Nine out of ten sports economics experts think Worcester’s stadium deal is awful, and the tenth is the guy who helped design it

I’m still unpacking the exact details of the Pawtucket Red Soxletter of intent to move to Worcester and the $100-million-ish in subsidies it would include — I see the team would get to establish a $1-per-ticket surcharge on city-run events at the stadium and use the cash for its own future capital projects fund, for one thing, while the Worcester Telegram notes that the deal would include $5.6 million in future property-tax breaks for the builders of the larger development project. But Grant Welker of the Worcester Business Journal figured out a quicker path to evaluating the deal: Send copies of the stadium documents to ten sports economists and stadium experts (including me) and ask what they thought of the plan. Which led to the sentence of the week, if not the year:

Of those experts, the only one who spoke positively about the deal was the Smith College professor who was hired by the city to judge the economic viability of the offer to the PawSox.

Yep, that’s right: Nine out of ten sports stadium experts agree that Worcester is getting hosed, and the tenth is none other than Andy Zimbalist, stadium skeptic turned sometime stadium huckster, who is the guy who helped Worcester come up with its plan in the first place. Let’s run through a sampling of quotes:

  • Nola Agha, University of San Francisco: “It virtually never works.”
  • Joel Maxcy, Drexel University: “There’s just mountains now of economic evidence that the payoff that’s promised and what actually happens is far different. … If it were a private person, you would never take such a nonsensical bargain.”
  • Robert Baade, Lake Forest College: “The idea that this is going to serve as a catalyst for economic development, which is the hope – and I emphasize the word hope – is misguided. … Your community could think of all other ways to spend the money with better economic return than a minor league baseball team”
  • Victor Matheson, College of the Holy Cross (which is in Worcester): “This is an extraordinarily expensive stadium. … They seemed to be smarter than that. I’m extremely surprised that [the city’s cost] is as large as it is.”
  • Andrew Zimbalist, Smith College: “If you can do something like this that was culturally and socially positive and at least break even, it made sense to go forward.”
  • John Solow, University of Iowa: “There’s a great deal of consensus among sports economists of all political stripes that this is not a good thing for local governments to be doing.”
  • Michael Leeds, Temple University: “I really, really don’t see it. … You’re counting on something [the new development generating enough tax revenue to pay off the stadium] that’s not very likely to happen, and you better have a Plan B in place.”
  • Allen Sanderson, University of Chicago: “Overwhelmingly, the fannies in the stands are local. They’re choosing to spend a day or an evening at the ballpark instead of at the ball or other entertainment options.”
  • Neil deMause, guy with a blog: “Worcester’s city leaders haven’t just outbid Pawtucket, they’ve ladled on goodies like they’re trying to buy Larry Lucchino’s love. Assuming they can get past all the legislative hurdles, it should be enough to get the city a pro sports team, but it’s tough to see spending more than $100 million in tax kickbacks and state infrastructure subsidies on a team that you could buy outright for $20 million as smart bargaining.”

Zimbalist’s argument, it appears, is that while the stadium itself would be a money pit, getting that additional $100 million in hotels and housing and whatnot would generate enough new money to make the whole deal worth it. That assumes, of course, that nobody would be willing to build hotels and housing and whatnot without a stadium — which is a pretty odd assumption, since it’s not the presence of a Triple-A baseball team that’s going to make anyone want to live or even stay overnight in Worcester.

And also, those with long memories will recall that this is the exact same argument that Zimbalist used on a previous paid gig, for then-New Jersey Nets owner Bruce Ratner, in which he determined that a new Brooklyn arena would lose money for the public, but taxpayers would make it back from all the new housing that would go up alongside it. At the time, I also called for a second opinion from another sports economist, in that case Rod Fort of Washington State University (he’s now moved on to the University of Michigan, who noted this:

“I would never have undertaken this exercise. In essence, Andy is trying to forecast 33 years hence, and he’s forecasting housing markets, which there are other people spending all their waking moments on. What you see is assumption after assumption after assumption after assumption.”

