Friday roundup: If you’re watching TV sports in empty stadiums by summer, count yourself lucky

Michael Sorkin, who died yesterday of COVID-19, was a prolific architecture critic (and architect) and observer of the politics of public space, and so not a little influential in the development of my own writing. I’m sure I read some of Sorkin’s architecture criticism in the Village Voice, but he first came on my radar with his 1992 anthology “Variations on a Theme Park,” a terrific collection of essays discussing the ways that architects, urban planners, and major corporations were redesigning the world we live in to become a simulacrum of what people think they want from their environment, but packaged in a way to better make them safely saleable commodities. (I wish I’d gotten a chance to ask him what he thought of the Atlanta Braves‘ new stadium, with its prefab walkable urban neighborhood with no real city attached to it.) In his “Variations on a Theme Park” essay on Disneyland and Disney World, he laid out the history of imagineered cities starting with the earliest World’s Fairs, up to the present day with Disney’s pioneering of “copyrighted urban environments” where photos cannot even be taken and published without prior approval of the Mouse — a restriction he got around by running as an illustration a photo of some clouds, and labeling it, “The sky above Disney World.”

I really hope this isn’t the beginning of a weekly feature on great people we’ve lost to this pandemic, though it seems pretty inevitable at this point. For now, on with the other stadium and arena news, though if you’re looking for a break from incessant coronavirus coverage, you won’t find it here:

Friday roundup: Pandemic could delay Rams and Chargers stadium, drain hotel tax base for Raiders stadium (and kill millions of people, oh yeah)

And so we come to the close of Week 2 of Coronavirusworld, with still little way of knowing what Week 3 will bring, let alone Week 8 and beyond. (I just now started to write about this far less grim response to Tuesday’s London study, until I noticed none of the authors are infectious disease specialists and the claim that contact tracing can keep infections under control was cited to a single Chinese news story that said nothing of the sort, so maybe stay grim for the moment?) With pretty much all of the sports world now shut down, though — except for Australian Rules Football for some reason — sports journalists have begun looking down the road at longer-term effects of the pandemic, resulting in some useful and some not-so-useful reporting:

Montreal public oversight board on nouveaux-Expos stadium: You call that a plan?

Montreal’s public consultation office — an organization set up to oversee public input into city decisions independent of local elected officials — has declined to rule on plans for a new baseball stadium at Peel Basin, writing that “it would be irresponsible to decide on this project on the basis of the partial information available to it.” And Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante appears to agree:

Speaking to reporters after a press conference, Mayor Valérie Plante said the stadium’s promoters should pay heed to the OCPM’s recommendations and confirmed that Montrealers would be consulted if and when a definite proposal is submitted to the city.

“They should take that report and read it very carefully,” she said, noting that the consultations showed opinions are sharply divided over the proposed stadium.

“I think it would be positive for Montreal to have a baseball team back. I think it would be great … but then the question is about how will it be financed, where it will be located and how it will integrate with the territory,” she said.

The OCPM report added, “No plan, nor any study measuring economic, social and environmental impacts have been brought to the attention of the commission.”

This is obviously a setback for Stephen Bronfman’s plans for a new baseball stadium, either for a Tampontreal Ex-Rays shared franchise or for a straight-up expansion team, but a reasonable one, given that so far Bronfman has only revealed that the stadium and mixed-use development around it would cost $2.5 billion, with no details about how it would be paid for, what the federal government would get for its land that the project would be built on, or any other financial specifics. But it would also be “green”! People like green, right?

The OCPM also noted that the project is “very controversial,” with more than half of respondents in an “online consultation” opposed to a baseball stadium. Mayor Plante added (per Google Translate), “There is no plan, no outline, nothing. I did not see anything. I don’t have a tangible project, it’s very difficult for me to decide. We expect to see impact and financial studies.”

The report doesn’t appear to be translated into English yet, is too large for Google Translate, and I can only speak bad high school French, so any further analysis will need to await more reporting in the Googleable media. Bronfman issued a press statement yesterday saying only, “The Montreal Baseball Group (MBG) will carefully review the report and will have no further comment at this time.”

Friday roundup: Dolphins owner seeks Formula One tax break, Tacoma okays soccer subsidies, plus vaportecture from around the globe!

