County approves $125m tax gift to Carolina Hurricanes, city approval next up

Wake County, North Carolina yesterday approved $46.6 million a year in tourism tax spending — money from a 6% hotel tax and 1% restaurant tax imposed in 1991 — and the beneficiaries are set to include the Carolina Hurricanes and the Raleigh Convention Center, though not yet a proposed Raleigh soccer stadium:

  • The Hurricanes would get $9 million a year in tax money for the next 25 years, a present value of about $125 million. The NHL franchise has been looking at an arena renovation cost of up to $200 million, so this would pay for the bulk of that.
  • The convention center would get $3 million a year for maintenance, $2.2 million a year for parking and infrastructure, $19 million flat fee for renovations and new land acquisition, and $17.575 million a year starting in the mid-2020s for an expansion and new music venue.
  • The North Carolina FC USL team didn’t get its proposed $11 million a year stadium grant, but can still apply for part of the remaining funds, where it would compete against other arts groups.

I know that some of you are thinking about now, “But isn’t the whole point of a tourism tax to promote tourism, so the tax money should be spent on things that will bring tourists to town?” Sure, but then it’s important to ensure that the spending will bring tourists to town, and the return on sports and convention spending is historically really awful in that regard: Sports teams only bring in a tiny sliver of new spending compared to what they cost in subsidies, and conventions are equally dismal.

One solution, if you’re really determined to use tax dollars to encourage people to come to your town, would be to demand some kind of direct repayment from the beneficiaries: Sure, we’ll give you a pile of free cash, but then you need to share the resulting increased revenues with the public treasury. But that doesn’t appear to be what’s going on in Raleigh; rather, the Panthers and other operators will keep any windfall revenues, and local government will just sit back and hope that the rising tide lifts their fiscal boat as well.

This whole plan still needs to be signed off on by the city of Raleigh, but at this point it looks like all that’s left to decide is which private interests to funnel tax money to, not whether to do it at all. (It’s possible there are some ways that Wake County could use tourist tax dollars to displace other spending that would then be freed up for broader social goods like schools or whatever, as has been the case in other locales, but none of the coverage has addressed that.) If anyone was wondering why somebody would spend $420 million to buy an NHL team with attendance near the bottom of the league, you may have just gotten your answer.

Charlotte Business Journal proposes ways to raise $2B for Panthers stadium before owner has even asked for it

The Charlotte Business Journal has an article (paywalled, but you can find your way around it if you’re clever) speculating on ways that the city could help pay for a new Carolina Panthers stadium, and it comes down to:

  • Sales and property tax revenues are probably off the table, because the city needs those to fund basic services.
  • Hotel and rental car taxes are a possibility, but problematic because they’re already 8% and 16% respectively, and if you raise them much more, people might start booking their vacations (or conventions) elsewhere.
  • Doubling the restaurant tax from 1% to 2% could raise about $40 million per year, and would only hurt people who eat food, and totally wouldn’t reduce sales tax receipts because people would have less remaining spending money as a result or anything like that.
  • Tax-increment financing, because people still think tax revenues from a new project is not real tax money for some reason.

The entire article, of course, is right in line with the traditional local-newspaper tradition of treating team owner subsidy demands as a problem to be solved by looking under the sofa cushions to see where to find a few hundred million dollars, not as a proposal to be analyzed to see if it makes any damn sense. (There is exactly bupkis on what kind of economic impact if any Charlotte would see from gifting the Panthers a new stadium, though the writer did talk to the head of the local restaurateurs’ trade group, who predictably said they would fight against any restaurant tax hike.) You might think reporters should at least wait for the local team owner to actually make a specific ask beyond just saying “hey, the public really should buy me a stadium with a roof, my old one doesn’t have a roof, roofs are cool” before proposing ways to pay for it, but that’s been a problem for a long, long time.

Friday roundup: Saints’ $300m subsidy moves ahead, St. Louis MLS announcement on tap, Richmond council votes no on democracy

Sometimes I feel lucky to cover a topic with so many constant absurdities, and then this happens, and I realize that constant absurdities are just the new normal. Anyway, I did get to edit this this week, which is an excellent look at how this week’s absurdity is having potentially catastrophic impacts on people’s lives, so go read it!

