MLS attendance figures are even more fictitious than we realized

I’ve snarked about MLS attendance figures before, based largely on televised scenes of half-empty stadiums which near-sellout official attendance figures, as well as my own experience attending Red Bull New York games while paying a tiny fraction of face value for tickets. But this Los Angeles Times report, man:

Howard Handler, the league’s chief marketing officer, said the number of comp tickets distributed has declined by an average of 20% over the last two years. It now accounts for about 9% of announced attendance, he said.

Yet even if that figure is correct, it still would mean more than 663,000 tickets included in the MLS crowd count for 2016 were given away. And even that math doesn’t always add up. Just look at Orlando City, one of five teams whose attendance was surveyed for this story. The club claimed home attendance of 532,500 this season at Camping World Stadium although the City of Orlando, which owns the facility, released figures Friday that showed the number of tickets scanned — the modern-day equivalent of a turnstile count — was 151,060 short of the team’s total, a difference of 8,886 per game.

Which, fine, whatever — if Orlando City S.C. wants to pretend a lot more folks are turning up for games than actually are (and it’s likely that many of those who do show are getting tickets for free or at discount), that’s a time-honored sports tradition. And even 10,000 fans a game is a respectable number for a sport that not all that long ago was barely a blip on the American national sports consciousness. Where it matters to the general public is when teams start making claims about the economic impact of an MLS team: If you really think you’re going to have 20,000 fans a night show up and spend money, you should be mentally replacing a large chunk of that number with ghosts. (You should probably do this for all pro sports, mind you, but especially for MLS.)

What this means for MLS’s economic viability is above my pay grade, though given that many players aren’t paid much more than the league minimum of $51,000, they’re probably doing pretty okay. It does help explain why the league is so dead-set on expanding until the cows come home, though: It’s way easier to make money selling expansion franchises for $200 million a pop than selling tickets $3 at a time to fans who may or may not exist.

Orlando soccer stadium has raised $15m via the old green-card-for-investment scam

The interwebs are freaking out about this article in the New York Times by our old friend Ken Belson, which talks about how Orlando City F.C. owner Flávio Augusto da Silva is seeking overseas stadium investors in exchange for a shot at green cards, “in what may be the first deal of its kind.”

As with so much that Belson writes: No, not exactly. The federal EB-5 program offering to let foreign investors in U.S. development projects jump the line for visas has been around for 25 years (which Belson notes), and was in fact a key part of then-Brooklyn Nets owner Bruce Ratner’s finance plan for his arena project back in 2010 (which he doesn’t). The money there went to pay for infrastructure for the larger site, not the arena per se, but still it means the Orlando deal isn’t exactly a first. (EB-5 loans were also proposed for one of Las Vegas’s many arenas that never got built, at least not yet.)

EB-5 has been criticized for being ripe for abuse, with some developers allegedly using it as a scam to rake in cash without ever building anything, while others have complained that if the U.S. is really going to sell green cards to people will to pay for the privilege, it should at least get the money directly instead of giving it to private developers in the hopes that it will somehow create jobs. (The provision of the EB-5 program that da Silva is using is only available for projects in high-unemployment areas, which is certainly true for the area around the Orlando soccer stadium, though how a handful of temporary construction jobs and less temporary hot dog vendor jobs is going to do much to mitigate this is less clear.)

Anyway, this is indeed a scam, though it’s one that is by no means limited to Orlando’s soccer stadium (which is otherwise being funded entirely out of da Silva’s pocket), and one that’s more about how developers have sweet-talked the federal government into getting them access to cheap capital by bumping certain foreigners with money to the front of the immigration line. Team officials haven’t said how much they’re expecting to raise by this method (they say they have $15 million so far), but keep in mind it’s just a no-interest loan, not a grant, so while da Silva would be saving money, he’s still be on the hook for the principal. It’s worth getting upset about, in other words, but less because da Silva is applying for it than because it still exists at all.

Orlando’s MLS stadium deal not as taxpayer-friendly as reported, still better than a poke in the eye

Elliott Turner, aka Twitter’s @futfanatico, also had a piece in Vice Sports on Friday, this one a long analysis of Orlando City S.C.‘s stadium deal, which I’d previously praised as a rare moment when “a professional sports franchise is actually agreeing to pay to build its new stadium, and pay (something) for the land to build it on, and pay property taxes on the stadium once it’s complete,” though the next day I had to unpraise it when it turned out the team was still expecting the city to use its eminent domain powers to force private owners to turn over part of the stadium land. Turner has even more problems with the deal, though, calling it “a new way to milk taxpayers”:

  • The team will now operate the stadium, not the city, meaning it will cover operating expenses but also won’t share revenues.
  • The team’s non-relocation clause has been cut from 15 to ten years, and it will no longer pay a $20 million fine if it moves before then.
  • The city is still on the hook for sewer and infrastructure upgrades that could amount to $16 million, which will wipe out the $9 million profit the city will turn on the land it bought and re-sold to Orlando City S.C.
  • Under the previous deal, the club was going to pay $675,000 in annual rent; by owning the stadium itself it won’t pay rent but will pay property taxes, but those will likely amount to less than the rent would have.
  • Under the new contract, Orlando City S.C. can deduct future construction cost overruns from the $18 million purchase price it’s paying the city for stadium land.

