Columbus Crew owner: I’ll move team unless — wait, did I forget to come up with an “unless”?

Yesterday morning’s report that the owner of the Columbus Crew, one of the most historically popular MLS franchises, was set to announce that he’d move the team to Austin if he didn’t get a new stadium was a bit weird and unexpected. Then team owner Anthony Precourt made his announcement, and things got so much weirder and unexpecteder:

  • Precourt’s actual statement was vague about what he was looking for, saying only that the Crew’s “current course is not sustainable,” that “we have no choice but to expand and explore all of our options,” and that “MLS in Austin could be an ideal fit.” That covers the first two of the six steps in the stadium-grubbers’ playbook: the obsolescence claim and the non-threat threat.
  • The Crew issued a letter to fans saying, in effect, Thank you for your support and sorry about this, but it’s not you, it’s us. Please buy playoff tickets.
  • Franklin County Commissioner John O’Grady said that Precourt never actually asked for help with a new Columbus stadium, but only said he needed “a better location.” O’Grady told the Columbus Dispatch: “If he needs a Downtown stadium, he should have said something. That’s a weird negotiating ploy.”
  • Austin Mayor Steve Adler emailed the Dispatch to say that he’d love to host the Crew, but “I don’t think there’s support for public funding of a stadium.”

All this points to an owner who either really really wants to move the Crew to Austin no matter what and is using this whole “my stadium sucks” argument as an excuse, or is really really bad at this whole stadium money shakedown thing. Either way, it sucks for Crew fans, who are now facing losing their team to one of the few media markets that’s actually even smaller than Columbus. “I don’t understand the obsession with Austin,” supporters’ club organizer Kevin Glenn told the Dispatch. That makes a whole lot of us.

Columbus Crew: Without public stadium funds, we’ll go demand public stadium funds in Austin

MLS has seen a ton of attempts to extract public money in exchange for granting expansion teams of late, but not so much in the way of existing teams threatening to move if they don’t get cash for new homes. That’s about to change in a big way, as Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt is reportedly set to announce today that if he doesn’t get money for a new stadium in Columbus, he’ll instead demand money for a new stadium in Austin, Texas:

Columbus owner Anthony Precourt is set to announce in a press conference on Tuesday that he will move his team to Austin in 2019 if a downtown soccer stadium for the Crew cannot be finalized in the next year…

Alex Fischer, the president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership, a group of 60 Columbus business leaders and CEOs, said Precourt had rejected offers to buy 100 percent and 50 percent of the Crew by a group of local business and community leaders in Columbus…

Fischer continued: “We’ve received notice from the ownership that at a press conference [Tuesday] they are going to announce they are jointly pursuing that plan in Austin as well as continuing conversations about a possible new stadium in Columbus.”

When asked if he thought Precourt was seeking public financing or support for the stadiums in Columbus and Austin, Fischer was clear. “I think there’s no question he expects public financing and or support for any stadium in either city,” he said.

This does not come entirely out of the blue — right after Precourt bought the team in 2013, his ownership group started talking about the need to replace their then-14-year-old stadium, and they hired a consultant to start looking into it last fall. Still, jumping straight from “we’d like a new stadium, we haven’t figured out how to pay for it” to “if we don’t get a new stadium, we’re out the door after next year” is an unusual tactic, to say the least. And Austin is an unusual target, given that it’s not one of the 12 cities bidding for an expansion team, though who knows, maybe city leaders figured they could skip that whole process if they thought they could get the Crew instead.

The Columbus Dispatch, meanwhile, seems to think this is less a leverage threat on the team’s current home than an all-but-finalized plan to relocate the team, coupled with keeping the door open in Columbus in order to keep ticket sales from going through the floor:

One source close to the team said a deal to host home games at the University of Texas is “all but done” for 2019. The source also said Precourt paid $68 million — above market value — for the team in 2013 because he long entertained plans to move it. Another source said plans for a “pristine, waterfront development” in Austin are gaining steam.

The sources spoke off the record because negotiations to keep the team in Columbus are not officially dead. It is standard practice for team owners who might want to move to keep hope alive for the purposes of selling tickets for a lame-duck season. The late Art Modell, for instance, made a public promise to keep his NFL team in Cleveland before he moved it to Baltimore.

