Atlanta Braves now officially a “real estate business,” because they’re sure not a baseball team

Bloomberg Businessweek has a long article up this week on the Atlanta Braves‘ success at getting half a billion dollars in public subsidies for stadiums for their entire major- and minor-league chain of teams, which includes these memorable lines:

Says Joel Maxcy, a sports economist at Drexel University: “If there’s one thing the Braves know how to do, it’s how to get money out of taxpayers.”…

“The whole deal was very much behind closed doors,” says Michael Hotchkiss, a Pearl native, then an editor at the Clarion-Ledger [of the team’s deal for $28 million in public funds for a Double-A ballpark in Pearl, Mississippi]. “By the time it was public, the whole thing was done.”…

“There was no transparency,” says Lisa Cupid, one of [Cobb] county’s five commissioners [of the Atlanta Braves stadium deal]. By the time the commission got the chance to see the documents, the details had already been negotiated. Her fellow commissioners, she says, “were all just excited to be asked to the dance.”

Sense a theme here? The Braves owners may be spectacularly bad at putting together a winning baseball team (though you can make an argument that they’re following the model set by the bust-to-boom Houston Astros, though the Astros are currently in last place now as well), but they’re expert in getting stadium money approved before anyone can notice what’s going on. That’s a real skill, especially in a subsidy world where public attention only gets lawmakers thinking about what they’re doing before voting on it, and you don’t want that.

All of which leads up to the article’s impeccable last paragraph:

During a question-and-answer with shareholders in April, [team owner John] Malone shrugged off the Braves’ slow start. “Keep in mind,” he said, “the Braves now are a fairly major real estate business as opposed to just a baseball club.”

And it’s way easier and more predictable to run a baseball club as a real estate business. Plots of land never blow out their elbows.

Taxpayer cost of Braves stadium passes $350m, heads for $400m

Atlanta Braves fans worried about having to get to the new stadium by running across a six-lane highway, rejoice! The Cobb County Commission yesterday approved $10 million for a new pedestrian bridge from the planned parking lots to the stadium, which will surely — wait, what’s that, Atlanta Journal Constitution report from two months ago?

Oh, right, the land — the county still needs to acquire that from its private owners, which may require eminent domain. (A county spokesperson told reporters of land costs, “The right of way is still in negotiations so we can’t release any figures.”) Also money needs to be found for an upgraded parking deck to connect to the bridge. Also also, nobody is really convinced that the bridge can be built for $10 million, so this could easily be one of those Robert Moses-esque schemes to build half of a bridge and then find the rest of the money later — as Moses liked to say, “‘Once you sink that first stake, they’ll never make you pull it up.”

The commission also approved another $13 million to widen a highway and create a new pedestrian plaza (not the one eliminated last month, I don’t think, but on the other side of the interstate). So add that to the known costs that the public is already on the hook for, and we’re at a minimum of $355 million in taxpayer subsidies, plus whatever the land and parking deck upgrades will go for. If it hits $400 million, don’t be surprised — this is what happens when you sign a deal to build a stadium project before you figure out how much it’s going to cost.

County to D-Backs: Most of $187m in upgrade demands is items team agreed to pay for

Maricopa County responded to the Arizona Diamondbacks owners’ demands for at least $187 million in improvements to Chase Field plus maybe additional tax subsidies with a letter of their own this week, which you can read in its entirety here. The key bit, though, is this:

Screen Shot 2016-04-12 at 3.17.25 PMTranslated, this means: Okay, you keep saying our 2013 study of possible repairs/improvements to Chase Field lists $187 million in needed work. But $55 million of that is your own operations and maintenance expenses, and another $90 million is wish-list stuff that is explicitly excluded from the county’s obligations. So, WTF?

I also asked a county representative about that “Non-Obsolescence Fund” that the Diamondbacks can draw on if they agree to extend their lease: Right now it has a whopping $460,000 in it, so that’s not really worth worrying about.

To my knowledge, D-Backs execs haven’t yet responded to this letter — but then, they wouldn’t need to, if their concern is less legal niceties than trying to drum up an urgency to fix their stadium situation out of thin air. Whether Maricopa County stadium officials see this as a crisis or not, the media certainly does, which means elected officials are likely to as well, and that can be enough to set the ball rolling on hundreds of millions of dollars shifting pockets. A contract may be a contract, but when you’re seen as a 700-pound gorilla, you don’t need to sweat the fine print.