But not before you read these:

  • The Louisiana State Bond Commission has approved selling $450 million worth of state bonds to fund renovations to the Superdome, in exchange for the New Orleans Saints signing a 15-year lease extension. As covered back in May, Saints owner Gayle Benson would cover one-third of the bond cost, leaving Louisiana to pay off $300 million, bringing the Saints’ five-decide subsidy total to a cool $1.442 billion. In exchange, the Saints will sign a 15-year lease extension — with another 15-year option, but there’s no way they’re going to extend their lease again without more subsidies the way this gravy train is rolling — which comes to state taxpayers ponying up $20 million a year for the presence of an NFL team, which is a hell of a lot of money, though not as much as Indiana pays the Pacers, because Indiana.
  • The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported this week that St. Louis will be announced next Tuesday as the next MLS expansion city, bringing the number of teams in the league to a cool 154. (I think it’s actually 28, but honestly the number changes so fast it’s hard to keep track.) Deadspin read the announcement that there would be no public subsidies for the as-yet-unnamed team’s stadium and excitedly reported that the deal “might not completely fleece the city”; sadly, it will actually involve about $60 million in public subsidies, but since about half of that is coming from the state, not the city, that Deadspin headline is still technically correct, right?
  • The Richmond city council has voted 5-3 against allowing a referendum on the city’s proposed new $350 million city-subsidized arena on the November ballot, because voting is for elected officials, not regular folks. Though regular folks do still get to vote on electing elected officials, something that referendum sponsor Reva Trammell clearly had in mind when she said following the no-voting vote: “I hope the citizens hold their feet to the fire. Every damn one of them that voted against it.”
  • Two-plus years after the arrival of the Hartford Yard Goats in exchange for $63 million in public stadium cash — plus a couple million dollars every year in operating losses — the Hartford Courant has noticed that stadium jobs are usually part-time and poorly paid. Not included in the article: any analysis of how many full-time jobs could have been created by spending $63 million on just about anything else.
  • New Arizona Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo said he intends to keep the NHL team in Arizona, but that keeping it in Glendale is a “difficult situation,” at which point a Glendale spokesperson said that city officials would meet with Meruelo “to see how we can help him achieve his goals of success.” Which is all fine and due diligence and all, but given that helping Meruelo “achieve his goals” is likely to mean paying him money to play in Glendale like the city used to do, it’s not exactly promising; if nothing else, Glendale officials would do well to remember that Meruelo currently has exactly zero better arena options elsewhere in the state, so he’s not exactly negotiating from a position of strength.
  • Joe Tsai, who was already set to buy the Brooklyn Nets from Mikhail Prokhorov, has officially exercised his option to purchase the team, plus the Barclays Center arena to boot, for a reported $3.5 billion. Given that the arena is currently losing about $21 million a year, this seems like an awful lot of money even if the team does employ whatever’s left of Kevin Durant. Since Tsai already owns the New York Liberty, though, maybe it at least means that WNBA franchise will finally return to the city from its exile in the suburbs.

Friday roundup: Titans want Miami-style renovation to 20-year-old stadium, Orlando throwing more cash at World Cup hopes, and urban myths about small stadiums

I’m back from vacation, and thanks for sticking with my slightly unpredictable posting schedule for the last couple of weeks. (As opposed to my usual slightly unpredictable posting schedule.) It was an eye-opening trip to, among other places, a city that built a stadium with public money and now suffers from a legendarily bad public transit system, though it just might be unfair to blame the one on the other.

Anyway, stadium news kept coming at us fast this week, so let’s get to it:

Oklahoma City soccer team owner wants tax money for new stadium, because “economic boost” and “diversity”

When I relayed the news last week that Oklahoma City’s fourth iteration of its MAPS sales-tax hike was being eyed to fund upgrades to the Thunder‘s arena that was already built and upgraded with previous MAPS sales-tax hikes, I neglected to note that USL team OKC Energy F.C. also wants some tax money for a new soccer stadium, because why wouldn’t they? Their existing stadium was entirely rebuilt way back in 2015, which is a lifetime if you’re a stadium or a mayfly.

Team co-owner Bob Funk, Jr. had this to say about why he’d like between $37 million and $72 million in public money for a new stadium for his minor-league soccer franchise:

“This is an opportunity to once again set our city on a global stage. It will connect and unify Oklahoma City’s diverse cross-section of cultures and provide a powerful economic boost to our urban core.”

Note that Oklahoma City already has a USL team, so that’s not enough to set it on a global stage. (Nor is the presence of the Thunder, apparently, though that “once again” implies that global stages expire about as often as mayflies.) Moving the soccer team from one stadium to another, though, would be a powerful economic boost, something that KFOR explains thusly:

The first option represented a $37 million to $42 million investment for an 8,000-seat stadium that would accommodate soccer, high school football, rugby, lacrosse, concerts and festivals.

Organizers believe it could host more than 60 events each year, which would bring $60 million annually to the city.

The second option was a $67 million to $72 million investment with 10,000 seats, shade structures and other amenities to improve the fan experience. Additional restrooms would be included, along with a larger stage and secondary stage. Organizers say this venue could host more than 80 events each year, which would bring over $79 million to the city.

Okay, so, just no. There is no way that the city is going to earn $79 million a year in rent (or sales taxes or whatever) on 80 events a year at a 10,000-seat stadium — that would be $100 a ticket, which would be a somewhat hefty fee for a team or stadium operator to pay.

Presumably what the “organizers” (which seems to mean Funk and a would-be stadium developer, though the article never says outright, because that would be committing journalism) mean here is $79 million a year in economic impact, which is a completely different thing adding up all the dollars spent in a region connected with a development project. That number is still almost certainly inflated — people attending minor-league soccer matches are unlikely to spend $100 total in the local economy, and even if they do they’d likely spend it just the same if the Energy F.C. were in their old stadium, or didn’t exist at all, because there are other things to do in Oklahoma City other than watch soccer — but saying “in economic impact” would have been at least marginally less misleading than “bring over $79 million to the city.”

Anyway, here‘s some vaportecture of the proposed stadium, which will apparently be used to watch dangerously over-capacity concerts involving fireworks displays at night, and to watch invisible football teams while wearing identical red floppy hats by day. Bonus points if you can spot any diverse cross-section of cultures getting unified!

Friday roundup: Developer dreams, MLB expansion dreams, and stadiums that only exist on your TV

Still traveling, so super-brief Friday roundup this week:

Listen to an evening of Jim Bouton readings by five writers in his debt (including me)

On Thursday, I got to participate in Varsity Letters’ regular reading series in New York for a very special tribute to the late Jim Bouton, along with my friends Jay Jaffe and Paul Lukas and my new friends Mitchell Nathanson and Nick Diunte. I got to expand on my thoughts I wrote on this site about the times I’d met Jim, and also read one of my favorite excerpts from his book Foul Ball, which was about his attempts to save century-old Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, from attempts by the local power structure to raze it and replace it with a publicly subsidized new stadium. You can hear my segment below (and also Nick’s hilarious show closer, which was centered on a supercut of Ball Four quotes from Seattle Pilots manager Joe “Shitfuck” Schultz):

Or if you want to relive the evening in order, start with the opening set, featuring Jay, Mitchell, and Paul:

One thing that didn’t occur to me until I got to the event and started hearing all these writers talk about how influential Ball Four had been on their work: Jim Bouton was not just a great writer, he was in some respects a visionary one. As I said in my talk, none of the outlets that I’ve written for — the Village Voice sports section, Deadspin, Vice Sports, Baseball Prospectus — could have existed in the same way without Jim nearly singlehandedly inventing antiauthoritarian sportswriting, changing Americans’ view of sports from superheroic white-hats-vs.-black-hats escapism to a much more nuanced view that recognized that people are people and the personal is political and it’s important to question things, always. If it’s incredible that this was a message that still needed to be heard 23 years after Jackie Robinson, and that still needs hearing today almost another half-century later, it makes it all the more important when a Jim Bouton shows up to deliver it.

As a bonus reader challenge, anyone who can correctly identify all the Bouton-related gear we were wearing (Mitchell had to leave early and missed the post-event photo shoot) wins the people’s ovation and fame forever:

Friday roundup: Indiana and Missouri rack up another $390m in team subsidies, and other dog-bites-man news

Sadly, there’s another loss to report this week: Rob McQuown, who for the past decade has been one of the core tech and admin guys at Baseball Prospectus, passed away on Tuesday. I never met Rob personally, but in my days writing and editing for BP we exchanged emails a ton, and he was always a sharp and good-humored presence keeping the site running behind the scenes. (He wrote some excellent fantasy baseball coverage for a while, too.) I haven’t heard the details of his death, but I do know it was way too soon, and my sympathies go out to all his friends and family and colleagues who are mourning him this week. Here’s a lovely podcast tribute by Ben Lindbergh to Rob’s multifarious and too-often underappreciated gifts.

And now, to the news:

  • The Indianapolis City-County Council gave final signoff to $290 million in subsidies for the Indiana Pacers, which along with new and past operating subsidies brings team owner Herb Simon’s total haul to more than a billion dollars. The team’s new lease lasts until 2044, but I’d wager that Simon won’t wait that long before going back to what’s been an insanely lucrative taxpayer well.
  • The state of Missouri has reportedly approved $3 million a year for 20 years, coming to a total of $70 million, for upgrades for the St. Louis Blues, Kansas City Royals, and Kansas City Chiefs stadiums — yeah, I don’t get how that math works either, especially when this was previously reported as $70 million for the Blues plus $30 million for the K.C. teams, and has elsewhere been reported as $70 million for the Blues and $60 million for the K.C. teams, but I’m sure it was copied from a press release somewhere, and that’s what passes for fact-checking these days, right? This brings the teams’ total haul to … let’s see, the K.C. teams got $250 million previously, and the Blues owners got $67 million in city money, so let’s go with “around $400 million,” about which you can say that it’s at least cheaper than what Indiana taxpayers are on the hook for, and that is pretty much all you can say.
  • The city of Anaheim is still waiting on its now-overdue appraisal of the Los Angeles Angels‘ stadium land so it can open talks with team owner Arte Moreno on how much he should pay for development rights on the stadium parking lots. Mayor Harry Sidhu has appointed a negotiating team, though, which includes Sidhu himself, something that has drawn criticism since Angels execs donated to his election campaign. Sidhu also stated that “our theme parks, sports venues and convention center are a matter of pride, but their real purpose is to serve residents by generating revenue for public safety, parks, libraries and community centers and by helping us keep taxes and fees low,” which is not likely to help convince anyone that he understands sports economics like his predecessor did and isn’t just repeating what his funders tell him.
  • Oak View Group’s Tim Leiweke is trying to build a 10,000-seat arena in Palm Springs, and economists point out that this won’t help the local economy much because “you’re crazy if you think I’m flying to Palm Springs to see your minor league hockey team,” and Leiweke says Palm Springs is just different, okay, because so many attendees will be people who are already coming to town to play golf, gamble, or stay at local resorts. How this makes it a major economic plus when those people also see a concert when they’re in town Leiweke didn’t say, but who’re you going to believe, a bunch of people who study economics for a living or a guy who was once the youngest GM in indoor soccer?
  • A Cincinnati nonprofit is trying to raise $2 million to preserve affordable housing around F.C. Cincinnati‘s new stadium, and the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority says that maybe building more market-rate housing will allow low-income residents of existing buildings to stay put. Yeah, that’s really not going to work.
  • Nobody in Miami-Dade County has studied the impact of building a new Inter Miami stadium right next to the city’s airport, and some county commissioners think that maybe that might be a thing they’d want to study.
  • Here’s a good, long R.J. Anderson article on three cities vying for MLB expansion teams (Portland, Montreal, and Raleigh) that should provide reading material for the inevitable endless wait for MLB to actually expand. (I’m also quoted in it, right before Jim Bouton.)
  • And here’s another long article that quotes me, this one by Bill Shea of The Athletic on how stadium subsidies have changed since the Great Recession (some sports economists say it’s tougher to get public money now, I say “Bah!”).

