Yankees’ terrible “community benefits fund” is even more terrible than you imagined

After the New York Yankees and Bronx elected officials set up a charitable organization in 2006 to assuage fears that the team’s new taxpayer-subsidized stadium would be bad for the local community, the charity came under fire for being used as a slush fund by its Yankees-appointed administrator and for handing out lots of money to dubious nonprofit groups that may not actually have been nonprofit. The New York Times completed an in-depth investigation into the New Yankee Stadium Community Benefits Fund yesterday, and it turns out everything is on the up and up — ha ha, no, of course not, it’s an even worse train wreck than was suspected previously:

An examination of the fund’s public financial records and interviews with community members and a former administrator of the fund show that it has operated with little oversight or public accountability, neglecting those who live near the stadium and instead sending money to other, often wealthier parts of the Bronx that were not affected by the construction.

The fund also regularly donates to organizations with which it shares common board members. And although the Yankees provide $35,000 a year to cover operating expenses, the fund in 2011 began to allocate 10 percent of the grants it awards to cover its own “additional administrative costs.” Those costs have never been publicly explained…

Of the $6.8 million distributed by the fund between 2008 and 2015, the last year for which records are available, only 30 percent — $2 million — went to charities occupying the same ZIP code as Yankee Stadium or four bordering ZIP codes.

The best way to get money from the Yankees’ community fund, it appears, was not to be in the Yankee Stadium neighborhood that had just lost its central park space for multiple years to make way for construction of the team’s new stadium, but rather to have friends on the charity’s board: the New York Botanical Garden, which has fund chair Serafin Mariel (the same guy who was sued in 2009 over misappropriation of funds) on its board, got $20,000, and the Bronx CUNY Scholarship Fund which Mariel co-founded, got $60,000. And the organization’s annual reports have never been publicly released, going only to the Yankees, who won’t share them. Oh, and the Yankees claim 15,000 tickets a year as an “in-kind donation,” but don’t say who they’re given to.

All this leads up to the best quote in the whole article, and really one of the best quotes in any article:

[Former city councilmember Maria del Carmen] Arroyo [who helped set up the fund with then-borough president Adolfo Carrion] said she did not remember how the board was selected. When asked about some of the board members’ political ties, she said: “This is a small city. You can’t go very far without knowing anyone.”

So who’s to blame for this? The Yankees owners, for setting up a Potemkin charity just so that the city council could claim that the stadium would be good for the South Bronx before voting for it almost unanimously? Or the Bronx pols who turn every policy decision into a way to funnel money to their political donors? That’d both, I’d say, since one hand nicely washed the other here. It’s yet another reminder of the dangers of community benefits agreements — and that if you must do a CBA, for god’s sake, at least have the city government be a signatory to it, so that there’s some opportunity for oversight. Because letting a sports team owner claim credit for doing good works on the grounds of “don’t worry, I’m good for it” is a recipe for disaster.

A’s owners say moving four miles to new stadium will create $3B in economic benefits, I’m done

Okay, forget considering building a stadium on a site that’s really too small to fit one, because the Oakland A’s just trumped their own crazy yesterday, releasing a report that insists that a new stadium would generate $3.05 billion in economic impact over ten years for Oakland. That’s billion. With a B:

The study, conducted by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, also concluded that a new stadium would boost annual attendance by roughly one million, up from the 1.5 million or so that the A’s drew in 2016. Building a new ballpark would also produce about 2,000 construction jobs…

The $3.05 billion in economic benefit is broken down into $768 million from construction and related spending, $1.54 billion from game-day spending and $742 million from ballpark operations.

Okay, let’s break this down some. The $768 million from construction is uncontroversial, since a stadium is going to cost close to that much to build, though whether it should be counted as a net win for Oakland is another question. (Are all the vendors providing steel for the stadium going to go out and spend their earnings at the local Safeway?) The rest of the study, though — which features a lovely opening photo of Ryon Healy about to be mobbed by teammates excited about all the new economic benefits he’s bringing to Oakland — relies on the assumption that “gate receipts grow by approximately 2x in the first year of operations of a new stadium while concession spending increases at an even higher rate.”

There are a couple of problems with this. One is, obviously, the substitution effect: If all those new fans would have been spending that money elsewhere in Oakland anyway, it’s not a net benefit to the city. The Bay Area Council Economic Institute study takes this into account by discounting new spending by 20% — a number they apparently got by seeing that a previous study for the Detroit Tigers used 25% as the amount of spending that was substituted, then arbitrarily reduced that to 20% because Oakland is likely to have more out-of-towners attending games.

