Friday roundup: Tampa official stonewalls, Falcons get sued, Amazon is the new Olympics

Okay, let’s do this thing:

The Pistons held their home opener at their new arena, and an L.A. Chargers game broke out

Everything I learned about great web headline writing I got from Deadspin, and this is one of their best:

The Pistons Couldn’t Give Tickets To Their First Game At Detroit’s Dumb New Arena Away

That’s right: Much like the Los Angeles Chargers, the Detroit Pistons dedicated their first game at their new home with tons of fans arriving disguised as empty seats. Here’s a lovely photo of the opening tip:

Okay, so this was a new arena, with all the new-arena bells and whistles — maybe everybody was still wandering around in the concessions concourses, looking for a bacon-wrapped hot dog. Those empty seats are pretty evenly dispersed around, not in entire empty sections, so that suggests people who bought seats but just aren’t sitting in them, right?

Except that Deadspin also reports that Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who is partners with Pistons owner Tom Gores in an attempt to get Detroit city subsidies for a new soccer stadium — if all this owner fraternizing is starting to remind you of syndicate ball, you’re not alone — had his Quicken Loans staffers send out an email to employees offering 50 free tickets to the game for free to anyone who asked, “to celebrate our new Marketing partnership with the Detroit Pistons.” (Goofy capitalization in original.) In other words, Quicken Loans got a bunch of free tickets to the game as part of being a Pistons sponsor, but no corporate clients wanted to be wined and dined by being taken to a damn Pistons game, even at a new arena, so instead anybody who wanted got to go for free.

Most of this, clearly, is about the fact that the Pistons were terrible last year and will likely be terrible this year, and nobody wants to go see bad basketball. (Except for New York Knicks fans, apparently.) Still, it used to be that you could just throw open the gates of a new building and people would clamor to get in; now, there’s clearly some stadium fatigue going on, to the point where any new-arena honeymoon period for attendance may be measured in weeks, not years. Which is fine — we really shouldn’t have team owners trying to build stadium after stadium just to recapture the new-car smell — but still a significant change to the heyday of Camden Yards and the like.

About the most positive thing you can say about the new Detroit arena is maybe it’s got so many cool things to do that aren’t watching sports with your own eyes that fans are all off doing that during the game — that’s what seems to have happened during the Red Wings‘ home opener, which likewise saw seas of unoccupied seats. (Red Wings tickets are still holding their prices pretty well on the secondary market, a good sign of actual fan demand; Pistons tickets not so much.) I’m not sure “our arena is so great, you won’t want to stop to watch our team play!” is really the sales pitch I’d go for if I ran a sports franchise, but then, I’m one of those old-fashioned fans who goes to a basketball game to watch basketball.

Orlando officials hate bill to halt land giveaways to sports teams, for all the wrong reasons

From the Department of Maybe Well-Meaning Ideas That Probably Should’ve Been Thought Through a Little More, we have Florida House bill HB 13, which, as the Orlando Sentinel notes, would “ban teams from building or renovating stadiums on publicly owned land and also bar governments from leasing existing facilities to teams below ‘fair market value.'” The bill’s sponsor, Broward/Miami-Dade state rep Manny Diaz Jr., says he introduced it because of anger over the Miami Marlins stadium deal, and that it “aims to do is to try to curtail abuses that have gone on, where cities … are being held hostage.”

Orlando city officials are griping that the Diaz bill would make it harder for his city to lure or retain sports teams by gifting them with generous lease terms to hide from the public how big the subsidies are offering competitive deals, and that this is an unforgivable intrusion by the state on cities’ right to throw money away for no good economic reason determine their own development policies. But to note that the objections to the bill are dumb does not preclude acknowledging that the bill itself is pretty dumb, too.

As I told the Sentinel (it didn’t make the cut, though other of my quotes did), the “no leasing land below market value” bit is reasonable enough, though it’s going to be tough to enforce: If you determine “market value” by what other sports teams are paying in rent, you get into the problem that most franchises have sweetheart lease deals. And in any event, there’s nothing that I can tell in the bill that would stop a city from charging “market rent” and then handing the money back under the table through “operating subsidies” or somesuch.

