tag, so good job, guys, if you leaked the large number now just to get attention, as it’s working. No word yet on whether they’d want public money or tax breaks or anything for this, but you have to think they’d be crazy to spend all their own money on this.
  • Add the Pensacola Blue Wahoos to the list of minor-league baseball teams trying to use the downsizing of the minors to shake down cities for stadium improvements. Sure, it’s only $2 million, but it’s also only to secure a ten-year lease extension, which means they can demand more money in 2031 … if Florida is still above sea level by then. (Oop, damn, the spoiler thing again, sorry.)
  • The Oakland A’s owners may have won their lawsuit to fast-track any environmental challenges to their proposed Howard Terminal stadium (which, by the way, is in an area likely to be among the first to be inundated by sea level rise — oops, I said no spoilers), but lawsuits can be appealed! There, I just saved you $52 a year on an Athletic subscription.
  • I’ve been only marginally following Everton F.C.‘s plans for a new £500 million stadium on the Liverpool waterfront — holding 52,000 people, eat that, Overwatch barons — but there are some mostly dull new renderings out. Also the team’s owners are claiming that moving from one part of town to another will add £1 billion to the local economy, which just goes to show that even when all they’re asking for is a city loan that they’ll repay with interest, sports team owners can’t stop going to the “money will rain like manna from heaven” page in the stadium playbook.
  • The Columbus Crew have fresh renderings out of their new stadium, and do they include people throwing their hands in the air and gesturing wildly to things they want to buy at a bar to show how excited they are to be at a soccer match and ignoring the game so they can sit indoors with a bunch of other uniformly young and attractive people? You bet they do!

World’s worst MLB exec gripes about Mariners’ minor-league stadium amid rants about foreign players not speaking good English

Seattle Mariners team president Kevin Mather is in all sorts of deserved hot water today after video emerged of a Zoom call with a local Rotary Club in which Mather openly admitted to manipulating players’ service time to keep their salaries down, criticized two foreign-born players for their bad English, and repeatedly called young catcher Luis Torrens “Luis Torres.” I’m sure lots of other people are already preparing to write about Mather — and how the Mariners already had to pay off two employees who’d filed sexual harassment complaints against Mather — I’d like to zero in on something else Mather blurted out when he was saying the quiet parts loud:

We had the choice, they called us and asked if we wanted to stay in Everett. Everett was a short season [club], they started in the middle of June and ended in September. The short season teams are now gone. They asked us if we wanted to stay in Everett, we quite frankly like the owner in Everett. We thought he was a good person, we like the location of Everett, we don’t particularly like the facility called Everett. We talked to the owner, we could’ve gone to Spokane, we could’ve gone to Vancouver, B.C., but the problem with Vancouver is that you run into visa problems, particularly when you bring kids from Venezuela and the Dominican and try to get them across the border for a three-game season.

This is, of course, a reference to MLB’s recent decimation of the minor leagues, something that was clearly in part meant as a way to increase owners’ leverage to shake down cities for new or upgraded stadiums. The Everett AquaSox got a reprieve, moving up from the short-season Northwest League to the freshly titled High-A West. The Spokane Indians (not a Cleveland affiliate, so it remains to be seen if they will get renamed eventually) and Vancouver Canadians survived to join High-A West as well, so it sounds like MLB determined which minor-league teams would survive, then gave the list to its team owners and asked them to pick dance partners. And good news for the AquaSox, because their owner was a “good person” and Vancouver is in another country where they don’t even speak English right, they were allowed to affiliate with the Mariners!

The new minor-league affiliates are all now on ten-year licenses, so presumably the AquaSox are safe through 2030, but that hasn’t stopped lots of other teams from levying threats to upgrade facilities or else, and Mather trash-talking Everett’s “facility” certainly isn’t a good sign. Everett’s stadium dates back to 1947 but got a $5 million renovation and expansion in 1998 courtesy of local taxpayers; it sure sounds like Mariners execs are planning to seek more public cash for an upgrade as the AquaSox’ 2030 license expiration grows nearer — though they’ll probably want to wait until after they have some less embarrassing people to do the asking.

Friday roundup: Miami ripped off again by Loria, Rays roof removal proposed, America’s journalists snookered

I’ll keep this short today, in deference to any Texas readers who may be trying to save battery life thanks to that state’s power outages. Once your bandwidth is back, here’s a good reminder from the New York Times that climate change is expected to cause unseasonable cold snaps and winter storms as well as insane summer heat, so you have lots more of both to look forward to. Or, if you prefer, here’s an article on a similar theme from the Village Voice a few years back that I wrote a much snappier headline for.

