Friday roundup: Developers pay locals $25 each to hold pro-arena signs, a smoking and farting winged horse team logo, and do you even need a third thing after those two?

It’s been another week of pretty bad news, topped off by a private equity firm somehow buying the entirety of .org domains, meaning every nonprofit website will now have to be licensed from an entity whose sole mission is to squeeze as much money from them as possible. The stadium and arena news, by contrast, isn’t all terrible, so maybe it qualifies as cheery? You be the judge:

  • The Richmond city council voted Tuesday to put off a decision on a $1.5 billion downtown development that would include a new arena (public cost: $350 million), after a contentious hearing where both supporters and opponents held signs espousing their opinions. Or espousing somebody’s opinions, anyway: Some locals holding “yes” signs later reported that the project’s developers paid them $25 a pop to do so. City council president Michelle Mosby replied that if anything people were just reimbursed gas money, which 1) only makes sense if everyone there drove their own car and had to travel like 250 miles round trip to get to the hearing and 2) isn’t really any less corrosive of democracy anyway.
  • If you’ve been wondering how Inter Miami plans to build a temporary 18,000-seat stadium in Fort Lauderdale (later to be turned into a practice field) between now and March and figured it would have to involve throwing up a bunch of cheap metal bleachers, now there’s video of construction workers doing exactly that. Also laying down the sod for the field, which I thought usually takes place after the stadium is more or less built, but I guess if they can build the stadium without treading on the field, no harm in doing so now. This all raises questions of whether the stadium will feel excessively crappy, and if not why more soccer teams can’t just build cheap quickie stadiums like this without the need for public money; I guess we’ll know the answer by springtime one way or another.
  • When the state of Minnesota agreed to pay for the Vikings‘ new stadium with cigarette revenue after electronic pulltab gambling money didn’t come in as expected, it still kept collecting the gambling cash; and now that e-pulltabs (which are just lottery tickets, only on a tablet) have taken off, there’s debate over what to do with the cash that the state is collecting, about $5 million this year but projected to rise to $51 million by 2023. The Vikings owners want the money used to pay off their stadium debt early, while some lawmakers would like to use the revenue to fund other projects or reduce taxes on charitable gambling institutions now that it’s no longer needed — all are valid options, but it’s important to remember that the state already paid for most of the stadium, this is just arguing over what to do with the zombie tax that was left over after the financing plan was changed. (It would also be nice to know if e-pulltab gambling has cannibalized revenues from other gambling options, thus making this less of a windfall, but modern journalists have no time for such trivialities.)
  • The city of Wichita is spending $77 million (plus free land) on a Triple-A baseball stadium to steal the Baby Cakes from New Orleans, and have been rewarded with the Wichita Wind Surge, a name that’s supposed to reference the city’s aviation history or something but actually means “storm surge,” which isn’t a thing that they have in landlocked Kansas? It also features a logo that looks like a horse and a fly got caught in a transporter accident, which the team’s designer explained with “The nice thing about Pegasus, however, to me, was the fact that it’s got a horse in there.” A local designer responded with a sketch of a winged horse smoking a cigarette, drinking a beer, and farting, which by all accounts is much more popular with Wichitans. (The sketch is, I mean, though I’d love to see a poll asking Wichitans, “Which do you prefer, the name Wichita Wind Surge or farting?”)
  • San Diego State University’s plan to buy the city’s old football stadium and its surrounding land for $87.7 million has hit some “speed bumps,” namely that city economists have determined that the price could be below the land’s market value and $10 million of the sale price would have to be set aside for infrastructure improvements for the university’s development. “There’s also the matter of the $1-per-month lease that, as proposed, may not adequately protect the city from expenses or legal risk,” notes the San Diego Union-Tribune. Given all these uncertainties, the city’s independent budget analyst called SDSU’s proposed March 27 deadline “very challenging,” not that that’s stopped city councils before.
  • Saskatoon has enough room under its debt limit to finance either a new central library or a new sports arena, and regardless of what you think of how badly Saskatooners need a new library, it’s still a pretty strong example of how opportunity costs work.
  • The Phoenix Suns‘ new practice facility being built with the help of public money will include a golf simulator for players, because of course it will.
  • Speaking of Phoenix, the Arizona Republic has revealed what the Diamondbacks owners want in a new stadium; the original article is paywalled, but for once Ballpark Digest‘s propensity for just straight-up paraphrasing other sites’ reporting comes in handy, revealing that team owners want a 36,000-  to 42,000-seat stadium with a retractable roof and surrounded by a 45- to 70-acre mixed-use development and a 5,000-seat concert venue and good public transit and full control of naming-rights revenue and public cost-sharing on ballpark repairs. And a pony.
  • Will Raiders football hike your home value?” asks the Nevada Current, apparently because “Is the moon made of green cheese?” had already been taken.
  • And last but certainly not least, your weekly vaportecture roundup: The New Orleans Saints‘ $450 million renovation of the Superdome (two-thirds paid for by taxpayers) will include field-level open-air end zone spaces where fans have ample room enjoy rendered people’s propensity for flinging their arms in the air! The new Halifax Schooners stadium designs lack the woman hailing a cab and players playing two different sports at once from previous renderings, but do seem to still allow fans to just wander onto the field if they want! It should come as no surprise to anyone that even Chuck D can do a better job of drawing than this.
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Friday roundup: Saints’ $300m subsidy moves ahead, St. Louis MLS announcement on tap, Richmond council votes no on democracy

Sometimes I feel lucky to cover a topic with so many constant absurdities, and then this happens, and I realize that constant absurdities are just the new normal. Anyway, I did get to edit this this week, which is an excellent look at how this week’s absurdity is having potentially catastrophic impacts on people’s lives, so go read it!

But not before you read these:

  • The Louisiana State Bond Commission has approved selling $450 million worth of state bonds to fund renovations to the Superdome, in exchange for the New Orleans Saints signing a 15-year lease extension. As covered back in May, Saints owner Gayle Benson would cover one-third of the bond cost, leaving Louisiana to pay off $300 million, bringing the Saints’ five-decide subsidy total to a cool $1.442 billion. In exchange, the Saints will sign a 15-year lease extension — with another 15-year option, but there’s no way they’re going to extend their lease again without more subsidies the way this gravy train is rolling — which comes to state taxpayers ponying up $20 million a year for the presence of an NFL team, which is a hell of a lot of money, though not as much as Indiana pays the Pacers, because Indiana.
  • The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported this week that St. Louis will be announced next Tuesday as the next MLS expansion city, bringing the number of teams in the league to a cool 154. (I think it’s actually 28, but honestly the number changes so fast it’s hard to keep track.) Deadspin read the announcement that there would be no public subsidies for the as-yet-unnamed team’s stadium and excitedly reported that the deal “might not completely fleece the city”; sadly, it will actually involve about $60 million in public subsidies, but since about half of that is coming from the state, not the city, that Deadspin headline is still technically correct, right?
  • The Richmond city council has voted 5-3 against allowing a referendum on the city’s proposed new $350 million city-subsidized arena on the November ballot, because voting is for elected officials, not regular folks. Though regular folks do still get to vote on electing elected officials, something that referendum sponsor Reva Trammell clearly had in mind when she said following the no-voting vote: “I hope the citizens hold their feet to the fire. Every damn one of them that voted against it.”
  • Two-plus years after the arrival of the Hartford Yard Goats in exchange for $63 million in public stadium cash — plus a couple million dollars every year in operating losses — the Hartford Courant has noticed that stadium jobs are usually part-time and poorly paid. Not included in the article: any analysis of how many full-time jobs could have been created by spending $63 million on just about anything else.
  • New Arizona Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo said he intends to keep the NHL team in Arizona, but that keeping it in Glendale is a “difficult situation,” at which point a Glendale spokesperson said that city officials would meet with Meruelo “to see how we can help him achieve his goals of success.” Which is all fine and due diligence and all, but given that helping Meruelo “achieve his goals” is likely to mean paying him money to play in Glendale like the city used to do, it’s not exactly promising; if nothing else, Glendale officials would do well to remember that Meruelo currently has exactly zero better arena options elsewhere in the state, so he’s not exactly negotiating from a position of strength.
  • Joe Tsai, who was already set to buy the Brooklyn Nets from Mikhail Prokhorov, has officially exercised his option to purchase the team, plus the Barclays Center arena to boot, for a reported $3.5 billion. Given that the arena is currently losing about $21 million a year, this seems like an awful lot of money even if the team does employ whatever’s left of Kevin Durant. Since Tsai already owns the New York Liberty, though, maybe it at least means that WNBA franchise will finally return to the city from its exile in the suburbs.
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Saints’ latest Superdome demand to push total subsidies past $1.4b, eat that, Indiana Pacers

When I wrote on Monday that Indianapolis giving Indiana Pacers owner Herb Simon $600 million worth of renovation payments and operating subsidies to extend his lease for 25 years was setting a new standard in making sports leases the grift that keeps on giving, I figured that record would last, oh, I dunno, more that a couple of days. And yet:

State and New Orleans Saints officials are working toward an agreement that will keep the team in Louisiana through 2035 and include a transformative $450 million renovation of the Superdome, officials said this week.

The deal would extend the Saints’ current lease agreement with the state another 10 years and feature the most elaborate and expensive overhaul of the iconic stadium in its 44-year history.

It’s not quite as bad as that lede makes it sound: The Saints owners will be chipping in $150 million of the renovation cost. But still, that leaves $300 million to be paid for by the state, which for a ten-year lease extension means Louisiana taxpayers will be shelling out $30 million a year for the Saints to play in New Orleans — blowing away the Pacers’ just-established $24 million a year record.

This new agreement — which the New Orleans Times-Picayune calls “the lynchpin to a long-term agreement between the state and the team,” which is not at all how you should be spelling “linchpin” — would be, like the Pacers’ deal, just the latest in a long series of subsidies the Saints owners would be collecting from the state of Louisiana: Late Saints owner Tom Benson, in fact, pioneered the pay-to-play concept when he engineered a lease in 2001 where the state would pay him $18.6 million a year to play in the Superdome for another ten years. Then he got another $392 million in 2013, and now is set to receive another $300 million just six years later — adding in all the earlier money Louisiana spent on building and renovating the dome, the Saints’ five-decade total will come to $1.442 billion (non-inflation-adjusted dollars), which is even more than the Pacers’ $1.161 billion, though the Pacers got all their cash in the span of just 20 years, so they still take the subsidy-rate crown.

The latest Saints plan still needs to be approved by state officials — certainly the state bond commission, maybe the state legislature as well, though the Times-Picayune didn’t do any better a job reporting this than they did on their spellchecking. Gov. John Bel Edwards reportedly already “gave his blessing: to the plan, though, and given past history in Louisiana, it has to be considered likely to be approved. Some days, I feel like we’re making some headway in getting elected officials to at least check the literature on economic benefits or the lack thereof before lavishing tax dollars on the local sports team owner; other days, not so much.

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Louisiana is about to subsidize the Saints for the fifth time in 17 years, because Louisiana

The state of Louisiana approved a $400,000 diagnostic architectural survey of the Superdome last week, and if that sounds trivial, it’s not: Apparently it’s the first step toward yet another renovation of the New Orleans Saints‘ home stadium on the state’s dime. Or rather, five billion dimes:

The $422,000 study, which was approved last May, proposed several options to modernize the Superdome and increase revenue streams for its anchor tenant, the New Orleans Saints. Among them: removal of the interior pedestrian ramps; installation of glazed windows to some parts of the Dome’s existing sides; installation of field-level bunker suites; and improving parts of the terrace seating.

Depending on the scope, the price tag for the potential renovation ranges from $150 million to $500 million.

If you’ve lost track of how many renovations of the Superdome this makes, I put together a handy scorecard last year:

$134 million to build it in the first place in 1975, then $54 million for emergency repairs after Hurricane Katrina, then $376 million in non-emergency repairs after that, including replacing the exterior and redoing the entire lower bowl of the stadium with new seating and club space. Along the way, the state paid Saints owner Tom Benson $186 million to keep the team in town through 2011, then another $392 million to keep the team in town through 2025.

So if Louisiana approves the full $500 million upgrade, that’ll be $1.508 billion it’s given to the Saints owners (in either renovation costs or straight-up cash) over the past 18 years, or $1.642 billion if you count building the dome in the first place. (That’s all nominal dollars; if you want to figure out the total value in 2018 dollars, go for it, there are plenty of calculators for that sort of thing online.) All in order to “increase revenue streams” for the Saints, without which they would presumably move to some other city that’s willing to give them a billion and a half dollars? Leave it to Tom Benson (and now his heirs): In a city of grifters, he may have come up with the most lucrative grift of all time.

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Umpteenth taxpayer-funded Superdome renovation could push public costs to $1.5 billion

The New Orleans Superdome has cost Louisiana taxpayers a lot of money over the years: $134 million to build it in the first place in 1975, then $54 million for emergency repairs after Hurricane Katrina, then $376 million in non-emergency repairs after that, including replacing the exterior and redoing the entire lower bowl of the stadium with new seating and club space. Along the way, the state paid Saints owner Tom Benson $186 million to keep the team in town through 2011, then another $392 million to keep the team in town through 2025. But 2025 is just eight years away now, so of course Benson is starting to plan ahead for his next payday:

State officials took the first step toward another potential makeover of New Orleans’ iconic downtown stadium last week when the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District approved funding for a master plan to renovate the Superdome…

“The whole idea of this was not to wait until the last minute,” Saints president Dennis Lauscha said. “If we’re going to do this, let’s start now. This project is about trying to get the stadium to the next generation of fans and make it fun for them, as well.”

What would the “next generation of fans” consider “fun”? Apparently such things as “a re-imagined front door,” moving two parking garages, new roof windows, an expanded visiting locker room, renovated press box, and “installation of virtual reality technology.” Price tag: between $150 million and $500 million, which is a broad range. Neither Saints execs nor the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District nor the New Orleans Times-Picayune mentioned who’d pay for it or how, but given past experience, “entirely out of Tom Benson’s pocket” seems unlikely.

If the renovation happens and hits the high end of the cost estimate, that’ll push the public cost of keeping Benson happy to almost $1.5 billion over the past 16 years. Current estimated cost to just buy the damn Saints from Benson and shut down his subsidy demands forever, while simultaneously getting access to $70 million-plus in revenues a year: $1.75 billion. Not to say that Louisiana is doing this wrong, but, yeah.

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Saints owner gets a statue for keeping team in town after extorting money not to leave

And then there’s this, from Deadspin:

The Saints and Pelicans surprised owner Tom Benson with a 13.5-foot bronze statue outside of the Superdome, a venerable and iconic arena that nine years ago Benson tried to get declared unusable after Hurricane Katrina in an attempt to break his lease and relocate the Saints to San Antonio.

Benson, don’t forget, had earlier pioneered using move threats to get a lease that paid him tens of millions of dollars a year in state money just to play in his own home stadium. At the statue unveiling, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal praised Benson for his “commitment” and “generosity.”

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New Orleans doesn’t win Super Bowl bid, Drew Brees says new stadium needed, Facebook freaks out

Minneapolis was awarded the 2018 Super Bowl on Tuesday, and I thought about posting, but you know, somebody is always awarded the Super Bowl, and Minneapolis will have a new stadium with a roof, so sure, why not? The only bit of news that seemed particularly relevant to this site was this note about the runner-up in the bidding, New Orleans:

New Orleans had been 10-for-10 when it bid on the Super Bowl. The city will be celebrating its 300th birthday in 2018. But, it plays in an old stadium, the Superdome. Feel free to wonder when the next pitch for public funds for a new stadium in New Orleans will come.

If you had your money on “two days from now, by Saints quarterback Drew Brees,” you’re a winner!

At a charity softball event Drew Brees inserted himself in a debate about whether the city of New Orleans “needs” a new sports stadium.  His comments came a few days after New Orleans lost a bid for the 2018 Super Bowl.  Minneapolis, with its emphasis on having a new football stadium, won the bid.

“Listen, the league wants to encourage new stadiums to be built.  This motivates and incentivizes cities, especially the small market teams, to pass legislation and approve bills that end up funding those types of stadiums,” said Brees.

WWL-TV then followed up this vague but incendiary comment by an NFL player who probably was just trying to answer a question that had been put to him with a bunch of quotes from Facebook comments, because modern journalism, people. (For the record, both Debbie Hall Perrone and Judy Clasen Sinnott think that New Orleans doesn’t need a new stadium.)

NBC Sports’ Mike Florio, meanwhile, who thinks that everybody needs a new stadium, says the selection of Minneapolis tells cities, “If you’ll be going up against a city with a new stadium built in part by taxpayer dollars, don’t bother.” Which could lead to future Super Bowl bids that “suddenly won’t be as good as they otherwise would be,” because cities without new stadiums won’t bother. Which is a nice bookend to Florio’s February column that holding cold-weather Super Bowls in cities with new stadiums will encourage more cities to build new stadiums, then bid. Just so long as somebody is being arm-twisted into something that can generate clicks, both the NFL and the sports media are happy, so it’s all good.

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Benson to profit by $392m over 15 years from sweetheart Saints lease

Hey, remember how when New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson signed a new lease deal back in 2009, it was supposed to be an improvement for the state of Louisiana because instead of the Saints getting paid $23 million a year in negative rent, they’d only be getting $6 million a year? No? That’s okay, it’s been a while. Besides, according to a new report by Forbes’ Dan Alexander, it’s not working out nearly that well for taxpayers after all:

Over 15 years, the term of the lease, the state will pay Benson at least $198 million in increased revenue from the Superdome, $142 million in rental payments on property Benson owns, $10 million in bonuses for bringing the Super Bowl to New Orleans and $2.6 million in tax breaks. Benson will get another $40 million from private rent payments to a tower he bought as part of the deal.

That’s $392 million in extra money over the next 15 years, thanks to the generosity of the state of Louisiana.

