This week in boondoggle vivisection: Plenty of good seats available in SF, Cleveland, Ottawa

We’ll get to the weekly news roundup in a minute, but first, I need to mention this editorial from yesterday’s Globe and Mail, which makes several eminently reasonable points about how Calgary shouldn’t capitulate to the Flames owners’ extortion attempts for arena cash (“using past bad decisions to justify terrible future decisions does not qualify as logic,” “arena financing is a hamster wheel, and here is an opportunity to jump off”), and then says this:

Everyone involved should take note of a remark this week by Neil deMause, renowned stadium boondoggle vivisectionist and creator of the fieldofschemes.com website: “The number of mayors who’ve been voted out of office for standing up to sports team subsidy demands remains zero.”

That’s right, I am a major-newspaper-certified renowned boondoggle vivisectionist, y’all. Clearly it’s time to order some new business cards.

Okay, the rest of the week’s news:

  • The Los Angeles Rams aren’t the only California team having trouble getting fans to turn out for games in the September heat: The San Francisco 49ers are seeing so many empty seats on the sunny side of their stadium that they’ve hired architects to see if it’d be possible to add a sun shade. One problem: The stadium can’t get any taller, as it’s in the flight path of San Jose’s airport. Until then, the 49ers are handing out free water bottles and sunscreen to fans on the hot side of the stadium, which is nice and all, but probably isn’t what you want for your big marketing push. This once again points up how smart the 49ers management was to stick fans with PSLs before the team got lousy and people noticed how crappy the new stadium was for actually watching football in.
  • And speaking of empty seats, the Cleveland Indians won their American League–record 22nd straight game yesterday, but they still can’t sell out their ballpark, which not that long ago saw a record sellout streak of 455 straight games. Indians GM Mike Chernoff blamed Cleveland’s small size, the start of the school year, and “weekdays,” three things that apparently didn’t exist in the ’90s. At least he didn’t blame the 23-year-old stadium or demand upgrades as a solution — yet, anyway.
  • And also speaking of empty seats, the Ottawa Senators have begun tarping over part of their upper deck for every game, because they can’t sell tickets there. The Senators owner is already blaming his 21-year-old arena for that one (apparently the last owner built it in the wrong place), so team president Tom Anselmi was left to say: “We just need more of us to come to more games more often.” Can’t argue with that!
  • And also also speaking of empty seats, the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics have only sold about 5% of available tickets so far to actual fans (ticket brokers have bought up another 18%), with less than five months to go before the games start. If you’re looking to snap up a bargain to watch curling, though, be forewarned: Not all the new hotels planned for the Olympics are finished yet.
  • And speaking of seats that a team hopes won’t be empty, the Oakland A’s will be letting in fans for free to a game next April against the White Sox. Make jokes all you want about how dismal an A’s-White Sox matchup will be, it’s still free baseball, and you never know what you might see that you’ve never seen before.
  • NHL commissioner Gary Bettman declared that that the scaled-down Nassau Coliseum is “not a viable option” for the New York Islanders, two weeks before the team is set to present plans to Nassau County for a new arena near Belmont Park. A total coincidence, I’m sure.
  • The Rhode Island state senate started hearings on a new Pawtucket Red Sox proposal yesterday, with the team owners and their allies noting that “the team’s 54-percent share of stadium costs is the highest portion of private investment in 14 AA and AAA ballparks built over the last decade,” according to the Providence Journal. What was that someone was just saying about using bad decisions to justify terrible future decisions?
  • Deadspin’s Drew Magary has come up with a new nickname for the Atlanta Falcons‘ new iris-roofed stadium: Megatron’s Butthole. Drew Magary needs to be put in charge of all stadium nicknames, starting immediately.

Rams to charge record PSL price, Cavs arena subsidy moves ahead, and other news of the week

It’s Friday again, so let’s go spanning the world:

  • The Los Angeles Rams are considering charging a top personal seat license price of as much as $225,000, just for the right to then buy season tickets for $350-400 per game. This seems like a bit of a reach when the payoff is just that you get to watch Rams games, but I guess Stan Kroenke needs to try to recoup his $2 billion in stadium costs somehow — and at least if it all goes south, he’ll be the one on the hook, not taxpayers.
  • Some Canadian bank bought the naming rights to the Toronto Maple Leafs arena away from some Canadian airline. Is this going to buy it valuable market exposure and name recognition that will justify the $40 million a year expense? Not on this blog!
  • The LED lights at the Atlanta Falcons‘ new stadium make football look all weird.
  • Shreveport Mayor Ollie Tyler says spending $30 million on an arena for a minor-league basketball team is a great idea that only “naysayers” don’t appreciate. “I think sometimes we don’t believe in ourselves and some of our urban areas we don’t believe that we are able to make things happen,” she says. If Mayor Tyler needs a reelection campaign theme song, I have a suggestion.
  • “The Federal Aviation Administration has determined that the Oakland Raiders‘ proposed stadium in Las Vegas would not be a hazard to aircraft.” Huzzah!
  • Would-be St. Louis MLS owner Paul Edgerley says he’s still ready to pay $150 million for a franchise, and $100 million toward a stadium, as soon as someone comes up with the other $60 million in construction costs. Noted.
  • Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert has officially reinstated his plan to do $140 million of renovation work to the team’s arena, with Cuyahoga County paying for half the cost. ”This is corporate welfare at its worst,” said Steve Holecko of the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus, after his erstwhile coalition partners the Greater Cleveland Congregations withdrew petitions against the arena subsidy after getting a promise of two mental health crisis centers from the county. Holecko’s group doesn’t plan to mount another ballot challenge on their own, though, so construction work is set to begin later this month.
  • Mikhail Prokhorov is ready to sell the Brooklyn Nets, but will hold onto the Barclays Center, after renegotiating the team’s lease so that it will pay less rent to the arena. This … does not seem like the smartest way of going about things, but maybe Prokhorov is figuring he’ll give up future rent revenue in exchange for a higher sale price now on the team? Or maybe he’s just not very smart.

Falcons open new stadium, fans goggle at giant video board and giant ticket prices

The Atlanta Falcons opened their new $1.6 billion stadium (nearly half of which will end up being paid for by taxpayers) for a preseason game on Saturday, and aside from the retractable roof not retracting yet and long lines at concessions stands (the latter of which is typical for opening-night growing pains, anyway), fans were reportedly awed by the sight. Things they were particularly awed by, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

  • The roof may not open on its own yet, but it is “dramatic, stunning and unique.”
  • There’s a ring-shaped “halo board” suspended from the roof that “measures 58 feet tall and is 1,100 feet around,” which is … big!
  • The seats are wider.
  • There’s free Wi-Fi.
  • There are affordable food options, including $2 hot dogs, water, and sodas (with free refills!).
  • Ticket prices on the secondary market are up 91%, to an average of a whopping $441.

Okay, that last one isn’t actually awesome in the awesome sense. And it’s not directly related to ticket-price greed by Falcons owner Arthur Blank, since the secondary market is the wild west, where prices soar and dip based on how desperate fans are to get inside the place, and right now you can imagine the curiosity factor is sky high. If there’s one reason to blame Blank, it’s that seats at the new stadium are only available to season ticket holders who purchase personal seat licenses, meaning there’s no way to buy individual game tickets — though that alone wouldn’t let ticket holders to get $441 a pop on the resale market if demand weren’t there.

As with the roof and the concessions lines, it’s probably best to give the new Falcons stadium a few weeks or months to see how it works out the kinks in terms of ticket pricing. The damn thing is costing Georgians enough money, it’d be nice if they got a cool place to watch football out of the deal, at least for those wealthy enough to get in the gates.

Falcons’ retractable roof won’t work for opening game, will by December, maybe

Hey, remember back in April when it was revealed that the Atlanta Falconscrazy new iris-style stadium roof was taking longer to build than expected, and team execs promised it would be ready for opening day in September? Well, about that:

The retractable roof of Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be in the closed position when the new Falcons stadium debuts next month and for an undetermined period of time beyond that, the CEO of Falcons parent company AMB Group said today.

Steve Cannon said construction delays have the project behind schedule on fully mechanizing the roof…

Cannon said he could not provide specifics on when the first event might be played with the roof open, although he said it would be at some point during the Falcons’ and Atlanta United’s 2017 seasons.

Well then! The Falcons season runs through December, so sounds like the roof will definitely be operational by then. Of course, Cannon said in April he expected the roof to be operational by the start of the season, not the end, so he has a bit of a record in the wishful-thinking department. I’m not going to mention that Montreal’s Olympic Stadium roof was supposed to retract at first, too, but never really managed it — oh whoops, looks like I just did.

Falcons stadium delayed again, because newfangled roof doesn’t have all its fangles worked out

The much-delayed opening of the Atlanta Falcons‘ new stadium, originally set for this past March, has been delayed again, this time to a preseason game on August 26. The stated reason? Building a retractable roof that operates like no other roof before turns out to be hard!

[Falcons CEO Steve] Cannon said the latest delay disclosed Tuesday was driven by “steel work that is taking longer than we anticipated” in the roof and an analysis of the construction timeline from this point forward.

He said AMB Group’s expectation is that the roof will be fully operable when the stadium opens.

But Cannon acknowledged that the eight roof petals have required some extra work to make them fit.

“You install a shim that closes a gap or addresses a gap,” he said. “So yes, there was a shimming process that took place, normal seal work on a project of this size and complexity. We have completed all of that work. … It went very well. And now we’re moving on.”

The latest delay means that three Atlanta United games have had to be moved (one to Georgia Tech’s stadium, two to later dates) and demolition of the Georgia Dome has been delayed just in case the Falcons need to play some games there. Not that they’re going to have to do that, heaven forfend, the stadium will absolutely be open by August 26 — just like before it was absolutely going to be open by March 1, and then June 1, and then July 30. It’s also always possible the stadium might open without a fully functional roof at first — that’s happened before, after all, though the Falcons owners might not like reminding of that particular precedent.

Atlanta mayor defends cost overruns for Falcons pedestrian bridge as “saving lives”

Just what exactly is it with the Atlanta area and forgetting to plan for ways for fans to get to new sports stadiums? In the wake of the Cobb County Braves pedestrian bridge fiasco, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed last month that a pedestrian bridge to the Falcons‘ new stadium could cost $23.2 million, almost double what Mayor Kasim Reed promised in July. And now Reed has fired back that okay, maybe, but it’s worth every penny, dammit:

In 21st Century America, a city’s connectivity and walkability are major factors in attracting and retaining young, skilled workers and the companies looking to hire them. The steady influx of businesses and new residents to the City of Atlanta in 2016 is directly related to this strategy. Moreover, this growth is strengthening our economy across all sectors, leading to lower unemployment and greater opportunities for our residents.

The new bridge over Northside Drive linking Westside neighborhoods to Downtown Atlanta is a major example of an essential infrastructure piece that will improve – and possibly save – residents’ lives. The bridge will offer a safe crossing of Northside Drive, which for years has been a dangerous barrier preventing easy passage from the Westside to Downtown’s economic and cultural opportunities.

Okay, yeah, I think everyone can agree that people like to be able to cross highways without having to run through traffic. The bigger point here is that the city is suddenly facing a previously unannounced $23.2 million cost for a project to support a pro football stadium. While Reed insisted that the bridge was part of a community benefits plan, the AJC found that “none of those claims are backed up by the public record,” and quoted one of the community plan’s architects as saying they’re a load of crap:

Rev. Anthony A.W. Motley, a major participant in helping craft the Community Benefits Plan, scoffed at the assertion.

“To try and justify the bridge on the basis of a connection to poor people in the community is an insult to everything that we have proposed, particularly as it relates to the Community Benefits Plan,” Motley said. “The bridge has nothing to do with the community, and to say that it does shows contempt for the community and a flagrant disregard for the truth.”

Back on the Braves bridge front, meanwhile, the latest report is that six months after construction started in June, and with four months to go to opening day, the bridge was 40% complete. That doesn’t seem like a very promising pace, but Cobb’s transportation director Jim Wilgus said he hopes it will be “operational” by opening day April 14, even if not “totally complete” until the summer. Everybody hold on!

Stadiums now just big-ass billboards and public subsidy generating machines, face it

Today in sports teams sell ad rights for lots and lots of money:

The [Atlanta] Falcons organization has sold corporate sponsorships at Mercedes-Benz Stadium totaling more than $900 million in contractually obligated long-term revenue, SportsBusiness Journal reports in this week’s edition.

That’s $900 million over several decades, so not really worth $900 million toward today’s construction costs. Still, it should go a long way toward helping pay off the Falcons$1.6 billion stadium, especially when the team is already getting tax money worth nearly $700 million.

Also today in sports teams sell ad rights for lots and lots of money:

The Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx named five new “founding partners” on Monday who will help pay for the $130 million renovation of Target Center now underway…

In exchange for its sponsorship, each founding partner will receive a customized package with the two teams. Each package will offer a yet-to-be disclosed “physical presence” inside the arena, plus outdoor and indoor digital signage and category exclusivity.

That Minneapolis Star Tribune article doesn’t mention it, but the Target Center renovation also got $48 million in public funds.

These are only two data points, obviously, but they do help explain why team owners are so eager to build new facilities despite tons of evidence that they don’t bring in all that much more money in actual arena revenues. New sports venues aren’t just new sports venues — they’re also new billboards, and corporations are more willing to throw money at slapping their names on a fresh canvas than on one that’s been written on already a bunch of times, even if it’s dubious whether there’s any real business value.

Plus, of course, it’s way easier to ask for public money for new (or renovated) buildings than it is to just ask for straight taxpayer handouts because you want to boost your profits. When future alien anthropologists try to puzzle out why we spent so much of our time building and then tearing down places to watch mass sporting spectacles, it’ll be fun to see how many tries it takes before they arrive at “it was the best way to separate people from their wallets.”