The bigger problem is with the first half of the bill, which sets out to solve a problem that doesn’t exist: the unwarranted use of public land for sports facilities. Unless you’re the hardest of hard-core libertarians, there’s nothing wrong per se with government land being used for sports stadiums any more with it being used for housing developments or libraries or whatever — the public just should get some benefit from the deal, whether it’s lease payments or a cut of stadium revenues or discounted tickets or something. If “can’t renovate buildings on public land” means that the Magic, say, are restricted from paying for improvements to their arena on government property and end up using that as an excuse to demand public funds or tax breaks (which aren’t addressed at all in this bill) to build a new arena on private land, that’s not exactly a step in the right direction.

A well-written bill would have provided an ironclad prohibition on deals that directly or indirectly gift public land to teams, and maybe ruled that sports facilities run for private profits should be subject to property tax even if they’re owned by the public or on public land, to get around that subsidy loophole as well. I don’t know enough about Diaz to know whether he wrote his bill this way because of his own ideological beliefs (there are a surprising number of conservatives who consider government cash a subsidy but not government tax breaks, on the Casino Night Principle) or just because he has sloppy bill-drafters in his office. Or maybe he’s just tired of being confused with the other Manny Diaz, who was mayor of Miami when the Marlins deal was approved. Either way, before this sails through the state legislature on “sounds good enough to me!” grounds, let’s hope somebody goes in there with a red pen and does some judicious editing.

Friday roundup: A’s pollution woes, Falcons roof woes, Hansen email woes, and more!

Whole lot of news leftovers this week, so let’s get right to it:

  • It’s not certain yet how serious the environmental cleanup issues at the Oakland A’s proposed Peralta Community College stadium site are, but anytime you have the phrases “the amount of hazardous materials in the ground is unclear” and “two possible groundwater plumes impacted by carcinogens” in one article, that’s not a good sign. Meanwhile, local residents are concerned about gentrification and traffic and all the other things that local residents would be concerned about.
  • There’s another new poll in Calgary, and this time it’s Naheed Nenshi who’s leading Bill Smith by double digits, instead of the other way around. This poll’s methodology is even dodgier than the last one — it was of people who signed up for an online survey — so pretty much all we can say definitely at this point is no one knows. Though it does seem pretty clear from yet another poll that whoever Calgarians are voting for on Monday, it won’t be because of their position on a Flames arena.
  • The Atlanta Falcons‘ retractable roof won’t be retracting this season, and may even not be ready for the start of next season. These things are hard, man.
  • Nevada is preparing to sell $200 million in bonds (to be repaid by a state gas tax) to fund highway improvements for the new Las Vegas Raiders stadium, though Gov. Brian Sandoval says the state would have to make the improvements anyway. Eventually. But then he said, “I just don’t want us to do work that has to be undone,” so your guess is as good as mine here.
  • Pawtucket is preparing to scrape off future increases in property tax receipts for a 60- to 70-acre swath of downtown and hand them over to the Pawtucket Red Sox for a new stadium, an amount they expect to total at least $890,000 a year. Because downtown Pawtucket would never grow without a new baseball stadium, and there’s no chance of a shortfall that would cause Pawtucket to dip into its general fund, and nobody should think too hard about whether if minor-league baseball stadiums are really so great for development, this wouldn’t mean that property tax revenues should be expected to fall in the part of the city that the PawSox would be abandoning. Really, it’ll all be cool, man, you’ll see.
  • Somebody asked Tim Leiweke what he thinks of building a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays for some reason, and given that he’s a guy that is in the business of building new stadiums, it’s unsurprising that he thinks it’s a great idea. Though I am somewhat surprised that he employed the phrase “Every snowbird in Canada will want to watch the Toronto Blue Jays when they come and play,” given that having to depend on fans of road teams to fill the seats is already kind of a problem.
  • The study showing that spending $30 million in city money on a $30-million-or-so Louisville City F.C. stadium would pay off for the city turns out to have been funded by the soccer team, and city councilmembers are not happy. “There’s something there that someone doesn’t want us to find,” said councilmember Kevin Kramer. “I just don’t know what it is.” And College of the Holy Cross economics professor Victor Matheson chimed in, “I expect for-profit sports team owners to generate absurdly high economic estimate numbers in order to con gullible city council members into granting subsidies.” I don’t know where you could possibly be getting that idea, Victor!
  • Congress is considering a bill to eliminate the use of federally tax-exempt bonds for sports facilities, and … oh, wait, it’s the same bill that Cory Booker and James Lankford introduced back in June, and which hasn’t gotten a committee hearing yet in either the House or the Senate. It has four sponsors in the House, though, and two in the Senate, so only 263 more votes to go!
  • A Miami-Dade judge has dismissed a lawsuit charging that the sale of public land to David Beckham’s MLS franchise illegally evaded competitive bidding laws, then immediately suggested that the case will really be decided on appeal: “I found this to be an extremely challenging decision. Brighter minds than me will tell me whether I was right or wrong.” MLS maybe should be having backup plans for a different expansion franchise starting next season, just a thought.
  • The New York Times real estate section is doing what it does best, declaring the new Milwaukee Bucks arena to be “a pivotal point for a city that has struggled with a decline in industrial activity,” because cranes, dammit, okay? Maybe somebody should have called over to the Times sports section to fact-check this?
  • And last but not least, Chris Hansen is now saying that his SoDo arena plan missed a chance at reconsideration by the Seattle city council because the council’s emails requesting additional information got caught in his spam filter or something. If that’s not a sign that it’s time to knock off for the weekend, I don’t know what is.

Hansen to Seattle: Okay, how about if we build two arenas?

Would-be Seattle arena builder Chris Hansen seems to have resigned himself to the city approving Oak View Group’s plan to renovate KeyArena, which appears to be a fait accompli despite its main backer resigning in disgrace last month. That doesn’t mean Hansen is giving up on his own arena dreams, though, not when Seattle could just have two pro sports arenas, amirite?

Hansen says he also now believes the city could move forward on KeyArena and his proposal.

“I think it would work better when you consider the purchase price for NBA teams. Look at Houston as an NBA comp,” said Hansen.

The NBA’s Rockets just sold for $2.2 billion.

“A venue with an NHL partners and music partner and NBA partner is inherently going to lead to issues,” he said, “with how to divvy up the pie.”

There are several things wrong with this argument. First off, one doesn’t “divvy up an arena pie,” because there is no pie: Arenas don’t bring in money, NBA and NHL games and concerts bring in money. I suppose one could argue that there are a few things about an arena you can only sell once regardless of how many events you hold there (naming rights and some ad signage, maybe), but those are unlikely to make up for the fact that you only have to pay to build one arena.

Secondly, the history of urban areas building multiple arenas for multiple pro teams is not great: They end up competing for concerts to fill the dates around the sports schedule, and something often ends up being demolished or abandoned. Sure, there are exceptions, especially in cities larger than Seattle where there are tons of concerts to go around. But again, putting in twice (or close to twice) the construction costs to get back the same amount of total sports and concert revenues is a pretty dumb business plan all around.

Plus, does it really make sense for Seattle to devote two parcels of land to sports arenas when one will do? You get the idea.

But hey, if Hansen wants to go up against Tim Leiweke in an arena marketing war, more power to him, I guess. This guy clearly really wants to own an NBA team in Seattle, and really thinks the best way to do that is to build an arena in SoDo. And I’m on record as saying I think Seattle should do everything in its power to keep both Hansen’s and Oak View’s bids alive to see if they’ll keep upping the ante, so really, all good here.

KeyArena renovation plan may duck “return on investment” analysis, should anybody care?

Since I lauded Seattle’s Initiative 91 recently for its influence on getting the city to strike a hard bargain with would-be arena developers, I should probably also note that the language of the initiative itself kind of sucks. Declaring that any public sports subsidies need to provide a return on taxpayer investment equal to the rate provided by a treasury bill sounded simple at the time, but when you don’t define “investment” (is it just upfront cash, or money over time, or tax breaks?), the math breaks down to the point where nobody knows anything anymore.

This is coming up again because nobody can decide whether I-91 should apply to Oak View Group’s plan to renovate KeyArena, since there’s no actual city bonds in play, just tax breaks. That’s either an acceptable loophole or a violation of the spirit of the law, depending on which I-91 progenitor you ask:

Former city councilmember [Nick] Licata notes the city put entrepreneur Chris Hansen’s proposed-arena plan for Sodo through a detailed financial formula in 2012 before declaring it I-91 compliant. He figures the same should happen this time.

“The last time, our goal was, ‘Does it meet the intent, even if it’s not necessarily the mechanism that’s perfect?’ ” Licata said. “You can calculate that.”

But Van Dyk, onetime leader of the activist group Citizens for More Important Things, said the biggest test of I-91 already was met during a Request for Proposals phase and the drafting of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that had input from various community leaders and groups.

“I’m just glad to see them spending a lot of their money,” he said of OVG. “Because there was an open, transparent, public-bidding process … I think the probability that the public was snookered is extremely low.”

In the end, it probably doesn’t matter much: The amount of public money at stake is low enough, and the wording of I-91 is loosey-goosey enough, that there’s probably a way to rule that the OVG plan meets its standards, just as Chris Hansen’s SoDo arena plan was determined to despite involving a bunch of public money. (The trick is mostly in assigning lots of value to “new” tax revenues that are projected to result from an arena, which is a handwavy enough notion that you can cook a lot of books with it without outright lying.) I-91 showed that establishing the principle that taxpayers shouldn’t take a bath on sports subsidy deals can be hugely valuable for holding the line on team owner demands — just as we’re seeing right now in Calgary — but we have a long way to go in figuring out how to make these restrictions into legally enforceable documents. “You can’t just change the letter of the law, you have to change the culture” is a pretty good credo for all occasions, but it’s always nice to have another reminder.

Friday roundup: Saskatoon soccer frenzy, Phoenix hotel sale to fund Suns, and more!

And more!

Seattle mayor cancels arena MOU announcement so he can resign in disgrace instead

Well, I don’t think anyone saw quite that coming: Seattle Mayor Ed Murray was all set to hold a press conference announcing a memorandum of understanding for a KeyArena renovation, when staffers abruptly took down the renderings and canceled the event so that Murray could instead resign as mayor after a fifth (!) person accused him of sexually abusing them as a child:

He announced his resignation Tuesday, hours after news emerged that a younger cousin was publicly accusing Murray of molesting him in New York in the 1970s.

Murray, a former Democratic state legislator elected mayor in 2013, didn’t appear in public to make the announcement. Instead, he issued a statement saying his resignation would be effective 5 p.m. Wednesday.

“While the allegations against me are not true, it is important that my personal issues do not affect the ability of our city government to conduct the public’s business,” the mayor said.

The MOU was still sent by the mayor’s office — which will now be temporarily run by city council president Bruce Harrell until previously scheduled elections in November — to the council, which will have a much more interesting time discussing it than expected. Early reports (the mayor’s office’s web site doesn’t appear to have the actual agreement posted yet, but then it also still hasn’t caught up to the news that the mayor isn’t mayor anymore) are that Tim Leiweke’s Oak View Group has:

  • sweetened the pot with $40 million in money for traffic mitigation in the notoriously car-crowded area around the arena, plus $20 million for a “community fund”
  • agreed to pay rent on KeyArena equal to what the city currently earns from the building, with a similar deal in place for associated parking garages
  • promised to pay all cost overruns and all operating expenses, “including day-to-day and long-term capital upkeep”

I still want to read the fine print — presumably OVG is still looking for $40 million in tax breaks as part of the deal — but this certainly looks like an improvement for taxpayers on the initial proposal, and further evidence that starting a bidding war between two developers for your city’s arena affections is a promising strategy. In particular, that $40 million in transportation money isn’t just a bone to throw to Seattleites worried that the Key neighborhood would get too choked with cars if a pro sports team again played there, but also a commitment by OVG to match Chris Hansen’s similar pledge for transit improvements around his proposed Sodo arena. Whether this is a good deal is still to be determined; but it’s a way better deal than most cities get, and that’s to Seattle officials’ credit.

It’s also a deal that loses its biggest booster with the departure of Murray, who was trying to fast-track the Key plan so he could have some legacy other than “mayor who was forced to resign for abusing teenagers.” That’s not a bad thing at all, necessarily: The council can now take its time to beat on the plan with sticks to make sure there are no hidden pitfalls, and even do an in-depth comparison to Hansen’s latest ante-upping plan to build a Sodo arena and renovate Key himself as a concert venue, if it wants. But either way, it will be considering two plans that are at worst pretty close to break-even for taxpayers, and that’s unheard of in modern sports venue politics.

As for any of this getting an NBA team back to replace the Sonics, that’s still in the distantish future: The league has been clear that no expansion teams are forthcoming anytime soon, and there aren’t any teams immediately looking to move, either. Hansen is a committed hoops fan, but he also may have cheesed off the NBA by giving money to block an arena in Sacramento for the Kings so he could try to buy them instead; Leiweke may be more interested in concerts than sports, but he also should have a good relationship with the leagues from his time at AEG, operators of the Staples Center, among other arenas. Really, the main obstacle to getting an NBA (or NHL) team in Seattle is that the league has been holding out for a new or renovated arena, since to do otherwise would mean admitting that allowing the Sonics to move just because they had to play in a building renovated way back in 1994 was a mistake, so adopting either of these plans should get the leagues willing to talk, at least.

Either a Sodo arena or a renovated Key would come with lots of construction debt that a sports team would have to help pay off via rent if nothing else, so there’s still a chance of a Sprint Center outcome with an arena so busy with concerts that it doesn’t need teams (though without the tons of public debt part, and also Seattle is twice as big a TV market as Kansas City). But if the goal here was to give the city a shot at new sports teams without saddling taxpayers with the costs, Seattle is doing a bang-up negotiating job so far.

Hurricane Irma fails to knock over any of Florida’s sports venues

Time for your “What damage did Florida sports facilities suffer during Hurricane Irma?” rundown!

Also, two-thirds of the state is without power and many residents could remain so for weeks, at least 11 people died in the U.S. and 38 in Caribbean nations, nobody knows how many people are currently trapped in the Florida Keys, and a whole island of 1,800 people is now evacuated and uninhabitable. The Jaguars may move Sunday’s game to Tennessee if they have to.

CA legislators reject fast-track bill for Clippers, Olympics, call it “billionaire justice”

The plan to fast-track any environmental lawsuits over any new arena for the Los Angeles Clippers (or transit projects for the 2028 Olympics) got off to a dud of a start last week, as the state legislature did not advance out of committee a bill that would have greased the skids for those projects:

Legislators on the Assembly Natural Resources Committee expressed concerns about giving well-heeled developers special treatment, and the bill failed to get enough votes to advance.

“There’s been a lot of angst as far as big CEQA exemptions for projects with individuals with tremendous means, billionaire justice, whatever you want to call it,” said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento).

Read further in the Los Angeles Times article, and you start to see maybe why the bill had such rough sledding: L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti opposed the Olympics provision as unnecessary, and AEG, owner of the Staples Center, opposed the Clippers clause as, well, helping their rivals and current tenants, and we can’t have any of that. The last time we saw two sports giants go up against each other was when the New York Jets and Cablevision, owners of the Knicks and Rangers, went toe-to-toe over a new football stadium in Manhattan. Cablevision ultimately prevailed and the project was killed; it’s way too soon to tell if AEG will pull off something similar over the Clippers arena, but expect an awful lot of lobbying money to be spilled in the interim.