Friday roundup: Throwing good money after bad edition

This will be remembered as the week that all 30 MLB teams played at once, after the Cincinnati Reds returned from being sidelined by a positive Covid test … for one whole day, until the New York Mets were sidelined by two positive Covid tests. Is this a sign that having 900 players plus coaches plus other staff flying around a country with some of the highest Covid rates in the world is likely to keep resulting in occasional infections? Probably! Is it a sign that the MLB season is doomed to fail? Probably not, given that the season is almost halfway over already, though it’s going to get interesting once the “Everybody Plays!” postseason kicks off and a positive test result means delaying the entire schedule, and/or maybe playing entire playoff series as seven-inning doubleheaders. There’s increasing talk of playing everything after the first round in a bubble in, uh, Texas and Southern California, which sounds like a terrible idea but the NBA has managed to keep its players uninfected in the eye of the Covid hurricane in Florida, so who knows, really. Maybe there are no good ideas right now, only more and less terrible ones.

Anyway, enough about the goofy baseball season that could end up with a sub-.500 team winning the World Series, let’s talk about what you’re really here for:

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“A savvy negotiator creates leverage”: That time the White Sox pretended to move to Florida to get stadium money from Illinois

One of the things I’ve been doing to keep myself occupied during our sports-deprived present has been watching old baseball games, especially those from the ’70s and ’80s with ridiculous uniforms. Most recently I landed on a Chicago White Sox vs. Detroit Tigers game from 1988 at Comiskey Park, which featured this:

…plus lots of discussion from Tigers announcers George Kell and Al Kaline about what a shame it would be if the White Sox moved to St. Petersburg, Florida.

Readers of Field of Schemes the book and Field of Schemes the website will be familiar with this as one of the most memorable move threats of the early modern stadium-grubbing era. To recap: Unhappy with their historic but insufficiently state-of-the-art stadium, White Sox owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn had asked the Illinois state legislature for a new one, at public expense. And since giving the local sports team owners $150 million to build a new stadium across the street from the old one wasn’t entirely popular — Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson, Reinsdorf later recalled, advised, “It’ll never happen unless people think you are going to leave” — Reinsdorf hopped on a plane to St. Petersburg, Florida, which was in the process of building its Florida Suncoast Dome (now known as Tropicana Field) in hopes of luring an MLB team, a trip that made headlines back in Chicago and helped prompt the banners at that Tigers-White Sox game in late May.

By June 30, the Illinois legislature was ready to vote, with a midnight deadline if proponents didn’t want to have to muster a three-fifths majority, likely an insurmountable obstacle. And thanks to arm-twisting by Thompson — plus a bit of subterfuge by house speaker Michael Madigan, who set his watch back by four minutes so that a 12:03 am vote could be recorded as being at 11:59 pm — the new stadium bill was approved, 30-29 in the state senate and 60-55 in the state house.

Reinsdorf’s Florida jaunt clearly had made an impact: The Chicago Tribune’s coverage of the vote flatly stated that rejection of the stadium subsidy bill would have “[left] the Sox no choice but to leave the South Side for St. Petersburg.” But was Reinsdorf serious, or just following Thompson’s advice to throw a scare into the Illinois populace? Seven years later, Cigar Aficionado magazine asked the Sox co-owner about it, and received a response for the ages:

“A savvy negotiator creates leverage. People had to think we were going to leave Chicago.”

As for St. Petersburg, city officials there kept shopping around for another team to lure to town, eventually helping the Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians, and Texas Rangers create leverage to score new-stadium deals at home as well, as memorialized in a FoS magnet. Finally, it looked like the city had hit paydirt when San Francisco Giants owner Bob Lurie, frustrated at having failed four times to get stadium-subsidy referendums passed in the San Francisco Bay Area, announced he was selling the team to Tampa Bay businessman Vince Naimoli. The rest of the National League owners, however, voted to reject the sale and to tell Lurie to instead sell to local supermarket baron Peter Magowan, which he did, saving the Giants for San Francisco.

This time, though, Naimoli had actual evidence of MLB interference in St. Petersburg landing a team — since Lurie had actually announced a deal, unlike Reinsdorf and other earlier owners who’d merely played footsie with Tampa Bay. He sued MLB, and, with the league unwilling to risk its decades-old antitrust exemption in a court battle, within two years was awarded the Tampa Bay Devil Rays as an expansion franchise, setting the stage for another relocation-threat saga that continues to this day.

Anyway, go watch that Tigers-Sox game if you want an interesting glimpse at the origin story of the sports move-threat campaign. Those White Sox fans with the “Stay In Chicago” banner likely didn’t know that they were unwitting pawns in a political battle over hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds, and knowing baseball fans they might not have cared if they were. But they — and Reinsdorf’s “savvy negotiations” — have echoes in every sports stadium battle of the last 30 years, and likely will for the next 30 unless cities start calling owners’ bluffs. Not to mention setting their watches right.

