NYTimes: Small arenas failing because of economy (only not really)

The New York Times ran an article yesterday on how nine small cities that built small arenas in recent years have been left holding the bag after low revenues left them with piles of unpaid bills. One city, Rio Rancho, New Mexico (home of the New Mexico Renegades minor-league hockey team), is even suing arena manager Global Entertainment (which convinced the nine cities to build the arenas, possibly like this) to recoup losses that, according to the Times, are “eating into the city’s already tight budget and pushing lawmakers to eliminate jobs and cut costs, including asking police officers to buy their own practice ammunition.”

All very interesting and informative, especially if you’re a geek for the finances of mid-sized arenas. Only one problem. The Times chose to lead its story like this:

The plan sounded great during the real estate boom: build a midsize arena, stuff it with sports, music acts and monster trucks and create a centerpiece for the new city center being developed on a dusty mesa here, 20 miles north of downtown Albuquerque.

That’s certainly the argument of Global Entertainment (did I mention they also own the Central Hockey League? The Times gets around to that way down in the 17th paragraph), which insists that the lousy economy is to blame for all its empty arenas. But Rio Rancho city manager James Jimenez says it actually shouldn’t have sounded great, even during boom times:

“If you look at the numbers that Global Entertainment presented to us, it was really, really questionable then, let alone during a recession,” said James C. Jimenez, the city manager in Rio Rancho, who was hired after the arena foundered. “If we didn’t have to allocate the money for debt service, our employees would have had raises and our budget would be in a better position.”

And who was responsible for this mix of decent reporting with weird spin that ends up supporting sports leagues’ claims even against its own evidence? Why, it’s Ken Belson. Could there have been any doubt?