So how bad is all this? Not real bad, honestly: Operating costs can easily outstrip any revenues. The non-relocation clause is likely a non-issue if the team owns the stadium and would be saddled with it if it moved. Sewer costs are a standard city expense that property taxes are supposed to help cover. And most importantly, that “rent” wasn’t going to pay back the city and county’s $40 million in construction costs under the old deal, but toward paying back a $10 million loan that the city was going to provide toward the team’s share.

The most salient item uncovered by Turner is that the $18 million land purchase price may get eaten up by cost overruns, which is a real concern. But even then, getting a lousy price on land sales is a perfectly cromulent tradeoff for getting out from under $40 million in taxpayer cash obligations. The Orlando City soccer deal may not be the stadium utopia we had hoped for, but it’s at least close, and much closer than the original deal that the team owners originally proposed. I may not be quite shocked and awed by it, but if all stadium deals looked like this one, the world would be a significantly better place.

 

Orlando soccer stadium to be built on land seized by eminent domain, happy ending canceled

Aw, man, and I was feeling so good about the Orlando City S.C. soccer stadium deal too! And now this:

[A] lawsuit claims that since the city of Orlando used eminent domain to acquire the land, it needed to follow certain steps before selling it.

They claim in the lawsuit the city owned the property less than 10 years, the city didn’t allow the original owners to repurchase their land and the city did not open up bidding for the land.

Orlando previously tried to use eminent domain to take land from a church for the soccer stadium, but instead gave up and moved the stadium a block over. One piece of the new property was acquired by eminent domain, though, and state law prohibits selling it to a private entity for ten years afterwards; Orlando officials claim they’re not selling that one parcel to the soccer team (presumably they’re just granting an easement to build the stadium on top of it), and anyway court rulings allow private development to be a public purpose, so neener neener.

It’s entirely possible that the whole transaction will be ruled legal, but still, this seriously harshes my buzz. Why oh why can’t we have nice things?

Orlando soccer team actually pays actual money for stadium land, this is actually happening

The city of Orlando has agreed to sell 12 acres of land to Orlando City S.C. for its new soccer stadium at a price of $18 million. Is that a fair deal? I’m going to indulge myself now by answering in a manner that I pretty much never have in almost 18 years of running this site:

Who the heck cares?

I’m sure that given enough time and data on land values in Orlando, I (or someone else) could pick apart fair market value for the city property that will now be turned over to the soccer club. (Not to mention the $11 million the city has spent on cleanup and site prep, and whether that’s typical or a special consideration for a project like this.) But for now, let’s just enjoy for a moment that a professional sports franchise is actually agreeing to pay to build its new stadium, and pay (something) for the land to build it on, and pay property taxes on the stadium once it’s complete — you know, like regular people do when they own property. It shouldn’t be remarkable, but it is, and we should bookmark it as an example that things can sometimes be different.

Why this happened in Orlando is complex — part city government that was resistant to coughing up public money, part rich foreign owners who just wanted to get a team in place and didn’t care much about dickering over a few tens of millions in subsidies — and not necessarily easily transferrable to other cities. But even a glimpse at a possible future where new sports stadiums are treated like private investments, not public necessities so that private owners can earn more profits, is enough for me, for today at least.

Orlando City to give back subsidies and fund own soccer stadium, in world’s first June Fools joke

I’ve been pretty much out of commission today (will catch up on Monday), but this news item required a quick response:

Team owner Flávio Augusto da Silva announced Friday the franchise will privately finance the construction of its downtown soccer-specific stadium. The stadium, originally envisioned and pitched as a city-owned venue, will now be owned and operated privately by Orlando City.

Wait, what? The same Orlando City S.C. that got $40 million in city and county subsidies two years ago? And which was demanding another $30 million from the state? Suddenly da Silva found $70 million in his other pair of pants, and now he doesn’t need public money after all?

The arrangement will save the City of Orlando more than $15 million it had pledged for the project, in land and construction funding — and will bring in additional tax revenue for the city, because the privately-owned stadium will generate property taxes…

In addition to privately financing the stadium, which officials said is expected to cost more than the originally-projected $115 million, Orlando City will buy back the stadium land from the city.

There are a few possibilities here. One is that it is Christmas, or maybe the Rapture, and from now on sports team owners will decide that asking the public to pay their bills is just wrong, so from now on we’ll be paying construction bills and our taxes alike! A related, slightly less implausible scenario is that the Orlando City owners decided that they’d lose a pile of money if they didn’t break ground soon and had to delay their stadium’s opening, so throwing in $70 million in cash plus the cost of land plus property taxes until the end of time is totally worth it.

Or — and I’m sure some of you have thought of this already — maybe there’s another shoe to drop. I’m not sure what this would be (the da Silva press statement doesn’t leave a lot of loopholes for hidden subsidies, though having the city somehow cover operating costs would be one possibility), but there are a lot of suspicious factors here: The notion of a sports team owner willingly giving up already-approved subsidies, for one, but also the timing of this announcement on a Friday afternoon, when there’s little time for journalists to research WTF he’s on about before having to file their stories (and web videos) and head home for the weekend.

