Friday roundup: D.C.’s ballpark boom, Rays’ stadium “ingenuity,” and other logical fallacies

You know how the New York Times now offers The Week in Good News, to remind you that not absolutely everything is awful? This is not that, not at all, though it does include a nice oblique shoutout to this site:

  • I think at this point just about every reader out there has emailed or tweeted me about this Washington Post article on development around the new Nationals stadium, variously headed “Ballpark Boomtown” or “The promise: Nationals Park would transform the city. Did it?” or “Nationals Park brings growth, worries to Southeast Washington.” The hook is that construction is booming around the new stadium — one former local opponent is even quoted as saying “Nats Park has been a tremendous boon to the region and the city and even to our neighborhood” — so doesn’t this disprove the idea that sports venues don’t create economic growth? The short answer: It’s hard to say from the anecdotal stories in this article, as it could be that the stadium sparked development that otherwise wouldn’t have happened, or it could be that it redirected development that otherwise would have taken place elsewhere in crane-happy D.C. (a point made in the article by economist Dennis Coates, who says, “This is not income growth; it’s redistribution”), or it could be that the Navy Yard would have gotten developed with or without the stadium. I’ve been poring over the big lists of logical fallacies and cognitive biases and haven’t yet found one that exactly describes the tendency to only look at what did happen thanks to a decision and not what would have happened without it; if this doesn’t have a name yet, the Stadium Catalyst Fallacy has a nice ring to it.
  • The city of Louisville and the state of Kentucky are projected to end up spending more than $1 billion in up-front costs and interest payments on the University of Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center, and while that’s not the best way to determine public costs — really you want to translate future payments into present value, and include not just arena debt service but operating costs and what have you as well, a calculation that this Louisville Courier-Journal article doesn’t attempt — holy crap, one billion dollars is still an acceptable response. (Sports marketer Jim Host, who helped devise the arena plan, has his own response — “If you allowed yourself to be deterred by the negative aspects, nothing would ever get done” — which probably belongs somewhere on that logical fallacy list as well.)
  • Andrew Barroway, who bought half of the Arizona Coyotes in 2015 for $152.5 million and the other half in 2017 for $120 million, and who has complained that his team “cannot survive” without a new arena because of annual losses that are “not sustainable,” now wants to sell half the team for $250 million. Just think on that one for a while.
  • MLB commissioner Rob Manfred thinks Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg will get a new stadium built, despite not having any idea how to pay for one, thanks to his “creative ability and persuasive ability in terms of getting something done,” while Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper says “with ingenuity, solutions can be found” — like how about building school offices into a stadium and selling off school administrative buildings, huh, didja think of that one, smartypants? “There always will be naysayers who dismiss every idea and every project with cynicism,” writes Hooper — hey, it’s the Jim Host Fallacy!
  • Another Tampa Bay Times columnist, Daniel Ruth, had a far more acerbic take on the Rays’ stadium plans, boggling at the $892 million price tag for what would be MLB’s smallest stadium at a time when “public transportation is barely above the level of rickshaws.” Then he closed with the suggestion that Tampa could build “a museum dedicated to the history of architectural renderings of all the stuff that’s never happened,” called “the Field of Schemes Institute of Higher Chutzpah.” Which is a lovely thought and much appreciated, but shouldn’t it really be the Field of Schemes Center for the Study of Vaportecture?
  • Finally, huge thanks to everyone who kicked in toward the summer FoS Supporter drive — your generosity toward a site that delivers a daily dose of reminders of the world’s injustice remains a wonder to me. In appreciation, here is a video of my own cat leaping headlong into a seltzer box. Don’t ever say I don’t provide any good news here:

Louisville NBA expansion owners won’t seek public money, unless maybe they do

A group led by former Kentucky Colonels great Dan Issel (or at least with Dan Issel as its public face) is pushing to get an NBA expansion team for Louisville, and Issel says it won’t require any taxpayer help:

Issel, who is serving as the president of the “NBA 2 Louisville” initiative, made his comments at the Louisville Forum on Wednesday, stating that “he doesn’t envision” a scenario where public financing would play a role in luring a team to Kentucky.

“We’re not looking for a handout,” said Issel, a basketball Hall of Famer who played for the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels and the NBA’s Denver Nuggets after setting the career scoring record at the University of Kentucky.

That’s promising! As you can tell I think from the part of the Louisville Courier Journal article where it quotes me calling it “promising”! Though also not really all that much to get excited over, as:

  1. The University of Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center (I never get tired of typing that) is only eight years old, and is already getting so heavily subsidized by the city of Louisville that it would be hard (though not impossible) for an NBA team to ask for much more in improvements. And I’m pretty sure that no city has actually been asked to chip in on NBA expansion fees, though there’s a first time for everything.
  2. Issel may be promising not to use (or failing to “envision”) public money for acquiring an NBA team, but Kentucky economic development secretary Terry Gill seems to have a better imagination, telling the Courier Journal: “I think the state and local government, we certainly have a role to play but we should not be burdened with too much of that risk.”