Falcons stadium now to cost $1.6 billion, and it’s not finished yet

Both Atlanta Falcons officials and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed have started referring to the team’s new stadium opening in 2017 as a $1.6 billion facility, which probably means it now costs $1.6 billion, though there’s been no official announcement. That’s up from $1.5 billion in April, which is up from $1 billion in late 2013, which was already a pretty crazy amount of money to spend to build a new stadium to replace a 20-something-year-old one next door.

Now, Falcons owner Arthur Blank recently revealed that the amount of public money for the stadium is now “almost $700 million,” up from almost $600 million at last accounting, probably because projections of the hotel-motel tax that will go into the stadium’s “waterfall fund” for future maintenance and operations have risen. Still, that’s a hefty sum for Blank to pay, on top of a hefty sum that Atlanta citizens will be paying (yes, they’re paying it even if comes from a tourist tax, since once the city collected the tax money it’s the city’s to spend however it likes). It seems inconceivable that this will end up paying off for anyone, but apparently this is what Jerry Jones and the taxpayers of Arlington have wrought.

NFL gives three Super Bowls to cities with new stadiums, implies, “Keep ’em coming”

The NFL awarded the 2019, 2020, and 2021 Super Bowls to Atlanta, Miami, and Los Angeles yesterday, continuing its policy of using the big game as a reward to cities and teams with new or significantly renovated stadiums. Or as Rams owner Stan Kroenke said following the decision, “I think they are telling the communities and the owners who stick their necks out that it’s worthwhile.”

The most important target of the announcement, then, isn’t the three cities that will now get the questionable benefit of hosting the NFL’s annual week-long road show, but those that are being wooed with that dubious carrot. Right now most of the reporting is on how New Orleans and Tampa Bay were snubbed because their stadiums aren’t as shiny as the cities that got the nod, but it’ll be interesting to see how this plays into future coverage of stadium campaigns — already, San Diego Union Tribune chief Chargers stadium cheerleader Kevin Acee has written that the possibility of getting a Super Bowl shouldn’t be the reason to vote for a new stadium, but really he means that you should vote for a new stadium regardless, so all remains right with the world.

Interestingly, there’s no reporting yet that I can see out of Las Vegas on the Super Bowl decision, but that may be because they’re too busy covering yesterday’s conflicting comments on a potential Oakland Raiders move from owner Mark Davis (“This is the real deal. If Las Vegas can come through, we’re going to be there”) and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell (“It’s very premature at this point. Until we have more information, it’s pure speculation”). This could be just everyone playing their role — in terms of using Vegas as leverage in hopes of drumming up stadium subsidies from Oakland, Davis is bad cop, Goodell is good cop — or it could be a sign of deeper rifts among league owners over whether Davis should get to bolt from a bigger market to a smaller one in exchange for a lucrative (to him) stadium deal, and on what terms. We won’t know for sure until the next ESPN postmortem, I expect.

Falcons lower food prices at new stadium from completely insane to only mildly overpriced

The Atlanta Falcons owners have announced that when they open their new stadium next year, ticket prices may go up but concession prices will come down:

On what team officials are calling a “fan-first menu,” a number of items will be priced at $2: soft drinks (with unlimited free refills at self-serve stations), Dasani bottled water, hot dogs, pretzels and popcorn.

Also part of the plan: Pizza slices, nachos, waffle fries and bags of peanuts will be available for $3. Twelve-ounce domestic beer will cost $5.

That’s not all that impressive in the real world, but in the captive-audience universe of sports stadiums, bottled water for $2 is a freaking revelation. Steve Cannon, CEO of the Falcons’ parent corporation, told ESPN’s Darren Rovell that they tried to match prices fans would pay in “everyday life,” which bucks sports trends, to say the least.

Possible things that are going on here:

  1. The Falcons owners are hoping that if fans can get cheap food, they’ll be willing to spend more on tickets.
  2. The Falcons owners are hoping that if fans can get cheap food, they won’t bring their own in those clear plastic bags the NFL requires.
  3. The Falcons owners are hoping that if fans can get cheap food, they’ll start buying more PSLs already.
  4. This is a bait-and-switch where in a year or so, the cheap concessions items will get smaller and smaller, and you’ll have to pay top dollar for a normal-sized Dasani water.
  5. The Falcons just love their fans so much that they’re doing them a favor by HA HA ha ha sorry, couldn’t keep a straight face there.

Anyway, something is going on here, and it’s worth noting in case it becomes a more widespread trend. I still stick to my motto of “friends don’t let friends buy stadium food,” but if other teams started charging $2 for water, I … would probably still pay 50 cents for mine at the corner grocery before heading to the game, but it’s be less of a necessity.