In short: Housing economics is complicated (for starters, new residents come with new costs for things like schools and other public services, not just new tax revenues), and Andy Zimbalist is not a housing economist, but that hasn’t stopped him from telling cities that they’ll be fine sinking money into stadiums and arenas so long as there’s a housing component, and Worcester just took the bait. Presumably it’s bait that city officials knew Zimbalist was going to offer, and that’s exactly why they hired him, but that still doesn’t make the whole thing stink much less.

Mets buy minor-league team from community owners, immediately demand $25m in stadium cash from community

I’ve already marveled this week at Worcester offering more than $100 million in subsidies to lure to town a Triple-A team that it could probably outright buy for $20 million, but no city would be dumb enough to sell a team it already owns and then offer subsidies to the new owners to keep it in town, right? Oh, ye of little faith:

Baseball fans can look forward to a major upgrade of Syracuse’s minor-league stadium if Onondaga County officials can pull together a renovation project that could cost $25 million or more.

The ambitious renovation, which depends on state funding that is not yet guaranteed, aims to make sure the new owners of the local Triple-A team, the New York Mets, stay in Syracuse for the long term.

Okay, the Syracuse Chiefs weren’t actually owned by Onondaga County; they were owned by a community public corporation, much like the Green Bay Packers. But the corporation agreed to sell the team to the New York Mets owners last year, and nobody thought to include a lease extension as part of the deal, meaning the team could now leave town as soon as 2025. (Yes, the whole point of the Mets buying the Chiefs was to have a Triple-A team close to their big-league club, but there’s no stopping them from looking for the next Worcester elsewhere in the Northeast.) And so now the county is looking at renovating the team’s stadium to keep its new owners happy, because, in the memorable words of county chair Ryan McMahon: “The reality is, we can’t keep a Triple-A baseball team [here] with a 25-year-old facility.”

And as the cherry on top, Empire State Development, New York state’s economic development agency, is looking at getting involved, which could mean state taxpayers — including those all the way south in New York City, including yours truly — could soon be on the hook for subsidies to keep a team from leaving Syracuse. Maybe I shouldn’t have been quite so sanguine about the promise of community ownership, huh?

Worcester proposes $100m-plus in subsidies to steal PawSox from Rhode Island, now what?

Earlier this summer, the state of Rhode Island rejected a request by the owners of the Pawtucket Red Sox to fund a new stadium in Pawtucket. On Friday, the team owners announced their decision: They will be moving the franchise to Worcester, which will build a new stadium with public funds that the team will be repaying with rent and other team-related revenues, in a major win for the Massachusetts city.

All of that previous paragraph was reported in various media over the weekend. Virtually none of it is 100% true.

Let’s start where we left off: With the June legislative vote of the Rhode Island legislature, which actually approved $38 million in state and city subsidies toward a new Pawtucket stadium. What it didn’t do was promise that the state would cover any shortfalls in tax revenues set to pay off the stadium bonds, which could have raised interest rates to the point that the PawSox owners got snippy about it.

At the time — really, at just about any time in the last three years — Worcester was out there as a potential relocation threat, but nothing more specific than that, as nobody had publicly talked about how to pay for building a stadium there. That’s what changed on Friday, as the PawSox owners and the city of Worcester signed a “letter of intent” to build a $90 million, 10,000-seat stadium as part of a $200 million mixed-use development with hotels, apartments, and retail.

As for how it would all be paid for, here’s what the news media — at least those not too busy declaring the deal an “economic grand slam” for Worcester — is reporting it:

  • The city would borrow $100.8 million, while the team owners would kick in $6 million in cash. Of the city’s portion, rent payment from the team will pay for $30.2 million over 30 years — it’s not clear from the reporting if that’s $30.2 million in total rent payments, or enough rent payments to pay off $30.2 million in borrowing, which would be a whole lot more. (Just like $30.2 million in mortgage payments wouldn’t be enough to pay of a $30.2 million house, unless you got a no-interest loan.)
  • Assuming it’s the latter, that still leaves $70.6 million to be repaid by new tax revenues from the development — in other words, our old friend tax increment financing. But this is a TIF with a twist: Instead of just kicking back tax revenue from the stadium itself, the project would come packaged with that pile of hotels and housing and retail space — all of which would pay property (and other? reporting is unclear) taxes not to the city treasury to pay for services for all this new development, but toward the stadium’s construction debt.
  • The state would also kick in $35 million for a parking garage and “unspecified infrastructure improvements,” according to the Worcester Business Journal.

That brings the total public subsidy to at least $105.6 million, and possibly closer to $120 million if those rent payments are actual dollar amounts on the team owners’ checks. Either way, I’m pretty sure that this would be easily the largest public subsidy for any minor-league baseball team ever, and would blow away Rhode Island’s offer, even if that state hadn’t capped its debt responsibilities in the final bill.

So Worcester has just bought itself a really expensive Triple-A team, right? Not quite yet: The city council still needs to sign off on the whole mess, and while Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker is in favor of the state garage money, it may yet require state legislative approval as well. So notwithstanding all the talk about stadium construction starting next July, there may be some bothersome hearings and votes and such yet to go.

Officials in Rhode Island, and Pawtucket, meanwhile, are understandably steamed that after approving what they thought was a pretty good offer in June, the next thing they heard from PawSox officials was a letter on Friday saying, “Sorry, we found someone with more money.” PawSox CEO Larry Lucchino, meanwhile, put the blame squarely on Rhode Island for not scurrying to cough up more money more promptly, as it is the state’s job to do:

“As I said in our meeting on Monday, Aug. 6, ‘Where have you been?’ That’s not directed at your personally, but at all of those involved in the process.”

“The state’s delays cost Pawtucket dearly,” the baseball executive said.

In the end — if this is the end, which it probably isn’t yet — it’s an indication of how negotiating with minor-league team owners is exponentially harder than doing so with major-league ones, because there’s a near-infinite number of equally middling-sized cities to move to. Pawtucket’s best hope was that no cities within easy reach of Boston (where the Red Sox want their top minor-league teams close by) would take the bait and deliver a suitcase full of cash to Lucchino’s door; instead, Worcester came up with the fattest suitcase in history. Score one against Roger Noll’s theory that the tide is turning.

Friday roundup: Delayed votes, poorly considered tributes, and a no-LeBron loan offer

Greetings from my undisclosed location! I have time for an abbreviated news roundup this week:

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.)

Rhode Island would have to siphon off $77m in future taxes to keep PawSox bondholders happy

As the Pawtucket Red Sox owners continue to mull over whether $38 million in free money is enough not to throw back in the face of Rhode Island taxpayers, the state treasurer’s office has issued a report estimating that — you know what, let’s start with how WPRI is reporting it, then backtrack to explain what it actually means:

The new PawSox stadium and its surrounding area will need to generate about $5 million a year in state and city tax revenue to cover borrowing for the ballpark under newly enacted legislation, according to a revised analysis.

In a memo issued Monday, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner’s staff said their current forecast indicates about $3.2 million in tax revenue will be needed to make debt payments on the tax-backed borrowing for the project. In addition, bondholders will want to see about $2 million more in tax revenue generated on top of that to ensure some cushion.

So that’s not actually an annual cost of $5 million, mind you — that would be an insane interest rate on $38 million in public stadium debt. (12.8%, if this thing is working right.) Rather, it’s just Magaziner’s estimate of how much excess revenue the stadium would have to promise before bondholders would not get cold feet about buying something based entirely on future property tax revenues from development that hasn’t happened yet.

This is one of the big problems with tax increment financing projects, as the PawSox stadium would be: You’re basically drawing an arbitrary line around your development and declaring that any increase in property taxes within that zone will be siphoned off and used for paying for the development. Draw the line too large, and you end up including taxes from property that would have been developed anyway without the new project, and so cannibalizing money that the public treasury could otherwise keep; draw the line too narrowly, and you risk a shortfall in revenues. (Bondholders, being only concerned about getting a return on their investment and not on what’s good public policy, are naturally more alarmed about the latter prospect.)

So the good news is it wouldn’t really cost Rhode Island $5 million a year (which comes to a present value of almost $77 million, if this thing is working right) to pay off stadium bonds — any excess money could be kept by the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency and used for something else. The bad news is that the size of the TIF district whose property taxes will be redirected to the PRA is probably going to have to be really freaking huge in order to placate bondholders — which means it’s extremely likely that taxes that have nothing to do with the stadium will be redirected to help pay for it. That’s exactly what Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello promised wouldn’t happen, but, well, “bait and switch” is such an ugly phrase.

Rhode Island legislature agrees to hand over $38m in tax money to PawSox, now has to hope team owners turn it down

The Rhode Island legislature approved a funding plan for a new Pawtucket Red Sox stadium on the eve of its final session of the year Friday night, with the state house voting it in 53-13 in the morning, and the state senate following suit a little after 10 p.m. by a 26-6 margin. This would seem to finalize the $38 million in state and city subsidies that the team owners have been seeking to replace 76-year-old McCoy Stadium — except that the team owners still haven’t committed to accepting it:

The team released a noncommittal statement after the vote Friday night.

“We saw this proposed legislation for the first time only this morning, so it would be premature to comment further without having studied its terms and ramifications,” the team said. “We will continue to work with the city of Pawtucket to see if this new proposal is feasible, viable, and permissible.”

Who says no to $38 million? Someone seeking $48 million, certainly, but that doesn’t appear to be quite what’s going on here, since the PawSox owners already okayed a $38 million contribution previously. One possibility is that they’re concerned they could end up on the hook for more than the $45 million they were willing to put in (with the help of naming rights money and any other new stadium revenues, of course, since they’d get all those and the city and state would get squat), as a Senate Fiscal Office analysis projected that capping the public’s commitment to repay the stadium bonds could result in higher interest rates that would increase the total borrowing cost by $55 million to $87 million, which ain’t chicken feed.

Still, let’s not let the fact that Larry Lucchino & Friends think this is a crappy deal for them lull us into a false sense of security that this isn’t also, and much more certainly, a crappy deal for the Rhode Island public. State and city taxpayers are about to be forced to draw a circle of indeterminate size around a PawSox stadium site, and agree to hand over all property taxes from inside the circle to the team’s owners; if that doesn’t come to $38 million, the city development authority will have to find a way of making up the shortfall. And all this only because the team owners keep making vague threats to move to a city that hasn’t revealed publicly any offer at all in the way of stadium subsidies. And all over the objection of local residents who appear to overwhelmingly oppose the plan, just because in eastern states like Rhode Island, elected officials can broker stadium deals like this without fear of citizens staging a voter referendum to overrule them.

That’s bidding against yourself in the worst way — and all for a team that the city could just go out and buy (or buy a replacement for, if the current owners really insisted on moving) for a fraction of the cost of helping build a new stadium, something that on the minor-league level is actually allowed. The best hope now is that by tweaking the financing of the subsidy, the legislature will have made it equally awful for the team owners, creating a kind of poison pill to save elected officials from themselves. That’s a slim reed to cling to, but if you’re a Rhode Island resident — or a fan of historic ballparks, of whom there are more than a few — right now it’s all you’ve got.