Anyway, there’s no sign that the NBA is expanding anytime soon, or that Louisville will be on the short list to land a team once it does. Maybe that’ll give the KFC Yum! Center time to celebrate its 10th birthday, by which time all concerned will probably decide that it’s time for a new one anyway.

Handicapping Deadspin’s “Worst Stadium Scam” Vote

Deadspin is holding its second annual Deadspin Awards, and among the categories, you will be excited to know, is Worst Stadium Scam. And it’s set to be a tight race, with these candidates, not all of which are technically from 2017, but let’s not nitpick:

  • The Raiders robbing Las Vegas
  • The Flames trying to rob Calgary
  • The Falcons robbing Atlanta
  • The Louisville Cardinals robbing Louisville
  • FC Cincinnati robbing Cincinnati
  • The Pistons and Red Wings robbing Detroit

Even though these seem mostly selected by which stories were covered by Deadspin in the last year (Nashville SC robbing Nashville didn’t make the cut, nor did the Cavaliers robbing Cleveland), that’s a pretty solid selection. The Raiders and Falcons stand out for the scale of the subsidies — the Raiders will get $750 million in state cash while paying zero rent, while the Falcons will end up getting almost that much over time — and the Falcons have the bonus scamminess of hiding $400 million of their payday in a “waterfall fund” that will keep paying out long after the stadium’s opening. The Flames and FC Cincinnati haven’t been successful in their shakedowns yet, but are notable for trying (and failing) to get a more team-friendly mayor elected in the former case, and for demanding subsidies on the grounds that their owner has never asked for them before so he’s due in the latter. The Red Wings and Pistons are getting about $350 million in public money from a bankrupt city (or from a state that is otherwise starving a bankrupt city, at least), while the Louisville basketball arena deal is just a nightmare without an end.

I’m not going to reveal how I voted, except to say that it was a tough decision, and I won’t be unhappy at all if one of my second choices takes home the prize. Go cast your ballot now, and give extortionate corporate behavior and terrible public policy the shiny trophy it so desperately deserves.

Louisville refinances arena debt, hopes magic TIF beans work out better this time

As noted briefly last month, Louisville is in the process of refinancing its debt on the KFC Yum! Center, which has been hemorrhaging city money since it was built for the University of Louisville in 2010. Now the numbers are in on how much the city will save in annual debt payments, and it turns out it’ll be paying … wait, more?

Even after refinancing a burdensome debt load, the Louisville Arena Authority would pay more per year to retire new bonds for the KFC Yum! Center than under its current plan, according to a WDRB News analysis of documents made public last week.

Arena officials would be on the hook for annual payments averaging $29.3 million through 2045, compared with $25.8 million under current obligations that end in 2042.

What’s actually going on here is simple: In exchange for lots of big payments soon, Louisville has pushed back a bunch of its payments to 2030 and later, by which time surely that whole “wait for tax receipts from new development around the arena to soar” plan will be working out great! Or, at the very least, the people currently running Louisville will be long since retired. It’s a win-win!

(Tl;dr version: Tax increment financing is for suckers.)

Montreal stadium used for refugees from U.S., isn’t this a scene in “Handmaid’s Tale”?

Lightning round!

  • Boise is all in a tizzy over plans to build a minor-league soccer stadium, because it would get a property-tax exemption. This is the kind of subsidy that people don’t usually notice unless they’re the mayor of Minneapolis, so good on Boise.
  • We finally have a due date for proposals for developing land near Belmont Park that the New York Islanders owners have targeted for a possible new arena: September 30. Tune back in then, and maybe we’ll see what they have in mind, and how they hope to pay for it.
  • Louisville is moving ahead with plans to refinance its debt on its disastrous arena deal. This won’t help a ton — the arena deal will still be a disaster — but even stanching the flow of red ink slightly is something, I suppose.
  • El Paso is involved in a court case over whether they’re allowed to hold sporting events at their new arena, because the bonds it used can’t be used for “sports facilities” and — know what, just read about it yourself, it’s too insane to describe in detail here.
  • The mayor of St. Petersburg is “intrigued” by the idea of building a new soccer stadium on the site of Tropicana Field if the Rays move out, something he apparently neglected to discuss with the local would-be MLS team owner first.
  • Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula is still refusing to demand a new stadium, despite the NFL really wanting him to.
  • Montreal’s Olympic Stadium is now being used as a temporary shelter for asylum seekers fleeing Trump’s America. There are undoubtedly many, many jokes to be made here — that’s what the comment section is for, so have fun!

Louisville arena bleeding even more public money than before, could go bankrupt

When we checked in on Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center three years ago, the University of Louisville was turning an annual $26.9 million profit on the arena, while the city of Louisville was losing $9.8 million a year. According to two researchers who testified before a state legislative committee last week, that’s changed now — in that the city is doing much, much worse:

Louisville entrepreneur Denis Frankenberger and J. Bruce Miller, senior partner in J. Bruce Miller Law Group of Louisville, told the Kentucky General Assembly’s joint Capital Projects and Bond Oversight Committee on Tuesday that the center lost more than $17 million in 2015 and is losing $1.4 million a month…

[Frankenberger] cited an initial [tax increment financing] revenue stream projected at about $4.5 million the facility opened actually came in at about $615,000. A second-year TIF revenue projection of $6.6 million came in at about $2.1 million…

“The University of Louisville makes $20 million a year on events,” Frankenberger told the committee. “It’s a taxpayer scam.”

A bit of context here: When the city built the arena for the state university for $339 million in 2010, the bonds were supposed to be paid off roughly evenly from city general fund money, luxury suites and arena advertising, and cash from that TIF district (i.e., any increased property taxes collected in the area right around the arena). The university, meanwhile, would collect almost all other revenues from the arena. With the TIF revenue falling short, the city now needs to come up with another way to pay off its share of the bonds (about $13 million a year) plus operating costs, or else let the place go bankrupt.

The good news is that this is mostly just a bookkeeping problem: The city vastly overestimated its future TIF revenue, so now needs to dip into one of its other pockets if it wants to keep up with its arena bond payments. The bad news is that this was going to be city money either way — since even according to the city’s own figures the TIF district was just cannibalizing property taxes that otherwise would have been paid elsewhere in the city, taxpayers were going to be on the hook for more than $200 million worth of bonds regardless. So now it’s just a question of how else to pay off the debt.

State legislators are now demanding that the city renegotiate its lease with the U of L, which sounds great except it’s not clear the city has any leverage to do so, which could result in the university saying, “Yeah, tough break about those TIFs, but we have a contract.” This was a horrible, horrible deal for Louisville residents in the first place, and the TIF shortfall is making that more obvious. But unless the threat of arena bankruptcy somehow gets the U of L to the bargaining table, it’s hard to see how this is much more than posturing.

Louisville Yum! Center to allow bringing guns to shows, will still ban pointy umbrellas

If you’ve been jonesing to see Kid Rock’s New Year’s Eve Bash at Louisville’s Yum! Center but didn’t know what to do with your handgun during the show, there’s good news for you:

The Louisville Arena Authority ended its total ban on firearms and agreed Monday to give promoters and booking agents of events at the KFC Yum! Center the right to decide whether ticketed visitors can carry firearms into the downtown arena.

The new policy is in line with a new Kentucky law that bans public and “quasi-public” entities from restricting people with weapons permits from bringing their guns into venues. Since promoters aren’t quasi-public, the public authority that runs the Yum! Center has decided to kick the decision over to them, which means you’ll have to ask Kid Rock for permission to come packing to his show — something he’ll probably be okay with.

You will still be prohibited from bringing cameras with detachable lenses or umbrellas “with pointed tips” into the Yum! Center, because somebody could get hurt with those.

Louisville mayor insists arena is doing just fine despite junk-bond status

Standard & Poor’s lowered its bond rating for the Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center to junk grade on Friday, which I thought about mentioning at the time but didn’t because this isn’t Field of Bondholders. (Inasmuch as I do like typing “KFC Yum! Center.”) Things are getting more interesting now, though, as Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer is having to fight off charges that the city might end up having to actually default on the arena debt:

“The payment of the bonds is not in question, and it’s not in jeopardy,” Fischer said in an interview Monday.

Moody’s Investors Service and Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services have both downgraded the status of the bonds that are paying off the arena’s construction costs, contending that the arena’s financing plan may not be able to cover the $340 million bond debt…

The downgrade prompted Louisville Metro Councilman Dan Johnson, D-21, to call for a renegotiation of the lease agreement between the Yum! Center’s oversight board, Louisville Arena Authority, and its main tenant, the University of Louisville, which Johnson said would make the arena more profitable and the bonds more stable.

“This report … gives the impression that the arena could default because it may be unable to pay bond debt,” Johnson said.

It’s important to remember here that the KFC Yum! Center itself has been fairly successful, in terms of arena operations: It may not have an anchor sports tenant other than the University of Louisville basketball team, but it’s been a relatively successful concert facility. As we’ve seen before, though, arenas generally have a tough time paying off their construction costs out of operating profits; in Louisville’s case, the bulk of the cost was supposed to be paid off via a tax increment financing district around the arena that diverts new tax revenue to pay for the building’s construction debt, but that money has fallen woefully short, with the city having to kick in an extra $9.8 million last year to make up the difference.

Johnson has called for renegotiating the city’s lease with the U of L to get the city more money — if only by ending the provision that allows the university to black out arena dates before and after its own games — which makes sense seeing the windfall the school gets from its lease. Fischer retorts that the problem isn’t the lease, it’s the TIF district — which also makes sense, albeit in a “we were dumb not to have an actual idea for paying for this” way.

In an indication of just how screwy TIF financing can be, Fischer says that all should be well now that the city approved shrinking the TIF district back in September, which is expected to bring in more money:

The TIF allows the arena to keep a portion of increased tax revenue generated by business the facility helps bring in to the taxing district. But the district boundaries were drawn so large that too little additional tax revenue was generated to pay off the arena debt.

Arena authorities, according to a previous Courier-Journal report, see the downsizing of the TIF district as a move that ultimately will increase revenues from businesses opening in the district, funneling more tax revenue to the arena.

In other words, businesses immediately adjacent to the arena are paying more taxes, but businesses a few blocks away are moving out, making the overall TIF impact closer to a net zero. By ignoring the arena’s impact on the broader area, then, and just focusing on the couple of blocks next to the arena, the city can only count the pluses and not the minuses, and everybody’s happy! Right?

U of Louisville turns $26.9m annual profit on basketball, as city takes $9.8m a year loss

If you like infographics, you’re just going to love this one from ESPN the magazine! Giant blue Rick Pitino monster! Brightly colored geometric shapes! The number “$25,800,000” in really big type! It’s the perfect simulacrum of actual information, equally comprehensible for ages 5 to 55!

There is one interesting tidbit in there, actually, which is that the University of Louisville makes a whole lot of money on basketball, bringing in $42.4 million a year in revenue, and spending $15.5 million on expenses. (None of which, needless to say, go toward paying the athletes that people are actually paying to see.) That’s an annual profit of $26.9 million, or $1.35 million per home game, as portrayed by a giant red circle that brings to mind the diameter of Jupiter.

For the missing piece of the puzzle, we need to turn to Insider Louisville, which notes that the university’s basketball players aren’t the only ones getting the short end of the stick here:

If you’re taxpayer in Jefferson County, you need to keep one thing in mind while you’re looking at the stunning numbers the University of Louisville basketball program puts up on the P&L sheet … you’re subsidizing the program out of your pocket with at least $9.8 million annually, or almost $20 million during the last two years.

It’s actually worse than that, because Louisville’s tax increment financing district — property and sales tax revenues that are being kicked back to pay for the arena — is costing taxpayers an additional $3.5 million last year. (It was actually supposed to be more than that, but tax revenues fell woefully short, leaving the city to make up the difference.) Even if you count that as new revenue the city wouldn’t have gotten without the arena, though, which is arguable (some of it is likely cannibalized from elsewhere in the city), that’s still almost $10 million a year that Louisville residents are handing over to the university so that it can rake in record sports profits. At least it’s a public university, so I guess you can look at this as a back-door way of fighting the trend of reduced higher-education funding? Um, maybe?

More than one-third of Louisville arena revenues coming from government checks

There’s some new data on how Louisville’s annual subsidies are propping up the KFC Yum! Center, courtesy of the Louisville Courier-Journal:

The report doesn’t explicitly show how the arena authority pulled together the money to make its two debt payments last year totaling more than $20 million. Some of the money included more than $3 million borrowed from a renovation fund and an increase in Metro Government’s annual contribution to $9.8 million, from $6.5 million.

According to the report, the authority had $26.2 million in operating revenues and other support last year, up from $24.9 million the year before. That is largely [the] result of the additional city money, which made up the biggest chunk of arena revenues.

For those without access to a calculator, that’s fully 37% of the arena’s revenues that came via a check from the city government. And that’s not including the kicked-back property and sales taxes that are costing the city about $2 million a year — which is on the one hand good considering that this tax increment financing was supposed to provide about triple that amount, but on the other hand not so good since the city has to pay the arena bonds regardless, hence the need for the growing operating subsidy.

There’s still hope that AEG, which took over operations of the arena last year, will somehow work some magic that will reduce the building’s losses, but given their work elsewhere, don’t hold your breath. It seems likeliest that Louisville will simply have to learn an expensive lesson: If you’re spending $349 million in taxpayer money on a new arena whose only anchor tenant is a college basketball team, you probably have no hope of ever making your money back. Also: When the vampire squid talks, don’t listen.