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Friday roundup: News outlets everywhere get pretty much everything wrong

On a tight deadline this week, so let’s get straight to the news:

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Friday roundup: Marlins claim British residency, video football with real humans, and the White Sox stadium that never was

Busy (minor) news week! And away we go…

  • Derek Jeter’s Miami Marlins ownership group, facing a lawsuit by the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County over the team stiffing the public on the share of sale proceeds they were promised, are trying to stave it off by claiming that (deep breath) because one of the owners of an umbrella company of an umbrella company of the umbrella company that owns the Marlins is a business incorporated in the British Virgin Islands, the case should be arbitrated by a federal judge who handles international trade issues. Maybe the Marlins should quit trying to sell tickets to baseball games and sell tickets to the court proceedings instead.
  • Tampa Bay Rays chief development officer Melanie Lenz, in response to concerns that a big-ass baseball stadium wouldn’t fit into the Ybor City historic district that it would be on the border of, said that “we expect to build a next-generation, neighborhood ballpark that fits within the fabric of the Ybor City community,” though she didn’t give any details. That’s vague enough to be reassuring without actually promising anything concrete, but it’s worth making a note of just in case the historic district ends up becoming a stumbling block in stadium talks, which, stranger things have happened.
  • A guy wants to start a football league where fans vote on what plays to run via Twitch, and build an arena in Las Vegas for people to watch … the players? The voting? The Las Vegas Review-Journal article about it was a bit unclear, though it did say that the organizers want to “create the experience of playing a football video game with real people,” which isn’t creepy at all. It also reports that the league plans to use blockchain technology, which is how you know it’s probably a sham.
  • Something called the Badger Herald, which I assume is a University of Wisconsin student paper but which I really hope is a newspaper targeted entirely at badgers, ran an article by a junior economics major arguing that the new Milwaukee Bucks arena will be a boon to the city because during the first few years “many will come from across the state to watch the Bucks play in this impressive new facility” and after that it will “continue giving the people of Milwaukee a reason to be optimistic.” The author also says that the arena was built after “the NBA gave the Bucks an ultimatum — either obtain a new arena, or the NBA would buy the Bucks and sell the franchise to another city,” which, uh, no, that’s not what happened at all.
  • Here’s a really nice article for CBS Sports by my old Baseball Prospectus colleague Dayn Perry on the Chicago White Sox ballpark proposed by architect Philip Bess that never got built. Come for the cool pictures of spiders, stay for the extended explanation of why supporting columns that obstruct some views are a design feature that stadium architects never should have abandoned!
  • The Los Angeles Rams are trying to pull a San Francisco 49ers, according to Deadspin, by making a run at a Super Bowl in the same year they’re selling personal seat licenses for their new stadium. More power to ’em, but prospective Rams PSL buyers, check how that worked out for 49ers fans before you hand over your credit card numbers, okay?
  • The state of Connecticut has cut $100 million for Hartford arena renovations from the state budget, at least for now, so that it can use the money toward a $550 million bailout of the city of Hartford itself. Is that what they call a “no win-win situation“?
  • NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says the New York Islanders need to move back to Long Island because Brooklyn’s Barclays Center “wasn’t built for hockey,” which he actually pointed out at the time they moved there, but did anybody listen?
  • Alameda County is moving to sell its share of the Oakland Coliseum complex to the city of Oakland, which should make negotiations over what to do with the site slightly simpler, anyway.
  • That Missouri governor who killed a proposed St. Louis MLS stadium subsidy, calling it “welfare for millionaires,” is now under pressure to resign after his former hairdresser claimed he groped her, slapped her, and coerced her into sex acts. Maybe we should just stop electing men to public office? Just a thought.
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White Sox stadium actually getting even worse name than “U.S. Cellular Field”

Aw, jeez:

U.S. Cellular Field will change its name to Guaranteed Rate Field, the White Sox announced Wednesday afternoon.

The White Sox and Guaranteed Rate, a national mortgage lender, have signed 13-year naming rights deal, according to the Sox. But the name could last even longer — the Sox have an option of extending the deal past 2030.

There is nothing to say about this other than to make jokes. And the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Rosenthal has already won that contest:

More seriously: You know, there’s nothing requiring any of us normal people (or even us abnormal people who are journalists) from using the corporate-assigned name for a stadium — we can still call it U.S. Cellular Field, or New Comiskey Park, or my preference, “the White Sox’ stadium” all we want. Which is no doubt why resold naming rights go for discount rates: Business owners know that there are plenty of other options for what to call the place, so they’re willing to pay less to slap their name on it. Which is also why you see so many smaller companies putting their name on used stadiums — American Airlines doesn’t need that kind of attention, but Monster Cables, sure.

Speaking of which, the White Sox and Guaranteed Rate didn’t reveal how much the new naming rights deal was for. I’m going with “not nearly enough to be worth the ridicule.”