Happy coronavirus panic week! What with stadiums in Europe being closed to fans and stadium workers in the U.S. testing positive for the virus, it’s tough to think of much right now other than what song to wash your hands to for 20 seconds (this is my personal preference). But long after we’re done with our self-quarantines, the consequences of sports venue spending will live on, so to the week’s news we go:

  • Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is seeking a sales-tax exemption for tickets to Formula One racing events at his stadium, saying that without it, Miami might not get a Grand Prix. The tax break is expected to cost the state between $1.5 million and $2 million per event, but Formula One officials say each race would generate an economic impact of more than $400 million, and what possible reason would they have to lie about a thing like that?
  • The Tacoma city council voted 8-1 on Monday to approve spending on a $60 million, 5,000-seat stadium for the Reign F.C. women’s pro soccer team. According to a letter of intent approved by the council, the city will provide $15 million, while the city parks agency will provide $7.5 million more, with perhaps another $20 million to come from federal tax credits for investing in low-income communities. The parks body still has to vote on the plan on Monday as well; given that Metro Parks commissioner Aaron Pointer — who is also a former Houston Astro and a brother of the Pointer Sisters — said he doesn’t see “really any benefits at all” for the city or its parks, it’s fair to say that the vote there will be more contentious than the one in the city council.
  • Brett Johnson, the developer behind a proposed $400 million development in Pawtucket centered around a pro soccer stadium, says he has lots of investors eager to parks their capital gains in his project tax-free under the Trump administration’s Opportunity Zone program, but it might take a while to work out all the details because reasons. But, he added, “My confidence is very high,” and confidence is what it’s all about, right?
  • Nashville’s Save Our Fairgrounds has filed for a court injunction to stop work on a new Nashville S.C. stadium, on the grounds that no redevelopment of the state fairgrounds can take place without a public voter referendum. This brings the total number of lawsuits against the project to … umpteen? I’m gonna go with umpteen.
  • There’s now an official lawsuit against the Anaheim city council for voting on a Los Angeles Angels stadium land sale without sufficient public meetings. The People’s Homeless Task Force is charging that holding most of the sale talks in private violated the state’s Brown Act on transparency; the city’s lawyers responded that “there could be a myriad of reasons” why the council was able to vote on the sale at a single meeting in December despite never discussing it in public before that, though they didn’t suggest any specific reasons.
  • Wondering what vaportecture looks like outside of North America? Here’s an article on Watford F.C.‘s proposed new stadium, though if you aren’t an Athletic subscriber you’ll be stuck with just the one image, though given that it’s an image of Watford fans stumbling zombie-like into the stadium out of what appears to be an open field, really what more do you need?
  • There are some new renderings of the St. Louis MLS team‘s proposed stadium, and once again they mostly feature people crossing the street, not anything having to do with watching soccer. Are the clip art images of people throwing their hands in the air for no reason temporarily out of stock or something?
  • Here are photos of a 31-year-old arena being demolished, because America.
  • The Minnesota Vikings‘ four-year-old stadium needs $21 million in new paneling on its exterior, because the old paneling was leaking. At least the stadium’s construction contractors will be footing the bill, but it’s still an important reminder that “state of the art” isn’t necessarily better than “outmoded,” especially when it comes to new and unproven designs.
  • And speaking of COVID-19, here’s an article on how travel restrictions thanks to the new coronavirus will cost the European tourism industry more than $1 billion per month, without wondering what else Europeans (and erstwhile travelers to Europe from other continents) will do with the money they’re saving on plane tickets and hotel rooms. Where’s my article on how pandemics are a boost to the hand sanitizer and canned soup industries?

Friday roundup: More Carolina Panthers stadium demands, D-Backs explain Vancouver move threat, and giant soccer robots

Good morning, and thank you for taking a break from your coronavirus panic reading to patronize Field of Schemes. Please wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water, and we can begin:

Indians get ready to demand county-funded upgrades to just-county-funded stadium, because that’s what every tenant does when their lease is expiring, right?

The Cleveland Indians‘ home stadium, which is named after an insurance company for the moment, was opened in 1994 and got $57 million worth of future tax money to pay for upgrades in 2016 and now the team’s lease expires after 2023, and you see where this is going already, don’t you?

