Friday roundup: World still on fire, let’s remember 1989 when the greatest sports horror imaginable was Alan Thicke in a tuxedo

Very busy week here at FoS HQ, so let’s dispense with any introductory chitchat and get right to the news we didn’t already get to this week:

That’s all for now, see you all Monday!

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Saints lobbied to pack fans into Superdome less than six feet apart, say #1 priority is “safety”

Sometimes when I write a post here assuming the worst intentions of sports team owners, I feel slightly bad. Sure, sports barons may have a long history of using everything possible in the pursuit of personal profit, but does that mean it’s always the case? Maybe when the New Orleans Saints owners say they’re thinking of temporarily relocating to Baton Rouge so they can have fans in the seats, they’re genuinely trying to make the best of a bad situation and not just trying to pressure the city of New Orleans into opening up the Superdome to paid attendance?

Turns out: Naaaaaaaaah.

In August, before the season began, the Saints made a pitch to Gov. John Bel Edwards for a bolder idea: 35% capacity — a plan that would put almost 24,000 fans in the stadium for games…

The plan featured a detailed “seating manifest methodology” that showed how patrons would be spaced from several angles. In all, 23,875 people would have been allowed in the stadium under the proposal, to which Edwards did not agree.

That “seating manifest technology,” goes on to report, was mostly based on advanced fudging the numbers, as fans would have been seated less than six feet apart, the minimum distance recommended by the CDC, even though it’s also noted that the virus can spread across greater distances “under special circumstances.” Whether those special circumstances may include football fans taking off masks to eat and cheer in an indoor stadium is not specifically mentioned in any CDC reports, but it’s certainly a concern.

Also, luxury suites would have been filled to 100% capacity, because everyone in a luxury suite can clearly be trusted to stay six feet apart and masked within their extremely indoor space, which is then only a problem if you spend several hours together there uh-oh. (An official from Louisiana’s Ochsner hospital, who argued on behalf of the Saints’ plan, said that suite denizens would be assumed to be “cohorted group,” which given that Superdome suites hold up to 24 people would require some pretty huge households.)

The 35% plan was rejected by Gov. Edwards, who later approved attendance of up to 25% at Louisiana sporting events. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell later rejected any in-person attendance, though, saying her approval would depend on whether she got more state money to help deal with the pandemic, which doesn’t actually seem like great epidemiology either. And the Saints are keeping up the lobbying just in case:

The Saints met with Cantrell, medical professionals at Ochsner and Cantrell’s medical advisors on Monday about potentially phasing in fans for this weekend’s game and beyond, [Saints spokesperson Greg] Bensel said Monday evening.

“The city continues to see COVID positivity rates remain stable,” Bensel said in a statement. “The city currently has one of the lowest rates in the nation. We all agree that the priority is to make sure our city’s residents and our fans are safe and not to regress from the progress that has been made. We look forward to providing our fans more information shortly.”

Cantrell’s office declined to comment on the matter Monday.

Keeping people safe: When has the NFL ever made anything else its priority?

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Saints threaten to play in Baton Rouge as leverage to get Superdome reopened to fans

The battle over letting fans back into sports stadiums has so far been a matter for state politicians and team officials, who have tried to strike a balance between concern for public health and desire for private profit. But no team has succeeded in pitting two different government against each other, in a “savvy negotiator creates leverage” way, to compete for a team’s presence — until now:

Fed up with COVID restrictions that have silenced the Mercedes Benz Superdome, the New Orleans Saints say they’re considering another venue that could bring back a little noise.

LSU and Baton Rouge say they are happy to lend out Tiger Stadium…

Officials with Visit Baton Rouge say even a few extra Saints fans could bring in big business for the city…

“Obviously it would be the biggest single event that would occur, or episode to occur in Baton Rouge during this pandemic,” said Paul Arrigo, President & CEO of Visit Baton Rouge.

Some background: New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell has issued much tougher measures on public events, mask-wearing, and other Covid prevention methods than the rest of the state, creating what one disease expert called an unintentional controlled experiment in the efficacy of anti-pandemic rules. (So far Orleans Parish is doing significantly better than the rest of the state, both in terms of total cases and recent cases.) And the Saints, of course, play in the Superdome, which is of course indoors, which is of course where the virus goes to spread. So Cantrell has steadfastly refused to open the dome to fans:

“While the Saints’ request for a special exception to the city’s COVID-19 guidelines remains under consideration, allowing 20K people in an indoor space presents significant public health concerns,” Cantrell said in a statement.

“At present, no NFL stadium in the country with a fixed-roof facility is allowing such an exception,” her statement read. “We will continue to monitor the public health data, but cannot set an artificial timeline for how and when conditions may allow for the kind of special exemption being requested.”

Playing outdoors at LSU’s Tiger Stadium actually seems like a good solution here, at least if masked (when not eating or drinking) and distanced fans attending games outdoors turns out to be safe, which we still don’t know for sure. But Saints execs seem to be using the option less as a stop-gap measure than as a saber to rattle, issuing a statement saying that their “overwhelming preference is to play our games in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with partial fan attendance” even while they’re exploring the option of playing in Baton Rouge.

And why should New Orleans care if the Saints play in Baton Rouge temporarily? All together now: ECONOMIC ACTIVITY!!!1!

“Baton Rouge is going to get all of that money. They’re going to get all the restaurant money, all the hotel money,” said [New Orleans native and Saints fan Andruski] Austin. “They’re going to get all of that.”

Okay, so maybe asking a random Saints fan for an economic impact statement wasn’t the most expert source you could use, WWL-TV. The Saints have five home games left this season, so you’re talking maybe 100,000 fans total going to games in Baton Rouge; most of them are either going to be local or make the hour-plus drive from New Orleans, so there’s probably not a ton of hotel money at stake. Maybe you’ll get some more restaurant visits, but at most you’re talking about a couple million dollars in spending — Baton Rouge has a 5.5% local sales tax, so maybe could see $100,000 or something in new taxes as a result, which probably wouldn’t be enough to pay for extra hospital services if even a small outbreak resulted from Saints fans piling into Fat Boy’s Pizza for a postgame meal.

It’s entirely possible that none of this will sway Mayor Cantrell, and also possible that the Saints will play games temporarily at LSU and everything will be fine. But this is another worrisome data point in the trend of sports teams seeing taking on increased Covid risks as a competitive advantage — and cities now being encouraged (by the local news media and random football fans, anyway) to do the same. Letting fans back into sporting events as soon as it’s safe is a great idea; letting them back in as soon as someone is worried that they’ll be leaving money on the table if they don’t is extremely not.

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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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