Santa Cruz considering replacing eight-year-old arena with new one to “woo” minor-league basketball team

Move over, Knoxville — Santa Cruz is ready to take the lead in the “looking to build a new sports venue despite the Covid budget crunch” race. The Santa Cruz Warriors G-League team’s lease expires after next year, and the city is reportedly looking to “woo” the team into staying put beyond that, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel. And what, precisely, do they mean by woo?

A city-sponsored market and arena project feasibility study by consultant Victus Advisors concluded in 2017 with support to build a permanent arena in an expanded footprint on the existing location, top among several preferred locations. [Santa Cruz economic director Bonnie, I’m assuming, the Sentinel article didn’t actually bother to give her first name or ID] Lipscomb said Tuesday that she recognized that right now was, “from a fiscal standpoint in the middle of a pandemic, the worst time to come forward asking for a public subsidy.” Lipscomb clarified she was not asking city leaders for that this week. City Manager Martín Bernal later further elaborated that building a new arena would be a public-private effort, not a “100% or primarily a public type of project.”

So nobody is asking for any kind of public subsidy, just a “public-private” effort that wouldn’t be “primarily” public. Got it.

As for the outmoded arena in need of replacement, it was opened way back in … I’m sorry, did you say 2012?

Okay, so technically this is classified as a temporary building: It’s a metal frame with an air-supported roof. (The city loaned the Warriors $4.1 million to help build the place, most of which has been paid back, according to Lipscomb.) Still, air-supported roofs have been used for plenty of permanent structures in the past, and nothing seems to be falling apart at the current arena. The Warriors owners — who are, let’s be clear, the same billionaires who own the Golden State Warriors) may want a snazzier place, but that wouldn’t seem to be Santa Cruz’s problem.

Except, of course, for that expiring lease, which gives the team owners that all-important leverage. Along with the fact that basketball is unusual among North American sports in having only a single 29-team minor league when there are hundreds of cities that could potentially support a minor-league basketball team — while Joe Lacob and Peter Guber would have been insane to move the Golden State Warriors out of the Bay Area, their G-League affiliate could probably do just fine in Fresno or Sacramento or Vacaville, which makes it way easier to get a bidding war going, or at least threaten your city with the possibility of a bidding war, which as we’ve seen time and time again is a great way to get local development officials talking about “public-private partnerships.”

And all this makes me wonder whether, even if the Covid recession causes a brief lull in sports subsidies, we could see a huge surge once it’s over, if not before then. We already have the likelihood of a large swath of minor-league baseball teams getting disappeared next year; and still more minor-league teams across several sports may go belly-up if they run out of cash while waiting for fans to return. And while that may be terrible for the sports industry as a whole, for the teams that survive, it hands them a convenient gun to hold to the heads of their current homes: With plenty of other empty stadiums out there to choose from, give us what we’re asking for, or else.

That’s going to be a tough call for city officials: Dip into recession-ravaged budgets to give money to the local sports team, or risk losing one of your few local businesses. (I almost wrote “major businesses,” but that’d be pushing it for a business that’s only open at most 70 days a year — though there is some evidence, at least, that minor-league teams are better at siphoning off spending from the next town over than their big-league counterparts.) Again, we’ve seen which way most cities tend to go on that decision, so it’d be crazy for minor-league sports owners not to at least try.

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