Then there’s that doubling of gate receipts thing. The study actually calculates that MLB teams saw attendance increase an average of 40% in the first ten years of a new stadium — though it puts its finger on the scale by not counting the New York Yankees and Mets for “lack of applicability,” for which read “they actually saw attendance go down in their new stadiums, that’s not going to help our numbers.” I’m not going to re-run their calculations right now, but suffice to say that that’s a lot to expect from a stadium honeymoon period, and isn’t likely to be sustainable over the long term (cf. the Cleveland Indians, who sold out several seasons in a row after their new stadium opened and now can’t draw flies despite a shiny new league championship trophy).

So, in short: If the A’s move four miles down the road from the Coliseum to new digs, some unknown number of additional people might go to A’s games, and some unknown number of them might have otherwise spent that money eating dinner in San Leandro, and some unknown amount of that cash might end up getting recirculated in the Oakland economy rather than just getting pocketed by the A’s owners and players, and — hey, why don’t we just call it an even three billion dollars? And don’t be bothered by the fact that nobody who has ever tried to find evidence of one of these stadium-sparked public windfalls has ever found any — $3 billion! With a B!

Anyway, here’s hoping that the A’s owners are just using the clear plastic binder gambit because it’s available to them, and they’ll end up actually paying for stadium construction and land acquisition and accepting a site that works for the city of Oakland and not just for them, like they say they will. If that happens, I will forgive them all their silly economic projections, though I make no promises to stop making fun of them for them.

A’s owners said to prefer teeny-tiny stadium site at Peralta Community College

There’s a new reported frontrunner in the search for a site for a new Oakland A’s stadium: The site of Peralta College’s administrative offices:

This is immediately south of the Laney College property that was previously considered (Laney is one of the four Peralta Community College campuses), but now seems to have fallen out of favor because Laney College wasn’t too thrilled with it. And, er, now that you mention it:

But there are challenges.

For one, Peralta Chancellor Jowel Laguerre says Laney’s faculty and students would probably put up a fight.

“I’m afraid of the aggravation we may create for ourselves and then nothing happens,” Laguerre said. “I am personally praying for one of the other sites to work out.”

Now that’s an endorsement!

The Peralta site definitely has advantages for the A’s — it’s right near both the Lake Merritt BART station and I-880, though it looks like it might need some highway ramp improvements to handle all the fans attending A’s games at once. More to the point, though, it’s tiny — only 13 acres and only about 500 feet wide north-to-south, making it even smaller than the Laney site that seemed arguably too small — which will present more of those challenges. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing — the San Francisco Giants have done great with a cramped site on the other side of the bay, for example — but it is a red flag to watch out for.

Stadium architects dream of holographic players, and other Friday news

Hey, know what we haven’t done in a while? A Friday news roundup. Let’s do one of those now!

Happy weekend, everybody!

Top court kills Mets mall-on-parkland plan dead, everybody goes back to drawing board

The plan by the New York Mets owners and their developer pals at Related Companies to build a mall in the Citi Field parking lot, which was shot down by an appeals court in 2015 because the parking lot is still technically city parkland, was shot down for good yesterday by the state’s top court, which ruled, yup, city parkland, what were you thinking?

The justices rejected arguments from the city and the developer that a 1961 law that authorized the construction of Shea Stadium at Flushing Meadows Park also allowed the development of the mall.

“The text of the statute and its legislative history flatly refute the proposition that the Legislature granted the city the authority to construct a development such as Willets West in Flushing Meadows Park,” Judge Rowan Wilson wrote for the majority.

As my Village Voice colleague Max Rivlin-Nadler explains, the Mets and Related were trying to get around the law that parkland must be preserved for a “public purpose” by arguing that they were also going to build housing and a school on a different, non-parkland parcel on the other side of the stadium — the Willets Point land that was recently cleared of auto shops under threat of eminent domain — and besides which:

In an almost surreal moment during the arguments, a city lawyer said that if the Mets were losing a game, fans might be able to go enjoy the rest of the day at the mall. The state, for its part, argued that the “rooftop farm and greenhouse” on top of the mall would compensate for the loss of parkland.

Hard to believe that six out of seven court of appeals judges thought this was ridiculous, right?

What happens now is anyone’s guess: The Mets could still try to develop the parking lots with something that they can sneak in as a “public purpose” (Islanders arena, maybe, if someone actually offers to pay to build it — though Max assures me there’s no political support for that), or could just leave the parking lots as parking lots and build exclusively on Willets Point proper. Which, incidentally, looks like this right now (or the last time I went to a Mets game, anyway):

This whole process in both Willets Point and “Willets Point West” (aka the parking lot) has been a giant mess, with the city letting developers drive the planning process instead of actually figuring out what might make the most sense (and public benefit) on the land around the Mets stadium, much of which is publicly owned. Which is all par for the course in New York City politics — I wrote a whole book about it, after all — but still disappointing. Here’s hoping that now that the courts have rebooted the process it will be done better next time, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

MLB commissioner: 19-year-old D-Backs stadium isn’t “major-league” anymore, trust me on this

Back in February, soon after the Arizona Diamondbacks sued Maricopa County to get out of their Chase Field lease because the county was refusing to pay for $187 million in maintenance and upgrades (most of them items that the lease appears to say are team responsibilities), MLB commissioner Rob Manfred chimed in that “to be a major league-quality stadium,” the stadium “needs work.” Apparently he thinks no one was listened then, because yesterday, he said it again:

Manfred spoke at the ballpark and reaffirmed statements supporting the club that he made during spring training. He said for Chase Field to remain a major league-quality stadium, substantial capital expenditures must be made. He said if they aren’t, there may come a point when the franchise seeks an alternative home.

Manfred said Major League Baseball has reviewed studies of state-of-the-art ballparks and determined what is required in renovation and capital investment.

“We concur wholeheartedly with the Diamondbacks’ position that there are substantial needs here with respect to this stadium, to keep it as a major league-quality stadium,” Manfred said.

This is, let’s remember, exactly the job that sports commissioners are hired for: Dropping vague move threats when team owners are too worried they’d get burned in effigy if they did so themselves. Manfred got off to a slow start in the blackmail-enabling department, but he seems to be getting the hang of it now. (That bit about “we’ve done studies of what state-of-the-art means” is an especially nice touch, since “state-of-the-art” is an inherently undefinable term that just means “whatever the next guy down the road has that this owner wants.”) Who he’s trying to convince, given that this is going to be decided by a court and not public opinion or an elected body, is anyone’s guess, but at least he’s proving that he can learn to be a more competent shill.

D-Backs: Yeah, yeah, new stadium management contract, just give us our $187m, okay?

The art and craft of writing headlines is a tricky one: Do it well, and you have something that is both enlightening and intriguing at a glance, long enough to tell the meat of the story while short enough to fit on social media, not to mention in print if your news outlet does that as well. Do it poorly, and you just end up confusing readers, or even misleading them entirely.

Which brings us to this, from yesterday’s Arizona Republic:

Could a lucrative contract keep Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field?

My first thought: Well, sure! Give the D-Backs a rich enough deal, and they’d probably agree to play games in the Chase Field swimming pool.

But by “lucrative contract,” it turns out, the Republic headline writers don’t mean with the team. Rather, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors was set to discuss a new stadium management contract yesterday, to determine who will replace SMG in running non-baseball events. The D-Backs owners are in the midst of a lawsuit trying to get the county to pay $187 million for a bunch of upgrades they say the stadium needs (and which the county says the team should pay for if they want them, since it’s not the county’s job according to the lease); part of the lawsuit gripes about how the stadium “isn’t being utilized anywhere near its potential” for non-baseball events, but now a team rep is saying that who the county picks to run the place isn’t going to stop the lawsuit, because duh:

“It’s not going to affect the lawsuit,” [Diamondbacks attorney] Leo Beus told The Arizona Republic. “… At this stage, we just need the ability to look elsewhere.”…

Beus said whoever wins the new contract would not reassure the team. Team officials do not believe any contractor can generate enough money from events to fill the financial gap between the stadium’s reserves and the anticipated cost of repairs.

In other words, just adding a few more concerts isn’t going to stop the D-Backs owners from suing for $187 million, which makes total sense if they think they have a shot at winning. Beus added that they’re only suing for “the ability to talk to other alternatives so we don’t risk our franchise altogether when they don’t do the capital repairs they’re required to do,” which is pretty hilarious for a franchise worth an estimated $1.15 billion and that had an estimated $47.2 million in profits last year, but nobody ever said that lawyers had to be 100% honest.

Oh, and as for that county meeting, they ended up sending both bidders back to the drawing board and reopening the bids, because they weren’t happy with the offers. Which isn’t all that likely to do much better given the limited number of venue managers out there and the limited amount of money you can make staging concerts at a baseball stadium, but hey, worth a shot.