Unlike in other major pro sports — or maybe “more major pro sports” is a better way of putting it — it’s really tough to tell whether MLS move threats make sense just based on such things as market size, since the league’s finances are so screwy. (For the record, Austin is a slightly smaller media market than Columbus.) Would it make sense for Precourt to pull the trigger on a move to Austin, depending on how lucrative a deal he got there? Would he stay put in Columbus for the right level of cash subsidies? This isn’t hockey, so it’s hard to dismiss the threat as saber-rattling — but it’s also hard to say that it isn’t. Hopefully we’ll have more tea leaves to read after Precourt makes his announcement later today.

Friday roundup: A’s pollution woes, Falcons roof woes, Hansen email woes, and more!

Whole lot of news leftovers this week, so let’s get right to it:

  • It’s not certain yet how serious the environmental cleanup issues at the Oakland A’s proposed Peralta Community College stadium site are, but anytime you have the phrases “the amount of hazardous materials in the ground is unclear” and “two possible groundwater plumes impacted by carcinogens” in one article, that’s not a good sign. Meanwhile, local residents are concerned about gentrification and traffic and all the other things that local residents would be concerned about.
  • There’s another new poll in Calgary, and this time it’s Naheed Nenshi who’s leading Bill Smith by double digits, instead of the other way around. This poll’s methodology is even dodgier than the last one — it was of people who signed up for an online survey — so pretty much all we can say definitely at this point is no one knows. Though it does seem pretty clear from yet another poll that whoever Calgarians are voting for on Monday, it won’t be because of their position on a Flames arena.
  • The Atlanta Falcons‘ retractable roof won’t be retracting this season, and may even not be ready for the start of next season. These things are hard, man.
  • Nevada is preparing to sell $200 million in bonds (to be repaid by a state gas tax) to fund highway improvements for the new Las Vegas Raiders stadium, though Gov. Brian Sandoval says the state would have to make the improvements anyway. Eventually. But then he said, “I just don’t want us to do work that has to be undone,” so your guess is as good as mine here.
  • Pawtucket is preparing to scrape off future increases in property tax receipts for a 60- to 70-acre swath of downtown and hand them over to the Pawtucket Red Sox for a new stadium, an amount they expect to total at least $890,000 a year. Because downtown Pawtucket would never grow without a new baseball stadium, and there’s no chance of a shortfall that would cause Pawtucket to dip into its general fund, and nobody should think too hard about whether if minor-league baseball stadiums are really so great for development, this wouldn’t mean that property tax revenues should be expected to fall in the part of the city that the PawSox would be abandoning. Really, it’ll all be cool, man, you’ll see.
  • Somebody asked Tim Leiweke what he thinks of building a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays for some reason, and given that he’s a guy that is in the business of building new stadiums, it’s unsurprising that he thinks it’s a great idea. Though I am somewhat surprised that he employed the phrase “Every snowbird in Canada will want to watch the Toronto Blue Jays when they come and play,” given that having to depend on fans of road teams to fill the seats is already kind of a problem.
  • The study showing that spending $30 million in city money on a $30-million-or-so Louisville City F.C. stadium would pay off for the city turns out to have been funded by the soccer team, and city councilmembers are not happy. “There’s something there that someone doesn’t want us to find,” said councilmember Kevin Kramer. “I just don’t know what it is.” And College of the Holy Cross economics professor Victor Matheson chimed in, “I expect for-profit sports team owners to generate absurdly high economic estimate numbers in order to con gullible city council members into granting subsidies.” I don’t know where you could possibly be getting that idea, Victor!
  • Congress is considering a bill to eliminate the use of federally tax-exempt bonds for sports facilities, and … oh, wait, it’s the same bill that Cory Booker and James Lankford introduced back in June, and which hasn’t gotten a committee hearing yet in either the House or the Senate. It has four sponsors in the House, though, and two in the Senate, so only 263 more votes to go!
  • A Miami-Dade judge has dismissed a lawsuit charging that the sale of public land to David Beckham’s MLS franchise illegally evaded competitive bidding laws, then immediately suggested that the case will really be decided on appeal: “I found this to be an extremely challenging decision. Brighter minds than me will tell me whether I was right or wrong.” MLS maybe should be having backup plans for a different expansion franchise starting next season, just a thought.
  • The New York Times real estate section is doing what it does best, declaring the new Milwaukee Bucks arena to be “a pivotal point for a city that has struggled with a decline in industrial activity,” because cranes, dammit, okay? Maybe somebody should have called over to the Times sports section to fact-check this?
  • And last but not least, Chris Hansen is now saying that his SoDo arena plan missed a chance at reconsideration by the Seattle city council because the council’s emails requesting additional information got caught in his spam filter or something. If that’s not a sign that it’s time to knock off for the weekend, I don’t know what is.

