ESPN Kevin Johnson doc killed, was more awful even than you thought

On my Google calendar for next Tuesday night, there is a notation for “30 on 30 on Sacramento Kings,” which is the ESPN documentary that was scheduled to run on Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and his successful push to fund a new arena for the Kings. I was so looking forward to watching and commenting on some of the worst bits, but sadly this will now not happen, as ESPN has pulled the show’s airing after revelations that KJ may have molested teenagers and plotted to destroy the National Conference of Black Mayors and run his own secret private government in City Hall — most of which was public knowledge before they made the film, but better late than never, right?

In any event, we can all still point and laugh at the documentary even without seeing it, courtesy of Max Rivlin-Nadler of the New Republic, who got a screening copy and did plenty of pointing and laughing on his own:

Down In The Valley amounts to a 77-minute political advertisement for Johnson, a man who in 1995 paid a 15-year-old over $230,000 to keep quiet after she alleged that he had sexually abused her…

A narrator explains that this often-overlooked city would soon need to call on one of its own to save it. Cut to pictures of a young Kevin Johnson, playing baseball and basketball, and growing up on the rough side of town before developing into a world-famous basketball star.

This sounds Sharknado-level awful, and I’m more sorry than ever that it’s not going to be available for livetweeting.

And what about the Kings arena project, which is set up as Johnson’s finest hour?

The film focuses solely on Johnson for its final hour, letting him provide the play-by-play of the procedures involved in convincing the NBA to not let any new ownership move the team…

Completely missing from the film is any meaningful information about the cost of that new basketball arena. Johnson intentionally crafted the bill approving the arena to be immune to any public referendums, even though the public is on the hook for $226 million, almost half of the cost. Johnson, in his desire to keep the team in the city, convinced software tycoon Vivek Ranadivé to lead up an ownership group to buy out the Maloofs for a then-record $534 million. Johnson then got the city council to pass a spending bill that would avoid a public vote to pay for a new arena for the team, now assured that they would be staying. Down in the Valley mentions none of this.

ESPN, as Rivlin-Nadler notes, has a long history of being caught between its role as a news agency and its role as a network in the business of buying the rights to sporting events and using them to extract huge carriage fees from cable companies, and hasn’t always done the best to balance the two. So it’s not really surprising that ESPN green-lit Down in the Valley, nor that it got spooked and backed away from it at the last minute. I guess we should all just be glad that the network’s vacillation put its decision-making process on full display — and let at least a lucky few get a glimpse at the thing itself. The need to at least pretend to professionalism does have its benefits.

SF Chronicle cut and pasted Warriors arena press release, ran it as news story

I know I’ve often criticized the sports media for doing little more than reprinting teams’ press releases when it comes to stadium and arena coverage, but even I didn’t expect this: The San Francisco Chronicle’s Golden State Warriors reporter has been suspended for literally reprinting a team press release about the Warriors’ arena plans:

The headline for the original Chronicle story and the Warriors’ press release on were the same: “Warriors formally purchase Mission Bay site.” The initial story was identical to the release, except that the team referred to itself as the “NBA Champion Golden State Warriors” in its lede, and the Chronicle story left out the “champion” superlative. The only other change was a semicolon in the press release that became two sentences in the Chronicle story.

That’s pretty terrible, but the story gets even worse, as Deadspin has uncovered six more examples of times Warriors beat reporter Rusty Simmons, or his editor Al Saracevic, flat-out copied-and-pasted Warriors press releases. (Most of these were on far more boring topics than arena dealings.) They also asked Simmons for comment, and got this reply:

“I would really like to tell you how that happens, but I’m not allowed. I’m so sorry. …My suspension should be lifted in a couple of days, and we’ll talk.”

I think I speak for everyone when I say: We can’t wait to hear this one.

No, Nationals Park is not an exception to the rule that stadiums don’t do squat for local economies

On Wednesday afternoon, WNYC-FM’s Leonard Lopate Show tackled the topic of “Why Cities Fund Professional Sports Stadiums,” a subject of more than passing interest around here. Guests were investigative tax reporter (and my editor on the inequality anthology Divided, still available from finer internet trading conglomerates near you) David Cay Johnston and Grantland staff editor Andrew Sharp, who wrote a long article last month calling on Congress to address stadium subsidies because local officials afraid of losing their teams sure won’t. (Or mostly won’t, anyway.)