Cobb County spending $14m on traffic cops because they forgot to ask Braves to pay for them

My sincere apologies for neglecting to inform you last week of this excellent article from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in which reporter Dan Klepal revealed that Cobb County is going to be on the hook for $900,000 a year for traffic police around the Atlanta Braves‘ new stadium. And before you say, “But isn’t free policing one of the services that government typically provides to sports teams and others alike?”, nuh-uh:

The Braves paid for traffic control during the team’s last eight seasons at Turner Field. At Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Falcons will reimburse the Georgia World Congress Center an estimated $2.5 million a year for traffic management during football games, soccer matches and other events…

An AJC survey of 11 cities with professional sports stadiums found only two other instances where taxpayers funded all or a portion of traffic control…

“The Falcons outcome is the norm. The Braves outcome is a throwback to the 1990s” when those kinds of subsidies were more common, [Stanford economist Roger Noll] said.

This free-traffic-cops clause apparently wasn’t part of the original Braves deal with Cobb County — traffic control costs weren’t addressed at the time, along with a lot else having to do with transportation — which left the county stuck with the costs by default. (Though it would be kind of fun to think of what would happen if the county said to the Braves, “Go get your players to direct traffic, it’s clear they’re not occupied by actually playing baseball.”) If we figure that the free patrolling is worth around $14 million in present value, adding that to the $355 million in existing public costs gets us to $369 million in subsidies to move the Braves from downtown Atlanta to the suburbs, totally not because any Braves fans think all urban black people are violent criminals. But hey, who can put a price on burgerizzas?

Braves fans over shiny new stadium after just 13 home games, would like good baseball now

If there’s one sure truism in the sports stadium world, it’s that the honeymoon effect drawing fans to a new building varies depending on the quality of the product on the field: Put together a winning team and you can get something like the Cleveland Indians‘ six-year sellout streak; a losing one, and you’re more likely to be the Miami Marlins.

The Atlanta Braves have a brand-new stadium, and are in last place with an 11-19 record. Fans aren’t exactly turning out in droves:

After a couple initial sellouts, the Braves have settled into 12th in major league attendance. They were averaging a bit more than 30,000 (tickets sold), a good number considering that the team hasn’t averaged that high for a season since 2013. But not exactly the eye-popping boost you’d expect from the lure of a new ballpark.

Okay, maybe it’s just that it’s early in the season, and more fans turn up once it’s summertime? We can check that by looking at Baseball Reference’s year-over-year attendance chart, which shows how teams are doing in attendance compared to the same number of games the previous year. The numbers show that Braves attendance is up an average of 4,980 a game from 2016 at Turner Field — the third-largest jump in baseball, but still nothing to write home about. It looks like any honeymoon effect from the Braves move from downtown to suburban Cobb County will be marginal at best, at least unless the team gets good in a hurry, in which case it’s less “build it and they will come” and more “build Dansby Swanson and they will come.”

Bronx residents asked to give up replacement Yankees parkland to build affordable housing

If you’ve been reading this site for long enough, you may remember the battles over the public parkland destroyed to make way for the new New York Yankees stadium, and whether the new parkland belatedly created was of equal size and usability. (Short version: not so much.) According to today’s New York Post, however, the subject is about to rear its ugly head again, as the city is preparing to take four acres of promised Yankees-related parkland and instead use it for affordable housing:

The area lost more than 25 acres of parkland after the Bronx Bombers in 2005 were greenlighted to build their new ballpark.

At the time, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Gov. George Pataki and the Yankees promised to eventually create more parkland than was lost. But only about 21 acres of new green space has been delivered.

Killian Jordan, a member of Bronx Community Board 4, called it “spectacularly inappropriate” that the city would be dangling the hope of bringing the neighborhood much-needed affordable housing at the expense of losing promised parkland…

The [city-run Economic Development Corporation] said it is considering acquiring a 2.5-acre lot, five blocks south of Mill Pond Park on East 144th Street, to build another park there.

There is a slim chance that all this would be illegal, thanks to the fact that the old parkland was decommissioned on the condition that equal new park space be created. As we’ve seen before, though, the laws surrounding parks alienation are pretty weak beyond “enh, whatever the city council and legislature decides is probably fine,” so this is likely to come down to how big a fight council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito wants to pick with Mayor Bill de Blasio. And either way, all the parkland still hasn’t been replaced, 11 years after it was obliterated. It’s just a win-win for everybody!