Looks like the owners of the Columbus Crew are moving ahead with plans to replace their 17-year-old soccer stadium, hiring Barrett Sports Group LLC (who worked for Sacramento on a new arena for the Kings, among other projects) to “evaluate the potential demand for a new multipurpose soccer stadium in Columbus,” surveying fans as to what they’d like in a new stadium.
All of which is fine: If the Crew owners think they’ve outgrown their 20,000-seat stadium, then sure, look into building a bigger one. (Not they’ve completely been selling out the old place, but maybe they think more fans would turn out if the stadium had more steak bars or something.) The bigger question, obviously, is who would pay for a new or upgraded stadium, and nobody’s breathing a word about that. Or about when Barrett will complete its survey. Count on this one dragging out a bit longer — Crew execs have already been talking about this for more than three years, after all — but don’t be surprised to see stadium talk heat up in the next year or so.
When reporters ask me how long a stadium can be expected to last before it becomes obsolete, I like to remind them of sports economist Rod Fort’s classic quip that “I don’t see anything wrong, from an owner’s perspective, with the idea of a new stadium every year.” At least, I thought it was a quip at the time:
[Columbus Crew president Mark] McCullers says the time is approaching when the team’s owner, Hunt Sports Group, will have to decide whether to upgrade Crew Stadium or build a new facility in the area.
“The stadium is 15 years old now,” he said. “We don’t want to throw good money after bad. We need to start having the discussions about a longer term facility solution for us and that could take a variety of forms.”
Crew Stadium actually opened May 15, 1999, which makes it a little less than 14 years old, not 15. And there are examples of teams wanting replacements for buildings younger than that — the Fort quote above, for example, was in reference to Orlando Magic owner Rich DeVos demanding a new arena just 12 years after his existing one opened. (For that matter, McCullers said something similar three years ago, when his stadium was only 11 years old.) But it is possible that McCullers may have set a record for youngest sports facility to be used in the same sentence with the phrase “throw good money after bad.”
Hallelujah! After years of waiting, Harvard stadium researcher Judith Grant Long’s book is finally out, and while I haven’t seen a copy yet, Bloomberg News has and provides some highlights of her findings:
- The 121 sports facilities in use during 2010 cost taxpayers about $10 billion more than is commonly reported, thanks to hidden subsidies for things like land, infrastructure, operations, and lost property taxes.
- Once hidden costs are taken into account, the average sports facility split is 78% public, 22% private.
- The worst deals for the public include stadiums for the Indianapolis Colts, Cincinnati Bengals, and Milwaukee Brewers, each of which managed to rack up more in subsidies than the stadiums themselves cost to build. Best deals include venues for the Columbus Crew, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Ottawa Senators.
- Arenas are generally better deals than stadiums, because they cost less to build. And small cities tend to get get worse deals than larger ones, since they have less leverage to keep a team in town without large payoffs.
If you’re not familiar with Long, she’s been a favorite reference of FoS ever since she first started publishing her “Full Count” data on the true costs of sports facilities close to a decade ago. (At one point her book was also going to be called “Full Count,” I believe, but it ended up with the slightly less pithy title “Public/Private Partnerships for Major League Sports Facilities.”) Until Long came along, for example, it wasn’t clear that the Minneapolis Metrodome was actually one of the best deals for the public, thanks to a lease that forced the teams to actually share revenues; you can read more about her work in a profile I wrote of her for Baseball Prospectus back in 2005.
Needless to say, I’ll have much more to say about this once I’ve actually gotten my hands on a copy. (Which will have to wait until Routledge starts sending out either review copies or e-books, because $125 isn’t in my research budget.) But suffice to say that this is big, big news, and will be a huge boon to anyone trying to suss out the true public costs of stadium and arena deals after all the parts have stopped moving.
I’ve heard of one-upping, but this is getting ridiculous:
[Columbus Crew owner Clark] Hunt said 11-year-old Crew Stadium, which his father funded and built, remains “a fantastic venue to watch a soccer game.” But the team must look at its long-term facility needs, he said, including a new stadium.
McCullers also said the Crew is closely watching the Columbus Blue Jackets’ effort to improve its lease at Nationwide Arena through a possible public purchase of the privately owned venue. One of the financing scenarios under discussion is tapping tax revenue from the new Columbus casino to fund an arena buyout by Franklin County and the city.
“My message to those that have an ongoing interest in that,” McCullers said, “is we shouldn’t just fix the Blue Jackets’ situation but fix the professional sports infrastructure situation in Columbus. That includes us.”
Two lessons here: One, the only thing stopping team owners from demanding new stadiums every year, as economist Rod Fort once suggested, is the limits of their chutzpah. And two, when considering a bailout to one of your city’s sports teams, you really need to watch out for that camel’s nose.