Stadiums, right, that’s what you came here to read about! Let’s see what we’ve got:

Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own a sports team

There are many open questions about the proposed Tennessee Smokies stadium in Knoxville — questions like “How will Knoxville pay for $65 million in construction costs without ‘burdening’ taxpayers?” and “Will team owner Randy Boyd get out of paying property taxes if he ‘donates’ the land to the city while still building his private stadium on top of it?” and “Why are the players in the rendering so huge?” So, sure, it’s definitely time for WBIR-TV to run a news story that consists almost entirely of Boyd saying how great a new stadium would be:

The millionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist believes it can be “The People’s Park,” a place for walkers, shoppers, sports fans, craftsmen, music lovers, even couples who want to say, “I do.” …

“The idea of building a baseball park is not something of creating a venue just for baseball, but creating an entire entertainment venue that can have concerts, soccer, all kinds of other tournaments, family reunions, we could have farmers markets.” …

“We’ve got a lot of enthusiasm. We’ve got a lot of plans. But we still got a lot of work left to do,” he said.

Okay, eventually Knoxville Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie shows up to ask some questions — or rather, to say that she has questions and “I’m looking forward to just getting more information” — but then it’s back to Boyd to rave about how people could go to the stadium on their lunch hour or for a walk before work, because those are things that actual humans actually do in the actual world.

WBIR being a TV station, there’s a video report as well, which starts off with the reporter describing how a stadium development would “transform” a “crumbling industrial site” (can a site crumble?) before going on a walk around the site with Boyd, who talks about the “tangible return” the stadium would bring, without presenting anything tangible. This is described as one in a series of reports on the stadium plan by the station, but the last two I can find are another report that is mostly Boyd talking about how great it would be, and one on Boyd launching a new website to promote it.

This is pretty common practice for local news outlets, but, seriously, does anyone think it’s actually journalism? Sure, Boyd is a “newsmaker,” but when certain people get free TV time to expound on their sales pitch while everyone else just has to sit at home and watch, that’s a huge problem. Compare, for example, with this story (recounted in Field of Schemes: The Book, go buy it now if you don’t have it already, there are ebook and Kindle versions too!) told by Tiger Stadium Fan Club activist Frank Rashid of the time he tried to get a local newspaper not even to quote him, but just to run a correction of some stadium propaganda it repeated without checking:

On one occasion, Rashid recalls, he wound up calling the [Detroit] Free Press to complain about an inaccurate story about the Fan Club. He pointed out to a city desk editor that the reporter had printed inaccurate statements by the group’s opponents about the Fan Club, statements that the reporter himself had to have known were untrue.

The editor, according to Rashid, replied with indignation, “What do you expect? [Tigers owner Tom] Monaghan has made money. He’s paid his dues. Who are you guys?”

“I really appreciated the honesty,” says Rashid. “But, damn! None of us is disreputable. We’re all people who are solid citizens, but we don’t have money. Solid citizens without money don’t count as well as somebody who’s got a big corporation.”

If the book, and this website, have a motto, it’s probably that last line. It’s a sentiment that doesn’t seem to have changed at all in the 25 years Joanna Cagan and I have been reporting on this — though I guess it’s only three more years until the Bell Riots, so maybe things will finally improve after that.

Minor-league baseball leagues get super-dumb names, in preparation for super-duper-dumb corporate name

Major League Baseball on Friday announced the new leagues that its shrunken-down minor league affiliate system will play in starting this year, and the big news is that all the historic league names of yore are gone: no more Pacific Coast League, New York-Penn League, or Texas League. (Though presumably Texas Leaguers will still exist.) Though the even bigger news might be how incredibly dumb the league names are:

Yes, that’s the Triple-A West East Division, which manages to sound both generic and demented, a difficult feat to pull off. There’s also a Double-A Northeast Southwest Division, and a Double-A South North, and other bizarre nomenclatures.

Or maybe the biggest news is the reason behind the weird names, which is apparently so they don’t get in the way of a corporate name to come:

For the time being, MLB is referring to the affiliated minors as the Professional Development League (PDL), but it’s widely expected that MLB will sell naming rights to the circuit, not unlike the NBA‘s G League.

The G League, for those unfamiliar, was known as the D (for Developmental) League until 2017, when for an undisclosed price it agreed to change its logo to this:

And if you’re unfamiliar with that, the G with the lightning bolt is the logo of Gatorade. If we’re lucky, MLB will partner with a company that’s easily abbreviated like that; if we’re extremely lucky, the winning sponsor will be Anheuser-Busch or American Airlines, and we can refer to either the Busch League or the AA AAA West East Division.

The reformation of the minors has also resurfaced complaints about the 43 teams that are being either vaporized or demoted to unpaid-intern status as part of the deal, with Sen. Bernie Sanders, for one, tweeting that “I will do all I can to fight” the elimination of the Vermont Lake Monsters. (Sanders griped publicly about this when it was first reported in November, too, but it seems everyone was a little distracted then.) The only way Congress is likely to influence MLB’s power grab — especially with it already paying so much in dividends in the ability to shake down cities for stadium cash or else risk being shut out of the Miner Leagues — is to threaten to repeal its antitrust exemption, which nobody is talking about right now. So don’t hold out much hope for the cavalry to ride to the rescue of either traditional baseball nomenclature or the Norwich Sea Unicorns, who had only renamed their team just in time to be purged from history, which should make their souvenirs immensely valuable.