There’s an off-the-field game already underway that’s even more critical to the future of baseball in the city: How county taxpayers will pay for a major renovation of the ballpark that first opened in 1994…

The team is re-imagining the ballpark and is asking Gateway to help pay for it, just as Cavs owner Dan Gilbert asked for help renovating Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. That renovation cost $185 million. The Cavs kicked in more than $100 million toward the cost. County taxpayers put in $70 million (plus interest on financing).

As for where the money will come from, Gateway Development Corp. chair Ken Silliman says that selling development rights around the stadium will be considered. The county has previously floated the idea of a 1% hotel tax hike, while the state has so far turned down county requests for additional cash. All this is on top of the “sin tax” on alcohol and cigarettes that helped pay for new buildings for the Indians, Browns, and Cavaliers, and which was extended in 2014 to help fund additional improvements, but the Indians have already spent that money, so are asking for more, please!

The unstated assumption in that WKYC report, of course, is that because Indians execs are “re-imagining” the stadium, it’s up to taxpayers to foot the bill — or, really, necessary to do another round of renovations at all so soon after the last one. (Not that the last one was that hot, but that’s what team management decided to do with their gift of tax money.) The implied threat is that the team won’t re-up their lease after 2023 without a new publicly funded upgrade plan, which seems dubious, since they’d have to find another city ready to host them just four years from now, and even cities Cleveland’s size aren’t easy to come by — Sacramento, Charlotte, and Portland are close, but none of them could have stadiums ready by 2024 unless they started construction pretty much now.

But let’s go all realpolitik and assume that pay-to-play is just the new reality, and Cuyahoga County will have to cough up something or else risk losing the team to some new city of climate refugees set up in the Utah desert or something. (We’ll leave unquestioned for the moment why the county didn’t demand lease extensions with its teams in exchange for the last round of increased sin-tax money.) How many years of lease extension can Cleveland expect to get in exchange for more upgrade cash? Silliman says the team and the county development agency “share a desire to get a healthy lease extension,” but “healthy” means different things for both sides, as the Indians owners are going to want to extract a maximum dollar value per year of extension, and those values are historically all over the place, from $3.8 million a year for the Tampa Bay Lightning to $14.6 million a year for the Carolina Panthers.

This is a major problem — possibly the major problem — with sports stadium finance coverage, which tends to focus on “Where will it be built?” and “Where will the money come from?” rather than “What will the public get in return?” and “Is this really necessary at all?” We’re still very early in the latest Indians demands, so there’s plenty of time for more in-depth investigation. Not that the local paper has a great track record for this sort of thing, but we can always dream, can’t we?


D-Backs execs visited Vancouver as relocation threat, maybe, sometime? Stop the presses!

A brief reminder of how our modern journalism ecosystem works: First, a reporter or editor happens upon a piece of information, either through independent reporting or (more commonly) because they get a press release or read about it on another news site. Then the first question they typically ask themselves is: Will our readers click on this headline as it whips past them on social media or Google News or whatever? (In the lingo of the biz, “Will it traffic well?”) Next: How long will it take to pull together enough information to write it up and send it out into the world, and will this be fast enough that readers won’t already have clicked on everyone else’s story and been sated by then? And finally, maybe, on occasion, if there’s time: Is this important news that will help people understand the world around them?

And so we end up with stories like this one, from Canada’s SportsNet:

Report: Diamondbacks explore Vancouver as possible contingency site

Another Canadian city has emerged as a possible host for an existing MLB franchise, this time on the country’s West Coast.

A report Wednesday by The Athletic‘s Sean Fitz-Gerald says the Arizona Diamondbacks have visited Vancouver’s BC Place Stadium to explore it as a possible host site in case of a structural emergency at Chase Field.

Click through to the Athletic piece, if you can make it past the paywall, and you find that the only listed source for this information is Arizona Diamondbacks exec Joe Garagiola, Jr., who told the site that “While working at Major League Baseball, I provided the team with numerous possibilities, including Vancouver. Club executives visited there to determine the reality of making it a contingency plan.”

Now, D-Backs CEO Derrick Hall just last week declared that the team owners had “tapped the brakes” on moving away from their current stadium in Phoenix, so the appearance of this story now is either one of two things: 1) some old saber-rattling team execs were doing in 2018 during the fight to get let out of their stadium lease early, which is when the whole “structural emergency” gambit was first raised, or 2) some new saber-rattling team execs are doing in 2020 after realizing that Hall might have just undermined his team’s leverage to demand whatever they might want to demand. We can’t know without knowing whether this was a piece of old intel that The Athletic’s Sean Fitz-Gerald dug up, or something that was newly leaked to him — and since he gives no further information about how this scoop, such as it is, landed in his lap, readers remain in the dark as to who was up to what when.

In either case, the idea that the Diamondbacks might move to Vancouver is now out there in the social mediascape, just as the idea that they might move to Las Vegas was last fall, and as lots of teams have been rumored to be moving to lots of cities just because somebody got on a plane for a day trip somewhere and then returned. (One of the Vancouver trips underlying the Athletic report, apparently, was to go see a Mumford & Sons show.) This is not responsible journalism — certainly not without including the relative media market sizes of Phoenix and Vancouver, which will tell you something about the likelihood of any kind of permanent move — and makes it all too easy for news outlets to be played by sports franchise owners seeking to create headlines for their own ends, but that’s the world we live in, now more than ever.

Rays declare January 2022 deadline for Tampontreal deal, or else they’ll do “something”

This one snuck in while I was writing Friday’s news roundup: Tampa Bay Rays president Brian Auld declared Thursday that while team execs remain focused on the bonkers plan of playing home games in new stadiums in both Tampa Bay and Montreal, if they can’t work that out by January of 2022, then “we need to figure something [else] out.”

What’s so magic about January of 2022, when the team can’t relocate for even part of a season until 2028, unless given special permission by the city of St. Petersburg? Time for a trip to Chapter 4 of Field of Schemes, “The Art of the Steal”:

Step 5: The Two-Minute Warning

No matter how well you’ve played your cards to this point, there’s always the danger that the proceedings may threaten to drag on indefinitely as pesky voters demand referenda or legislative leaders hit gridlock on deciding on a funding plan. At this point you may want to declare a crisis: Proclaim that the window of opportunity on a new stadium will remain open only for so long, leaving unstated what disaster will befall the city if the window should be allowed to slam shut. [Frank] Rashid [of the Tiger Stadium Fan Club] calls it the “used car salesman” approach: Buy now because this offer won’t be good for long.

The two-minute warning is especially risible in the case of the Rays, because Tampa Bay and Montreal appear to be their only two good options for playing in. I suppose Rays owner Stuart Sternberg could announce in early 2022 that he’s now conducting a nationwide search for a new home for 2028, in the hopes that Portland or Charlotte or someplace can get interested in starting a bidding war if Tampa Bay and Montreal aren’t interested. Or, if only one of Tampa/St. Pete and Montreal seems likely to cough up stadium funds, he can use his preannounced deadline as an excuse to say, Sorry, we thought the two-city thing would work out, but we’ll take the stadium in the hand over two in the bush, thanks — which makes more sense as a strategy anyway than the two-city thing.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s not to believe anything that sports team owners say when talking about moving teams, or setting deadlines, or really anything when money is on the line, because as we should all remember by now, a savvy negotiator creates leverage. The Field of Schemes section on the two-minute warning (and the followup section in Chapter 13, “The Art of the Steal Revisited”) includes stories of Houston Astros execs setting deadlines in 1995 for a move to Virginia, then continually extending them through 1996 until Houston agreed to provide stadium funding; the Florida Marlins owners setting final deadlines year after year after which they would move the team out of state, each year returning hat in hand until they finally got what they wanted out of Miami; and a Dallas Cowboys spokesperson admitting that the team had set a deadline for stadium funding partly “to create a sense of urgency.” If there’s ever an “Art of the Steal Re-Revisited,” I’ll be holding space open for the story of the Rays.

Friday roundup: D-Backs, Angels hedge on new stadium plans, NJ demands 76ers repay 0.5% of tax breaks, and other foolishness

Another busy Friday where I need to squeeze in the news roundup when and where I can! (Also, yeah, New Yorkers already knew this about Mike Bloomberg, who also was responsible for this.)

The Wile E. Coyote of stadium consulting takes on Brewers’ stadium, gets crushed by anvil

I (and you, if you read this site regularly) didn’t have to go much beyond the headline on this Milwaukee Business Journal story — “Miller Park has delivered $2.5 billion impact to Wisconsin, study shows” — to figure that it’s probably nonsense, for all the usual reasons: economic “impact” doesn’t really mean anything, most sports spending is just cannibalized from other local entertainment spending, and most economic impact reports are garbage. But you will be glad if you do, as I was, because then you will discover who wrote the report that was responsible for the rose-colored headline:

An independent study released by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce Monday shows Miller Park has generated $2.5 billion in economic output since 1999. It officially opened in 2001.

Miller Park and the Brewers delivered valuable exposure to the city during the 20-year period, according to the study performed by Conventions, Sports & Leisure International, including $131.8 million in media value. It also brought in out-of-state dollars, which include visiting teams and fans, and fans from across Wisconsin who do not live in Milwaukee or Milwaukee County.

Oh hell yeah, it’s everybody’s favorite incompetent cartoon supervillains, CSL! In this case, they were hired by the local chamber of commerce — surely a disinterested body if ever anyone has seen one, even if the Brewers are a member — to show how the people of Wisconsin’s gift of $310 million to one Bud Selig for a new stadium was totally worth it.

The chamber allows for downloading the full study by clicking on the “Download the Full Sudy” (sic) button on its website, so let’s see what the report has to offer:

  • “Cumulative net new impacts to the State … “totaled approximately $2.5 billion in total output, $1.6 billion in direct spending, $263 million in new taxes, 1,835 total annual jobs, and $1.2 billion in personal earnings.”
  • 86% of Brewers game attendees were from the state of Wisconsin. Of the others, 95% said their main reason for going to Milwaukee was to see a Brewers game.
  • That $2.5 billion in “total output” over the last 20 years comes from $448.2 million from construction, plus $152.5 million a year from new spending by fans who otherwise wouldn’t be spending in town.
  • The $152.5 million a year, in turn, is an estimate based on a multiplier effect (in essence a calculation of how much spending generates more spending when the places you spend your money then turn around and pay workers who then spend that money, etc.) applied to $99.4 million a year in actual spending.

Let’s do a smell test on that $99.4 million a year. If 14% of Brewers game attendees are from out of town, and they sell maybe 2.7 million tickets a year, that’s 378,000 people. To generate $99.4 million, each and every one of those people has to spend $263 per game, meaning no doubling up on Airbnbs. And, of course, these need to be people who would not have gone to see the Brewers if they were still in their old stadium.

And, of course, that’s just total money changing hands in the state of Wisconsin, not actually money that Wisconsin taxpayers get back in their pockets. To see that, we have to take a look at CSL’s estimates for net new tax revenue:

  • “Over the course of the previous 21 years, it is estimated that the operations of the Team and Ballpark have generated approximately $262.9 million in net new tax revenues to the State, $25.2 million to the County, and $24.3 million to the City.”

Another way of look at this then, is: In exchange for $310 million in cash in 1999 dollars, if you squint and make a lot of optimistic assumptions about out-of-towners and how much they’ll only spend if offered a new stadium to visit, the state of Wisconsin has gotten back $292.4 million in tax revenue, over the course of 21 years, meaning taxpayers have taken a loss on the deal, we’re just not sure how bad of one. That would arguably be more honest, but it also wouldn’t get CSL more chamber of commerce contracts if it made that the headline, so of course it didn’t play that up!

Or we could call up a legit economist, like the Wisconsin politics site The Center Square did, and see what they have to say about the CSL report:

“I refer to [CSL’s] approach as a ‘benefits-only analysis’ because it’s fundamentally one-sided; it never counts the negative economic impact of the taxes needed to fund the subsidy in the first place. And, unsurprisingly, it’s pretty easy to make arguments in favor of an idea if you ignore the cost,” said Dr. Michael Farren, a Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. “At the end of the day, peer-reviewed academic research consistently finds that subsidies, especially stadium subsidies, don’t work very well to create economic development, and may even reduce it in the long-run.”

Really, Keith Law’s response is probably the best. But if you want the hard, cold numbers to back up your kneejerk derisive laughter, feel free to reference the above.