Friday roundup: MLB billionaire owners cry poor, Rangers stadium reviews get worse and worse

What a week! I know I say that every week, but: What. A. Week. In addition to the World Series insanity, I spent some time this week writing an article about other ways that giant monopolistic cartels screw over regular folks, but it’s not up yet* so you’ll just have to find out about it next week (or keep refreshing my personal website, or follow me on Twitter or something).

In the meantime, there’s lots of sports stadium and arena news to keep you occupied:

  • NYC F.C. may have announced progress on its new soccer stadium this week while providing no indication of actual progress, but the Washington Football Team one-upped them when team president Jason Wright earned an entire NBC Sports article about their stadium plans by saying he didn’t even have a timeline for the process. Meanwhile, the Sacramento Republic likewise issued a statement on their new stadium construction plans that amounted to nothing (“I do have a hard hat in my trunk!” said team president Ben Gumpert, by way of news). At this rate, team owners will be able to get reporting on their stadium campaigns after denying they even want one — oh wait, we’ve gone there already.
  • MLB commissioner Rob Manfred says the league now has $8.3 billion in debt, $3 billion of it accrued during 2020’s pandemic season, which doesn’t actually tell you how well baseball is doing — presumably some of it was borrowed against future revenues from TV contracts and naming-rights deals and the like — but sounds impressive when you’re about to go into union contract talks. Also, notes Marc Normandin, that’s really only a $100 million loss per team, which isn’t an unfathomably huge sum for the billionaires who own most teams; plus we have to take Manfred’s word on that debt figure, and it already doesn’t include things like teams’ ownership of regional sports networks. MLB owners, he writes, are “hoping, as they so often do, that you have no idea how anything works, and will just take them at their word. So that they can do things like, oh, I don’t know, decline the 2021 option on basically everyone with one in order to flood the free agent market with additional players they can then underbid on and underpay, claiming that this is all financially necessary because of all the debt, you see.” Or as we may start calling it soon, getting Brad Handed.
  • Philadelphia public schools lost $112 million in property tax revenues in 2019 that were siphoned off to tax breaks for developers, according to a new Good Jobs First study, nearly double their losses from just two years earlier. Good thing the 76ers‘ plan for an arena funded by siphoned-off property taxes was rejected, though there are more plans where that came from, so Philly schools should probably still hold onto their wallets.
  • One more review of the Texas Rangers‘ new stadium that team owners Ray Davis and Bob Simpson got $500 million to help build because the old one lacked air-conditioning, this one from a fan who’s visited every stadium and arena in North America: “This would probably end up probably down near the bottom.” He added that the upper decks are too far from the field, the place is too dark, the scale is “ridiculous,” and on top of that fans were taking off their masks as soon as security is out of sight, which, yup.
  • Las Vegas has extended its negotiating window again for a new soccer stadium to lure an MLS team, which makes you wonder why they even bothered to set a window in the first place instead of just hanging out a shingle saying, “Have Stadium $$$, Inquire Within.”
  • Sports team owners make tons of “dark money” to political campaigns to try to get elected officials to support their interests, according to ESPN, though disappointingly their only real source is an unnamed NBA owner. But that source did say, “There’s no question,” in italics and everything, so you know they’re serious.
  • Maybe the NHL should just play games outdoors so they can allow in fans? There are dumber ideas, but they might want to figure out how to get fans to keep their damn masks on first.
  • There are some new renderings of the New York Islanders‘ luxury suites at their new arena, and I can’t stop puzzling over what that weird counter-like thing is in this one, or why the women are all wearing stiletto heels to an NHL game. I’ll never understand hockey!

*UPDATE: Now it’s up.

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Every city in U.S. now building a soccer stadium, or at least it seems like it

Some days it seems like this site is turning into Soccer Pitch of Schemes. I mean, seriously, check this out:

The reason for this flood of soccer stadium building has less to do with soccer being the sport of millennials or whatever, and more to do with there being umpteen gazillion soccer teams in the U.S. now, and more on the way, and lots of them not having brand-new stadiums of their own because sometimes there just isn’t time to do that before you have to collect some more expansion fees, you know? Which should cut both ways — if MLS and the USL alike are going to expand to every city with its own post office, you’d think that cities wouldn’t need to spend big bucks on stadium funding in order to have a shot at a franchise — but here we have Switchbacks president Nick Ragain saying of the Colorado Springs vote that “what it means is we have a long-term professional soccer team in Colorado Springs,” and nobody in the media rolling their eyes, so I guess these are questions that are not asked in polite society.

And speaking of soccer and the media not rolling their eyes, yes, an Argentine football team celebrated the reopening of its stadium with a giant holographic flaming lion as many of you have emailed and tweeted at me, but also it’s not really a hologram and fans in the stadium couldn’t even see it except on TV screens. Number of news articles pointing this out: one; number of news articles going “Oooooh, fiery lion!”: more than I can count.

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Sacramento council to vote on turning Burkle’s stadium subsidy into a “loan,” which isn’t better, but also probably isn’t worse

The Sacramento city council is set to vote tomorrow on a plan to loan $27 million to Ron Burkle, owner of the new Sacramento Republic F.C. MLS franchise, for roads and other traffic and transit upgrades around his new stadium, and “repay” it using Burkle’s own property taxes on development surrounding the stadium. Said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who is proposing the loan:

“For me as mayor, there is one overriding question: Is an infrastructure loan that clinched the deal to get Major League Soccer and help reverse decades of little progress in the railyards good for the city? I have no doubt the answer is yes.”

That seems to imply that any size public loan to a private entity would be good enough for Steinberg — who can put a price on reversing decades of little progress? — but whatever, it’s best not to think to hard about what politicians say when politicianing.

This is, of course, tax increment financing, which we’ve covered to death here previously. (Tl;dr version: No, it’s not “new money.”) On the bright side, sort of, the tax increment cash was already set to go to Burkle under his previous agreement to get $33 million in city funding for his stadium; now instead of having to wait to get it year by year, the city would loan him the money up front and he’d pay it back by letting the city have the taxes they would normally collect anyway. The only added risk, really, is that Burkle defaults on the loan, which seems unlikely, since presumably he’ll put up as collateral—

The investor group will be required to put up a yet-to-be determined collateral.

Sigh. Well, it’s not too much worse than the original deal. Probably. Feel free to read the amendment being voted on tomorrow yourself and see if you can find any more potential pitfalls.

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Sacramento is finally granted MLS team, local paper unleashes stored-up flood of soccer metaphors

Sacramento Republic F.C. was officially designated as MLS’s 29th franchise yesterday, and if you were hoping this would unleash a torrent of bad sports plays-on-words in the local media, the Sacramento Bee has got you covered:

Goal! Sacramento is officially a Major League Soccer city

It took years to line up the kick. But Sacramento has scored. It’s now a Major League Soccer city.

…and so on.

Aside from this kind of stuff being the journalism equivalent of dad jokes, it’s also really dangerous for the way it conflates sports fandom (rooting uncritically for your team) with sports business reportage (informing readers about how industry decisions affect them and their pocketbooks). If landing an MLS team is like scoring a goal, then the appropriate response is to throw your hands in the air and cheer, and maybe taking off your pants and putting them on your head, not to ask questions about what the costs and benefits will be of the deal to land the team.

That deal, which involves $33 million in public subsidies plus some free billboards, finally shows up way down in the 28th and 29th paragraphs of the article. The 30th and 31st paragraphs are about how the Sacramento city council may end up fronting the money to the team and letting team owner Ron Burkle “repay” it with his own future property taxes on adjacent development, instead of having to wait and skim off the property taxes himself later — at least I think that’s what they’re about, as the way it’s written (the new “development would produce new property tax revenues that could be used to supplement Burkle’s loan repayments to the city”) doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but if you’ve scrolled down this far in the article you’ve probably lost track of anything other than “Wooo! Soccer!” anyway.

This still isn’t the most egregious misplaced sports metaphor headline — that record is still held by the Hartford Courant, for headlining a plan to build a publicly funded stadium to lure the New England Patriots to town with the single word “Touchdown!” — but it’s pretty bad, and also pretty commonplace. There are reasons why news outlets treat sports as the “toy department,” but that doesn’t make it any less aggravating to watch.

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Sacramento to get MLS team now that city tax kickbacks will help pay for rising MLS expansion fee

The Sacramento Bee is reporting that Sacramento Republic F.C. will finally be officially named the latest MLS expansion team on Monday, after five years of haggling. And the Bee also makes clear what it took to shake loose an expansion approval:

The City Council this year agreed to offer the soccer investment group a $33 million incentive package to help it seal the deal with MLS. That included setting up an infrastructure financing district that would use future increased property tax to reimburse the soccer development group for building an estimated $27 million worth of streets, sewers and other new infrastructure on land near the stadium. The deal also includes $2.4 million worth of building permit fee waivers and other tax rebates, and up to $3 million worth of traffic control and policing on city streets adjacent to the stadium during soccer matches.

The city also will rewrite its signage ordinance to give the team rights to install five digital billboards around town.

As discussed here last month, this is a better deal than many cities are getting for their new MLS stadiums; as also discussed, $33 million plus some free billboards isn’t nothing, and it does seem like the league held out on an announcement in order to get these concessions from the city. (And Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg says he will ask the city council for additional concessions to “give the development group more financial flexibility,” as the Bee puts it, like loaning the money to team owner Ron Burkle and letting him “repay” it later with property tax payments on his other developments nearby.)

The most telling sentence in the whole article, though, may be this one:

The mayor said the proposed loan makes it easier for the Burkle group to finance its $200 million league expansion fee, as well as pay for increased construction costs. The league has bumped that fee up in recent years from $70 million to $150 million to the $200 million level this year.

So if we’re taking the mayor at his word, the city of Sacramento is having to chip in $33 million–plus from future tax receipts plus other goodies, because otherwise the local sports team’s billionaire owner wouldn’t be able to afford the $200 million expansion fee that the league set based on the notion that cities will help subsidize any new expansion teams. Maybe it’s time to consider switching MLS’s designation from “Ponzi scheme” to “extortion racket”?

 

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The Sacramento Republic stadium explainer, explained

In case you missed it, old-school print publication (which, like everything else, is just as much an online enterprise these days) New York magazine was just bought by Vox Media, a collection of sites best known for its “explainers.” And explaining things is good! We turn to the media to explain things, not just report them, because the world needs explaining, and we count on journalists to have the expertise needed to do it, at least in their particular subject areas.

Which brings us to KCRA’s explainer on the proposed new Sacramento Republic F.C. soccer stadium that just had a public financing authority created for it yesterday, an article that is framed as “3 things to know.” And those three things are:

1) When can I get my MLS tickets?

2) How much will the stadium cost?

3) What are soccer fans saying about the development?

Maybe not exactly the three questions I would have wanted answered, but it’s a start. Skipping over 1 (not yet!) and 3 (they like soccer!), let’s turn to 2 to see if it can shed any light on the stadium’s price tag and funding:

The soccer stadium is expected to cost $252 million and will be financed privately by Ron Burkle and his investment group. No taxpayer dollars will be used to build the stadium.

However, the city of Sacramento has committed $33 million in fee waivers for improvements that will lead to new housing and retail developments. Those new developments are expected to generate taxes that will help pay for the infrastructure.

This again. Almost two years ago, the Sacramento Bee suggested that while having city taxpayers pay for an MLS stadium was a bad idea, a good idea might be to “reduce or defer some building fees, to donate land for a training facility, to give the team the revenue from new digital billboards, or to help with roads, sewers and other infrastructure near the stadium.” Because while all those things cost money, they go into the team owners’ pockets before coming back out to be used on stadium construction, and that’s, um, better, I guess, somehow?

This kind of Rube Goldberg funding mechanism is increasingly common, and might actually be worth a new entry in the stadium playbook if we ever do another update of Field of Schemes the book, or at least an extended footnote. But as I wrote when the Bee first proposed it in January 2018:

Let’s say it all together: MONEY IS MONEY, SPORTS TEAM OWNERS DON’T CARE HOW THEY GET IT. If very rich dude Kevin Nagle can get a pile of tax or fee breaks or free land or a pile of billboard revenue that would otherwise go into city coffers, that’s going to be just as fine with him as getting city checks with “4 STADM BLDG” written in the memo field. To pretend there is any moral or fiscal difference is, well, the kind of thing you do when you’re a mayor and want to propose a sports team subsidy but don’t want it to look like one.

Now, $33 million isn’t a super-exorbitant public cost on a $252 million stadium, so this is still better than most other recent MLS stadium deals. And the money is going toward things that are more legitimately public infrastructure, including new roads and a new light rail station — though a rail station that just serves the soccer stadium is arguably less a general public benefit than a benefit to the team. Also, the term sheet for the stadium (not mentioned by the KCRA explainer) grants the team five digital billboards, so that’s an additional means of the city defraying the team’s costs; and the term sheet is just preliminary, not an official lease or contract, so we can’t be sure just yet if $33 million is the final public cost. (The team does promise to pay property taxes on its stadium, at least, which is refreshing, even if paying property taxes on your property isn’t normally something that should be worthy of singling out for praise.)

All of which, you might say, is too detailed for a basic explainer to get into. But that’s one big drawback of explainer journalism: By choosing what information is deemed necessary to readers and what isn’t, it can effectively frame a story to direct readers’ attention away from elements that aren’t deemed important, all while telling them they have all the basics to understand what’s going on. Which, I suppose, is one big drawback of bad journalism in general — but somehow it feels more egregious when you’re being steered away from important information under the guise of an explanation.

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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.

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Sacramento council votes to approve (but really not approve) MLS stadium that won’t (but really will) cost taxpayer money

Good morning, and let’s all read an article that contradicts itself constantly!

The place: Sacramento, California. The outlet: KCRA, which used to be just a UHF television station but is now also a website because everything is also a website (even books!) and broadcasts on something called “virtual channel 3.” The author: “KCRA Staff,” which either means a whole lot of people worked on it or one person who really doesn’t want to be held responsible.

Here is the first paragraph of the article:

The Sacramento City Council approved a public-private partnership to build a Major League Soccer stadium in the downtown railyards and develop the surrounding area.

Whoa, that was fast! Just Friday we were looking at new stadium renderings, and now the council has already approved a funding plan! How did that happen so quickly?

Here is the second paragraph of the article:

Councilmembers unanimously voted Tuesday night to approve a term sheet, a non-binding document that lays out ways the city, the Sacramento Republic FC and Los Angeles-area developer Ron Burkle plan to work together to fund and build the stadium.

Okay, Mr. or Ms. KCRA Staff, that word “non-binding” you used? It means the entities signing it are not “bound” to it, by which is meant that either side can back out. So the partnership isn’t so much “approved” as “planned,” with the actual vote to approve it still to come.

Anyway, how will the city, Sacramento Republic FC, and Ron Burkle (who is actually majority owner of Republic FC, so it’s not entirely clear why he’s listed twice) work together to fund the stadium? On to paragraph three:

The $252 million stadium would be privately funded by the Republic FC and Burkle. No taxpayer dollars will be used to build the stadium.

Great news! Especially since as of Friday the project was set to receive $33 million in tax breaks and other subsidies. But now there’s nothing at all about that, according to paragraph three, and paragraph four, and what’s this now paragraph five:

The term sheet also includes $33 million in tax refunds, waived fees and administrative costs for the stadium.

Look. I understand the difficulties of doing comprehensive reporting in the modern world when media outlets are mostly staffed by overworked, underpaid interns and grad students and maybe sometimes augmented Roombas. But seriously, Mr. and/or Ms. KCRA Staff, is it so much trouble to read the very thing you just wrote to see if it still makes sense, given what you’re writing now? Even if you’re suffering short-term memory loss — perhaps the stress is getting to you, or your expanded RAM chip has come loose from its socket — the words are right there for you to look at as a reminder. It would definitely make for a better article if all the words worked together to convey a consistent series of facts, as opposed to looking like they were assembled from a series of separate articles about separate things happening in separate universes.

Anyway, MLS still hasn’t approved an expansion franchise for Sacramento, and won’t until later this year at the earliest, and the time when the league approves an infinite number of franchises at the latest (which could also be later this year). And the deal that is really a term sheet doesn’t kick in until Sacramento gets a team, at least — this isn’t Indianapolis, for god’s sakes.

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Friday roundup: Sacramento soccer subsidies, Fire could return to Chicago, and a giant mirrored basketball

Did I actually write a couple of days ago that this was looking like a slow news week? The stadium news gods clearly heard me, and when they make it rain news, they make it pour:

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The vaportecture watch never stops: Sacramento Republic and FC Cincinnati deliver latest stadium rendering knee-slappers

My vaportecture article at Deadspin appears to have unlocked some sort of floodgates, because now it seems like not a day goes by that some insane new stadium renderings aren’t unleashed upon an unsuspecting populace. Yesterday, for example, the owners of Sacramento Republic FC (currently a USL team, but in the running for an MLS expansion slot) released these:

https://twitter.com/randomblackrain/status/1113272599860191232

There are some design oddities — why, for example, do all the fans in upper deck appear to be seated in love seats? — as well as some of our favorite vaportectural shtick: stadiums that mysteriously glow while all around them remains dark, athletes engaged in oddly unathletic endeavors (in this case a player taking a penalty kick by apparently engaging in a high jump), fans holding up scarves to obscure their fellow fans’ view during a key moment in the action. But a few eagle-eyed Twitter users went beyond that to look at the individual clipart people (“entourage,” we now know they’re called) and found, um:

I think it’s fair to say that, even if you by necessity have to populate your creation with stock images, it’s important to spread them around a little for at least minimal verisimilitude.

Then there’s this:

That was yesterday morning. Yesterday afternoon, we got yet another round of F.C. Cincinnati renderings, which have previously provided some of the more hilarious moments in this field of study. The latest twist is apparently that the stadium will no longer have an unearthly glow — no, seriously:

Other new renderings show off such innovations as translucent scarves:

The stadium surrounded by a postapocalyptic wasteland of cut-and-paste identical buildings, where fans emerge from a portal from another dimension to arrive at the front gates (and also the stadium still glows somewhat, though not as much as the trees):

And still more, but I’m having trouble navigating the Cincinnati Enquirer’s terrible gallery layout, so please visit there yourself post your favorite items in comments, or on Twitter, or really anywhere.

 

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