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.

Detroit Free Press credits Red Wings arena for fixing blight that Red Wings owner created

The Detroit Red Wings and Pistons are about to open their new Little Caesars Arena (named after the Red Wings’ owners’ pizza company, which is actually a longstanding sports tradition), and the Detroit Free Press could not be more excited! On Thursday, reporters Frank Witsil, JC Reindl, and John Gallagher teamed up for a report on how the publicly subsidized arena and surrounding development promises to “breathe life into a part of Detroit that has long been considered a dead zone”; today, Gallagher is back by his lonesome to call the arena an “exciting new venue” for hockey and an “exciting new venue” for concerts, as well as a “major new attraction to the rapidly revitalizing greater downtown” and “a monument to Detroit’s sports and entertainment history.” Total number of citations across the two articles of studies of how past sports-based city “revitalizations” have gone, or even what the impact was or wasn’t from Detroit’s construction of nearby stadiums for the Tigers and Lions: zero.

All of which is pretty much par for the sports-media course, except for that, as the Detroit Metro Times pointed out after Thursday’s piece, calling the arena district a “dead zone” conveniently ignores what made it dead in the first place:

Well, of course the area was blighted. The Ilitches spent 15 years quietly buying up properties in the area. What interest did they have in developing any of them when (a) they knew they intended to flatten them for a new arena and (b) any investment in them would only cause land values to rise? Chris Ilitch said as much to The Detroit News.

In other words, Olympia is the main cause of the area’s deterioration. You don’t need to be an expert on Detroit development to know that. Even the uninitiated could pick up on the unintended irony when Chris Ilitch reportedly said, “It’s no coincidence that these areas to the north of I-75 are some of the most blighted areas of our city core.”

Metro Times goes on to note that a lot of the unblight that the Ilitch family is getting credit for doesn’t actually have a timetable for construction yet — or in their words, “mostly exists in the fevered imagination of Olympia executives — another example of information not appearing in this article.

The Freep opinion page did demur on one thing, at least: The arena’s official opening will take place next Tuesday, with the first of a series of concerts by confederate-flag-waving, Colin Kaepernick–hating rap-rocker Kid Rock, which editorial page editor Stephen Henderson calls “a sturdy middle finger to Detroiters,” who are 83% African American — though the greater metro area is 70% white, so maybe it’s just a beckoning hand to suburbanites, huh? (Editor’s note: Not all white Michigan suburbanites are fans of racist symbols of slave states. I know a couple.)

The Ilitches have responded with a statement that “Kid Rock has been a consistent supporter of Detroit, and the marketplace has responded accordingly to his appearances. Performing artists’ viewpoints in no way represent an endorsement of those viewpoints by Olympia Entertainment.” So there.

Friday roundup: Everybody still has lots of dumb stadium ideas, sun keeps rising in east

And aside from the Cleveland Cavaliers arena subsidy returning from the dead, Mrs. Lincoln, here’s how some of the rest of the week in stadium and arena news went:

  • Chicago is looking at closing some streets to accommodate DePaul University’s new city-subsidized basketball arena, because of course they are.
  • The new arena for the Detroit Red Wings and Pistons will have a Kid Rock-themed restaurant, because of course it will.
  • San Diego mayor Kevin Falconer wants to build a professional lacrosse stadium, even though the owners of the city’s newly created lacrosse franchise say they don’t need one, because of course he does.
  • Rhode Island state senate president Dominick Ruggerio says he hopes the state legislature will vote on $38 million in public funding for a new Pawtucket Red Sox stadium in November, despite not believing the team has a viable threat to move to Worcester if it doesn’t get what it wants, because “You know what, we’ll get criticized for anything.” And you know, he’s got a point: No matter what elected officials do, there’s somebody somewhere who won’t like it, so might as well do whatever they want, right?
  • The Las Vegas Raiders’ stadium construction could be delayed because nobody realized until now that they needed Army Corps of Engineers approval to remove a flood culvert. (The Raiders have agreed to pay the $1 million cost, at least.)
  • Dave Zirin at The Nation has examined how Joel Osteen’s dithering over whether to let Hurricane Harvey evacuees into his megachurch has its roots in the Houston subsidy deal that turned the Rockets‘ old arena into the church in the first place, and I put in a cameo to note that while littering the landscape with redundant current and former sports venues is one way to create a lot of hurricane shelters, it’s probably not a very cost-effective one.
  • Wells Fargo released a report that “real stadium construction spending” on new sports facilities has “climbed 80 percent over the past five years” to $10 billion per … something. And are they counting money committed, or actual construction money spent, and does this count both private and public funds? I guess we should cut Wells Fargo some slack, they have a lot on their minds these days.

Detroit officials fight to block arena lawsuit withdrawal, say they want to be sued, dammit

The tale of the Detroit city clerk candidate and former school board member who sued the city over spending money on a new Red Wings and Pistons arena without a public vote and then asked for the case to be dismissed when threatened with financial sanctions has gotten even weirder, with the city of Detroit now demanding that the federal judge in the case allow them to continue to be sued:

Calling it a “cynical attempt” to put the project at risk, the defendants argue in a Wednesday filing in U.S. District Court that the plaintiffs haven’t met the standard for a voluntary dismissal and the request should not be granted.