MLS still set to announce two new teams in December, unless it needs the stadium leverage

MLS has been dead set on announcing two expansion franchises this December, with two more getting the nod next year. But on Thursday, commissioner Don Garber hedged on that timetable just a bit:

A league spokesperson later texted, according to ESPN, that “MLS remains on track to name two teams in December, with an announcement ‘likely around Dec. 19-20.'” But that’s still hedging, in a way that could probably best be taken as We’re planning an announcement the week before Christmas, but we reserve the right to change our minds.

What could be going on here? Soccer Stadium Digest thinks that MLS wants to be sure that David Beckham’s Miami franchise will actually get stadium approval in time to begin play next year — the stadium won’t be done by then, mind you, but MLS will award a team so long as it has a stadium deal in place — or else award a franchise to a fallback city in order to keep an even number of teams. That’s certainly possible, though MLS has operated with an odd number of franchises before, so it could always just push back Miami’s entry another year or three if necessary.

Equally possible is that MLS may want to wait out the legislative process in some potential expansion cities to see what they can shake loose in terms of public stadium funding. Of the four frontrunners declared by Soccer Stadium Digest, Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s $300 million plus free land and I’ll build Detroit a new jail to replace its already half built one plan still needs both city and county approval, Nashville S.C.‘s $75 million subsidy demand requires approval of the regional Nashville Metro council, F.C. Cincinnati‘s gambit for that city to pay for half of a new $200 million stadium hasn’t seen much action in recent months (other than a new Cincinnati citizens’ group petitioning Garber to let the team move up to MLS while still playing at Nippert Stadium, where it’s setting attendance records), and Sacramento F.C. has already started clearing land for a new stadium, though with actual construction not scheduled to begin until 2018 the team owners can always slam on the brakes if they don’t get awarded an MLS franchise by then.

That’s a whole lot of uncertainty, and could easily be a reason why the league doesn’t want to set an expansion announcement date in stone. When running a bidding war, it’s a fine line between wanting to scare the participants with a countdown clock, and wanting to make sure they always have enough rope to up their bids.

Nashville mayor vows MLS stadium with almost no public costs, it’d actually cost $75m-plus

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry released her proposal for a soccer stadium for a new MLS franchise yesterday, and this is how the Nashville Scene headlined it:

Mayor Proposes $275 Million Soccer Stadium Deal

Potential MLS team would be responsible for all but $25 million of fairgrounds stadium cost

Sounds pretty good, right? What’s that? What do you mean, “You’re just setting us up with a rosy headline so you can undermine it with the actual horrible facts, aren’t you?” Do you think you know me that well?

The actual horrible facts:

  • Of the $275 million in construction, land, and infrastructure costs, the Nashville Metro Council, a joint city-county governing body, would put up $250 million by selling bonds. The other $25 million would come from John Ingram, owner of Nashville S.C., a USL expansion club slated to begin play in 2018.
  • Ingram and his fellow owners would pay off the bonds via “a mixture of rent, captured taxes from revenue generated at the stadium and private investment,” according to the Scene. The Tennessean breaks that down: It’s actually $9 million a year in rent payments, plus $4 million a year from kicked-back state sales taxes from anything bought at the stadium and from a $1.75 surcharge per ticket.
  • If sales taxes and the ticket surcharge fall short of $4 million, Metro would be on the hook for the shortfall.

Let’s be clear about this: Counting money siphoned off from sales taxes collected at a sports venue as a “private” contribution is completely insane. Even aside from the substitution effect — where increased money spent at, say, soccer matches invariably turns out to mostly be counterbalanced by decreased money spent at, say, local movie theaters and restaurants — this is money that for a normal business would flow directly into the state treasury. For Ingram to insist that this is really “his” money because he touched it with his hands (or his concessions workers did, anyway) is just the Casino Night Principle.

Exactly how much in public money this would actually cost Tennessee taxpayers is a little tricky to determine, since those sales taxes are lumped together with a ticket surcharge, something that economists universally agree ends up mostly coming out of the team owner’s pocket. But let’s try to back into it: If a typical MLS team sells 20,000 tickets per game (I’m assuming here that tickets given away for free still have to pay the surcharge), and there are 19 home games in a year, that’s 380,000 tickets per year. Multiply by $1.75, and the ticket surcharge should generate about $665,000 a year.

