Shed a tear for Milwaukee journalists, for this is their job

Milwaukee and Wisconsin leaders met for a second straight day yesterday to discuss funding plans for a Bucks arena, and how’d that go?

“We are continuing to talk about a solution,” Bucks President Peter Feigin said.

Yup, yup, I expect you are. And are you getting anywhere?

“Another productive working session. Everyone is continuing to operate in good faith and there’s a lot of issues that need to be worked out, but I think I think that people want to work these issues out. So, there’s no announcement whatsoever. We’re going to continue to meet. Staff are going to be exchanging numbers and we’re just going to continue to work,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said.

If printing that sort of PR pablum — along with a summary of all the different arena funding proposals floated so far, to fill out space — seems like a thin excuse for an article, such is the lot of the daily journalists now covering the Bucks arena closed-door meeting beat. In fact, it gets worse than that: Check out the reporting that’s gone on before each of the meetings, when elected officials didn’t even have anything new to refuse to comment on. From yesterday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel website:

Shortly before attending another meeting to discuss cost-sharing for a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks, Mayor Tom Barrett was circumspect about where the talks stand…

“We had a good working session yesterday in Madison and we’re going to continue the discussions today (in Milwaukee). I think it’s fair to say that there are a lot of moving pieces right now. I think that everyone who is involved in this is operating with goodwill. And it’s a challenging issue,” Barrett said.

Now there’s a nothingburger of a quote, but the mayor said it, so it’s news, right? And it’s still better than the report that poor Rich Kirchen of the Milwaukee Business Journal filed on Wednesday, as all the politicians filed into a room at the governor’s office and shut the door behind them:

The key players arrived Wednesday afternoon for a closed-door summit on possible public funding of a new arena in downtown Milwaukee but nearly all of them declined to comment as they entered the Governor’s Conference Room at the state Capitol in Madison….

“I’d be thrilled if something was (agreed to),” [Milwaukee County Executive Chris] Abele said. “We’ll do whatever we can to get there. We have a number of parties so I don’t speak for anybody else.”

It’s hard to say who’s to blame for this kind of on-the-scenes information-free reporting — the journalists involved no doubt figure it’s what their editors want, editors figure it’s what readers want, and readers probably click on it eagerly, even if there’s no metric in Google Analytics for “disappointment at finding nothing of interest after clicking on a promising headline.” (Man, can you imagine if there was? BuzzFeed would go out of business overnight.) But it has to stop, because, well, it’s hurting America.

What else could Milwaukee’s assembled journalistic corps be doing instead of chasing elected officials around for non-quotes, you ask? Well, they could be analyzing the likely funding options left on the table, like Milwaukee Magazine did the other day. Or read Gov. Scott Walker’s actual arena proposal to find that if the Bucks owners were to break their lease, they’d have to repay the state’s costs, but not the city’s or county’s, as reported by Urban Milwaukee’s Bruce Murphy yesterday. Or, really, pretty much anything that requires actually researching facts and reporting them to readers, rather than just being a quote-harvesting service for people with fancy titles.

Not that the daily journalists never do this — they do, every once in a while. But it’s way too infrequent an occurrence, especially when they have yards of column inches (or column pixels) to fill each month. There’s an incredible story unfolding in Milwaukee right now, about how two rich guys bought the local NBA team and are, with the help of a move threat deadline set by the league, trying to extract $250 million in public money to replace a 27-year-old arena from a state that may soon have trouble paying for its schools and highways. Instead, we get this:

“We understand the importance of it. We understand the impact on the state of Wisconsin, on the community here, on the region here, and I understand that all of us have an obligation to our taxpayers. So, it’s very much a work in progress, but I’m glad that we’re working.”

Is it any wonder that people think this stuff can be done equally well by robots?

Bucks exec debates self on arena deadline in poet-journalist’s latest tour de force

Aw, man. Here Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sportswriter/poet Don Walker had gone and written the long-awaited sequel to his epic work consisting solely of quotes from Milwaukee Bucks president Peter Feigin; the new one was all about how Feigin had declared that a new arena plan would have to be finalized in the next ten days, or else. And while it may not have had the stylistic purity of the original’s incessant repetition of the phrase “Feigin said,” it was still a worthy successor, outlining the team exec’s ultimatum without once asking anyone else if it was for real.