F.C. Cincinnati releases new stadium renderings that remain unclear on exactly how soccer works

It’s been a bit of a slow news week so far, but fortunately F.C. Cincinnati is here to bail us out with some fresh vaportecture renderings of its new stadium that it’s building with somewhere between $81 million and $213 million in public money. You’ll recall that back in April, it was supposed to look like this:

But now, it’s going to look like this:

As you can see, there have been a lot of advances! The lighting system has been redirected to light the field rather than the roof, the ad boards have been removed from one sideline to make possible exciting plays where players actually tumble into the front row, the video board has been relocated from the corner to the upper end seats where it will block more fans’ views, someone has brought an enormous banner that is being spread out across the upper and lower decks despite it being the middle of game play, and somewhat fewer fans are excitedly raising their fists for good reason (possibly because the action has moved to the other end of the pitch, possibly because no one can see around all the checkerboard flags that were handed out, possibly because they’re all annoyed by vuvuzelas now being allowed in the stadium). Also the confetti mysteriously falling from above appears to have been gotten smaller, possibly because the previous size was considered a concussion hazard.

What else we got? Anything with some lens flare?

Now that’s what I’m talking about! I especially like the passerby in the last image excitedly pointing to the sky above the stadium, no doubt saying, “There are no fireworks or spotlights or mysterious colored clouds coming out of the top! Is it broken?”

F.C. Cincinnati president Jeff Berding also told Cincinnati Business Courier why the team chose to build a 26,000-seat stadium when right now they average 28,000 fans a game, and it was it was too expensive to build more seats (every additional thousand seats costing an additional $10 million) but also that by building more seats they can keep ticket prices lower, and 26,000 was the sweet spot where those two equations met, presumably, though he didn’t actually say. Just rest assured that your MLS team has two goals in mind: keeping ticket prices low and maximizing profits, and there’s no way those two things will ever come into conflict. Now wave your flag faster, you’re getting confetti on your head.

Friday roundup: Remembering Jim Bouton, and the latest in stadium shakedown absurdities

One day maybe 16 or 17 years ago, I was sitting at my computer when my phone rang and a voice at the other end said, “Hi, this is Jim Bouton. Can I speak with Neil deMause?”

Once I’d picked my jaw up off the floor that the author of Ball Four (and winner of two games in the 1964 World Series) was calling me, we got down to business: Bouton was in the midst of writing a book about his attempts to save a nearly century-old minor-league baseball stadium in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and had some questions about how attempts to save old ballparks (and save the public’s money on building new ones) had gone in other cities. We soon fell to chatting amiably about the nuances and absurdities of the stadium game — I’m pretty sure Jim had only one setting with people he’d just met, which was “chatting amiably” — and eventually ended up having a few conversations about his book and his work as a short-term preservationist and ballclub operator. (The preservation part was successful — Wahconah Park is still in use today — but he was eventually forced out from team management.) I got to meet him in person for the first time a couple of years later when he came to Brooklyn to talk with local residents then fighting demolition of their buildings to make way for a new Brooklyn Nets arena, an issue he quickly became as passionate about as everything else that touched his sense of injustice; when I learned (at a Jim Bouton book talk, in fact) that the initial edition of Field of Schemes had gone out of print, he enthusiastically encouraged me and Joanna Cagan to find a publisher for a revised edition, as he had never been shy about doing for his own books, even when that meant publishing them himself.

The last time I talked to Jim was in the spring of 2012, when he showed up at a screening of the documentary Knuckleball! (along with fellow knuckleball pitchers R.A. Dickey, Tim Wakefield, and Charlie Hough) to help teach kids how to throw the near-magical pitch. We only got to talk briefly, as he was kept busy chatting amiably with everyone else who wanted a moment with him. Soon after that, he had a stroke, and eventually developed vascular dementia, which on Wednesday took his life at age 80.

I’m eternally grateful to have had a chance to spend a little time with one of the nicest, smartest, funniest world-famous authors and ballplayers you could ever hope to meet, especially when we crossed paths on a topic that was so important to both of us. The image I’ll always retain of Jim, though, was of getting ice cream with him near his home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and him looking at my cup and exclaiming, “Sprinkles! That’s a great idea!” and then sprinting back into the shop to get some added to his as well. To the end, Jim Bouton remained boyishly intense about things that were truly important, whether fighting General Electric to save an old ballpark or eating ice cream, and that’s a rare and precious gift. My sympathies to his wife, Paula, and to all who loved him, which by this point I think was pretty much everybody.

And now, to the nuances and absurdities of this week’s stadium and arena news: