Friday roundup: If you’re watching TV sports in empty stadiums by summer, count yourself lucky

Michael Sorkin, who died yesterday of COVID-19, was a prolific architecture critic (and architect) and observer of the politics of public space, and so not a little influential in the development of my own writing. I’m sure I read some of Sorkin’s architecture criticism in the Village Voice, but he first came on my radar with his 1992 anthology “Variations on a Theme Park,” a terrific collection of essays discussing the ways that architects, urban planners, and major corporations were redesigning the world we live in to become a simulacrum of what people think they want from their environment, but packaged in a way to better make them safely saleable commodities. (I wish I’d gotten a chance to ask him what he thought of the Atlanta Braves‘ new stadium, with its prefab walkable urban neighborhood with no real city attached to it.) In his “Variations on a Theme Park” essay on Disneyland and Disney World, he laid out the history of imagineered cities starting with the earliest World’s Fairs, up to the present day with Disney’s pioneering of “copyrighted urban environments” where photos cannot even be taken and published without prior approval of the Mouse — a restriction he got around by running as an illustration a photo of some clouds, and labeling it, “The sky above Disney World.”

I really hope this isn’t the beginning of a weekly feature on great people we’ve lost to this pandemic, though it seems pretty inevitable at this point. For now, on with the other stadium and arena news, though if you’re looking for a break from incessant coronavirus coverage, you won’t find it here:

State board gathers in small, enclosed space to approve St. Louis MLS subsidies

Hey, it’s actual stadium subsidy news! The world may be padlocking its doors as we speak, but the Missouri Development Finance Board did find time to approve $5.7 million worth of tax credits for the expansion St. Louis MLS team‘s new stadium.

The vote was unanimous, with board chair Marie Carmichael saying afterwards, “I feel a lot better about this project. It is certainly more doable.” (The team’s initial request, for $30 million in tax credits, was rejected last December after it was determined that the state was plumb out of tax credits after its next $5.7 million.) Though at least one board member noted the, uh, problematic timing of all this:

Although he voted in favor of the project, board treasurer John Mehner raised concerns about approving the project at a time when the world is focused on battling the coronavirus.

“I’m worried about the optics … and whether this is the exact right time to take action,” said Mehner, who suggested waiting for up to two months to take up action on the tax credits.

There’s also the question of whether the sports world will ever be the same as it was just a couple of weeks ago: Leagues are already looking at returning to play games in empty venues, possibly much smaller ones that could effectively be used as TV studios; this could be the new normal for a long while if predictions are accurate that we’re likely to be on a “roller coaster” of reopenings and reclosings as the virus waxes and wanes over the next year or two.

And then there’s the question of how sports leagues survive the economic hit of canceling most of all of their seasons — while some leagues are sitting on deep reserves of cash, that’s not true for smaller leagues like MLS (and certainly not for minor-league sports). Will the league’s strategy of continued growth underwritten by continued expansion still be viable in a world battered by a months- or years-long economic crash? We’ve seen leagues before that have gone on hiatus because of what seemed like a momentary crisis and then never returned; I’m not especially expecting that for MLS, but there could still be major repercussions for its business model.

In the meantime, I guess take comfort in the fact that at least some business as usual is still going on, even if you can’t go to work or school or the weed store. Sure, it’s the business as usual of tax money being handed over to private enterprise to underwrite their profits, but we’ve gotta cling to whatever normalcy we have now, right?

Friday roundup: Dolphins owner seeks Formula One tax break, Tacoma okays soccer subsidies, plus vaportecture from around the globe!

Happy coronavirus panic week! What with stadiums in Europe being closed to fans and stadium workers in the U.S. testing positive for the virus, it’s tough to think of much right now other than what song to wash your hands to for 20 seconds (this is my personal preference). But long after we’re done with our self-quarantines, the consequences of sports venue spending will live on, so to the week’s news we go:

  • Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is seeking a sales-tax exemption for tickets to Formula One racing events at his stadium, saying that without it, Miami might not get a Grand Prix. The tax break is expected to cost the state between $1.5 million and $2 million per event, but Formula One officials say each race would generate an economic impact of more than $400 million, and what possible reason would they have to lie about a thing like that?
  • The Tacoma city council voted 8-1 on Monday to approve spending on a $60 million, 5,000-seat stadium for the Reign F.C. women’s pro soccer team. According to a letter of intent approved by the council, the city will provide $15 million, while the city parks agency will provide $7.5 million more, with perhaps another $20 million to come from federal tax credits for investing in low-income communities. The parks body still has to vote on the plan on Monday as well; given that Metro Parks commissioner Aaron Pointer — who is also a former Houston Astro and a brother of the Pointer Sisters — said he doesn’t see “really any benefits at all” for the city or its parks, it’s fair to say that the vote there will be more contentious than the one in the city council.
  • Brett Johnson, the developer behind a proposed $400 million development in Pawtucket centered around a pro soccer stadium, says he has lots of investors eager to parks their capital gains in his project tax-free under the Trump administration’s Opportunity Zone program, but it might take a while to work out all the details because reasons. But, he added, “My confidence is very high,” and confidence is what it’s all about, right?
  • Nashville’s Save Our Fairgrounds has filed for a court injunction to stop work on a new Nashville S.C. stadium, on the grounds that no redevelopment of the state fairgrounds can take place without a public voter referendum. This brings the total number of lawsuits against the project to … umpteen? I’m gonna go with umpteen.
  • There’s now an official lawsuit against the Anaheim city council for voting on a Los Angeles Angels stadium land sale without sufficient public meetings. The People’s Homeless Task Force is charging that holding most of the sale talks in private violated the state’s Brown Act on transparency; the city’s lawyers responded that “there could be a myriad of reasons” why the council was able to vote on the sale at a single meeting in December despite never discussing it in public before that, though they didn’t suggest any specific reasons.
  • Wondering what vaportecture looks like outside of North America? Here’s an article on Watford F.C.‘s proposed new stadium, though if you aren’t an Athletic subscriber you’ll be stuck with just the one image, though given that it’s an image of Watford fans stumbling zombie-like into the stadium out of what appears to be an open field, really what more do you need?
  • There are some new renderings of the St. Louis MLS team‘s proposed stadium, and once again they mostly feature people crossing the street, not anything having to do with watching soccer. Are the clip art images of people throwing their hands in the air for no reason temporarily out of stock or something?
  • Here are photos of a 31-year-old arena being demolished, because America.
  • The Minnesota Vikings‘ four-year-old stadium needs $21 million in new paneling on its exterior, because the old paneling was leaking. At least the stadium’s construction contractors will be footing the bill, but it’s still an important reminder that “state of the art” isn’t necessarily better than “outmoded,” especially when it comes to new and unproven designs.
  • And speaking of COVID-19, here’s an article on how travel restrictions thanks to the new coronavirus will cost the European tourism industry more than $1 billion per month, without wondering what else Europeans (and erstwhile travelers to Europe from other continents) will do with the money they’re saving on plane tickets and hotel rooms. Where’s my article on how pandemics are a boost to the hand sanitizer and canned soup industries?

St. Louis passes two bills to give MLS team tax breaks worth mumble-mumble-something

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen passed two bills on Friday granting full exemptions from property taxes and sales taxes on construction materials to a new St. Louis MLS stadium, and here’s how various news outlets described the public cost:

St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

One bill will provide 25 years of property tax abatement on the value of the new construction, saving the owners about $34.5 million.

The other measure allows a sales tax exemption for materials used to construct the 22,500-seat stadium and related facilities. An estimate on what that’s worth has not been released yet.

KSDK;TV:

The approvals pave the way for subsidies, including partial tax abatement, sales tax exemption on construction materials, amusement tax abatement and special taxing districts that would impose a 1% sales tax. The taxing districts will require additional legislation.

KMOV-TV:

The ownership group for the stadium will cover most of the cost of the more than $200 million facility, but is asking for some city incentives to cover the cost of some infrastructure improvements.

That’s some pretty bad reporting! The Post-Dispatch wins by default for at least attempting to give some numbers, though it might have at least attempted a guesstimate on the cost of the construction sales tax break: The St. Louis city sales tax rate is 4.23%, so if costs are split anything like roughly evenly between labor and materials on a $200 million stadium, we’re looking at a few million dollars’ worth of cost here. Also that $34.5 million in property tax savings over 25 years is more like $19 million in present value, and nobody is mentioning the $57.4 million over 30 years in ticket-tax rebates that were already approved by the city (present value around $29 million), making for a total public subsidy of around $60 million.

But then, the reporting can’t even agree on the total cost of the stadium: KMOV says it’s “more than $200 million,” KSDK says $461 million, while the Post-Dispatch says $350 million to $400 million. The highest number appears to be from a December report by the city’s Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority, which may be higher because it includes the cost of not just the stadium but an entire mixed-use district, or because it includes things like interest costs over time and not the present value of the cost (you don’t calculate the price of a house you just bought by adding up all your future mortgage payments over time), or something else entirely — nothing appears to have been reported in detail or to be available online, though I did find a helpful page on how to apply for your own tax breaks from the city of St. Louis.

If your eyes are starting to glaze over from all these numbers, that’s kind of the point: $34.5 million in tax breaks on a $461 million project sounds like a lot less than $60 million in subsidies for a $200 million one, so it’s in the team’s (and the city’s interest) not to be too specific about who’s paying how much for what. It’s why Judith Grant Long had to spend ten years compiling data on actual stadium costs (see it in animated GIF form here), because reporting on it is so all over the place.

Anyway, we can say for sure that St. Louis taxpayers are going to kick in something for a private soccer stadium, and that it’s less than most of the cost, but more than nothing. If that’s unsatisfying to you, try calling up Long and seeing if she’s up for updating her study — it just may take a decade for you to get an answer.

Friday roundup: More Carolina Panthers stadium demands, D-Backs explain Vancouver move threat, and giant soccer robots

Good morning, and thank you for taking a break from your coronavirus panic reading to patronize Field of Schemes. Please wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water, and we can begin:

St. Louis prepares to increase MLS stadium tax kickbacks to $60m

Ever since the state of Missouri informed the owners of the as-yet-unnamed St. Louis MLS expansion team that it couldn’t give them the $30 million in tax credits they wanted, there’s been a scramble to figure out how to fill that hole. And now the city of St. Louis appears to be stepping up to the, uh, penalty spot, with a package of tax breaks and dedicated tax streams that could be worth $55 million over 25 years:

The two measures, providing partial property tax abatement for the project and outlining other tax incentives, were endorsed, 7-0, by the Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee…

The bills, which now move to the full Board of Aldermen, call for 25 years of property tax abatement on the value of new construction. That’s expected to save the ownership about $34.5 million.

Also planned is a sales tax exemption for building materials used for the project; an estimate has yet to be released for that.

The legislation, sponsored by Aldermanic President Lewis Reed, also calls for two separate one-cent sales taxes on food, drinks, tickets and other items sold at the stadium. They would be levied by new community improvement and transportation development districts.

In addition, ownership attorney Bill Kuehling told the committee that “we are counting on” revenues from a third one-cent sales tax that would be authorized by the city’s Port Authority.

Okay, let’s run through these. The full property tax abatement had been previously announced, but without a price tag; $34.5 million over 25 years is a decent chunk of change, and worth maybe $19 million in present value (a bit less if it’s backloaded as property value rises over time, a bit more if the stadium is expected to fall in value as it ages). A sales tax exemption on building materials is a common subsidy to hand out, and typically isn’t a huge value, but it could be a few million dollars. A sales tax surcharge on in-stadium purchases was previously announced, too, and probably mostly ends up coming out of team owners’ pockets (since they have to lower prices slightly to account for the increased end price); if some of these additional taxes cover the area surrounding the stadium, though, it would effectively be taxing the team’s neighbors to finance the stadium project.

Put it all together, and we’re probably looking at around $30 million in city tax subsidies, which added to the $29 million worth of ticket tax kickbacks the team owners would be getting gets us to around $60 million of public cost, before even accounting for whatever the state manages to scrounge up in tax credits. (They’ve suggested $5.7 million as a more doable figure.) That’s not an insane amount of money compared to some stadium subsidies, but $60 million is still $60 million, and about the same as what some other cities have been throwing at stadiums to lure MLS expansion franchises. Except that St. Louis has already been awarded an MLS team to start play in 2022, and it would be really messy for the league to try to undo that, so is this really the time for the city of St. Louis to start bailing out the team owners for their shortfall in state subsidies? (Answer: It’s always time for that, apparently.)

Friday roundup: Panthers owner donated to Charlotte officials during stadium lobbying, St. Louis MLS didn’t need $30m in state money after all, and what time the Super Bowl economic impact rationalizations start

Happy Friday, and try not to think about how much you’re contributing to climate change by reading this on whatever electronic device you’re using. Though at least reading this in text doesn’t require a giant server farm like watching a video about stadiums would — “Streaming one hour of Netflix a week requires more electricity, annually, than the yearly output of two new refrigerators” is one of the more alarming sentences I’ve read ever — so maybe it counts as harm reduction? I almost linked to an amusing video clip to deliver my punchline, wouldn’t that have been ironic!

And now, the news:

Missouri gov pulls brakes on St. Louis MLS team’s $30m tax credit request, now what?

[record scratch noise]:

State officials still want a private ownership group to build a Major League Soccer stadium in downtown St. Louis, but they aren’t going to funnel $30 million in tax credits to help pay for it…

Rather than the $30 million, the administration is expected to support a $5.7 million infusion of state money if the ownership group asks.

This is unexpected, but maybe shouldn’t be: As KMOV reports, while the as-yet-unnamed MLS team has long been expecting $30 million in state tax credits as part of a roughly $60 million stadium subsidy from the city and state combined, the Missouri Development Finance Board has an annual cap of $10 million in credits that it can hand out, which makes giving out $30 million to the soccer team owners over two years kind of problematic. Approval of three state cabinet officials would have been needed to lift the cap, and that didn’t happen, so in effect the MDFB said, “We only have $5.7 million left, it’s yours if you want it.”

This is kind of a surprise, as Gov. Mike Parson’s office had previously expressed interest in working out a tax credit deal, and so far as I can tell no one had indicated that the tax credit cap would be an issue before now. There’s been no response from the team owners to this new roadblock, but given that the new stadium is supposed to be open by March 2022, there’ll need to be some resolution to this funding gap sooner than later.

Meanwhile, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson’s office released this statement:

The City of St. Louis and Mayor Krewson remain incredibly excited about having an MLS team. We don’t believe the state’s decision will interfere with our support of the #MLS4TheLou ownership group and their commitment to this project. It’s a more than $460 million private investment in Downtown West that will anchor a revitalized mixed-use district, create hundreds of construction and permanent jobs, and unite the City around this global sport. Bring on 2022!

So does that mean that Krewson thinks the state will eventually find $30 million in tax credit money, even if it takes a few more years? Or that the city will cover the state’s share? (It was technically the city that was asking for the credits on the team’s behalf.) Or that the team owners will move ahead with the project even without the full $30 million, in which case why was everybody saying the $30 million in state money was necessary in the first place? So very many important questions — hopefully we’ll have some answers soon, so watch this space.

Friday roundup: Helicopter rides for rich fans, pricey bridge prices, and why Deadspin mattered

In case anyone hasn’t been following this week’s Deadspin drama, pretty much the entire staff has resigned over the past two days, following Tuesday’s decision by CEO Jim Spanfeller to fire acting editor-in-chief Barry Petchesky because the staff had responded to Spanfeller’s edict to “stick to sports” by posting a ton of excellent non-sports content. A few last posts have gone up the last couple of days, some to burn off features that were already scheduled to run and some to take classically Deadspinesque digs at management for burning down a popular website seemingly out of spite for continuing to do exactly what it had been doing for years before they bought it.

This is very bad news for journalism and America and humanity, and not only if you, like me, will miss the site’s potshots at our Big Wet President. There’s a popular notion that sports is just a fun diversion where the “outside world” of politics has no place — and that, as I hope the entire 21-year history of this site has made abundantly clear, is an extremely dangerous notion, because it means that concerns over what taxpayers are being charged for places to play sports or what athletes are being paid to play sports or who is allowed to speak out on what issues involving sports are dismissed with a Can’t we just watch the game? But games are serious — and lucrative — business, and can’t be divorced from the greater culture, any more than we should be just watching movies as pure entertainment without attention to the bigger issues involved. Deadspin was dedicated to erasing those lines and allowing its writers to address whatever they felt needed addressing at the moment, whether it was the meaning of who you’re seen sitting with at a football game or what we’re getting stuck in our rectums each year, and until and unless a successor emerges to pick up the torch, the world will be a sadder, dumber place.

(Already yesterday I read about Josh Hamilton’s arrest after his daughter said he threw a chair at her — a phrasing I owe to this excellent Deadspin non-sports article, incidentally — and wished I could read Deadspin’s analysis of it. Then I read about John Wetteland’s arrest for reportedly sexually assaulting a four-year-old child, and thought I wonder if maybe men’s sports should just be banned altogether at this point given the kind of behavior it encourages and realized Deadspin was probably my best bet for reading that take, too. It’s going to be a long however many weeks or months until something arises from Deadspin’s ashes, if that ever happens.)

Anyway, on to the weekly muddling of sports and politics:

  • The Indiana Pacers‘ arena will still be named after the bank that stopping paying for naming rights in June until the team has found a new naming-rights sponsor, which seems weird at first but actually makes total sense: It costs money to change the signage so why do it twice, and also the value of naming rights goes down with each new iteration of a corporate moniker that dilutes the name’s image for the public — quick, tell me what the Oakland Coliseum’s official name is these days — so calling it “Pacers Arena” or whatever for a few months might get fans to start calling it that permanently, and we can’t have that. And if you’re wondering why the Pacers get to sell naming rights to a building that was built entirely with public dollars and is owned by the public: It’s Indianapolis, Jake.
  • St. Louis’s new MLS stadium finally has a site picked out — Market Street near Union Station, if you’re scoring at home — and new renderings as well, though they look pretty much like the old renderings except for the one that is just a closeup of a kid riding on his parent’s (?) shoulders. The state of Missouri has received approval to sell 22 acres of land for the stadium to the city’s Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority, which will then lease it to the MLS team for … oh, that doesn’t seem to have been reported. Just look at the pretty pictures and don’t worry your head about that nasty money business.
  • A public city database in Atlanta is indicating that the city’s $23 million pedestrian bridge for the Falcons actually cost $41.7 million, but the city insists it’s really just that they entered the same checks multiple times. I’m not sure “spent $23 million on a pedestrian bridge for a football team and also can’t do basic bookkeeping” looks much better, honestly.
  • The San Antonio Spurs — whose mascot is for some reason a kangaroo, is that a kangaroo? — have installed four new helipads so that fans can buy helicopter rides to games, which really tells you everything you need to know about 1) who sports teams are interested in marketing to these days and 2) just how ridiculously much money rich people in America have to burn these days.
  • Fresno FC owner Ray Beshoff has declared he “will almost certainly be relocating the team” because he hasn’t been provided with a new soccer-only stadium, unless “in the next two or three weeks if people come to the table with ideas or suggestions that we think are tenable.” This will come as a huge shock to fans who’ve been dedicated followers of the USL team since (looks up team on Wikipedia) March of 2018.
  • The San Francisco 49ers are raising ticket prices by 13% but giving season ticket holders free food and soda, which I guess means 49ers fans will be spending most of games from now on pigging out on all-you-can-eat nachos instead of watching the action on the field. Also, you can’t get the free food if you buy tickets on the secondary market, only if you’re the original season ticket holder. Or, I guess, borrow the season ticket holder’s free-food card? Or have a season ticket holder go up to the counter for you and get your nachos? I don’t live anywhere near Santa Clara and hate football, but I am very excited at seeing how fans figure out how to game this system.
  • Still nobody is sure which minor-league teams MLB will threaten to eliminate as part of its plan to restrict minor-league affiliates, or what criteria MLB will use for deciding who shall live and who shall die or whether MLB is even serious or just trying to scare minor-league players into not demanding they be paid minimum wage. I really should write about this for Deadsp — crap.
  • It rained at the Buffalo Bills game last weekend, so a local country music station ran a poll asking listeners: “Would you be in favor of a roof stadium or no?” Not included: any mention of what a roof would cost, or what WYRK has against the word “roofed.”
  • The corporate newspaper that helped gut a free daily by selling it to people who immediately laid off most of the editorial staff ran an article this week asking if the new New York Islanders arena will make it harder for the nearby Nassau Coliseum to draw events, but I’m not going to link to a union-busting-enabling outlet that put the article behind a paywall anyway, so let me just answer the question here: Duh, yes!
  • A former assistant to Inglewood Mayor James Butts has changed her testimony in the lawsuit against the Los Angeles Clippers‘ proposed arena, and Inglewood officials are asking that her revised testimony be rejected because they say she’s in “cahoots” with Madison Square Garden, which opposes the arena because it doesn’t want competition for its own arena nearby. Elephants, man.
  • The DreamHouse New Mexico Bowl has been canceled, because alleged film production company and title sponsor DreamHouse turns out not to exist, but rather to be a scam perpetrated by “a relentless self promoter who lies about nearly everything he says he does.”
  • A giant water droplet named Wendy has made a video suggesting that Washington’s NFL team should move back within city limits. Sorry, Sean Doolittle, this is actually the most 2019 Washington thing ever.
  • The Sunshine Coast Pickleball Association is seeking funding from the city of Sechelt for a new pickleball stadium. I don’t actually know where Sechelt is and am only dimly aware of what pickleball is, and I’m not going to ruin the perfect sentence above by looking either thing up.

Friday roundup: How Kansas City evicted a team for rent non-payment and ended up costing itself $1m, and other stories

This week’s recommended reading: Girl to City, Amy Rigby’s just-published memoir of the two decades that took her from newly arrived art student in 1970s New York to divorced single mom and creator of the acclaimed debut album Diary of a Mod Housewife. (Disclosure, I guess: I edited an early version of one chapter for the Village Voice last year.) I picked up my copy last week at the launch of Rigby’s fall book tour, and whether you love her music or her long-running blog (guilty as charged on both counts) or enjoy tales of CBGB-era proto-gentrifying New York or coming-of-age-stories about women balancing self-doubt and determination or just a perfectly turned punchline, I highly recommend it: Like her best songs, it made me laugh and cry and think, often at the same time, and that’s all I can ask for in great art.

But first, read this news roundup post, because man, is there a lot of news to be rounded up: