Are sports leagues trolling Arizona media by refusing to release full economic impact studies?

Emerging briefly from my travel-imposed radio silence to note that Arizona tourism officials are once again talking up how sports is a mammoth contributor to the state’s economy, to the tune of $1.3 billion over the last three years. That’s according to figures come up with by the Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, and since they go against pretty much every other study conducted of sports economics ever — which conclude that most sports spending just displaces other spending, whether it’s by locals or tourists — I heartily pooh-poohed the latest of those studies when it came out last month, noting that a previous enthusiastic study of spring-training impact in Florida turned out not even to have been conducted by an economist.

After I wrote that, I got a very friendly under the circumstances email from one of the Arizona State economists, who assured me that the people behind the report had degrees and everything. He also indicated that the study had tried to avoid crediting sports with economic activity from visitors who would have come to Arizona anyway by asking survey respondents, “How strong a factor was the 2018 Cactus League in your decision to visit Arizona?”

This was very interesting, I told my correspondent. Where could I find the complete study, so I can see the full methodology?

Sorry, I was told. These reports were commissioned by the sports leagues (MLB, the NFL, and NCAA), and they were only releasing summaries, not the full reports.

This, needless to say, is a problem: Without seeing the methodology, there’s no way to tell if these studies truly show something unprecedented is going on in Arizona, or if every other study is correct that one-time and seasonal sports events don’t have any measurable economic benefit. So instead we just have the sports leagues picking and choosing which numbers to put in their press releases, with no way to tell how those figures were generated.

And if the notion of sports leagues deliberately trolling the media with cherry-picked stats is bad enough, one has to ask: Why the hell are Arizona media letting themselves get trolled? Pretty much every news outlet in the state has been running these stories at face value, without ever noting that there’s no way to evaluate the claims. That’s a dereliction of duty way worse than anything the leagues (who only have obligation to profit, not to truth) or the economists (who are just doing what their clients ask of them, though I suppose they could always refuse to take on projects with secrecy clauses on the grounds of academic openness) are doing.

Anyway, sports leagues are devious and secretive and news outlets are lazy and eager to suck up to the sports industry that provides them with many of their dwindling number of readers. Glad to see nothing has changed in my absence, in other words.

LeBron James was not the centerpiece of the Cleveland economy stop it stop it please god stop it

Eeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaugh, nooooooooooo, not another article about how much LeBron James is worth to the Cleveland economy!

When James played for Miami, there was a downward trend in the number of restaurants in Cleveland that coincided with an upward trend around the stadium in Miami. Likewise, when James returned to the Cavs, restaurants near Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena spiked while the number restaurants within a mile of the American Airlines Arena started to slide, according to the Harvard study.

That’s from a CNBC article headlined “How LeBron’s move west could tip parts of Cleveland’s economy south,” though it’s mostly full of economists saying anything from “we’ll see” (Case Western Reserve’s Jack Kleinhenz) to “people who stop going to Cavs games will just go to Indians games instead” (Smith College’s Andy Zimbalist) to “we saw more tourist restaurant spending the year LeBron came back, but that could easily be a coincidence” (city tourist bureau spokesperson Emily Lauer). The headline is already a giveaway to the problem with the story’s premise, as is the above quote: Of course less money is spent in and around the Cavs’ arena when fewer people go to Cavs games, but that doesn’t mean people stop eating or going out at night — it just means that they find other things to do than going to see NBA basketball.

At least CNBC managed to avoid repeating the urban legend that LeBron is worth $500 million a year to Cleveland’s economy, which hopefully we put a stake in back in 2015. But still, even putting a reporter on such a story reveals that some CNBC editor thinks “let’s look at how Pro Sports City will fare economically without Pro Sports Star” is an assignment worth making, which, no, it really isn’t, and the economists you spoke to ended up telling you as much. And you didn’t even call Geoffrey Propheter, who did the definitive study on NBA arenas and their economic impact! I bet he has lots of ideas for better ways that CNBC reporters could be spending their research time — give him a ring, he’s in the book.

Beckham’s Miami MLS team announces it will announce something about stadium, Miami Herald dutifully writes it all down

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: It must be really nice to be someone considered a major local business owner — of a sports team, an electric car company, whatever — and get guaranteed news coverage just by issuing a press statement or even just tweeting. And so we get articles like this one in the Miami Herald:

Beckham group announces date to reveal plans for MLS stadium on Miami golf course

That’s right: David Beckham’s MLS ownership group announced that it’s going to announce that it has plans for building a stadium on a site that Beckham’s group has been publicly considering since back in March. And it will do so at the July 12 Miami commission meeting, according to Beckham co-owner Jorge Mas’s tweets, maybe:

So all we really know for sure is that the Beckham group will reveal something on July 12. And that Mas wants to hug Sandra Peebles.

But that was Tuesday night’s news! Yesterday, the Herald broke the story that Mas said that an announcement of the team name and uniform colors was “imminent”:

“We are just going through final vetting and trademark issues, and all those announcements are imminent,” he said by phone Wednesday.

Among the names being considered are Futbol Club Internacional de Miami (Inter Miami) and Futbol Club Atletico Miami (Atletico Miami), both of which would make sense with the city’s international flair and Hispanic influence. The ownership group also registered variations of the name Miami Freedom, but it is more likely one of the traditional soccer names will be chosen.

In related news, I will be publishing an article in the coming days that will reveal important information about a stadium project! I have not yet decided on a headline for this story, but that decision will soon be imminent! Miami Herald, I’m ready for my close-up!

Russell Wilson gets in helicopter with wannabe Portland MLB owner, struggling newspaper devotes precious staff time to covering it

I’m not honestly sure exactly what has sparked this sudden flurry of interest in applying for MLB expansion franchises that MLB isn’t even offering yet — I guess MLB commissioner Rob Manfred keeps vaguely talking about how expansion would be nice, but that seems a bit much to be basing entire development plans around — but if you want a summary of where the madness is leading in a nutshell, you could do worse than this photo caption from the Oregonian:

Russell Wilson and Ciara take a selfie Saturday after holding a news conference in Northwest Portland to discuss their investments into the Portland Diamond Project’s effort to land a Major League Baseball team.

Yes, this is where journalism is right now: The quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks and the singer of “Goodies” took a helicopter tour of potential stadium sites with potential MLB owner Craig Cheek, were “whisked in a Mercedes SUV to Saturday’s news conference” (per the Oregonian), then posed for some photos in front of an “MLB PDX” backdrop. And then some poor college football writer who is one of the few people left in the newsroom had to write the whole thing up for the Oregonian, probably with occasional breaks to check Indeed.com for alternative career opportunities.

If you were hoping for any word on what an actual Portland baseball plan would look like, or what MLB would demand for an expansion franchise (either in terms of a franchise fee or stadium amenities or whatever), or really any details at all, needless to say this was not the article for you. Art Thiel at SportspressNW made a slightly better attempt, but even he was forced to rely on speculation and a few hints dropped by Manfred over the years, because really there is no solid information at this point at all. When a news vacuum exists, it will apparently now be filled with selfies, which is as good an epitaph for our age as any.

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

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

How not to evaluate how much public money to spend on a stadium, in seven easy steps

I’ve often said that cities should calculate what sports teams are actually worth to them before writing a blank check for a stadium or arena — you know, like Naheed Nenshi has tried to do in Calgary — so when Andrew Dunn, editor-in-chief of something called the Charlotte Agenda (“Charlotte Agenda exists to make Charlotte the smartest, most human city in the world”! Also: “We believe in drinking beer at work”!), set out to do just that today for a Carolina Panthers stadium deal, gotta give him at least some props, right? Let’s see how he did:

  • “Economists generally agree that the costs to taxpayers outweigh the benefits of all the additional spending on construction, hotels, restaurants, tickets and concessions.” He can read! Good start!
  • Notes that Charlotte paid $87.5 million in 2013 for a six-year lease extension for the Panthers, which means “the going rate is at least $13.75 million per year to make a team stay put.” He doesn’t note that that was one of the worst returns on a stadium subsidy in history, so maybe his reading doesn’t extend to this site.
  • “I believe that the Panthers are worth public money.” That’s kind of assuming your conclusion there, but in case he means “something, even if it’s only a penny,” I’ll allow it.
  • “I’ll grant that Charlotte’s government will never be able to directly recoup in employment and sales taxes the money it puts toward the Panthers. But putting public money toward pro sports shouldn’t be analyzed that way. Think of it more as a marker of what kind of city we want Charlotte to be.” Followed by an assertion that the Hornets and Panthers “put the Charlotte name in the national consciousness and touched off a business boom,” his sole presented evidence being a 1994 Chicago Tribune article in which a Hornets season-ticket holder says that the teams put Charlotte on the map.
  • “An investment in the Panthers is not using the same money that would build affordable housing.” This because the city could use hotel and rental car tax money that is earmarked for promoting tourism, notwithstanding that if general fund revenue ends up being used on a tourism project because the hotel and rental car tax fund is all spent on a football stadium, it’s absolutely taking away from money for things like affordable housing.
  • “Let’s figure out what we’re willing to do before a new ownership group gets involved. They’ll buy the team knowing what support they can count on from the community.” I.e., let’s make an offer before we’ve even been asked for anything. Where figuring out what a team’s presence is worth to a city (and, just as important, whether it has any better options for leaving if you don’t lavish its owners with cash) is a great preparatory step for negotiations, up and telling new team owners, “Hey, we have a check this big waiting for you!” is a terrible, terrible idea. What were we just saying about bidding against yourself?
  • “Perhaps both sides will come out in the black.” Uhhh, remember bullet point #1 back up there? Where you wrote that economists agree a win-win situation almost never happens? Maybe his reading doesn’t even extend to the very editorial he’s writing.

Overall grade: D, maybe C-minus for a good essay topic, but the execution needs a lot of work. To do this right you need to analyze the actual return on a stadium investment in tax revenues, the emotional value of an NFL team to a community, any measurable impact on business activity as a result of the presence of sports teams (though those economists back in the first paragraph have it covered for you: there is none), what other options the team has to move, and so on. Instead, Dunn’s analysis comes down to: Economists say stadiums don’t pay off, but I really like football, and there’s tourism tax money just sitting right there, so somebody just offer something already, I can’t take this uncertainty! Sounds like somebody needs another beer.

NY Times business section cheers urban stadium trend, doesn’t seem to know why

The New York Times has a weird affinity for big sweeping articles about the stadium industry that don’t quite justify their declarative headlines, and the latest one ran in Friday’s business section under the headline “Welcome to the Neighborhood: America’s Sports Stadiums Are Moving Downtown“:

Across the country, in more than a dozen cities, downtowns are being remade as developers abandon the suburbs to combine new sports arenas with mixed-used residential, retail and office space back in the city. The new projects are altering the financial formula for building stadiums and arenas by surrounding them not with mostly idle parking lots in suburban expanses, but with revenue-producing stores, offices and residences capable of servicing the public debt used to help build these venues.

There is a germ of truth in this: Yes, more stadiums and arenas are being built near city downtowns instead of out in the suburbs, the Atlanta Braves‘ new ballpark notwithstanding. That’s true of everything, though, not just sports — we’re in the middle of what’s been dubbed the Great Inversion, a decades-long process where people are increasing moving back to cities instead of out of them. (For “people,” here, read “people with money and options” — plenty of people continued to live in and especially immigrate to big cities even in the 1960s and ’70s.) So yes, there are lots of mixed-use urban developments being built around sports venues, but there are plenty built even with no stadium, or even when a stadium was planned and not built. “America’s Sports Stadium Builders Jumping on Urban Land Rush Bandwagon” might have been a fairer headline.

On top of that, the Times article tries to counterpose the traditional business model where “owners threatened to move their teams if governments did not build them new stadiums along with the roads and public utilities needed to operate them” against the new downtown development trend. But plenty of urban ballpark districts have gotten public funding after team owners threatened to move — hell, the Sacramento Kings arena that is the article’s centerpiece is getting $226 million in public subsidies that were approved only after the team owners threatened to move the team to Seattle.

There are plenty of good things about building sports venues near urban centers: They’re easier to get to by public transit, they support more economic development in cities (such that they support much of any at all), and in general they promote the idea that cities are good places to live and work and go see high-priced entertainment. They also take up valuable land that could better be used on buildings that aren’t dark a couple hundred days a year, displace residents and businesses, and by promoting the idea that cities are good places to live and work and go see high-priced entertainment, spark gentrification and force out the city residents who are supposed to benefit from all this alleged economic development in the first place. The urban-stadiums trend is not a simple good, in other words — and it certainly has nothing to do with any shift away from public stadium subsidies, even if some urban stadium developers are using ancillary land grabs to help pay for their construction costs.

If you want one paragraph that neatly sums up the Times’s perspective, this quote from Kansas City city manager Troy Schulte on that city’s publicly funded downtown Sprint Center should do the trick:

M. Schulte acknowledges that although tax revenue from the district is steadily increasing, it is not clear that enough will be generated to cover the debt service. “But from the perspective of economic development and economic resurgence,” he said, “it’s the best $300 million we’ve ever spent.”

Urban sports venues: They don’t pay off for cities, but they’re still great! Your paper of record, people.

MLB commish, guy clinging to sportswriter job agree: Somebody build Rays a stadium already!

One of the problems with the sportswriting business is that too many sportswriters tend to approach everything as a game, and the only thing they’re interested in is who’s winning or losing. Okay, two of the problems with the sportswriting business are that, and also that they know their paycheck comes from people reading about the local teams, so they’ll do anything in their power to protect that. Okay, three of the problems are those, plus that whenever sports officials talk, they’re used to listening, because these are the guys who grant them credentials and — you get the picture, and if you don’t, I wrote about it in detail almost 20 years ago, and not a hell of a lot has changed since then.

Today’s problem sportswriter is Tom Jones, sports columnist for the Tampa Bay Times, who heard MLB commissioner Rob Manfred say he wants the Tampa-St. Pete region to “move [a decision on a new Rays stadium to the front burner,” and thought, hey, yeah, what’s taking so long anyway?

Just spitballing, but here’s a thought: How about we stop talking about a new stadium and start building one…

You don’t need a law degree to know the Rays need a new stadium in a new location. We all know that. We’ve all known that pretty much since the Trop opened for business in the 1990s.

What we don’t know is where it should be and who’s going to pay for it. Meantime, as we talk and argue and worry and plan, we keep flipping over pages in the calendar. One month becomes the next. One year bleeds into another. And here we are, still talking, and it feels as if we are nowhere closer to digging in the dirt…

Most baseball fans in Tampa Bay don’t really care where a new stadium ends up, just as long as it’s not Montreal, Charlotte, Las Vegas or anywhere outside the 727 or 813 area codes.

But most of all, don’t you just want this thing to be over already? Don’t you just want someone, anyone, to pick a spot and start building? And let’s face reality, we can all shake our heads and complain and tell [Rays owner Stuart] Sternberg that if he wants a new stadium, he can pull out his wallet and pay for it, but that’s not how this kind of thing works.

At some point, someone’s tax money is going to be used to help build it, whether it’s ours or our visitors’.

This, this is why commissioners like Rob Manfred make these statements, over and over — in hopes that someone friendly in the media will pick them up and make his talking points for him. Jones’s column hits most of the strategies in the new-stadium playbook — the team “needs” a new stadium (without specifying whether that’s fan-comfort need or insufficient-profit need or what), the team could move without one, everybody spends tax money on stadiums so let’s just do it already and get it over with.

Years ago, I engaged in a spirited, mostly friendly online debate with a New York historian about the legacy of Robert Moses, the power broker who pretty much single-handedly reshaped New York City from the 1930s through the 1960s, building parks and highways and public housing, evicting hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, and solidifying the city’s racial and class divides in millions of tons of concrete. (Possibly his most defining moment was his decision to build highway bridges on his Long Island highways too low for buses to fit under them, so as to defend his new public beaches from the people he liked to refer to as “that scum floating up from Puerto Rico.”) My frenemy always insisted, yeah, yeah, but at least he got things done, even if all of it wasn’t that great. My response was: Getting things done isn’t always a plus, if things were better beforehand — or if it forestalls doing things a better way.

Would it be nice if the Rays had a new stadium by now? Sure! (Though I haven’t been to Tropicana Field myself, so can’t actually vouch for how much fans would prefer a new and/or differently located facility.) Is it likely that Sternberg would have built one by now if somebody had thrown a whole lot of public money at him? Indubitably! But every time a city gives in and coughs up public money — whether in the form of straight cash or tax breaks or whatever — that just reinforces the “everybody does it” argument, and precludes the possibility that the public might be able to wait out a team owner until he agrees to stay put and pay for any of his own costs his own self. Which does happen!

You’re reading this website, so I probably don’t need to tell you most of this, but it’s worth restating every one in a while. As is the reminder that even as we can talk about the structural power-dynamics reasons why cities drop billions of dollars a year on subsidies to new sports facilities for the benefit of private team owners, it’s in this kind of everyday battle of public discourse that the power dynamics take shape. Tom Jones is just a guy who’s putting down in electrons his own thoughts and feelings about a new Rays stadium and whether it matters how it’s paid for — as am I, though I do like to think I’ve done a smidge more research on the topic. If Tampa Bay is going to end up with a denouement for the Rays that reflects even in the slightest the needs and desires of actual residents of the region, they’re going to have to shout really loud, because guys like Jones and Manfred are the ones with the bullhorns.

Washington Post reporters stick heads up NFL team president’s butt, call it journalism

Yeah, that about sums it up:

The Washington Post article in question is about the Washington NFL team‘s president, Bruce Allen, and can be summed up thusly:

  • People like sports!
  • Allen is a sports guy, his dad having been Hall of Fame coach George Allen! And a political guy, his brother being former Virginia governor George Allen!
  • His boss, team owner Daniel Snyder, is campaigning for a new stadium that he can point to and brag about — “not the hand-me-down venue he acquired from the estate of the late Jack Kent Cooke” — and needed a guy to spearhead it! You can see where this is going!
  • Fans hate Allen because he fired the team’s popular GM, but he doesn’t hold that against them!
  • Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe is friends with both Allen and Snyder!
  • Virginia offers non-union labor!
  • Bruce Allen is shorter than his brother George!

If you’ve managed to keep reading to this point, you’ll have gotten the idea that this is a kid-gloves profile of the team president trying to shake down Virginia for a new stadium, so it should come as no surprise that it concludes with the paragraph quoted by Burneko in his tweet (and elaborated on in a longer Deadspin WTF reaction piece), which makes total journalistic sense if journalism consists of viewing the world entirely through the subject’s eyes. (And assuming Allen drinks his own Kool-Aid.) It’s slightly more surprising that this is co-bylined by the Post’s NFL reporter and its former business editor — it took two people to write this crap, and one of them maybe even knows how money works — but given my past experience with the Post, maybe somebody high up the editorial chain is still determined to buy local sports teams’ PR line about economic benefits of stadiums at all costs.

Baltimore Sun claims Camden Yards pays own way, can’t even keep up pretense for whole article

And hey, look, another major media article that can’t do basic math! Let’s start with the headline:

Orioles payments to stadium authority exceed original cost of Camden Yards

Wow, that would indeed be impressive. Is perhaps Camden Yards one of those rare examples like the Minneapolis Metrodome, of a stadium where the public put up a bunch of money up front but then was repaid in full and more by lease payments over time? Spoiler: no.

Documents show the authority has received an average of $6.4 million in annual rent from the team, plus $4.1 million a year as its share of state admissions taxes. The total, through the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016, is $255 million.

That compares favorably with the stadium’s original $225 million price tag, including $100 million for land acquisition and $125 million for the stadium.

Yeah, no, that’s not how money works. Even if you count state admissions taxes as new state revenues (the Orioles would have been paying them if they’d stayed at Memorial Stadium, too), $10.5 million a year over 25 years is only worth about $140 million in present value, still far less than the $225 million price tag. Or if it helps, you could flip it around the other way and see if $10.5 million a year is enough to pay off the state’s annual debt payments — oh, look, the Sun actually did that:

The stadium authority said it pays about $15 million a year in debt service — principal plus interest — on the 30-year bonds issued to pay for Camden Yards.

So by the Sun’s own calculations, Maryland is actually losing money on Camden Yards. Anything else?

The debt service, however, is paid with Maryland Lottery proceeds appropriated each year by the General Assembly. The authority uses the team’s rent money for ballpark operations.

Oh, right, ballpark operations costs. So really the Orioles’ rent payments pay nothing towards the public’s debt on Camden Yards. Lovely headline, though — beautiful plumage.