Tampa proposes $30m subsidy for Yankees’ spring stadium, this passes for getting off cheap these days

The New York Yankees, a team that will be paying $225 million in player payroll this season (just thought I’d mention that, no reason), have agreed to a lease extension with the city of Tampa on their spring-training stadium that will include $30 million in city- and state-financed upgrades. (The Yankees will chip in $4.1 million for improvements to their training complex, and $6.2 million that they’ve already spent on the stadium since 2010, which is a new meaning of “will chip in.”) Planned improvements include new concessions concourses, new sun roofs, and a new “grand entrance” for fans fleeing the watchful gaze of bronze George Steinbrenner.

In exchange, Tampa gets to ensure the presence of the Yankees for another 21 years: The lease currently ends in 2025, and will be extended through 2046. That’s not a horrific tradeoff, though it’s worth noting that entire new minor-league stadiums have recently been built for this price. And the assessment of Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, aka the guy who thinks a single college football game can create 2,000 permanent jobs, remains, um:

[Hagan] said the deal is a good one for taxpayers. The county, which owns Steinbrenner Field, will receive an additional $8.4 million in lease payments for the extra 20 years of the contract. The improvements to the Yankees’ practice complex will raise its taxable value resulting in more property taxes.

And, Hagan said, the continued presence of baseball’s biggest name for spring training will continue to fill local hotels, bars and restaurants with out-of-state visitors.

“When you consider all the additional revenue, this is an extremely attractive return on investment, which makes this deal a no-brainer,” Hagan said.

First off, $8.4 million over the years 2026 through 2046 is never going to make a dent in $30 million in construction costs right now. The property-tax bump is likewise going to be small; as for the throngs of “out-of-state visitors” allegedly drawn to Tampa in March just to see Yankees spring training games, haven’t we killed that urban legend dead yet?

If there are two reasons to care about this, other than just enjoying hating the Steinbrenners for being rich and still being able to get public subsidies whenever they want (assuming the city and county approve the deal, which they haven’t yet), it’s because it’s likely to give another boost to the trend of MLB teams making demands for public upgrades or replacement of not-that-old spring training facilities (Steinbrenner Field was built in 1996), and because it gives us another hint of what Ken Hagan is likely to be like in negotiations for a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays. That’s almost certainly going to cost Tampa taxpayers a heck of a lot more than $30 million if it happens, especially if Hagan hauls out rationalizations like these.

D-Backs CEO: Give us rent breaks and other goodies, and maybe we’ll consider staying till 2027

Arizona Diamondbacks CEO Derrick Hall issued a new set of demands yesterday in the team’s attempt to break its stadium lease, and they are simultaneously convoluted and pretty clear in their intent to fund Chase Field improvements and/or replacement with somebody else’s money:

  • The Diamondbacks would get a “significantly” reduced rent from the $4 million a year it currently pays to Maricopa County, plus take over booking all non-baseball events at Chase Field (and keep the revenues from those).
  • In exchange, the team would take over responsibility for projected “repairs and enhancements” at the stadium, which Hall has estimated at $187 million, though it’s not like he’s provided an itemized receipt.
  • The county would hand over the stadium to the city of Phoenix, which unlike the county stadium district has the power to raise taxes and sell bonds to either renovate or replace the 18-year-old stadium.

The rent-for-upgrades swap is clearly meant to be a way of distracting attention from team ownership’s demands: Oh, we don’t really want public money, in fact we’ll relieve you of this $187 million obligation we decided you had in exchange for us not giving you rent payments and a share of non-baseball revenues, like we promised when taxpayers built this thing for us in the first place. The county-to-city shift, though, is potentially even more dangerous, since it raises the specter of more subsidy demands to come, probably as the D-backs’ 30-year lease draws to a close in 2027. (Hall did not suggest that he’d agree to a lease extension in exchange for these concessions, because why would he?)

As I detailed at Vice Sports last week, the Diamondbacks’ lease doesn’t actually have a state-of-the-art clause requiring the county to provide upgrades or let them walk — the closest it comes is a clause that the county must provide any capital repairs necessary “so that [the stadium] is safe and can readily be made available for the playing of Home Games,” which probably wouldn’t require $187 million. This latest missive from Hall makes it all the more likely that the team’s nastygram to the county is less legal missive than, you know what, let me just quote myself:

For most team owners, though, the point of state-of-the-art clauses isn’t even so much about legal language as it is about shifting the debate around replacing nearly new stadiums from “What the hell are you talking about?” to “I suppose we’ll need to address it sooner or later.” Looked at that way, the Diamondbacks’ letter makes a lot more sense: though the team owners included the requisite threat of legal action (“If permission is not granted [for the team to move if it decides upgrading Chase Field isn’t feasible], we will ask the Court for all appropriate relief”), the real goal was to start the conversation about replacing Chase Field at public expense, to ensure there would be no danger of having to play in a stadium that’s past its Carrousel age.

