County officials on Charlotte MLS stadium: If city won’t spend money, maybe we won’t either!

When last we checked in with billionaire racetrack owner Bruton Smith’s demands for $100 million in stadium subsidies and free land for a new soccer stadium in Charlotte, the county had approved its half, but the city council was balking at the deal, so everything was on hold. And now … pretty much still the same thing, actually:

In a setback for Major League Soccer in Charlotte, the Mecklenburg County commissioners pushed back a decision on spending $120 million for a new soccer stadium until August – and some commissioners don’t want to invest unless the city also contributes…

Monday, Democrat Dumont Clarke said that he also wants the city to agree to spend $43.5 million before he votes for the county to spend anything.

“Why are we budgeting for this when our key partner isn’t willing to endorse it?” Clarke said in an interview Monday. “This gives the city a deadline to see what they will do.”

Okay, technically maybe this is a change of direction, from “we’ll approve our share of the money, but nothing is going to happen until the city approves its share” to “until the city approves its share, we’re not going to approve ours either,” but the upshot is the same: no stadium for now because the rich guy who wants it is demanding that more than half the cost be paid by taxpayers, and city officials aren’t crazy about that idea. Maybe that will change after city elections this fall, maybe not. Either way, it doesn’t sound like Charlotte will be a contender in the round of MLS expansion set to be announced later this year, but since MLS expands pretty much every Tuesday, that’s probably not a big deal — and certainly not a reason to accede to demands for $100 million in cash, if anybody on the Charlotte council was thinking that.

Every concentration of humans on earth now bidding to build MLS stadiums

Nashville is looking to build a new MLS stadium, and Indianapolis is looking to build a new MLS stadium, and San Diego is looking to get a new MLS stadium, and Detroit is considering providing free land for an MLS stadium, and St. Louis is still looking to build an MLS stadium after rejecting it once, and a guy in Charlotte is still looking to have an MLS stadium built for him, and Tampa is looking to get an MLS franchise but already has a stadium.

These are mostly terrible ideas, notes the Guardian, at least where they involve public money. And if the newspaper slightly overstates the case that there’s growing pushback on MLS subsidies (truth is, they’ve never been an especially easy sell as sports subsidies go, mostly because MLS isn’t as popular yet as the Big Four sports), it does contain a classic defense of them from Peter Wilt, the Chicago Fire founder who now heads later headed the Indy Eleven NASL team and wannabe expansion franchise:

“It is about image and plays into making a city cool to live in, a good experience for young professionals, and reducing the brain drain on a community. Things like that are sometimes not taken into account. If Oakland loses the A’s and the Raiders, which is a possibility, then no one will hear about Oakland in any positive terms for the foreseeable future.”

Things like that actually are taken into account in economic studies of teams and stadiums, which overwhelmingly find that if sports teams make cities “cool,” it doesn’t show up in things like per-capita income or jobs or economic activity or tax receipts. Plus you’d then have to explain how a city like Portland, for example, which until recently had only basketball as a major-league sport and famously turned down a domed stadium in the 1960s that would have brought an NFL team, nonetheless became one of the hippest cities in America. (It has MLS now, but the hipness predated that.)

Anyway, with MLS set to announce four more expansion franchises in the next year or so, the league can probably count on some cities stepping up to throw money at new stadiums, so long as they’re not too picky about which ones. (Cincinnati, Raleigh/Durham, Sacramento, and San Antonio are also in the mix.) Bulk-mailing extortion notes is kind of a strange business model, but hey, whatever works.

Charlotte’s $100m MLS subsidy wins county approval, but city kills it

One day ahead of a scheduled Charlotte city council vote on $43.75 million in subsidies to billionaire racetrack owner Bruton Smith for a proposed $175 million MLS stadium, Mecklenburg County approved kicking in its own $43.75 million plus $13 million in free land — only to have the city immediately cancel its own vote, apparently because stadium supporters had determined the proposal wouldn’t pass:

City Council’s cancellation after the county vote on the $175 million stadium threw the deal into limbo. A council majority had been expected to oppose the deal. A “no” decision by the city would have killed the deal.

Mayor Jennifer Roberts said in a statement that “while this (proposal) is very promising, it is clear that we are not prepared to move forward at this time on the current soccer proposal.”

Since the mayor, you’ll recall, had said she didn’t have time to have her staff testify before a council hearing on the stadium plan, the only council hearing was scheduled for today before the vote, and that’s canceled now as well, so we can’t really say what councilmembers’ objections were (one announced she didn’t approve of “the location in addition to the other things,” which doesn’t really help), or whether they could be swayed by a revamped deal. County manager Dena Diorio said yesterday that “we don’t have a city partnership right now, so I need to go back and talk to the team ownership to see what they want to do at this point in time.” All those who think the answer is “reach for their wallets and pull out a spare $43.75-million bill,” raise your hands!

Charlotte mayor tells council to email MLS stadium questions, because no time for hearings

Today in everybody and their sister wants to build a damn MLS stadium to get a damn expansion team news:

  • Charlotte’s plan for $100 million in city and county subsidies for a $175 million stadium could receive a Friday city council vote, just two weeks after the proposal first surfaced. If that seems rushed, you don’t know the half of it: Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts said there isn’t time for a public council hearing on the plan, and that members should email their questions to city staff instead. Roberts later called for a council meeting on the subject at 4 p.m. on Friday, which should give plenty of time for everyone to process any testimony before a vote, right?
  • Something Charlotte council members might want to fire up their email clients about: WTF was the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority smoking when it estimated a billion dollars in new visitor spending over 25 years and 600 new jobs as a result of building a soccer stadium? Not that $40 million a year in economic activity — which amounts to maybe a couple million a year in new tax receipts — would be any great shakes for $100 million in expense, nor is a cost of $166,000 per job. But still, substance abuse is a serious problem, and if you see something, you should say something.
  • Over in St. Louis, meanwhile, that city’s all but dead $129 million MLS stadium subsidy proposal has turned into a $60 million subsidy plus an entertainment-tax kickback of unknown value. The new plan still doesn’t have much support — the bill stalled in committee last week, after city budget director Paul Payne testified that he wasn’t confident the plan wouldn’t end up dipping into the city’s general fund — but supporters are still hoping to somehow get it approved by the council and a circuit court judge in the next four weeks to get it on the April ballot, at which point St. Louis voters can express how much they hate it.

