Phoenix officials kick off monthlong campaign to whine directly at local residents about how great a new arena would be

On Saturday, the Phoenix city council held the first of its public hearings on the Suns arena proposal, part of a series scheduled after officials were chastened by the massive public disdain for the $168 million subsidy plan. So then, of course, they mostly lectured residents about how dumb they were to pass up such an amazing deal:

Christine Mackay, director of Community and Economic Development for the City of Phoenix, presented the deal as an inevitable move necessary to foster continued downtown development and economic growth. She credited the arena with transforming the downtown area, generating an annual economic impact of $182 million and attracting other businesses to the area.

And:

Earlier in the week, Mackay told the Phoenix Business Journal she wanted to clear up misunderstandings about who owns the arena and how renovations would be funded.

“This is not a tax on our citizens,” Mackay said. “I’m looking forward to get these facts out.”

Ah, the old “but only tourists pay these taxes!” argument. This is, for one thing, untrue — car-rental taxes are in fact often paid by locals, who are renting a car for temporary use or whatever — but more to the point, beside the point: It’s money the city could be spending on something else if it weren’t giving it to Suns owner Robert Sarver.

Mackay’s other argument in favor of the subsidy is that the city owns the arena, and so is responsible for upgrades. Okay, but the city doesn’t manage the arena or earn any additional profits if it makes more from either NBA games or concerts — that’s all Sarver. So if you own a building that is rented out by a private business and you make a bunch of upgrades that will solely benefit your tenant, you should ask them to repay you via higher rent, right? But while the Suns’ rent is projected to increase from $1.5 million to $4 million in a renovated arena, some of that is just plain old price inflation having nothing to do with renovations, and regardless, an extra $2.5 million a year would take 67 years to repay the city’s expense. (In present value terms, the city would never ever be made whole, because rent payments 67 years in the future are worthless, if the NBA even exists then.)

Anyway, from what reporting there has been, it sounds like attendees at the session (all 150 of them) were split about whether they bought Mackay’s arguments or not, which is just yet another unscientific poll. I’m honestly not sure what the point is of this monthlong series of dog-and-pony shows, other than to persuade swing-vote councilmembers that look, it’s cool, when we present our Powerpoints to the masses, some of them agree with us. I mean, I am sure that’s the point, I’m not sure how it’s supposed to work, but then, I do not pretend to comprehend the uncanny ways of the Phoenix city council.

Friday roundup: Don’t subsidize bad people, XFL to pay St. Louis more in rent than Rams did, unscientific poll on Suns arena is unscientific

Happy first Friday roundup of 2019! I could add a whole lot of thoughts on lists I’ve read and haven’t made of the best of this and that of last year, but to save time let me just stick with saying that this song is pretty damn excellent and get right to the news of the short week:

  • Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post wrote a column about how Washington NFL team owner Daniel Snyder is a bad person and a terrible owner and should never get a dime of public stadium money because that’d be “a bailout, welfare,” none of which I can disagree with, but at the same time I’m a bit uncomfortable with the implication that if Snyder were less unpleasant, he’d then be deserving of public largesse.
  • The XFL may still be considered a bit of a joke league, but at least it can pay the city of St. Louis a decent stadium rent, unlike the Rams ever did. (Of course, the “joke league” bit is exactly why they are being required to pay real rent whereas the Rams could refuse to; there’s not much advantage to being an 80-pound gorilla.)
  • This essay responding to Amazon’s tax breaks is pretty excellent, though it’s still a half-notch below this classic Tom the Dancing Bug cartoon.
  • An opposing team manager has demanded that Tottenham Hotspur be required to play the rest of their season at Wembley rather than moving into their much-delayed stadium, because … teams that got to play them while they were adjusting to their new grounds would have an advantage somehow? From what I’ve been able to tell, most of home-field advantage in soccer comes from home fans booing (or whistling) at refs to intimidate them into making calls that go their team’s way, but the last time I tried reading the literature on this it quickly went deep into the weeds, so I won’t belabor the point.
  • “Fans at Talking Stick Resort Arena” were “surprisingly” in favor of spending public money to renovate the Phoenix Suns arena, according to Fox10 Phoenix, compared to “the online response” which was more “mixed.” This is both an impressively off-label use of “surprisingly” and an impressively lazy attempt at polling Phoenix residents — two impressively lazy attempts, even — so fine job, Fox10 Phoenix!

Friday roundup: SF doesn’t want Raiders, Spurs hate Tottenham, Rays outfielder says team has “no fan base” and should maybe move

It was a bit of a slow holiday week, but the news that there was made up for it by being extra-entertaining:

  • The Oakland Raiders played maybe their last game in Oakland, at least until the next time they move back to Oakland. (Hey, it’s happened before.) Still nobody has a clue where the team will play next year, but San Francisco officials are already gearing up to block any Raiders games at the Giants‘ AT&T Park, saying they don’t want to be “scabs” in the city of Oakland’s lawsuit against the Raiders for skipping town that prompted this game of stadium chicken in the first place. This is looking like a better and better option.
  • The New Jersey state legislature is preparing to help out the horse racing industry by providing $100 million over the next five years to goose winnings, which seems like exactly the opposite of how gambling is supposed to work.
  • Tottenham Hotspur still can’t get its new stadium open — the earliest possible date is now in February — but that’s not stopping team officials from griping that the surrounding neighborhood is too dirty to go alongside its fancy new stadium thanks to “litter and fly-tipping.” According to one borough memo, “When the question of all the extra cleaning needed was raised and who would fund it it was made very clear that it would not be paid for by Spurs.” The estimated cost of added street cleaning would be £8,000 per match; the team’s most recent annual profit was £58 million.
  • I love interactive fiction and have even written some myself, so I’m inclined to like this Arizona Republic article presenting the Suns arena showdown as a Choose Your Own Adventure book. But sadly its plot relies on some misconceptions — allowing the Suns owners to break their lease in 2022 doesn’t necessarily mean the team will leave, and if they do leave the city’s estimates of $130-180 million in renovations to keep it “competitive” for concerts may be overblown — so I won’t be voting for it for a XYZZY Award.
  • Some details have been released about plans for a Portland baseball stadium, but none of them involve how the stadium would be paid for or how much rent it would pay to its public landlords or even where a team would be obtained, so feel free to skip reading the full documents unless you’re really interested.
  • Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Tommy Pham was asked what he thought about playing in his new home city after being traded last year from St. Louis, and replied, “It sucks going from playing in front of a great fan base to a team with really no fan base at all.” Pham added, “Do I think something has to happen, whether it be a new ballpark, maybe a new city? I think so.” I am going out on a limb to guess that attendance will probably not be great next year on Tommy Pham Bobblehead Night.
  • The Milwaukee Bucks arena has been open for “several months” now, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, which apparently can’t count to four, and the most important takeaways are that: 1) kids like candy, 2) grownups like cheese-covered sausages, 3) everybody likes taking selfies, 4) Bucks president Peter Feigin also likes candy, and 5) nobody actually wants to sit in that ridiculous Panorama Club. No reports back yet on the status of the magic basketball.

Friday roundup: More Raiders temporary home rumors, more MLB expansion rumors, and pro cricket (?!?) in Texas

Was this week longer than usual, or did it just feel that way? The number of browser tabs I have open indicates the former — personally, I blame the moon.

  • Or maybe the Oakland Raiders will play in Arizona next year? When you have a lame-duck team whose new stadium in its new city isn’t ready yet, no idea is dumber than any other, really.
  • The University of Texas is reportedly building a new $300 million basketball arena at no cost to the state or the university, though if you read the fine print it’s actually getting Oak View Group (the same people behind Seattle’s arena rebuild) to build the arena in exchange for letting OVG keep a large chunk of future arena revenues. So really this is no different from UT building the arena themselves and using future revenues to pay off the construction costs, except I guess that OVG takes on the risk of cost overruns. Anyway, this is a good reminder that it’s not just about the costs, it’s about the revenues, stupid.
  • Las Vegas wants an MLB expansion team. It shouldn’t hold its breath.
  • There are lots of ideas for what to do with D.C.’s RFK Stadium site, and not all of them involve a stadium for Washington’s NFL team.
  • Queens community groups are protesting possible plans to build a soccer stadium for a would-be USL team called Queensboro F.C. on the Willets Point site cleared of businesses for redevelopment (including affordable housing) several years ago. This is a super-weird story that I’m still trying to get to the bottom of, so stay tuned for a more in-depth update soon.
  • Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk now says he’d consider letting someone else own his team’s proposed downtown arena if they’d pay to build it, contradicting what he said two years ago. Here’s a fun list of other times Melnyk contradicted himself!
  • Lots of public meetings coming up in Phoenix on the much-derided $230 million Suns arena renovation plan. The city has also posted the actual arena proposal, which among other things notes that the Suns’ rent is projected to go up from $1.5 million to $4 million a year in a renovated arena, which would help offset some of the public’s $168 million in costs, though it doesn’t say whether the rent (which is based on revenues) would go up in an unrenovated arena as well, so really this wouldn’t offset it all that much.
  • Speaking of the Suns, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said this week that “it’d be a failure on my part if a team ended up moving out of a market.” Now that’s how you play the army protection racket non-threat threat game! Rob Manfred, take notes. (Actually, please don’t.)
  • And speaking of Manfred, MLB is reportedly considering letting teams take control of their streaming broadcast rights instead of running them all centrally through MLB.tv, which would be a huge deal in that it would allow teams in large markets to monopolize streaming revenue like they currently do TV revenue, forestalling an NFL-like future where TV money is a more level playing field. They could offset this through increased revenue-sharing, sure, but … you know what, let’s table this discussion until there’s more than an unsourced New York Post item to go on.
  • Allen, Texas, is talking about building a pro cricket stadium via a “public-private partnership,” leaving me with two big questions: 1) how much is the public kicking in, and 2) maybe would it be a good idea to wait until a pro cricket league actually exists before building a stadium for it to play in?
  • The Athletic has a strangely formatted article about how finished MLS stadiums seldom look like their renderings that’s a fun read if you’re an Athletic subscriber, which you probably aren’t. (I got the $1-for-90-days trial deal, so I can keep tantalizing you with paywalled stuff for another few weeks yet.)

Suns owner says team “not leaving Phoenix,” pay no attention to all the times he said it might leave Phoenix

Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver has issued a video statement on Twitter in response to reports that he threatened to move the team to Seattle of Las Vegas:

If you hate to turn on audio on your computer like I do, here’s a transcript of the good bits:

“First and foremost, the Phoenix Suns are not leaving Phoenix. I am 100 percent committed, and have been for the last four years, to find a solution keep them in downtown Phoenix where they belong.”

That would seem to contradict reports that Sarver told city councilmembers that he’d considering moving the team out of town without publicly funded arena renovations, not to mention a news conference last year where he said, “First priority is downtown Phoenix, but if that is not something the city wants to do, then, you know, I’ve got to look somewhere else.” Unless you parse the Twitter statement carefully to mean “We’re not leaving Phoenix because Phoenix is going to give us $168 million for arena renovations so we’ll stay, won’t you, Phoenix?” In which case all this is just a classic non-threat threat, and neither the threats to leave nor the promises to stay should be taken as anything more than empty PR.

In the meantime, pushback has begun on how to eliminate the Suns arena subsidy, or at least make it marginally less onerous. Phoenix councilmember Sal DiCiccio says “at the very least it’s got to be a fifty-fifty deal,” while Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts suggests five ways to improve the arena plan:

  1. Cut the public’s share from two-thirds to one-third (better, yes, though as with DiCiccio’s halfsies plan, still arbitary)
  2. Make the Suns promise to stay put more than 15 more years in exchange (an excellent thought, since you don’t want Sarver or his successor coming back in a decade or so saying “Those 2019 renovations are looking a little out of date…)
  3. Don’t fall for idle threats when we don’t even know if the NBA would approve a move out of Phoenix (not really a specific way to improve the deal, but sure, always good advice)
  4. Don’t give Sarver money until the team starts winning games (tempting, but implies that a winning team suddenly is worthy of public subsidies, whereas if the Suns were winning games, arguably fans would be showing up and Sarver wouldn’t have to whine about his creaky old arena)
  5. Wait till a new mayor is elected in March before negotiating anything (democracy, what a concept!)

Finally, Suns president Jason Rowley complains that the arena money isn’t really going to benefit the Suns, since Phoenix owns the arena, and traditionally it’s the landlord who pays for upgrades, not the tenant. Sure, but also traditionally the tenant doesn’t get to keep all the money from putting a giant billboard on the outside of the building, and also traditionally when a landlord does upgrades, it gets to hike the tenant’s rent to help pay for them. Does Rowley’s analogy extend as far as offering to increase the Suns’ lease payments to the city? There’s another suggestion Roberts could add to her list.

 

Unnamed official says Suns owner threatened to move team to Seattle or Vegas, now that’s all we can talk about

The Phoenix city council indeed put off a vote on spending $168 million on arena renovations for the Suns yesterday, and it was indeed because they didn’t have the votes to pass it, after swing-vote councilmember Michael Nowakowski issued a statement that “I must hold true to the value I place on making sure people are informed and heard.”

Then an unnamed councilmember told Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts that Suns owner Robert Sarver had said a thing, and this was the thing he said:

“Sarver’s talking about moving,” the council member told me. “He basically told me the team will go (if they don’t get a renovated arena). Vegas and Seattle were the two he talked about.”

Sports team owners seldom make threats like this explicitly in public, because they are the nuclear option: Once you’ve set off a move threat, you may have encouraged fans to panic about the possibility of losing their team, but you have also encouraged them to want to run you out of town on a rail, so there’s no going back. So it’s not surprising that Sarver made this threat in private to a councilmember, and wouldn’t even be surprising to hear that the councilmember leaked it with Sarver’s approval (though given Roberts’ opposition to the arena deal, it’s also possible this was an arena subsidy opponent leaking her the news, in a can you believe this guy? way).

Regardless, the unspecific threat relayed by an unnamed source — which arguably runs afoul of the Society of Professional Journalists’ rule to always question anonymous sources’ motives, but anyway — had the expected reaction, especially since it went as far as to mention actual cities the Suns might depart for. News outlets in Seattle and Las Vegas immediately sprang into action to report on the potential arrival of an NBA team, and then the aggregators got involved, and soon it was all anybody could talk about: I was already interviewed for one article about it, and I’m going on Orlando’s 740AM The Game’s “The Beat of Sports” at 10:15 Eastern this morning to talk about the Suns’ potential move (among other things).

The two city names that Sarver allegedly dropped are understandable enough: Seattle is jonesing for an NBA team to replace the Sonics now that they have an arena renovation underway, and Las Vegas has recently acquired NHL and NFL teams and is only 300 miles away from Phoenix, which is close in Southwestern terms. Beyond that, though, they’re pretty different: Seattle is almost exactly the same size TV market as Phoenix, whereas Vegas is less than half as big, so Sarver would be crazy to leave Phoenix for Nevada. With Seattle, it all depends on whether he’d earn more in revenue at KeyArena than he does at Talking Stick Arena — which is unlikely given that he’d be the second pro sports tenant at a venue run by an arena operator that’s going to need to keep revenues to pay off its $850 million renovation cost, but not outright impossible.

Mostly, though, this is clearly a threat intended to throw a scare into city councilmembers that they better cough up the dough or else this could be the last they’ll ever see of their NBA team, see? It’s not clear yet how effective that threat will be, given the overwhelming public opposition to the deal and the fact that the Suns’ 4-24 record means fans might welcome sending the team as far away as possible. But it’s shifted the debate from “Why should the public spend $168 million to profit a rich sports owner?” to “Where could the team move if we don’t?”, and in that, it’s certainly done its job.

Phoenix residents’ hate is so strong that council delays Suns arena vote to let them express it

Okay, I didn’t see this coming:

The Phoenix City Council is expected to delay a vote on a $230 million Talking Stick Resort Arena renovation following backlash from the community.

The council was slated to vote on the deal, which could keep the Phoenix Suns in downtown until 2042, Wednesday afternoon. But the council will now likely vote to delay the final vote until Jan. 23, allowing Mayor Thelda Williams to host two additional community meetings to solicit feedback before the council decision, according to city sources.

I mean, why do you even plan to rush through a vote to avoid public scrutiny, if you’re then going to turn around and delay the vote so there can be more public scrutiny?

The Arizona Republic report doesn’t say, but it sure sounds like Mayor Williams was having a hard time getting the needed six votes on the nine-member council, especially after news broke that Phoenix residents hate the arena funding plan with a fiery, all-consuming passion. More on this in the coming days, I’m sure.

Poll shows Phoenix residents hate Suns arena deal even more than having to watch Suns try to play basketball

The first poll is in on the proposed Phoenix Suns arena deal, and, well, let’s let the pollster sum it up, because he has a way with words:

“The only thing that’s worse than the Suns’ record is the support for spending $185 million in public money to improve the arena,” Barrett Marson, whose company commissioned the poll, said Monday on KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Arizona’s Morning News.

Ouch! But no, seriously, what do people in Phoenix think of the plan?

“It’s abysmal,” Marson, a political consultant, said. “It’s losing with old people, young people, men, women. People in Phoenix don’t like this idea.”

The actual numbers are 66% opposed and only 20% in favor, which is indeed a pretty wide margin:

One could argue that the phrasing of the poll is slightly skewed against the arena deal — I have $168 million as the present value of the public contribution, and the question doesn’t mention that the Suns will be extending their lease for 15 years in exchange for the cash. Still, it’s pretty much inconceivable that changing the wording would close a 35 percentage point gap, so it’s pretty fair to say that Phoenix residents hate this deal with a fiery passion.

Of course, none of this directly matters, as the Phoenix city council plans to vote on the arena renovation deal tomorrow, before waiting for the results of the upcoming mayoral runoff. Still, Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts reports that there are already three “no” votes on the council and it only takes four to block the deal, so maybe councilmembers are actually paying attention to the polls? Or maybe they’re just afraid that someone will shoot them.

Phoenix rushes through $168m in Suns arena subsidies in five days before new mayor can take office

After several months of behind-closed-doors negotiations, the Phoenix city council and Suns owner Robert Sarver have agreed to a plan for a publicly funded renovation of Talking Stick Resort Arena — to be voted on by the council next Wednesday, because five days is totally enough time for public debate on such things.

The terms of the deal:

  • The city of Phoenix will spend $150 million on arena renovations from existing car rental and hotel taxes, while Sarver will pay $80 million.
  • The city will also “pay $2 million annually for 12½ years into a new renewal and replacement fund, which will be used for future renovation needs”; Sarver will put in $1 million a year.
  • The Suns will extend their lease on the arena, which they can currently opt out of in 2022, through 2037. (They’ll have an option to extend it to 2042, but as we’re seeing with the current lease that technically runs through 2032, option years don’t mean squat in terms of holding teams to arena leases.)

That $25 million over 12.5 years is worth about $18 million in present value, so let’s call the total subsidy $168 million. (The team would pay the same rent on the arena as it does now, so there’s no new money coming back to the city to help pay off its costs.)

Several thoughts on this:

  • Phoenix Mayor Thelda Williams said that she was endorsing the subsidy because “This is our building. It’s our responsibility.” Which, yes, Phoenix does own the arena, but the upgrades are being demanded by (and will benefit the revenues of) its main tenant Sarver, so really the city’s “responsibility” ends with making sure the roof doesn’t cave in; anything beyond that is a gift to the Suns.
  • Spending $168 million for a 15-year lease extension is a public cost of $11.2 million per year, which would be among the worst deals yet for a city, though the Carolina Panthers and San Jose Sharks deals were still worse on a per-year basis.
  • The tight timetable for approval is, as discussed a couple of weeks ago, a transparent attempt to rush through an arena deal before the likely election of an anti-subsidy candidate for mayor in March’s runoff election. At the same time, the plan would get around laws requiring a public vote on new arena spending by terming this old arena spending, so it’s an evasion-of-democracy two-fer.

If you want more outrage, Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts has plenty of it for you, in an article that features the priceless subhead, “Public Input, Schmublic Input”:

In fact, the deal’s already been cut and the votes rounded up. Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver has been meeting one-on-one this week with City Council members to get them on board.

All that’s left to do now is inform the public.

And:

“This is the best opportunity we have to keep that building viable for 15 or 20 years,” Zuercher said.

Meaning, in 15 or 20 years, it’ll be deemed a dump again?

Swell.

None of this will make the arena viable for hockey, so the Phoenix area can expect to go through this all over again with a new venue for the Coyotes. On the bright side, Arizona will be unlivable by 2050 thanks to climate change, so maybe these can be the last arenas the region ever builds before abandoning them to history like the Anasazi did.

Phoenix council reportedly to vote on $180m in Suns arena subsidies next month, with no public input

“Is Phoenix really going to plunk down $150 million on the Suns arena?” asks the headline on yesterday’s Laurie Roberts column in the Arizona Republic. Betteridge’s Law says no, but Roberts says yeah, maybe:

Several city sources tell me there’s a push on to get the deal done by the end of the year.

Talk of an arena deal has ramped up inside city hall this month — ever since Kate Gallego, the leading candidate for Phoenix mayor, announced she would not support putting city money into a new or improved arena for the Suns

The arena vote is expected to take place in early December — ramming it down the city’s throat before a new mayor is elected.

That would seem like a super-aggressive timetable, especially since only four votes on the council are needed to kill any deal. But though Roberts notes that a public approval process is necessary to build a new arena, city leaders think they can get away without one if they’re just “refurbishing” an old one:

Councilman Sal DiCiccio said he thinks the city can go forward because the voter-approved ordinance says only that public approval is needed before building a new sports facility.

“I believe legally that we can do this,” he said. “The real question is whether or not the intent of the voters was to do that and I don’t know that. I really don’t know.”

Roberts reports that the proposed deal would involve $150 million in city cash up front, plus another $2 million a year for maintenance costs, which would come to a total of about $180 million in present value. The Suns owners would pay $80 million, or less than a third of the cost — though obviously that ratio could change once we learn about any rent payments or tax rebates or naming-rights fees. At least we can hope that all those details will come out during a measured public oversight process … oh wait.