“What can the government do about the crisis that the Diamondbacks are stuck in an 18-year-old stadium?” is now a thing that the public and media are expected to debate like it’s sane. Be afraid, be very afraid, for there are a hell of a lot of other stadiums that were built in that late-’90s sweet spot, and it’s not just the D-Backs and Cleveland Cavaliers owners who are going to be sniffing around for ways to ways to get back on line at the trough.

John Oliver’s “dress like you don’t belong there” Yankees stunt ends sadly hobo-free

John Oliver’s stunt to put fans in premium New York Yankees seats who promise to dress like they’ve never been there before — a dig at team COO Lonn Trost, who defended the team’s ticket resale restrictions because sitting next to non-rich folks would be a “frustration to our existing fan base” — ended up more of a costume party, with fans dressed as Ninja Turtles, sharks, unicorns, and dinosaurs ending up seated behind home plate.

john-oliver-ninja-turtlesAP_16098111550650bronx-unicornsoliverfansAll things considered, I’ve got to say that this is kind of disappointing. The ostensible goal of this gimmick was to point out the classism behind Trost’s statement: He was implying that if fans could buy good seats for below face value, the ones who’d paid full price would be offended by having to sit next to the hoi polloi. (It’s probable that Trost doesn’t actually believe this, of course; he’s more concerned that if fans can buy seats for below face value, he’ll have a harder time selling them for thousands of dollars a pop.) Instead, it turned into two frat brothers from Villanova putting on cheap dinosaur outfits and sitting behind home plate, which is pretty much like every day at Yankee Stadium, only the dinosaurs the fans are dressing as aren’t wearing number 13.

If Oliver’s staff really wanted to drive home the point, they’d have given the tickets to somebody dressed like this: Emmett_Kelly_1953If nothing else, I’d have loved to have seen what happened when they went to sign up for the fingerprint scanning to get a fast pass through security.

Unpaid Forbes writer says Oakland stadium deal imminent, then hurriedly backspaces over it

So this is weird: Last Saturday, according to a report on SBNation’s Oakland Raiders blog, sports agent Leigh Steinberg wrote on Forbes’ we’ll-let-just-about-anyone-post-here-for-free site that Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf was close to announcing a deal for new stadiums for the Raiders and A’s:

The A’s have threatened to go to San Jose, the Warriors to San Francisco, and the Raiders to multiple locals. This would have a devastating impact on the morale and economic climate of Oakland. Now, there appears to be an opening, under the leadership of Mayor Libby Schaaf, to innovatively revitalize Oakland and solve the needs of all three teams. Mayor Schaaf is expected to make a dramatic announcement regarding the Raiders situation early next week.​

That’s not what it says now if you go to the actual Forbes site, though, where that last sentence about the “dramatic announcement” has been deleted.

No explanation or acknowledgment of the change appears on either Forbes or SBNation, not even in comments (yes, I read through an SBNation comments section, this is what I do for you folks), so no way to tell whether somebody at Schaaf’s office called up Steinberg (or Forbes, if they bother editing their unpaid contributors) to say “knock that off” or if he just thought better of alleging things that weren’t going to happen. There are still two days left in the week, so I suppose Schaaf might yet surprise us all with news that Mark Davis has found $500 million under the sofa cushions and Lew Wolff has agreed to build a stadium elsewhere than the Coliseum site. I wouldn’t be holding your breath, though.

John Oliver offers premium Yankees tickets for 25 cents to anyone who’ll annoy the rich folk

If you’ve been following the sad story of the New York Yankees banning the use of print-at-home tickets in part on the grounds that, as team COO Lonn Trost put it, it’s “a frustration to our existing fan base” that the people sitting next to them “may be someone who has never sat in a premium location,” you will enjoy John Oliver’s latest excursion into sports, in which he offers to sell two seats behind the plate at the first three Yankees home games for 25 cents apiece to anyone who promises to dress as if they’re never sat in a premium location before:

Yesterday’s Yankees home opener was rained out and rescheduled for today at 1pm. I can’t wait to tune in and see who’s sitting behind the plate, and how long it takes before team security forces whisk them off to a black site, or at least the bleachers.

Spring training games really really don’t produce any economic benefit, okay?

Vocativ has a good article running down the basics of spring training economic impact, which could probably best summed up as “there isn’t hardly any.” Key paragraphs:

“There’s just no evidence that it does anything,” Philip Porter, an economics professor at the University of South Florida, said, noting that such studies overlook the costs—opportunity and real—of such investments.

After the 1994 baseball strike curtailed the ’95 spring training season and diluted its quality for most of the duration with replacement players, University of Akron professor John Zipp assumed he’d see a negative economic impact because spring training attendance declined 60 percent—he didn’t.

“It’s a wonderful experience,” Zipp said. “It’s just not worth public dollars.”

Lots of other good stuff there, including the tale of two neighboring cities battling for the right to put $50 million in public money in the pocket of the Boston Red Sox. (I wish it went a bit into possible explanations why the economic impact of people attending spring training games is near zero — leading theory is that it doesn’t much increase the number of spring tourists to Florida, just changes where they spend their money — but you can’t have everything.) Go read it, then bookmark it for the next time a baseball team insists that it needs a new spring training facility and that it will more than pay for itself in new tax receipts, because that shit is messed up.

Diamondbacks owners to taxpayers: Give us blank check to upgrade 18-year-old stadium, or we’ll sue to move

Hold onto your hats: The owners of the Arizona Diamondbacks have issued an ultimatum to their Maricopa County landlords, saying unless taxpayers agree to upgrade or replace 18-year-old Chase Field, they could move the team out of town.

We are not prepared, nor are we willing (or obligated), to expend $187 million, or any monies, to solve the deficiencies the District acknowledges exist.

So there is not misunderstanding, we would very much like to remain in downtown Phoenix. However, if the District makes that impossible, the principals of the Diamondbacks will look elsewhere.

Now, there’s one small problem with the D-backs threatening to bolt Phoenix: They have a lease that requires them to stay put through 2028, and prohibits them from even talking to other cities until 2024, a la the old Tampa Bay Rays lease. To get around that, the team owners repeatedly cite the need to maintain a “state-of-the-art facility,” something they say the county is failing to do by not spending that $187 million for upgrades to such things as lighting, improved luxury suites and scoreboards, and enhanced video surveillance. The problem with that is that the county doesn’t appear to have actually put a state-of-the-art clause into the Diamondbacks’ lease — something team officials try to get around by listing all eleven times that the county mentioned a “state-of-the-art facility” in its annual financial reports:

Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 7.21.18 AMWe’d already heard hints that the Arizona Diamondbacks execs might be seeking upgrades last month, when team CEO Derrick Hall declared Chase Field to be “too big” for the ideal modern baseball stadium. (Translation: Fans won’t run out and buy high-priced tickets ahead of time because they know there will always be plenty available.) The new letter significantly ups the ante, though, declaring that even $187 million in needed upgrades wouldn’t be enough:

Even if the District had been able to identify adequate financial resources to fund the $187 million anticipated maintenance and repair costs, it would make no economic sense to make that investment in what would then be a 30-year-old facility. This should not rule out the possibility of retrofitting Chase Field if it is determined to be the best option. However, the $187 million would cover only basic maintenance and repair costs. It would do very little to upgrade the stadium to a “state-of-the-art facility” — it would mere enable an aging building to remain open.

The letter also includes much whining that team owners spent all this money on this stadium that their team plays in and they get all the revenues from, and this is the thanks they get? Oh, and that “if permission is not granted [for the team to move if it decides upgrading Chase Field isn’t feasibly], we will ask the Court for all appropriate relief.”

In short, then, this is a shot across the county’s bow: We know we have a lease, but we think you should pay untold hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade it or maybe replace it, or else we’ll move, and if you won’t let us move, we’ll sue you. It’s the mother of all nastygrams, and like all such missives, it’s meant less to spell out legal niceties than to intimidate the recipient into talking about ways to make the issue go away. If the public discourse around the Diamondbacks’ stadium demands shifts in coming weeks from “Wait, didn’t we just build them one?” to “How much does the public have to spend to keep the team owners happy?” then you’ll know it has done its job.