Charlotte taxpayers now only being asked to spend $100m on a private MLS stadium, maybe

Great news, everybody! Mecklenburg County, where Charlotte is located, is now only being asked to spend $100 million on a soccer stadium for which the nonexistent team’s owner has only offered to put up $50 million, instead of being asked to spend $113 million:

Commissioners, meeting in closed session Wednesday night, were told the county and the city would each be asked to pay $43.75 million toward a $175 million stadium. That’s down from the $50 million each that was sought in the initial proposal in early January.

The report in the Charlotte Observer leaves out $13 million in land costs that county taxpayers would cover, bringing the total to $100.5 million. It also doesn’t explain who’d pay the additional $25 million that the stadium would now be expected to build since this was first proposed, if those are real costs and not just other stuff larded in to make it look like the public portion is a smaller share of the whole nut.

Also not mentioned is what the team’s lease would be like — except that “team owners would control [the stadium] in much the way the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets do the city-owned Spectrum Center” — so it’s entirely possible that this $12.5 million cut in county spending would be offset by $12.5 million more towards future renovations, or something. The Mecklenburg county commission is expected to vote on this plan next Thursday at a private retreat, after holding just a single public forum at 3 pm next Tuesday, when surely lots of folks will be free to testify about this proposal that doesn’t appear to be even mentioned on the commission’s website.

One commissioner critical of the plan, Pat Cotham, remarked, “I’m struggling with this rushed process. Rushed deals of any sort are not good deals, because you need to have time to vet things.” Crazy talk! In America, we vote on stadium deals first, and figure out the details later, and nothing’s gone wrong yet, right?

Charlotte MLS backers asking for $113m in public cash for stadium, isn’t this where we came in?

So, let’s see, anything else been going on while we’ve all been focused on where the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders were going to end up? How about Charlotte, North Carolina being asked for $113 million for a soccer stadium for a team that doesn’t exist yet?

A proposal presented to Mecklenburg County commissioners in closed session last week calls for the city and county to each spend $50 million toward a $150 million stadium in Elizabeth just outside of uptown. The local ownership group of Bruton Smith, the billionaire race track owner, and his son, Marcus, CEO of Speedway Motorsports, would spend $50 million for the stadium.

The county would also demolish Memorial Stadium and the Grady Cole Center to make room for the stadium. The county would also provide the land – assessed at $12.9 million – for the new stadium.

That’s about equally as bad as the historically awful St. Louis soccer stadium proposal that that city mercifully killed earlier this week. If this is the new baseline ask for would-be MLS owners, we could be seeing the gradual end to the days when public subsidies in that league were generally lower than in other sports. (Though if cities keep saying no to them, maybe it’ll just be an indication that no matter if lots of kids are playing soccer now, that still hasn’t translated into the public or politicians feeling like landing an MLS franchise bestows that major “major league” feeling.) Already the Charlotte Observer has raised its eyebrows at the cost, and Charlotte Magazine contributing editor Greg Lecour has urged the city and county to drive a way harder bargain. Though it’s way more likely that MLS just packs up and tries its shtick on the next city down the road. How’s that legislation to end the Economic War Among the States going?

MLS to double expansion fee to $200m, hopes world doesn’t run out of rich guys

Major League Soccer is preparing to announce another round of expansion — this time to a whopping 28 teams — and is clearly determined to grab all the money it can in the process, as deputy commissioner Mark Abbott says the league is preparing to double its expansion fee to $200 million.

That’s a whole bunch of money for membership in a league whose own commissioner says it’s losing money, and which Soccernomics author Stefan Szymanski has called a “pyramid scheme” that’s eventually going to collapse. Given that the leading counterargument appears to be that “no, no, even if teams always lose money owners will count on making money when the sale value of the franchise appreciates,” it’s exactly a pyramid scheme — the only question is whether it’s the kind of bubble that eventually collapses, or one that can continue indefinitely.

The argument for the latter — and, presumably, the MLS business plan — goes back to the billionaire glut, which posits that there are so many rich people wanting to own a pro sports franchise these days, and such a limited number of opportunities, it’s going to be a seller’s market for the foreseeable future. With that the case, it’s understandable that MLS would want to get everything it can for new franchises while the getting’s good, even if it means becoming by far the largest soccer league in the world. (Most other leagues cap membership at 20 and relegate the teams that do the worst to a second division, something that MLS has resisted because it might limit the number of people lining up to sign expansion checks.) And with a list of prospective expansion cities that includes way more than they can possibly fill in this round — Sacramento, Detroit, Cincinnati, San Diego, St. Louis, San Antonio, Charlotte and Oklahoma City are all reportedly on the list — it makes total sense to weed out the winners from the losers by seeing who’ll balk at a higher price tag.

Clearly this isn’t sustainable in the long run, but MLS isn’t thinking about the long run right now, which is its prerogative. If you’re a city thinking about building a stadium for a new MLS franchise, though, you might want to at least keep in the back of your mind that there’s a decent chance the league could, years down the road, eventually contract again — or at least split into upper and lower divisions — and that your shiny new team could end up without a chair when the music stops.