That leaves $3.335 million a year to be covered by sales taxes, which comes to about $50 million in present value. Add in the $25 million that won’t get repaid, and we’re at $75 million in public cost — at minimum, because if tickets don’t sell well, then Nashville would have to make up the shortfall out of its own pocket.

This is not the worst stadium proposal in history, but it’s also not the “private-public” (emphasis on the first word) deal that Mayor Barry promised. And if things break the wrong way, it’s not that far off from the $100 million subsidy demand that is raising eyebrows in Cincinnati. MLS stadiums are still generally lighter on the public purse than those in other U.S. pro sports, but that’s only because MLS team owners and wannabes know they can’t get away with demanding as much — and that doesn’t make the cash that taxpayers would be out any better of a deal.

(Rest in peace, Tom.)

Friday roundup: Raiders talk lease extension, Rams attendance woes may set record, and more!

Here’s what you missed this week, or rather what I missed, or rather what I saw at the time but left till Friday because there are only so many hours in the week, man:

NYCFC, Islanders to go head-to-head for Belmont Park land as potential new home

Today is the deadline for responses to New York state’s Request For Proposals for redeveloping a plot of land near Belmont Park racetrack just outside the New York City border, and it looks like the Islanders are going to have some sports competition for their arena plans after all:

New York City FC, the pro soccer team partly owned by the Yankees, is preparing the submit a bid to build a soccer stadium on the state-run property in Elmont, Long Island, near the Queens border, sources told The Post Monday night…

NYCFC would partner with developer Related Co. in its proposal, sources said. … The Islanders bid is expected to include teaming up with Sterling Project Development, which is controlled by the majority owners of the Mets; and Oak View Group, which is backed by Madison Square Garden, owners of the NHL’s Rangers and National Basketball Association’s Knicks.

The state Empire State Development Corporation told me it won’t be releasing the RFP responses, so we’re going to have to depend on whatever the Islanders and NYC F.C. tell us about their plans, which isn’t likely to be much. (Though I do eagerly anticipate some wacky renderings with lots of fireworks going off.) The prospect of two sports franchises going at it for the same land at least raises the possibility of a Seattle-style bidding war here, which could only be good for New York state taxpayers. More news, and pretty pictures, tomorrow, I hope.

MLS commissioner doesn’t rule out non-soccer-specific stadiums while watching soccer in one

Don Garber went to an MLS match on Saturday, which makes sense since he’s the commissioner of MLS, at as the match was at Atlanta United‘s new stadium which is also the Falcons‘ new football stadium, he was asked whether he thought maybe demanding soccer-only stadiums as a condition for expansion teams wasn’t entirely necessary. His reply:

“It’s interesting; it’s a great question. The good thing about being new and trying to figure it out as you go along is you have a specific plan and then there are times when you have to modify that plan,” Garber said. “I think good business leaders and good businesses, ya know, don’t just get stuck in their previous strategies but try to evolve and see how things develop…

“We really wanted a soccer stadium here and Arthur said, ‘Hey, this stadium I’m going to build is going to be the best in the world, it’s going to be world class, we’re going to fill it up.’ And he did,” Garber said. “So, I don’t know that that changes our point of view in any other market, but certainly when I see what’s happening here and in Seattle I’m happy that we have stadiums that can have 70,000 people in ’em.”

So here’s the thing: Garber’s “soccer-specific stadiums only” demand has never actually been a strict rule, as witness not just Atlanta, but also NYC F.C. playing at the new Yankee Stadium. (Is it still new now that it’s eight years old? It’s certainly not the old Yankee Stadium.) MLS is always willing to make exceptions when it’s willing to make exceptions.

The problem is that then you have cities thinking, Hey, they’re willing to make exceptions. Like Cincinnati, where WCPO spun out a whole article last night on how Garber’s statements mean maybe there’s a chance for F.C. Cincinnati to get an MLS franchise while still playing at Nippert Stadium, where they keep breaking attendance records.

There’s a tendency to take sports league operators’ statements as policy dictates, when really they’re leverage gambits: Garber isn’t saying he wants new soccer-specific stadiums because his stomach roils at the notion of watching soccer anywhere else, he’s saying it because it’s the best way to get new soccer-specific stadiums. Which is fine, that’s his job — but trying to parse his every statement as if reading missives from the Politburo and not just listening to a guy trying not to paint himself into a corner is probably a bad idea.