But now it’s gone, flushed down the internet’s memory hole, not even a ghost surviving on the Wayback Machine. And the culprit is none other than Feigin himself, who ruined everything by turning around and insisting that there is no deadline, and there never was a deadline:

Late in the afternoon — and three hours after his comments were posted online — Feigin released a statement from the Bucks that attempted to backtrack.

“There is no immediate deadline for a financing plan and we’re not creating one,” it said. “We’re simply hopeful that progress continues with our partners and throughout the legislative and political process.”

Bucks’ spokesman Jake Suski said Feigin misspoke. He said Feigin didn’t want to leave the impression that the Bucks were imposing their own deadline. “That wasn’t his intent,” Suski said.

Earlier, however, the Bucks president had been quite clear, saying if an arena financing deal doesn’t get completed, “the Bucks will be gone from the state of Wisconsin.”

The resulting revised article still only quotes Feigin (and Suski), but the magic is gone. Though come to think of it, maybe what Walker and Feigin are doing here is trying to elevate stenography journalism by subverting it: In the future, newspapers will just reprint what powerful people say without question, but the powerful people will make up for it by debating themselves on the topic. It’s a whole new paradigm of checks and balances, and you’re reading it first in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Might as well try something, because journalism sure isn’t going to save itself.

Pulitzer-winning newspaper asks if Rays fans are staying home out of anger that owner can’t break lease

The Tampa Bay Rays are terrible, and the New York Yankees shortstop is Didi Gregorius, so you might expect that attendance for a Rays-Yankees matchup in April might be lower than usual. Or, if you work for the Tampa Bay Times, you can use it as an excuse to write an article titled “Smaller crowds against Yankees at Trop: Are fans tiring of stadium stalemate?” that features lines like these:

But, still, the crowds for the Yankees games were small. Does the stalemate between the city and the team have anything to do with it?

“It certainly may, but I don’t think there is any way to find out,” said council member Bill Dudley.

Now, there are two ways we could approach this. We could look at attendance in past years that the Rays were lousy when there was no stadium controversy, and see that they’re actually drawing better than in the bad old Devil Rays days (though this year’s average is admittedly goosed a bit by having one of their seven home games be opening day). Or we could just try to picture a Tampa Bay baseball fan thinking, “Hey, the Yankees are in town. Could be a good night for a ballgame — but damn, I sure am tired of the city council not letting the Rays owner break his lease and try to get a new stadium built somewhere else. Why, it’s a veritable stalemate! Stalemates are like ties, and ties are for soccer. Hey, I wonder if there’s any soccer on TV? Do I even like soccer? Where did I leave the remote?”

The Tampa Bay Times, interestingly, filed this not under “sports” but “human interest,” presumably because they don’t have a category tag for “clickbait.” Give them another few months, they’ll get with the program.

SD columnist says Chargers deal needs Hail Mary off flea flicker [metaphor overflow, please retry]

Last week we had the perfect example of an “assuming the premise that funding a new arena is the public’s problem” article, and this week it’s the archetypal “using sports metaphors to paint building a stadium as victory” piece, courtesy of “star” UT San Diego sports columnist Kevin Acee. I mean, this guy really emptied the sports metaphor bowl:

[Citizens’ Stadium Advisory Group] Adam Day is the Doug Flutie in this stadium game.

He and his team were handed the ball in the fourth quarter and told to win with a Hail Mary off a flea flicker.

But how much time is left in the fourth quarter, Kevin?

As the seconds trickle off the clock, with no timeouts remaining, San Diego’s only hope is a delay of game being called and eventually getting to overtime.

This metaphor is getting confusing. Who would call a delay of game, exactly?

For the Chargers to not make that request [to relocate for 2016], they are going to need to get their way. They are the clock operator, the referee and quarterback.

I’m … pretty sure that’s against the rules? Also, wasn’t Doug Flutie the quarterback? Help!

Anyway, the guy that UT San Diego kept as sports columnist over the guy who actually asked questions wants you to know that San Diego has to meet the Chargers’ demands, and soon, or else, and is going to use every football reference in his arsenal to drive this home. It’s still not quite the time Connecticut approved funding a new stadium to lure the New England Patriots and the Hartford Courant reported on this by splashing “Touchdown!” across their front page, but it’s a valiant attempt nonetheless.