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White Sox getting free restaurant paid for by Illinois taxpayers

U.S. Cellular Field (then New Comiskey Park) opened 20 years ago last April, but it’s been the gift that keeps on giving for Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf. First was getting the stadium itself for $167 million in Illinois tax dollars, following Reinsdorf’s “a savvy negotiator creates leverage” jaunt to Tampa Bay. Then there was the $41 million renovation in 2004 that was paid for by the state handing over naming rights to the stadium to the team, which sold them for $68 million.

And now there’s this:

The Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, the government agency that built and owns The Cell, paid $3.2 million for construction of the [new Bacardi at the Park] restaurant [across the street] plus just about everything inside the place, from walk-in refrigerators to bar stools, the Tribune and WGN-TV found in a joint investigation.

Another $3.7 million from the agency went for infrastructure upgrades for water and sewers at the Gate 5 plaza that made the restaurant possible.

A 2010 agreement between the Sox, who selected Gibsons Restaurant Group to run the business, and the agency shows that at the project’s completion, the team was exempt from owing the agency any money. That arrangement contrasts with the management agreement for operating the stadium, which stipulates the team pay rent and make payments based on attendance.

That Chicago Tribune story, incidentally, notes that the White Sox’ rent on the stadium has averaged $2.7 million in recent years. Crain’s Chicago, however, points out that it’s currently less than that: Because the White Sox failed to sell 1.9 million tickets last year, they’re exempt from sharing any ticket revenues from the state. (This is actually a pretty terrible lease for the state to have agreed to if they want a winning team, since it creates a strong disincentive for the White Sox to spend money on players in order to sell lots of tickets.)

As for the free $6.9 million restaurant that the state apparently gifted Reinsdorf with, the quote of the day goes to former Gov. Jim Thompson, who initially approved the stadium deal as governor and later ran the stadium authority:

“We said to Jerry, ‘Jerry can we have part of the profits?’ and he said no,” former Gov. Jim Thompson, who was the agency’s board chairman when the deal was made, said in an interview. “We said, OK.’

“I’ve known Jerry for 52 years. He’s tough. He’s tough.”

Helpful hint: Don’t send Jim Thompson to go buy a used car for you. Especially not from someone he’s been friends with for 52 years.

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Cactus League teams balk at helping fund Cubs stadium

The city council of Mesa, Arizona, agreed last month to put a vote on the November ballot on building a new $84 million spring-training home for the Chicago Cubs, who otherwise were threatening to move to Florida. This isn’t that unusual: Baseball teams move their spring facilities all the time, which makes for lots of opportunities to set up bidding wars for stadium subsidies.

Where it gets interesting is in how Mesa has proposed to fund this one: Partly with a rental-car surcharge, but partly with a leaguewide ticket tax on Cactus League games, on the argument that since the Cubs are the league’s biggest draw, the other teams in the league should chip in to keep them around. (Most economists will tell you that ticket taxes generally come out of team owner pockets, as they’re prevented from raising prices as high as they would otherwise.) The rest of the league, unsurprisingly, is not too thrilled, and several teams are openly opposing a ticket tax to help the Cubs — including Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the rival Chicago White Sox, who play in Glendale.

Mesa Mayor Scott Smith replied: “Is this the same Jerry Reinsdorf that skipped out on Pima County taxpayers who had spent tens of millions of dollars to provide him with a taxpayer-funded stadium, to come to Glendale, where Maricopa County taxpayers provided him a Taj Mahal spring-training facility?” Noting that Reinsdorf also has a publicly subsidized stadium in Chicago — one that he got by threatening to move to Florida — Smith added, “The irony is delicious.”

The Arizona Diamondbacks are opposed to the Mesa deal as well, and baseball blogger Brandon Larrabee can’t help but note that they’re “an interesting addition to the Arizona anti-tax crowd, given that their own stadium tax was so controversial it got a Maricopa County Supervisor shot.” By a crazy guy, admittedly, but if you want to take it as a cautionary tale, be my guest.

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Stossel gets stadium swindle half-right

Libertarian commentator John Stossel has a bit of a fact-challenged record, but he mostly gets it right in a blog post for Fox Business on the new New York Yankees stadium fiasco, noting that federal taxpayers (including Red Sox fans) helped pay for it, and the often-overlooked opportunity cost of what else could have been done with the tax money. That is, until he gets up to this part:

Years ago, when I did a TV special called “Freeloaders,” Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf said I shouldn’t blame him for taking the handout:

“You mean, if somebody walks up to you and hands you money, you shouldn’t take it? The fact is — I was offered this stadium by elected officials.”

Bingo. It’s like Robin Hood in reverse.

What Stossel didn’t ask Reinsdorf: Does it still count as an “offer” when it comes after you threatened to move the team to Tampa Bay if you didn’t get the cash? As Reinsdorf later explained, “A savvy negotiator creates leverage. People had to think we were going to leave Chicago.”

But then, you’d kind of expect that Stossel would pin the blame on wasteful government rather than greedy sports team owners, given that this is a guy who’s on the record as saying that greed is good.

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