MLS is adding St. Louis and Sacramento franchises (maybe), demanding bigger stadiums (possibly)

Eleven months after announcing its expansion to 28 teams, Major League Soccer has decided to expand to 30 teams with new franchises in St. Louis and Sacramento … okay, has decided to invite prospective owners in St. Louis and Sacramento to apply for franchises … okay, let’s let the Associated Press try to explain it:

St. Louis and Sacramento, California, have been invited to submit formal bids for franchises as Major League Soccer’s Board of Governors formally unveiled plans Thursday to expand to 30 teams.

Commissioner Don Garber made the announcement at the board’s meeting in Los Angeles, pointing to expansion as one of the key drivers of the league’s growth in North America in recent years.

“We continue to believe that there are many, many cities across the country that could support an MLS team, with a great stadium and a great fanbase and great local ownership that will invest in the sport in their community,” he told reporters following the meeting.

So that’s really just “St. Louis and Sacramento are front-runners for the next two MLS franchises, which we’re planning to award sometime this year.” Which is exactly what Garber said last month. So this is not actually news at all, just confirmation that those two cities will get teams if all their t’s are crossed — which mostly means having stadium deals in place. Both cities have given preliminary approval for new stadiums, with St. Louis promising about $60 million in subsidies and Sacramento about $33 million; these would not be the worst deals in sports history or even MLS history, but still, you know what Everett Dirksen may or may not have said about money adding up

In completely unrelated news but not really, F.C. Arizona, a team that currently plays at a high school field in Mesa in the fourth-tier National Premier Soccer League, has announced plans to build a 10,900-seat stadium at an unspecified location in the Phoenix area, saying they’ll pay for the unspecified costs with their own unspecified private money. That’s an awful lot of seats for a team in what’s essentially a semi-pro league — not all players are paid — so you have to figure this is an attempt to get on the radar of either MLS or the second-and-third-tier USL to get a franchise. U.S. soccer may not have promotion and relegation where teams can move up to higher leagues just by winning games, but it does have a clear path by which owners can buy their way into higher leagues, and it’s clearly leading to a land rush for owners hoping to find an angle by which to enter into the major-sports ownership club without shelling out a billion for a big-four league expansion team.

If you consider MLS a major sports league on par with the big four, that is, which remains an open question. Garber also took time out to say that Minnesota United‘s new stadium is too small, asserting, “I wish the stadium wasn’t 19,000 and that it was 27,000 because I think at some point we are going to be thinking of how do we make the stadium bigger. I think we are going to be dealing with that in a number of different markets.” This is the same week that the New York Red Bulls announced that they’d begin tarping over some seats in the upper deck because they couldn’t sell them; team GM Marc de Grandpre recently remarked, “If we were to build the stadium today…we’d have built the stadium with a flexible capacity system,” meaning a way to reduce capacity from its current 25,000 seats, not increase it. Clearly there are still some bugs to be worked out of the MLS business model — those $150 million expansion fees from St. Louis and Sacramento, or whoever steps in if St. Louis or Sacramento falter, should help buy some time to figure them out.

Red Bulls still don’t wanna pay arena taxes, nobody told them they’d have to, mommmmm!

The New York Red Bulls (aka Red Bull New York, aka whatever they’ll be called if Red Bull sells them) are still appealing that tax court ruling from almost three years ago that they have to pay property taxes on their arena in Harrison, N.J. The tax court ruled then (and an appellate court agreed) that because the team collects all the revenue from the arena, it’s effectively a private stadium regardless of who holds title to the building; in its appeal to the state supreme court, Red Bull’s response has been that that’s not fair, because nobody told them the rules ahead of time:

Red Bull Arena “was undoubtedly the victim of a ‘bait and switch’ in this case, as its promised tax exemption vanished into thin air,” says the Red Bulls’ successful petition for certification.

Red Bull should be aware that tax rules can change, right? Oh, sorry, wrong crappy food product ad campaign.

 

Judge: Red Bulls owe property taxes on Harrison stadium

A New Jersey tax-court judge has ruled that the New York Red Bulls owe property tax to the city of Harrison, despite playing in a stadium built on land owned by a tax-exempt public agency. The decision, if upheld, means that the team owes $3.6 million in back taxes for 2010 and 2011, plus similar amounts going forward.

Without getting too deep into tax law, public land usually goes untaxed — but it can be taxed, or can be subject to payments in lieu of taxes, if it’s used for a strictly private purpose. Given that all the money collected at Red Bull Arena flows to the Red Bulls, the judge ruled that the “public” nature of the land was an accounting fiction, and demanded that the team cough up.

Whether cash-strapped Harrison will see any money from this anytime soon is uncertain — the Red Bulls have promised to appeal, which could drag this out for years. (They’re also still stiffing the city on $150,000 a year in rent.) But at least there’s a chance of the city getting something back for its $80 million in land and infrastructure and $173 million new train station, aside from a bunch of muddy lots set aside for theoretical future development. (According to Business Week, payments from developers are running at just over one-tenth what was projected when the arena project was first planned.)

Given the number of teams that use the public-land, private-use dodge to avoid a stadium tax bill — which is to say, pretty much all of them — it’s going to be interesting to see if this ruling sets any kind of precedent. Given that tax law varies widely from state to state, and who knows if this will hold up under appeal anyway, probably not, but it’s an interesting idea for local governments to try to recoup some of the money they blew on stadiums in the hopes of sparking development that never arrived.

Red Bull Arena review: Soccer, soccer everywhere, but not a drop to drink

Last night my family and I attended the first regular-season game at Red Bull Arena, the new soccer-only home of Red Bull New York in Harrison, New Jersey. I wasn’t sure what to expect, in more ways than one — it was not only my first visit to this stadium, but to a live pro soccer match at all, so I was curious to see both the new building and the fan turnout.

Getting to Harrison, a rundown industrial town across the Passaic River from Newark, was easy: As the Red Bulls website suggested, we avoided the highway and took the subway to the PATH train to Harrison, for a total trip time from Brooklyn of a little under an hour. The stadium, as expected, is currently surrounded by unsightly vacant lots filled with standing water, and is relatively unlovely from the outside, but is pleasant and fairly cozy on the inside; we were up in the top deck in corner seats, and had a good view of all the action.

I was initially thinking that the aluminum seating bowl felt chintzy — for this, they spent $200 million? mdash; but I soon realized that I was missing the point. Though the game itself was lacking in that feature that other sports call “scoring” (the Red Bulls won, 1-0), it was exciting the entire way, in large part thanks to the frenzied sellout crowd, which in turn was in large part thanks to the architecture: When you have 25,000 people stamping on aluminum flooring in unison, it’s loud, and fun no matter what’s going on on the field. And that’s before even getting into the incessant smoke bombs being set off by the fan club (sorry, “supporters club“) section down front.

There were only two huge flaws in the Red Bull Arena experience (not counting the frigid weather, which there’s nothing the team could do anything about, unless the smoke bombs were intended to speed up global warming). First off, as has been noted a couple of other places, the stadium has no water fountains, and the bathroom taps only dispense hot water. And each person is only allowed to bring one sealed bottle of water with them. On a cold night in March, this was merely an annoyance (especially since water at the concessions stands is $4 a bottle); when it’s 100 degrees in July, and the lines for the concession stands are as long as they were during halftime last night, it’s going to be a lawsuit waiting to happen.

The other problem is going to require a more time-consuming fix. As noted, we arrived via PATH, and it was an easy trip. Getting back was a different story: Apparently the 99-year-old Harrison station hasn’t been upgraded to accommodate post-sporting-event crowds — I counted about eight turnstiles total — which led to horrific lines just to get into the station. (As one supporter trapped on line behind me muttered: “Great game, great stadium, better team, terrible traffic control.”) Door-to-door travel time to get back home to Brooklyn: Two hours and ten minutes.

The Harrison station is currently undergoing a $173 million renovation, of which there were few signs last night, but if Wikipedia is to be believed, it should eventually ease traffic flow considerably. Added to Harrison’s $80 million in land and infrastructure costs for the stadium, though, it means New Jersey taxpayers are spending about a quarter-million-billion dollars to support their new soccer stadium (and the surrounding development, of course, if condos and retail ever really sprout on those waterlogged lots). The game was great, but for prices like that, I wouldn’t mind a drink of water.

Red Bulls stadium sparks nearby vacant lots

Red Bull New York held their first game at the new Red Bull Arena on Saturday (I’ll be in attendance at the official season home opener next weekend, and reporting back here), and the Newark Star-Ledger marked the occasion with an article with this headline:

Red Bull Arena opening in Harrison sparks nearby redevelopment

Unfortunately, neither the article itself nor the photo of the new stadium shows any signs of nearby redevelopment. In fact, the story reports that the stadium “sticks out like a sore thumb in a neighborhood of vacant warehouses and empty lots. … The local PATH station is a 10-minute walk away, and most restaurants are in the opposite direction, across Route 280.”

It’s always possible that the prospect of catering to hungry soccer fans will cause restaurants to sprout like dandelions, especially once they realize what a bad idea it is to take the bus from Newark instead of walking from the train. Though given that MLS clubs only play 15 home games a year, they’d better hope those fans are really, really hungry.

Weekend openings

“It’s bigger and more beautiful than I ever imagined!” —Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck on the new Dallas Cowboys stadium, which opened its doors to 1500 VIPs this week

“The first word that comes to mind is: impressive!” — New York Red Bulls captain Juan Pablo Angel on the team’s new stadium, which players got a first sneak peek at yesterday

“The action is quite intense and the effects are completely of-the-moment and dazzling!” — Director Brad Silberling on “Land of the Lost,” which opens at theaters near you next Friday