[D. Etta Wilcoxon and Robert Davis] filed a motion Saturday to drop the suit without prejudice. Davis said the plaintiffs instead were focused on a separate case they filed against Detroit’s school district and its board that he said will ultimately decide whether voters should have a say in the bonds being used for modifications to the arena.

But any litigation, no matter how frivolous, threatens to interfere with the timely funding of the project and creates the “very real possibility” that the Pistons could cancel their planned move from Auburn Hills to Detroit, attorneys for the defendants argued in a court filing Wednesday.

The excuse here is an upcoming NBA owners meeting next Tuesday at which the Pistons‘ move to the new downtown arena is expected to be on the agenda; not having the lawsuits resolved by then would create “havoc,” say the city’s lawyers. Instead of having the suit withdrawn, they want it dismissed — which presumably wouldn’t stop Wilcoxon and Davis from proceeding with their separate suit against the school board, but maybe the NBA doesn’t care so much about that. Or maybe the city lawyers just want to retain the option of financial sanctions against the plaintiffs, to scare them out of suing at all? Let’s not worry about that right now, and just enjoy the spectacle of a city insisting on its right to be sued, because that doesn’t happen every week.

Lawsuit-loving former school board member drops one Red Wings arena suit, files another

The lawsuit against using city tax money to fund $300 million toward a new Detroit Red Wings and Pistons arena has been dropped, after a federal judge refused to issue an injunction against the spending. Also, hasn’t been dropped, because the plaintiffs are going ahead with another suit, this one against the school board?

[Activist Robert] Davis said another federal lawsuit he and [City Clerk candidate D. Etta] Wilcoxon filed Tuesday against the Detroit Public Schools Community District seeks to force a vote on the public funding.

“There is no decision on the merits,” Davis said of the lawsuit’s dismissal. “All of these issues are going to be determined in the DPS case.”

What seems to have happened is that the Detroit Development Authority filed a motion on Friday seeking sanctions against the plaintiffs for filing a frivolous lawsuit, so they decided to go after a different public agency instead. It’s not immediately clear how suing the school district would force a public vote, since they’re not the ones spending the money, but hey, I am not a lawyer, so it’s possible this is just a legal maneuver that allows the case to move forward. Though it’s also possible this is just grandstanding by a city clerk candidate and a guy who loves lawsuits so much he sued his union for back pay after they fired him when he was convicted of embezzlement. If I choose not to cover this story much going forward, you’ll understand why, right?

Friday roundup: What arena glut looks like, and other news of our impending doom

Hey, I like this Friday news roundup thing! Let’s do it again:

  • A public hearing has been set for Elmont Public Library on July 10 to discuss the possibility of a New York Islanders arena near Belmont Park racetrack. Team owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin won’t have to submit their actual bid until after that, so who knows what everyone will be commenting on, but I’m going to try to go and report back, if I can figure out what time the hearing is, a detail that none of New York’s myriad news agencies seem to have reported on.
  • There’s a thing called the Canadian Premier League, apparently, though it’s more destined to be a second-tier league (think USL of the North) that can serve as development for Canadian soccer players. Anyway, assuming this gets off the ground, Halifax has approved plans for a privately funded 7,000-seat “pop-up” stadium on a public soccer pitch, which will be taken down once the season is over so regular folks can use the field — park users are a little gripey, as you’d expect them to be, but all in all it’s a far cry from the kinds of demands that minor-league soccer teams in the States are issuing, and promises to be far less of a disaster than most of the other things Halifax is known for.
  • Two out of three Hamilton County commissioners agreed to sign non-disclosure agreements before receiving details of FC Cincinnati‘s soccer stadium proposal, because it was the only way they could find out about the team’s plans. Apparently being on the deliberative body that will be deciding whether to give your team gobs of money just doesn’t hold the same kind of sway that it used to.
  • The Atlanta Hawks owners are considering building a mixed-use project around their arena similar to what the Braves did around their stadium, which Mayor Kasim Reed says is the result of the city handing over $142.5 million in renovation funds, no, I don’t understand that either. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution further reports that a new state law would allow local governments to kick back sales taxes to help pay for development in so-called “enterprise zones,” and okay, now it all starts to make sense.
  • One of the Detroit city councilmembers who voted to approve $34.5 million in subsidies for a new Pistons practice facility says she’s considering changing her vote after being deluged with complaints from constituents, but also said she believes the objections are “based on misinformation that I plan on trying to address or clarify at this public meeting on Friday,” so, we’ll see.
  • And finally, here is a photo showing three past, present, and future NBA arenas all side-by-side, because this is what 21st-century America thinks is a rational use of land, resources, and carbon footprint. Future alien visitors who find this as a relic of the civilization that once was, we can’t really explain it either.

Court rules Detroit can spend tax money on Red Wings arena, because they already pinky-swore

A federal judge has refused to impose an emergency injunction against Detroit using tax money to pay off construction debt for the new Red Wings and Pistons arena without a public vote, on the grounds of “OMG won’t anyone think of the city’s bond rating?!?”

In his opinion, federal Judge Mark Goldsmith said the plaintiffs ultimately failed to establish why an emergency injunction was needed.

“The loss of  anticipated commercial activity connected to the Detroit Piston’s downtown presence would be regrettable, but the loss of the city’s hard-won creditworthiness caused by defaulting on existing bond obligations would do catastrophic damage to the status quo,” Goldsmith said.

This is, needless to say, a dangerous precedent, since it would mean that cities could go ahead and sell bonds without being sure they’re legally allowed to pay them off, figuring that no one will stop them after the fact for fear of harming the city’s credit rating. (Which cities are already doing, of course.)

The plaintiffs can still continue with the court case, and have indicated that they will — as well as filing a state court action to stop the Detroit city council from approving funding for the Pistons’ practice facility, as it is expected to do today — but if the courts keep ruling, “Too late, the getaway car has already left and it would be too much of a mess to chase it down now,” it’s hard to see how court challenges will do any better down the road. There’s a long tradition of this kind of thing in Michigan — the Tigers‘ new stadium was funded in part by the governor funneling off state money without legislative approval and courts later ruling, “Enh, water under the bridge” — but that doesn’t make it any less disturbing when courts rule not on the basis of the law but on the basis of who will be most inconvenienced.

Stadium architects dream of holographic players, and other Friday news

Hey, know what we haven’t done in a while? A Friday news roundup. Let’s do one of those now!

Happy weekend, everybody!

Detroit council signs off on $20m in Pistons tax breaks, says worth it because it just is

The Detroit city council has approved $20 million in tax breaks for a Detroit Pistons practice facility, clearing the way for the team to move from suburban Auburn Hills to the new downtown Red Wings arena. Here’s how council president pro-tem George Cushingberry explained his reasoning:

“It seems to me that this deal is an $83 million deal and there is approximately $8 (million) to $10 million benefit to the residents of the city of Detroit, just in the first ten years of the tax abatement,” Cushingberry said. “So it’s certainly a benefit.”

(Yeah, no, I don’t get how $8-10 million in benefit would be worth $20 million in subsidies, either. Just go with it, it’s city councilmember math.)

The total cost of the Pistons share of subsidies would actually be $54.5 million, since there’s another $34.5 million in city bonding that still has to be approved by the council. The Detroit News has estimated that Detroit could earn that back via new “jock tax” revenues, which is maybe possible (jock taxes are notoriously hard to calculate because of accounting tricks players and performers can use to offset one state’s taxes against another’s), but in any case none of this would be happening without the more than $300 million that the state and city are giving to the Red Wings to build the arena. This is badly crying out for a better analysis than “the Pistons are spending $83 million on a practice facility, that’s a lot of zeroes!”, but it’s not looking like we’re going to get it.

Detroit political candidate sues city over using school taxes for Red Wings arena

A Detroit resident running for city clerk has filed suit against the funding mechanism for the new Detroit Red Wings and Pistons arena, claiming that the city’s development agency illegally siphoned off tax levies meant for another purpose without getting the public’s approval:

D. Etta Wilcoxon alleges in a federal lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court that the Detroit Downtown Development Authority and the Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority have violated her right to vote by attempting to use tax revenue from an 18-mill DPS levy “for a different purpose” without first obtaining voter approval from Wilcoxon and the other registered voters.

The grab violates Michigan’s General Property Tax Act, the lawsuit alleges.

This is confusing, because the whole Detroit arena deal funding scheme is confusing, so let’s revisit it briefly: The DDA has been collecting property taxes and using them to pay down school construction debt, but is now going to siphon off a chunk of that and use it to pay down arena construction debt instead. Then the state is reimbursing the DDA for the money, so really the subsidy is coming out of state coffers.

Still, the DDA is undeniably using money that was approved for another purpose, even if the state is paying it back, so Wilcoxon’s lawsuit has maybe a leg to stand on? Why she’s only filing it now, three months before the arena opens, is less clear — though it may have to do with that whole “running for city clerk” thing — and if she’s successful it’ll be the city and state scrambling to find a way to raise $300 million, not the sports team owners, but, sure, challenging maybe illegal use of public moneys is always fun.

In other news, the Detroit city council is still considering a tax abatement for a Pistons practice facility, which would cost the city about $20 million. Oh, and the teams showed some journalists around the arena construction site recently, leading the Free Press reporter on the junket to enthuse that the place will be “at once intimate and airy,” which is not strictly impossible — you could have an intimate seating bowl and spacious concourses, say — but is also exactly the kind of PR gibberish that teams tend to spout, so it’s probably best to be skeptical, especially when the actual photos accompanying the article show the exact same “wall of suites topped with cheap seats a mile from the action” design that every arena seems to have these days:

Basically, don’t believe anybody about anything, because people are horrible and will lie to your face, and most journalists will repeat whatever those people say because that’s what they see as their job, or at least all they have time for. The end of the world really can’t come soon enough.