Not all the money is actual state subsidies, it looks like: That $198 million in “increased revenue,” for example, is just new profits from the renovated Superdome, some of which will come in the form of fans paying more money for tickets. Louisiana agreed, though, to make up for any shortfall if Saints revenues don’t rise by $12 million a year, a guaranteed-profits deal that makes you wonder why Benson bothered to raise ticket prices at all, if the state will pay him whether he sells tickets or not. (Hey, sound familiar?) Plus, naming rights money (after the first $1 million) is only 50% counted as team revenue for these purposes, so the $5 million or so that Benson is getting each year from Mercedes-Benz to put their name on the state’s building only reduces the state’s subsidy requirements by $2 million a year.

The sneakiest part, though, is how Louisiana agreed to move state offices into a vacant building damaged by Hurricane Katrina that Benson bought, paying him substantially more than market rate for the space. That’s exactly the kind of hidden subsidy that Judith Grant Long has documented is on the rise, but it’s a novel twist — so novel, in fact, that even sports economist Robert Baade, who’s seen everything, boggled to Forbes about it:

“That’s incredible. I‘ve never heard of that one before,” said Robert Baade, an economist at Lake Forest University who studies stadium financing. “There is no end in how creative governments get to supporting subventions. That’s just another form of subsidy.”

The current Saints lease runs out in 2025, at which point you can be sure that Benson’s heirs (the guy would be 98 by then) will be back for an even more creative subvention. But in the meantime, I, for one, take my hat off to the Saints owner, supplying the closing quote of the Forbes piece:

“He’s pretty savvy in terms of figuring out how to maximize his revenue at somebody else’s expense, which is the business of being a sports owner these days,” deMause said. “Whether you consider that to make him a great businessman or a supervillain depends on your perspective.”

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Will the Super Bowl blackout spark calls for more New Orleans stadium subsidies? No, seriously

I happened to be watching the Super Bowl with FoS correspondent David Dyte, so naturally when the lights went out, I made the same joke I haul out every time anything goes wrong at a sporting event, whether falling concrete or the hot dog stand running out of mustard: “Looks like they need a new stadium.”

It turns out someone else had the same idea, only they weren’t joking:

The most recent trend for Super Bowl cities and facilities is to head to newer facilities.  Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, New Meadowlands Stadium in NY/NJ, Reliant Stadium in Houston, and U of Phoenix being excellent recent examples.

New Orleans has cashed in on their historical calling card as a festive host city.

But in the aftermath of Sunday night’s second half blackout, New Orleans may need a new football stadium before they play host to their 11th Super Bowl.

That’s from “contributor” (which I believe means unpaid volunteer blogger) Patrick Rishe, who if nothing else deserves props for one of the quickest SEO grabs of last night, getting his demand for a new New Orleans stadium out to the world before the third quarter was even over. (Though I’m still waiting for the “What time did the Super Bowl blackout start?” headlines.) Rishe is an economics professor and runs some kind of sports consulting firm, so he’s probably not the most reliable source for stadium demand rumors; even if other actual news outlets are speculating on what the blackout will mean for New Orleans’ 2018 Super Bowl bid, nobody’s talking about a brand new stadium just yet, not when Louisiana just spent $336 million on renovating the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina.

And yet, Miami is talking about it (or another round of taxpayer-subsidized renovations at least), for a stadium that’s 12 years younger than the Superdome. Given that all evidence is that Super Bowls mean pretty nothing for local economies, that New Orleans has way more pressing needs than a new stadium, that the city isn’t exactly hurting for ways to attract tourists in February, that the NFL is going to want to keep going back to New Orleans regardless because rich people like to party, and finally — as recent events have shown — that getting a chance on the world stage can as easily result in global embarrassment as global glory, this would be pretty much absolutely crazy. But then, we’re in the crazy business here.

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Mercedes Superdome deal to end yearly Saints subsidies?

As a change of pace, here’s some good news: The New Orleans Saints and the state of Louisiana have announced a ten-year naming rights deal with Mercedes-Benz for the Superdome. No word on how much the carmaker will be paying, but apparently the fact that the dome is set to host the 2013 Super Bowl made them willing to pay more than chump change for a building that 99% of people will still just call “the Superdome.”

And why should anyone other than Saints fans and luxury European car fans care about this? Because as part of the new lease signed along with the dome’s recent $336 million renovation, the Saints and the state split naming-rights proceeds (after the first $1 million a year goes to the team). And while Louisiana taxpayers won’t likely see any cash from the deal, they do get to use the naming-rights money to reduce the annual operating subsidies that the state has been paying the Saints to play in the dome for the last ten years.

So, rejoice! The Saints will soon only be playing rent-free, instead of paying negative rent! And all it cost was $336 million in state-sponsored renovations! C’mon, why aren’t you rejoicing?

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