Pawtucket mayor makes move threat for the PawSox, for the PawSox have no voices

The Rhode Island House Finance Committee met yesterday to discuss House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s bill to make the city instead of the state cover any funding shortfalls for a new Pawtucket Red Sox stadium, so what did they resolve about the undecided aspects of the bill? How much higher interest the state would have to pay on bonds without a state guarantee of repayment? Nope. How big a tax increment financing district would be needed to siphon off tax revenues to pay the public’s $38 million in costs? Nuh-uh. But we did get lots of Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien threatening that if Rhode Island didn’t approve the bill — whatever the bill is — the team would move to Worcester:

“They are still committed to listening and hearing what the bills are, but Worcester is on the table,” Grebien told reporters before the hearing on where the team stands. “We need to send them a clear signal … My instincts are: absolutely they want to be here.”

“I am trying to make sure we have a bill so we can have that conversation,” Grebien said. “I can tell you, if we don’t have a bill, they are gone.”

The PawSox owners have been very careful not to openly threaten to move to Worcester, though they did have one of their lobbyists declare sadly that without a new stadium in Pawtucket, Worcester might just make them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Worcester officials have not made any specific public offers at all so far, and PawSox officials didn’t show up at the hearing — they’ve been careful not to say anything at all about Mattiello’s plan, because playing hard to get is always just adorable — so it was left to Grebien to speculate wildly about what exactly was being threatened:

Rep. Antonio Giarrusso, R-East Greenwich, asked Grebien about reports that Worcester was asking the team to only pay $18 million of the stadium costs.

Grebien said the team was not trying to pit one city against the other and had not told him what Worcester’s offer was.

Ah, mayors willing and ready to blackmail themselves. Where would we be without them?

Look out, Saskatoon, here comes Mark Rosentraub with his tales of arena milk and honey

My apologies for not keeping you up to speed on events in Saskatoon, where the city has been considering building a new downtown arena, at a potential price tag of $375 million plus land costs, to replace the 30-year-old SaskTel Centre. That’s been going on for a few months; I mention it now because University of Michigan sports economist Mark Rosentraub is in town (in Saskatoon, I mean, not in my town or yours, unless you live in Saskatoon) to give a talk about building a new downtown arena, and how totally awesome it would be:

“Sport venues have been very, very successful,” said Mark Rosentraub, professor of sports management at the University of Michigan…

“There is no city where we have not been able to literally put something together something where the public sector gains and the private sector gains,” he told CBC Radio’s Saskatoon Morning.

Setting aside Rosentraub’s odd syntax — it’s a transcribed radio interview, I’ll cut him some slack — you may be forgiven for wondering, What, what the hell is he on about? Isn’t this entire website a 20-year record of cities that have not been able to put together something where the public and private sectors both gain?

Rosentraub has long been an odd duck in the sports stadium world. Way back in 1997, he wrote a book called Major League Losers, which, as you can probably guess from the title, talked about private sports stadiums as bad deals for cities. Since then, though, he’s been more sunny on the prospect, noting that building venues downtown can move economic activity to the city center — true, if your only concern is where people spend their money and not how much they spend in your metro area overall. It will be left as an exercise for readers to determine whether this change of message is related to Rosentraub’s side business of working as a consultant for cities and teams that want to build downtown stadiums and arenas.

Anyway, building a new arena isn’t an inherently terrible idea, if the city will own it and get any increased revenues from it, and — crucially — if those new revenues will be enough to make it worth the $400 million-ish price tag. The only sports tenants are the minor-league junior hockey Saskatoon Blades and the National Lacrosse League team the Saskatchewan Rush, so this deal would have to pencil out based on being able to draw more concerts to town. Could Saskatoon make an extra $25-30 million a year just by offering more concession stands and restrooms? That’s the interesting and important question that needs to be asked, rather than nattering about how an arena can “anchor” an “entertainment district.” I can recommend several sports economists, or even arena managers, who could begin to address that question, if anyone in Saskatoon is interested.

Friday roundup: The news media are collectively losing their goddamn minds edition

It’s a full slate this week, so let’s do this!