Idiotic lease clause could force Houston to spend $50m on upgrading Texans stadium for Super Bowl

To the list of crazy things that the NFL demands in order to allow cities the honor of hosting the Super Bowl (free billboards, free police officers, free bowling alleys), add spending $50 million to make the luxury suites more luxurious at your 13-year-old stadium. That’s what Houston was told for its plans to host the 2017 Super Bowl:

Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s senior vice president of events, said Monday that upgrading the stadium’s WiFi is something the bid committee has agreed to do. In terms of sprucing up the seating, he said he noted on a recent visit that NRG “is in a very good place at this stage in its stadium life, but there are opportunities to upgrade that are common across Super Bowl stadiums as they prepare and continue to make sure they are state-of-the-art.”

So far, no Houston government officials have stepped up to offer $50 million to the cause — in fact, Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack swore earlier this week that “I’m not about to vote to spend a single dollar of county money updating these luxury suites” — and it doesn’t appear that the Super Bowl bid committee actually committed to it as a condition of hosting the big game. So the NFL seemingly doesn’t have a leg to stand on, unless there’s something in the Texans‘ stadium lease:

A clause in that lease agreement says the county must maintain the facility in “first class” condition and “a manner comparable to other stadiums.”

Noooooooooooo! Don’t you people ever learn?

Reminder: “state-of-the-art” clauses let team owners make stadiums the gifts that keep on giving

In case you missed it, Aaron Gordon had a good overview at Vice Sports yesterday of stadium state-of-the-art clauses and how they screw over taxpayers, citing me lots. In particular, Gordon noted that one of the big problems with these clauses — which tons of local governments continue to agree to — is that “state-of-the-artness” is a legally fuzzy concept:

According to the Rams’ lease, such things are measured by at least 15 different components: “everything from luxury boxes to club seats, lighting, scoreboards… regular stadium seating, concession areas, common areas (such as concourses or restrooms), electronic and telecommunications equipment,” as well as locker and training rooms, and the field itself.

But, according to an analysis by Kristen E. Knauf in the Marquette Sports Law Review, this doesn’t provide much clarification. What is state-of-the-art lighting? How does one rank NFL locker rooms? Does a state-of-the-art concession area mean better food, shorter lines, Apple Pay compatibility? The lease doesn’t provide any details. It’s up to an arbitrator to decide, and that arbitrator just so happened to side with the Rams in 2005. That triggered negotiations for a $30 million stadium upgrade, which was completed in 2009.

It’s worth a read, especially if you’re a local government official who is considering signing one of these clauses. In fact, if you happen to be standing near a local government official, consider printing this out and smacking them upside the head with it. History will thank you.

Metal detectors at MLB games proving to be just as bad an idea as everyone feared

Lots of coverage today of the crazy-long lines at baseball stadiums on opening day, where fans ran into MLB’s new rules requiring metal detectors at all entrances. Here’s the massive lines at the New York Yankees game, and here’s fans griping about it at ballparks all over. And here’s my photo of the lines outside the Mets‘ home stadium:

image1-1That doesn’t look so bad, until you consider that the Mets weren’t actually playing at home yesterday — this was just the thousand or so people who turned up to watch the broadcast of the game for free on the center field video screen. Admittedly, for actual games there will be a few more entrances (and detectors) open, but I’m still not looking forward to the first time 40,000 people all arrive at the same time for a big game, say against the Yankees.

Meanwhile, what none of the coverage has touched on is that, as I reported for Vice last fall, security experts largely think that metal detectors are useless “security theater” measures that make sports leagues look like they’re doing something but don’t do squat to make anyone safer:

[Alabama economist Walter] Enders says that the main effect of tighter security at stadium entrances will likely be to drive any hypothetical attackers—and let’s remember that no actual terrorists have actually attacked sports venues in America outside of that time Bruce Dern tried it—to set off bombs outside stadiums instead, which would not be a happy outcome: “You’re trying to get in the door, there’s 20,000 people standing around outside. I could do a lot of damage there, just as easily as I could if I brought the thing inside. Maybe even more.” (His students, Enders notes, are constantly wondering aloud why no one ever simply flies an airplane over a stadium and drops an explosive device out the window.)

Besides, if we really cared about safety, Enders says, we’d do things like ensure that bag checks actually check bags, beyond a quick look to ensure that no one is smuggling in unauthorized foodstuffs. “I just went to see Alabama-West Virginia in Atlanta,” he notes. “My wife and I wanted to bring something in to drink. I said, ‘Put it in the bottom of the purse, and we’ll put the binoculars and the program on top, and that’s the end of that.'”

The problem with real bag checks, of course, is that they’re even more time-consuming and labor-intensive. Walk-through metal detectors offer the perfect blend of comforting concern and barely workable efficiency that have made them the go-to security devices at airports everywhere — even if there’s no evidence that they actually keep anyone safer.

Why new stadiums aren’t better places to watch sports, in two photos and a french fry story

I took in the Argentina-Ecuador soccer match in New Jersey on Tuesday night, which was my first chance to see the now five-year-old stadium that the New York Giants and Jets built to give themselves a more luxurious setting than the old Giants Stadium across the parking lot. And I’ve gotta say, my initial reaction was much like my first visit to the new Yankee Stadium: They spent more than a billion dollars for this? I mean, here’s the view from our seats:

met-lifeIt has a ribbon board, and those big video screens in the corners, and obviously a bunch of luxury suites and clubs that I didn’t have access to. (Also, yes, that’s snow that you see falling. No more outdoor sporting events in March for me.) But overall, for average fans there’s nothing particularly better about actually watching a game here over the old place — in fact, from the end zone seats it didn’t feel all that different from being at one of the old “concrete donut” multipurpose stadiums like Veterans Stadium, only with more cupholders.

And as for being out of the seats, which is where modern stadiums with their massive footprints are supposed to shine, things were if anything even worse. Here, for example, is the view of the concessions concourse during halftime:

met-life-halftimeYes, soccer halftime is always a madhouse since no one wants to leave their seats during the action and risk missing the only goal, but this was beyond awful. After fighting my way through a crush of people to find the end of one concessions line — but allow me to just quote the customer survey that the stadium people kindly requested that I fill out after I attended the game, no doubt not knowing what they would be in for:

The staff were all fine. The logistics, however, were a nightmare: It took us forever to find our way to our seats (on the 200 level opposite the train station, requiring that we climb to the 300 level then come back down again) and find our way back to the train, the crush to leave after the game was appalling (despite only 48,000 fans in attendance), the concessions lines were the worst I’ve ever seen at any stadium, and the concessions stands were incredibly backed up at having enough food. (Some of this may have been because it was soccer when there’s a big halftime rush to the concessions, I understand, but maybe plan ahead for this a little?) And fortunately we were under an overhang, or it would have been miserable sitting in the rain and snow, especially with your no-umbrellas policy. Also, the ad signage was so irritatingly ubiquitous (video ads even during play, really?) that even my 12-year-old son, who *likes* commercials, was complaining about it.

I’m not sure what to suggest, as a lot of these problems seem inherent to the stadium design, but hiring more staff to direct people and way better signage would be a start. I’d go to MetLife Stadium again if some event I absolutely had to see was happening there, but I wouldn’t be happy about it. And next time I wouldn’t bother to try to get french fries.

This has been the most surprising discovery of my years of research into the new-stadium game, and one I have to keep explaining to people: New sports venues, on the whole, kind of suck. They’re far more geared toward serving luxury customers — who are the ones willing to pay the big bucks that justify these buildings, when they can be justified at all beyond the desire for public subsidies — than toward things like making sure that people can line up for the restrooms without creating a traffic jam. It’s not so much that stadium and arena designers are doing a bad job — though in many cases they arguably could be doing far better — as that making for a better fan experience is fundamentally not the goal of these places. Separating fans from their money, especially fans with lots of it, is, and despite anything you may have heard about the free market supposedly reflecting the demands of customers, there isn’t always a direct alignment.There are many reasons why we’ve seen a rash of new stadiums and arenas in the past 30 years, but one factor that shouldn’t be overlooked is that it’s a land rush to serve a new market: There weren’t that many people with tons of disposable income to blow on upscale ballpark food in the 1970s, whereas now, well, we all know what’s happened. I once wrote an article for the late, lamented Village Voice sports section that talked about A-Rod’s then-record salary and suggested blaming it all on Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts for the wealthy; that was an oversimplification then, and even more so now that we know that much of the rise in inequality was actually the result of Reagan’s SEC rules, but if you want to shake your fist at someone for having to pay higher ticket prices for a lousier experience, you could certainly pick a worse target.

St. Pete council still not willing to let Rays go for cheap, local paper decries this as “stalemate”

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said yesterday that he still doesn’t have the votes to pass the bill the city council rejected in December that would have let the Tampa Bay Rays look elsewhere for a stadium site in exchange for a sliding scale of buyout payments, depending on when the team left. This is unsurprising, though it’s slightly surprising that Kriseman was willing to propose having the Rays give up any proceeds from redeveloping the Tropicana Field site — something Rays owner Stuart Sternberg had previously said he wouldn’t consider — and councilmembers still said no:

Kriseman’s proposal, which could earn the city as much as $20 million, inadequately compensates the city and county for what they have spent on the Trop over the years, [councilmember Steve] Kornell said. “I could not in good conscience vote for that deal.”

[Councilmember Bill] Dudley also said the proposed compensation payments are too low. “We’re just not getting enough,” he said, “and the vast majority of my constituents agree with me on this.”

In other words: We have a lease with you, and you have to live by it, and if you want to get out of it you have to pay our price or else lump it until 2027, pal.

That’s a perfectly reasonable negotiating position for the council to take, and thus makes it more than a bit screwy that the Tampa Bay Times chose to lead their article on this with the sentence: “Tampa Bay’s five-year stalemate over a new baseball stadium continues — with no obvious end in sight.” That implies that you have two sides trying to reach agreement on a shared goal, but which just can’t find a way to come to terms. What’s happening here is something different: Sternberg wants to break his lease and seek a new stadium elsewhere, and the St. Pete council is saying, “Not unless you make it worth our while.”

A more honest lede, then, would have been something along the lines of “The Tampa Bay Rays’ search for a way out of their Tropicana Field lease continues — but the St. Petersburg council isn’t going to let them go cheap.” But then, the Tampa Bay Times has a track record of trying to make St. Petersburg seem like it’s on the clock here, even when it isn’t.

Walker promises new Bucks arena plan in “next few days” that magically won’t cost anybody anything

Oh, yeah, it’s definitely racino time in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker has announced that “in the next few days” he’s going to announce a new Milwaukee Bucks arena plan to replace his old arena plan that everybody hated. And what will be in the new plan?

Walker gave no specifics of the new plan but said that the alternative plan would not siphon off any tax revenue from the state’s existing tax base or rely on any new taxes.

So that leaves revenue from existing taxes as they bring in more revenue in the future — in other words, some variant on a TIF, just as his old “kick back any future rise in NBA income taxes” plan was. Any other specifics?

“It involves not only our Legislature leadership — Senator Fitzgerald and Speaker Vos, that I typically meet with on a weekly basis, but also representatives of the city of Milwaukee, the county of Milwaukee as well as the Bucks and I believe in the end we will find a viable alternative. We`re working with members of the legislative leadership, the city of Milwaukee and the county, and we’re having meetings even this week on that and once we reach a conclusion, we’ll be announcing that fairly shortly,” Governor Walker said.

Anything else, anyone?

Kit Beyer, [an Assembly Speaker Robin] Vos spokeswoman, said Vos has consistently said that in order to keep the Bucks in Milwaukee, city and county officials “need to step up more. He looks forward to learning what they can offer when they meet this week.”…

In addition, there is an expectation that the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County will be asked to contribute. No specific details of what the city and county could contribute have been released, though it is expected the city’s contribution will be in the form of tax-incremental financing districts for the expected ancillary development near the new arena site.

Put all the tea leaves together, and it sounds like Walker and city and county officials are going to be scrounging around for any future taxes that can be credited to the Bucks’ presence — even if some of these taxes would be collected on other entertainment options if the Bucks left — to see if they can get to $250 million. This is where that “ancillary development” that the Bucks owners promised last week comes in handy: If you package together enough stuff, and count up all the taxes that it’ll be paying, and then pretend that nothing else that would pay taxes will ever get built if not for the Bucks’ presence, then it’s all free money to the state and city, so why not just hand it right back to the Bucks owners, right? Right?

It all sounds so reasonable, and makes me yet again sad that I can’t find a YouTube video of that “Odd Couple” episode where Oscar’s gambling buddy wins big at Felix’s opera club casino night, uses the money to repay Oscar on a debt, and then Felix insists that it’s really his money and Oscar should give it to him, because “it’s from me to him to you to me, like an isoceles triangle.” Math is tough!