And unfortunately, I can’t do much better than that today, other than to raise a skeptical eyebrow and plan on following up on Monday. In the meantime, I certainly hope this is for real, and not one of those hoaxes that the kids today like to put over on gullible journalists.

Orlando mayor says soccer stadium approved two years ago won’t happen unless state kicks in $30m more

Back when the city of Orlando and Orange County approved $40 million in subsidies for Orlando City S.C. in 2013, it was supposed to be enough to cover the cost of an $85 million soccer stadium, with plans to add more bells and whistles — more luxury seating, a second “executive club,” and more advertising boards — if $30 million in additional state tax breaks came through. Now, though, with site prep for the stadium still in the early stages, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer is suddenly saying the state sales tax rebate is “integral” to the project, and without it … something. Something bad.

You can’t really blame Dyer, since it’s not his money that’s at stake here — I mean, it is his citizens’ money, since they’re Florida taxpayers, but it doesn’t come out of his budget — so it makes sense for him to pull out all the stops to lean on the state legislature to approve the cash. One would hope that state legislators would instead look at the facts that past state sports subsidies have only returned 30 cents on the dollar and that the Orlando project is only promising to create 60 jobs and politely decline Dyer’s demands, but this is Florida, so probably not.

Orlando City draw 62,000 to Citrus Bowl, showing why they need new stadium, or something

Orlando City S.C. may want to increase the size of its new soccer stadium because the club just played its first ever MLS game, and sold 62,000 tickets for it. Because certainly 62,000 people turning up at the Citrus Bowl shows that you could never draw 62,000 fans if the team played at, say, the Citrus Bowl.

Team execs are saying the new stadium could go as high as 28,000 seats, which would be the largest MLS soccer-specific stadium, Fox 35 reports. If any of them said anything about increased cost or how it would be paid for, Fox 35 can’t be bothered to tell you that.

Florida legislators gripe that they have to decide which teams to throw money at

It turns out that the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity really was supposed to rank sports subsidy requests instead of just telling the legislature “yeah, these are all good,” and at least a couple of state legislators aren’t happy about it at all:

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, announced Friday they have asked economist Amy Baker to use documents submitted by backers of the four stadiums and the Department of Economic Opportunity’s evaluation forms.

“It would be a great disservice to ask members to vote on these projects without an objective ranking,” Crisafulli said in the statement. He added, “We believe we will be able to get the results before session.”

Baker runs the legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, so basically the legislature is having to rank the projects themselves anyway. And lawmakers are still set to hand out $7 million to the four projects — all of which are already underway, so would take place with or without the subsidies — so the only thing that is going to be decided here is who gets what, and who’ll have to wait until another $13 million in state subsidies is available next year. So really, the legislature is paying one of its staff to decide how the Miami Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars, Orlando City S.C., or the Daytona International Speedway divvy up the money. I’d suggest a simpler solution.

Florida economic panel rules everybody should get tax money for stadiums they already agreed to build

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity has issued its long-awaited (well, for a couple of months, anyway) ruling on which of the four finalists for state sales-tax subsidies are to get priority, and the answer is: all of them!

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity advised Jacksonville, Orlando, Daytona International Speedway and Sun Life Stadium that their applications met all “statutory criteria.” In a letter, the department also recommended that lawmakers could approve all four.

Daytona International Speedway and Sun Life Stadium are each seeking $3 million a year for 30 years for ongoing improvements to those facilities. Orlando has requested $2 million a year for three decades to help pay for a planned $110 million soccer stadium. Jacksonville, with its application supported by the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, has asked for $1 million a year for three decades.

This is jaw-droppingly dumb, since the whole point of this process of having teams seeking state subsidies to submit standardized forms to a state agency was to come up with a ranking for who’d get first dibs on the money; instead, the state legislature will now have to decide who gets what, which is exactly as it would have been anyway. It’s also dumb because, as an analysis of past state sports subsidies found, Florida has only received 30 cents of return on each dollar spent on stadium and arena projects. And finally, it’s dumb because all four of these projects — renovations to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins stadiums and to the Daytona Speedway, plus a new stadium for Orlando City S.C. — are already underway, meaning whatever economic benefit the state would get from them, it’ll happen regardless of whether the state decides to divert public money their way after the fact.

If there’s a bright side, it’s that the four sports entities have demanded $9 million a year in funding, and there’s only $7 million in the state’s available sales-tax fund, so the Joint Legislative Budget Commission will have to figure out somehow who’s going to see their subsidy demands trimmed. This is a bright side, however, only in the sense of “The bank just got robbed, but they ran out of money before the robbers’ bags were full.” Also, there’s nothing stopping the state from approving more money later, which means if these teams (and more) don’t get what they want this round, they can just come back for more. Congratulations, Florida — you appear to have just invented the first self-replenishing cat feeder of sports subsidies.