Now, one of the problems of talk radio (okay, talk anything) is that hosts feel obligated to pit guests against each other, so here Sharp ended up cast as the pro-stadium side, or at least Mr. Glass Half Full. After Johnston led off by outlining the billions of dollars in public cash that goes to stadiums as “just a drop in a very large bucket” of ways that the public end up subsidizing billionaires, Lopate turned to Sharp for any silver lining, and got this response:

“One of the reasons that cities sell themselves on these investments is that every now and then, particularly when you invest in a stadium in an urban area, it can help stimulate growth around that area, and it can turn into a win-win situation where the owners obviously get their subsidies, but then also the surrounding businesses around those stadiums can prove pretty beneficial to the city at large.”

As an example of one of these wins, Sharp cited the new Washington Nationals stadium, which he said “helped revitalize the whole waterfront area” — though he immediately added that there are far more examples of failures than successes.

I got dragged into this last night when someone asked about it on Twitter, which led to me questioning why anyone would consider the Nats stadium an economic success, and eventually to one of those Twitter conversations where nobody is quite arguing about the same thing and everyone just feels icky and misunderstood. So let me try presenting my side here, in a bit more detail.

First off, as Johnston immediately noted on the air, sports venues are “human surge tanks” — crowds sweep in and sweep out on game days, but most of the year the place is dark, which isn’t a great anchor for neighborhood development. Sharp countered that there are now more bars and restaurants around the stadium, and “you can’t deny that now and then these things work.”

There are a few problems here. First off, you can absolutely deny that now and then these things work, especially given that economic study after study has found no measurable economic benefit for cities that build new stadium, or get new teams, or get teams back in action after strikes and lockouts. If there really are outliers that are win-wins, they’re awfully well-hidden in the data.

Secondly, have you been to D.C. lately? You can’t go anywhere without seeing construction cranes — it’s one of the hottest real estate markets in the U.S., and that’s true of virtually every neighborhood, with or without a stadium in it. It’s impossible to say what would have happened to the Navy Yard area if the Nats were still playing at RFK Stadium (or in Montreal, for that matter) — and even if that area wouldn’t have been developed to the same degree, might developers and residents and restaurateurs have gone elsewhere in the city instead? It’s a huge “but-for” problem, albeit one that stadium boosters love to overlook, especially when they just built a stadium in a neighborhood that was already starting to take off.

But fine: Let’s grant that the arrival of Nats Park at least prompted a handful of sports bars and the like to locate in the immediate neighborhood. (I wouldn’t dispute that.) The question here is whether the stadium project is “beneficial to the city at large,” and you can’t determine that without taking into account the price tag. As I’ve noted many times before, there’s a price point where subsidizing stadiums makes sense: In most cases I’d be fine with spending $1 in public money towards a new sports venue, and even the $20 million or so that San Francisco put up for the Giants‘ stadium is arguably reasonable, even if the SoMa neighborhood was already going gangbusters before Pac Bell Park was built.

Nationals Park, though, cost D.C. taxpayers something on the order of $600 million. That’s a crazy-high figure to justify with a few sports bars, but on Twitter at least, Sharp said that the cost isn’t the point:

I think I get Sharp’s point: We shouldn’t criticize spending $600 million on a stadium just because there are even better investments a city could be making with the money. But that’s not what I was saying at all — rather, the point is that since doing just about anything with $600 million, including sitting on it or throwing it from a helicopter, would be better for the local economy, handing it over to the owners of the Nationals for a new stadium is a massive waste of taxpayer funds.

Let’s start with the simplest example: What if D.C. simply hadn’t collected the money in the first place? About two-thirds of the money came from a tax on large D.C. businesses, and while I’m not about to start defending them as efficient economic engines, they would have done something else with that cash, whether it was hiring more entry-level staff, giving more perks to corporate bigwigs, or (hahaha) cutting prices for local consumers. Sure, probably only a small share of it would have been spent in D.C. — but it’s still a non-zero cost to the local economy. And if that cost is more than the benefit of those handful of sports bars, suddenly the Nats stadium is a net loss for D.C.

The other third (roughly) of the public cost, meanwhile, came from kicking back sales taxes on money spent at the ballpark — not a sales-tax surcharge, mind you, but refunding to the Nats sales taxes that otherwise would have gone to the district. So if the Nats had been playing at RFK, this would have been money that would have gone into the public treasury — and if the Nats had never come to town, at least some of those sales taxes would have been collected when locals spent at other entertainment options in D.C. Again, it’s not 100% — but you can make an excellent case that even doing nothing would have been more economically beneficial to the D.C. economy than building a baseball stadium.

What we’re left with as a pro-Nationals Park argument, then, is that if a city is going to blow a few hundred million dollars on something, at least putting it in a promising neighborhood downtown might shift a little bit of development to that locale. That’s certainly true — Tim Chapin at Florida State has done some good work in this area — but using it as an argument that some stadiums are good public investments is like saying, “Sure, the Pentagon budget may be bloated beyond belief, but aren’t these some cool hammers?”

I don’t want to get on Sharp’s case too much — he was asked to present a counterexample of a stadium deal that’s worked out better, and he threw out one that seems to have been a relative success, at least on a “look around and see if the surrounding streets are blowing with tumbleweeds” basis. But that’s the problem: Just looking at what is there misses what would have been there — and elsewhere in the city — if the project hadn’t been done. Pointing to a full sports bar is easy; pointing to the bar across town that closed, or was never built, because public or consumer spending was diverted away from there is hard without a time machine. And stay away from those things, man, they’re dangerous.

Milwaukee County sells $8.8m in land to Bucks for one dollar, swears this is best deal ever

So let’s see, anything new with the almost-approved-but-still-t’s-to-be-crossed Milwaukee Bucks arena?

Milwaukee leaders plan to announce that a chunk of downtown land has been sold to the city’s NBA team for $1 as part of the drive to build the Bucks a new arena complex.

The land was appraised at $8.8 million, but Abele’s office says that doesn’t factor in $8.3 million worth of needed demolition and infrastructure work.

Well, okay, that’s not too terrible, right? Sure, it’s free land, but if it would cost almost as much as the value of the land to get it in shape, and now the Bucks will be taking on that cost, then—

But the release left out the fact that the city is on the hook for undetermined costs, as noted by a city comptroller’s report, “Coordination between Bucks, Milwaukee County, the State of Wisconsin, MMSD, and the City of Milwaukee to remove footings in the Park East Land and to relocate a sewer in the Park East Land to Juneau Avenue – A Cost estimate cannot be determined at this time.” But at a celebratory event like this, no one was computing the exact amount this would leave the Bucks to pay for remediation of the land.

No one was computing it! Certainly not any of the journalists writing about the celebratory event, even through the comptroller’s report came out two weeks ago, which is more than enough time to, you know, call some expert in sewer relocation and ask for a ballpark number. Though at least Urban Milwaukee (the second citation above) noted the known unknowns — the Associated Press report, which unless I’m mistaken is all that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published about this land sale, just took Abele completely at his word, which is pretty bad even for a five-sentence article.

Anyway, the deed is now done, so Milwaukee County will be getting a crisp new George Washington, and the Bucks owners will be building an “anciliary development” to include a practic facility, and, um, some other stuff they haven’t actually drawn yet. Or will have an option to do so, anyway, since that’s all that the $1 really secured. But at least everyone concerned knows what they’re getting into, and that any actual development could be a ways off at best—

“This is creating thousands of jobs now. Right now.” Abele said he ran on a program of creating jobs, and now look what we’re getting. “Thousands of jobs now. Right now,” he repeated.

You know what they say: Repetition is the mother of … something.

San Diego columnist blames Chargers stadium situation on Patriots’ cheating, wins sportswriting

I was on deadline yesterday (writing not about stadiums, but a different way wealthy corporations scam people out of money — look for a link at or via my Twitter in a couple of days), which meant I didn’t have a chance to go through all the day’s stadium articles as I usually do. Let’s see, did I miss anything?

So today we must wonder: Did the New England Patriots cheat the Chargers out of a ring, maybe two — or at least a chance at becoming Super Bowl champions?

And, with that, did they cheat them out of a new stadium?

Now, there are several reasonable responses I can think of to that, starting with:

  1. Whaaaaaaa?
  2. No. No, we really mustn’t wonder that.
  3. You know that the NFL doesn’t award new stadiums as a result of winning Super Bowls, right? Yes, it’s possible there would have been more support in San Diego for a new stadium if the Chargers had been champions — though how “support” would translate into finding the hundreds of millions of dollars in missing cash for a stadium project, I’m not entirely clear, but whatever — but then this could as reasonably be put as “Did Spygate save San Diegans from being suckered into paying for a new Chargers stadium?”
  4. Aw, man, who told Nick Canepa his computer login password?

The best part of this insane article, though, is Canepa’s followup to his own question:

Maybe, maybe not.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Newspaper sports columnist is the cushiest job ever. So long as you don’t have any qualms about filling space by just writing whatever pops into your head, you’re golden.

Stadiums can be anchors for related development, say newspapers in search of cheap headlines

You know what I missed while I was away? Having the time to read long, misinformed articles about new stadium projects and how they’re just totally different from those old bad stadium projects of a couple of decades ago. Got anything like that for me, Google News?

With the era of standalone, isolated stadiums largely over, sports team owners increasingly are taking on the role of developer and using their stadiums as anchors for entertainment districts or retail and residential developments.

Oh, yeah, that’s the stuff.

The article in question is from the Tampa Tribune’s Christopher O’Donnell, and argues that this newfangled stadium-plus-other-development model being used by teams like the Atlanta Braves and Detroit Red Wings (or “Redwings,” as he calls them) could be used by the Tampa Bay Rays for a new stadium as well. It ignores the fact that these stadium-plus projects aren’t especially new, going back well over a decade (the St. Louis Cardinals‘ “ballpark village” was one of the earlier ones, but I’m sure I’m forgetting others), and mostly ignores, aside from a comment by stadium architecture consultant Philip Bess (who O’Donnell calls “Phillip” — fired all the copy editors, did you, Tampa Tribune?), the problem that if development around a stadium were profitable enough to pay off a stadium, teams would be able to pursue this strategy without public subsidies. Not to mention that if stadium-related development is profitable it could be pursued without the money suck of a new stadium attached, that it could just end up displacing development that otherwise would have taken place somewhere else in town, that development around stadiums has typically appeared years late when it shows up at all, etc., etc.

Anyway, good to see that these articles still pop up every once in a while for me to throw rocks at, and — whoa there!

The new Minnesota Vikings football stadium, to be completed a year from now, is helping draw nearby office towers, upscale housing and other developments, according to its supporters.

Guys! One article at a time, please! I’m still getting back up to speed here.

Clock running out on Minnesota United tax breaks, but pols lay groundwork for future deal

Today’s lesson in how to read newspaper journalism, courtesy of the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

Negotiators in Minneapolis may be making progress on a menu of mostly local tax breaks for a Major League Soccer stadium, even though the proposal appeared dead Monday in the closing hours of the legislative session.

On the face of it, that’s … what? A Minnesota United stadium tax-break deal “may be making progress,” but also “appeared dead.” That is not a particularly useful diagnosis, unless you’re Erwin Schrödinger.

If you read a little further, you find a bunch of stuff on how city officials and United execs are pushing for a package of tax breaks — a freeze on property taxes on the stadium site (which isn’t a full tax exemption, but given that it’s currently undeveloped land, it’s pretty close), plus extending the city’s 3% entertainment tax liquor/restaurant tax (thanks to longtime Minneapolis journalist David Brauer for the correction) to the stadium district and kicking that money back to pay for the arena — and then reporting on how nobody thinks there’s time to get this done before the state legislature, which would have to sign off on the breaks, adjourns on Monday.

What seems likely to have happened is that the Star Trib’s reporters collected a bunch of info on how United is preparing a new tax-break plan, but then got word that it probably couldn’t pass this session, so had to hurriedly piece together something that indicated both. So you get this mashup of a story, under a headline that doesn’t do a great job of explaining to anyone what’s going on (“Mpls. negotiates MLS stadium subsidy as lawmakers adjourn”).

A better way of putting this would be: “Clock running out on Minnesota United tax breaks, but pols lay groundwork for future deal.” In fact, I think I’ll use that one myself.

WI officials still meeting on Bucks arena, still “hopeful,” still not asked much by WI media

Wisconsin’s top political leaders held another Bucks arena funding get-together yesterday, and how did it go?

“Every meeting we get a little more information and get a little closer,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said.

Anyone else?

“I’m hopeful and optimistic, but there’s still work to be done. There’s absolutely still work to be done,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said.

“I’m hopeful in the next week or two the discussions we had today will lead to a positive outcome for the arena. We think it’s important for the state as a whole, not just for Milwaukee and the Bucks,” Gov. Scott Walker said.

Okay, guys, I know that your job is to write down whatever Important People say, even if it’s essentially meaningless, but seriously, you can’t do better than this? At the very least, ask the people coming out of these meetings about specifics of what’s being considered in terms of public money for a Bucks arena — no, they’re probably not going to tell you, but then at least you can print “those at the meeting declined to provide funding details,” instead of just writing “everyone is hopeful!” every few days.

The only journalist to break out of the stenography trap, it looks like, was actually our old pal Don Walker of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who got someone to go off the record about what was actually being discussed behind closed doors:

“Everything about money was talked about in ranges,” said one person who was briefed on the meeting. “The sides spent a lot of time going over the same material.”

That’s not much, but it’s something, and it at least tells us that contrary to what the pols are saying, they’re actually a long way from hammering out specific details of who’ll provide how much of what.

Right now, we mostly know what we knew a couple of weeks ago: the state would borrow an undecided amount of money from the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands and repay it by siphoning off Bucks player state income taxes; the city would kick in $25 million in infrastructure work and some free land; and there could be a tax-increment financing district to kick back property taxes on the Bucks’ adjacent development site. Plus, of course, the arena would get a full property-tax exemption, worth about $180 million. Other than that, your guess is as good as mine, unless you’re actually one of those people in the negotiating room, in which case your guess is significantly better than mine.

The assembled journalists of Wisconsin can make up for this somewhat if, once the plan is finally released, they subject it to a tough critical analysis to determine whether all the dollars being shuffled around make any sense for taxpayers’ interests. I’m anticipating something more like this, though, which makes it all the more important for hard questions to be asked now, when there’s plenty of time and column inches to fill. It’s almost like the elected officials are just holding these meetings to give reporters something else to write about — hey, wait a minute…

Wisconsin voters back Bucks arena, so long as it costs them nothing and they all get free ponies

There’s a new poll out on what people in Milwaukee think of helping fund a Bucks arena with public money, and it shows the exact opposite of the earlier polls:

The biggest backer of a new Milwaukee arena — besides the Milwaukee Bucks — released a poll Monday that found 67 percent of Wisconsin voters support building a new arena when presented with “a full proposal.”…

The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) issued its poll results that stand in stark contrast to a Marquette Law School Poll released April 16. The Marquette poll found that 79 percent of registered voters oppose the state borrowing $150 million for the proposed arena project.

That would be a bit of a discrepancy, yes, and seems like it could only be a function of the wording of the two polls. We know that the Marquette poll asked residents whether they support or oppose the state “borrowing about $150 million to support a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks,” among other budget options. But what’s that “full proposal” that was presented by the MMAC poll?

As it so happens, respondents were first told that the Bucks would leave Milwaukee without a new arena, then were told that this would cost Wisconsin hundreds of millions of dollars in lost tax revenue, then told that “there would be no new statewide taxes, and revenue generated by the NBA team will more than repay the public investment.” After hearing all that, respondents overwhelmingly thought this was a good idea.

Now, some critics might quibble that not all of that is technically “true”: Countless economic impact studies have shown that sales tax revenue isn’t much affected by a sports team leaving town, and that “revenue generated by the NBA team will more than repay” claim is extraordinarily dodgy as well. But, yes, if you tell people in Milwaukee that you have a plan where they’ll get all their arena money back and will lose the team if they don’t approve it, lots of them will say okay.

What this likely is, as the Jake’s Economic TA Funhouse blog notes in an excellent summary of the conflicting polls, is a “push poll,” where the real goal of the exercise is to feed residents a lot of pro-arena propaganda in the asking of the questions, both to get the Bucks owners’ side’s line out there, and to test how well it goes over with the populace. That this gets them headlines saying “people support Bucks arena funding if they know the full proposal” is a nice bonus, though it depends on the local media not actually reporting, let alone questioning, what proposal was presented by the poll — fortunately for the MMAC and the Bucks owners, the only sites that actually explored the poll language appear to have been a right-wing political blog and a blog by an economics teaching assistant, so the poll’s secrets are safe with Milwaukee journalists. Or “journalists.”

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?