Rams to charge record PSL price, Cavs arena subsidy moves ahead, and other news of the week

It’s Friday again, so let’s go spanning the world:

  • The Los Angeles Rams are considering charging a top personal seat license price of as much as $225,000, just for the right to then buy season tickets for $350-400 per game. This seems like a bit of a reach when the payoff is just that you get to watch Rams games, but I guess Stan Kroenke needs to try to recoup his $2 billion in stadium costs somehow — and at least if it all goes south, he’ll be the one on the hook, not taxpayers.
  • Some Canadian bank bought the naming rights to the Toronto Maple Leafs arena away from some Canadian airline. Is this going to buy it valuable market exposure and name recognition that will justify the $40 million a year expense? Not on this blog!
  • The LED lights at the Atlanta Falcons‘ new stadium make football look all weird.
  • Shreveport Mayor Ollie Tyler says spending $30 million on an arena for a minor-league basketball team is a great idea that only “naysayers” don’t appreciate. “I think sometimes we don’t believe in ourselves and some of our urban areas we don’t believe that we are able to make things happen,” she says. If Mayor Tyler needs a reelection campaign theme song, I have a suggestion.
  • “The Federal Aviation Administration has determined that the Oakland Raiders‘ proposed stadium in Las Vegas would not be a hazard to aircraft.” Huzzah!
  • Would-be St. Louis MLS owner Paul Edgerley says he’s still ready to pay $150 million for a franchise, and $100 million toward a stadium, as soon as someone comes up with the other $60 million in construction costs. Noted.
  • Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert has officially reinstated his plan to do $140 million of renovation work to the team’s arena, with Cuyahoga County paying for half the cost. ”This is corporate welfare at its worst,” said Steve Holecko of the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus, after his erstwhile coalition partners the Greater Cleveland Congregations withdrew petitions against the arena subsidy after getting a promise of two mental health crisis centers from the county. Holecko’s group doesn’t plan to mount another ballot challenge on their own, though, so construction work is set to begin later this month.
  • Mikhail Prokhorov is ready to sell the Brooklyn Nets, but will hold onto the Barclays Center, after renegotiating the team’s lease so that it will pay less rent to the arena. This … does not seem like the smartest way of going about things, but maybe Prokhorov is figuring he’ll give up future rent revenue in exchange for a higher sale price now on the team? Or maybe he’s just not very smart.

Nashville mulls 30,000-seat MLS stadium, council warns that Deadspin writer thinks it’s dumb

The investor group seeking an MLS expansion team for Nashville — one of the 12 cities actually being considered for four new franchises being awarded this year and next year, according to the league — revealed its new stadium plans on Monday: The stadium would be built on the city-county owned fairgrounds site, would hold 30,000 people (that’s a lot for MLS, which typically sticks closer to the neighborhood of 20,000 seats), and would be paid for by … let’s see … “the project still lacks a cost figure and financing plan” … keep scrolling … the mayor’s chief operating office “told council members the mayor’s office hopes to finalize stadium financing negotiations with Ingram in 45 to 60 days and file legislation for a stadium deal by October” … scroll, scroll … “The Metro Nashville Sports Authority and Metro Board of Fair Commissioners would also need to approve any financing plan, which would likely involve issuing revenue bonds” … wait, what?

Council members, getting their first crack at the looming soccer stadium debate Monday, said they plan to fully vet the project. Three council members raised a recent story from the online sports publication Deadspin that, citing work of an MLS critic, questions the business model and rapid expansion of MLS.

That would be this article by me. If anyone reading this knows more about who exactly said what, and how my article entered into it, please let me know in comments; and if anyone from the Nashville Metro council has any questions about my research, I guess drop me an email. In the meantime, beyond noting that 1) the renderings look pretty enough, though the upper deck seems unnecessarily high, especially on the side with no luxury boxes/club seats, 2) revenue bonds are fine enough if there’s some dedicated revenue to base them on, not so much if the “revenue” is tax money that may or may not be cannibalized from public tax receipts elsewhere, and 3) 30,000 seats really does seem like a lot for a small-market MLS team, guys, I’m afraid to say much about this proposal, because apparently it’s from my mouth to the council’s ear.