Conservatives threaten to yank NFL stadium tax breaks if players keep making the flag cry

So the continuing uproar over how many feet athletes have to have on the ground during the national anthem rages on, with many conservatives especially rageful at the NFL, where there have been widespread instances of players taking a knee or linking arms or staying in the locker room (though other sports teams are doing these things too). And in that strange zone where libertarianish economic principles and blinkered patriotism meet, there have been increasing calls for football to be punished by having its public stadium subsidies taken away, or at least some of them:

  • Louisiana state Rep. Kenny Havard proposed cutting off state lease subsidies to the New Orleans Saints, which amount to somewhere between $200 million and $400 million over 15 years depending on how you count, on the grounds that “It is time for taxpayers to quit subsidizing protest on big boy playgrounds.” How he planned to do that in a contractual agreement signed four years ago, Havard didn’t say.
  • U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) declared, “In America, if you want to play sports you’re free to do so. If you want to protest, you’re free to do so. But you should do so on your own time and on your own dime.” Gaetz went on to gripe about the NFL’s non-profit status, which the league already gave up two years ago, though he also noted that “the public pays 70 percent of the cost of NFL stadiums,” which while true wouldn’t actually be affected by any actual legislation Gaetz was proposing.
  • The Daily Signal, which is extremely in favor of “free speech” when it comes to people being guaranteed the right to write conservative student newspaper columns without fear of getting angry emails from readers, noted that upset over anthem protests may “open the eyes of the public to a serious and generally unchecked issue: billionaire NFL owners sponging enormous amounts of money from taxpayers through crony capitalist schemes.” The site then provided a useful list of stats about NFL owner sponging (“$7 billion of taxpayer money” over the last two decades, which it looks like they got from Judith Grant Long’s data via this Huffington Post article), concluding with mention of the bipartisan Lankford-Booker bill to eliminate use of tax-exempt bonds for sports venues, which it said would “strip federal funding from sports teams,” which isn’t exactly right, though it would strip the largest federal subsidy.

If anger at players for calling attention to police violence and institutional racism via silent protests leads to new attention to and limits on sports stadium subsidies, that’d be good, I suppose, albeit weird: For one thing, NFL players don’t really benefit from public subsidies except indirectly (team owners get more profits, and use some of that to spend on higher player salaries). And the Lankford-Booker bill on tax-exempt bonds does seem like the most likely restriction on stadium subsidies to have a shot at passage — nobody that I can tell is talking about reviving David Minge’s bill for an excise tax on local-level subsidies, which would actually do something serious about that $7-billion-and-growing nut.

Mostly, though, this sounds like a bunch of politicians taking advantage of public anger at football players and at sports subsidies to mash the two up into, “Yeah, let’s hit them where it hurts, see!”, even if there isn’t an exact plan for how to do so. The Lankford-Booker bill still has zero other cosponsors and remains sittin’ in committee; maybe we’ll now see a rush of Congressfolk signing on if the kneeling continues on Sunday, but I’m honestly not holding my breath.

Cincy may lack cash for MLS stadium because it has too many other sports venues to subsidize

About 100 F.C. Cincinnati fans attended a Hamilton County Commission meeting last night to urge the commission to spend $100 million on a new soccer stadium for the USL team, which is hoping to land an MLS expansion franchise. County Commission President Todd Portune, however, told them that “we have more projects than we have money,” with the county facing $1.5 billion in pending capital projects. Like, the county jail is overcrowded and needs expansion, and a new waterfront development project is still mostly undeveloped, and, um:

The city’s two current major league sports teams — the Reds and the Bengals — will eventually come knocking on the county’s door for a new deal. The Bengals stadium lease with the county expires in 2026 with the Reds’ lease expiring a few years after. Combined, the two stadiums could need more than $200 million in upgrades within the next decade.

“While no one is talking about demoing these stadiums, we know there will be substantial maintenance (needs),” [Hamilton County Administrator Jeff] Alutto said.

Those leases running out are worth planning ahead for, I suppose, but it’s still a little worrisome that Hamilton County is already budgeting for stadium renovation “needs” that the teams haven’t even asked for yet. Apparently either somebody hasn’t gotten the memo that it’s okay to demand that taxpayers not take a bath on stadium projects, or else Hamilton County leaders think that Cincinnati has less leverage to keep its teams without bribing them to stay, which, okay, maybe.

That said, the rest of the county’s wish list includes a $230 million convention center expansion and a $342 million rebuild of the city’s arena, neither of which exactly seems like a “need” per se. If the only choice for Hamilton County is which dumb project for private profit to sink public money into, I can sort of see why soccer fans would feel justified in saying, “Us first!” Too bad overcrowded prisoners don’t have fan clubs.

No, the Chargers aren’t moving back to San Diego, but the NFL probably wishes they could

So it looks like the internet first exploded about the Los Angeles Chargers moving back to San Diego midway through their first season in their new home (not that they’d move midway, but the internet exploded midway — you get what I mean) came on Thursday, when longtime NFL reporter Don Banks went on the radio in San Diego to discuss this article in which he wrote that “sources privy to the league’s thinking” have indicated that “the NFL is shocked at how far south things have gone already for the relocated Chargers.” And then on the air, Banks upped the ante:

“There are people in the league, including the commissioner, they did not want to see San Diego forsaken. They would rather there be a team in San Diego. If there’s anything viable they can find to put the league back into San Diego, I think they will be in that camp strongly…

“I think a lot of people are in retrospect looking back and saying this was not a smart move, and how do we get ourselves out of it. But I don’t know that there’s a good option short of pressure on trying to force a sale.”

Because this is 2017, the news media first went crazy reporting that Banks was saying the NFL was about to move the Chargers back to San Diego, then went crazy debunking that notion that Banks didn’t even actually say. By the time of the Chargers game on Sunday — they lost again, and once again they sold out their 27,000-seat soccer stadium but lots of seats were either empty or occupied by fans of the visiting team, so many that the Chargers dispensed with team introductions for fear their players would get booed — things seemed to have largely calmed down. But now that it’s out there in the zeitgeist, is there anything at all to the idea of the NFL forcing the Chargers to throw in the towel on L.A.?

“Forcing,” almost certainly not: While the league can block a proposed move, it can’t undo one that’s already taken place. The most the other NFL owners could do, as Banks noted, would be to lean on Chargers owner Dean Spanos to sell the team, perhaps to an owner interested in moving back to San Diego. But that would mean 1) giving a team back to a city that spurned demands for a new publicly funded stadium, 2) undoing the lease that Spanos signed with Rams owner Stan Kroenke on a new stadium opening in Inglewood in 2020, which Kroenke is counting on to help pay his stadium construction costs, and 3) potentially angering Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis, who was denied a chance to move to L.A. because the Chargers had been granted dibs (though given that Davis is getting $750 million in tax money toward a new stadium in Las Vegas, maybe he doesn’t care about L.A. anymore, no matter how convenient it would make his haircuts).

The most reasonable conclusion, then, is what Banks actually said: The NFL is concerned by low levels of support for the Chargers, but doesn’t have any good options. The best bet is probably to wait until 2020 and hope that people want to go see the team once it’s in a new stadium; I guess Plan B would be to try to get San Diego to lure them back with a stadium offer of its own, and somehow use the proceeds to pay off Kroenke for his lost revenue? This is a huge mess, as one might have predicted from a process that was determined partly by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones challenging his fellow owners to move to L.A. to show they had “big balls.” The only question now is if NFL owners finally find an agreement to unravel their L.A. misstep, what kind of ink they’ll dip their balls in to sign it.

Friday roundup: Saskatoon soccer frenzy, Phoenix hotel sale to fund Suns, and more!

And more!

Rams, Chargers continue to play home games in relative privacy

NFL fever is still at an ice-cold pitch in Los Angeles, where both the Rams and Chargers saw tons of empty seats yesterday. Take it away, sports Twitter:

As with last week, the empty seats are scattered throughout the stadiums, so this looks like a case of people buying tickets and then not using them, either because they’re trying to get on a season-ticket waitlist for when the teams’ new stadium opens in 2020, or because tickets are cheap enough that they figure they’ll buy a season strip and only go when there’s a good opponent and there’s nothing good on TV that day. (Or maybe just when a team they actually care about comes to town: The hottest Chargers ticket on StubHub is vs. the Oakland Raiders.) Also, by one estimate half the maybe 20,000 fans if you’re being generous at yesterday’s Chargers-Miami Dolphins game were rooting for the Dolphins, which apparently was a problem at times in San Diego, too, but still.

None of this is a crisis just yet: It can take a while to build a fan base for a relocated team, and obviously the big push is for fans to go see the teams at their new stadium in three years. Still, when you’re trying to charge record seat-license prices, you really want to see pent-up excitement about your team, and that’s not exactly what’s going on here. There’s been talk for years that L.A. football fans have been happy just to watch the best games of the week on TV without having a home rooting attachment; if so, the no-shows could be a sign that it’s going to be tough to build actual fan bases for the Rams and Chargers, beyond just having games be a thing people just want to go to when their actual favorite team from somewhere else shows up. More data points are needed, so let’s keep an eye on this throughout the season.

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.

L.A. fans still really don’t want to watch the Rams play at Coliseum

I decided not to make fun of the Los Angeles Rams for reports of low attendance at their opening game of their second season back in L.A. on Sunday, because they’re playing at the L.A. Coliseum, and also they’re still the Rams. But with photographic evidence, it’s really hard not to point and laugh, at least a little:

Okay, so maybe fans are just waiting to get a chance to see the Rams in their shiny new space stadium in 2020, by which point maybe the team will also be able to win more than four games in a season. (Assuming football hasn’t been banned as a health hazard by then, anyway.) Still, attendance was pretty bad last year too, so unless L.A. fans are more into seeing a fancy roof than actual football — assuming what the Rams play qualifies as actual football — this does not bode super well for the team’s plans to charge the highest price for seat licenses in recorded history.

The one interesting thing I would note is that, like last year, the empty seats are mostly distributed pretty evenly around the stadium, which would indicate fans who bought tickets but then didn’t feel like actually showing up to use them. (Tickets going unclaimed for as low as $6 on the secondary market would further support this theory.) So maybe there are lots of people in L.A. buying season tickets now with little intention of using them, but just hoping to be first in line for season tickets at the new place once it opens in another three years? If so, the Rams had better have a hell of a season in 2019 to ramp up the excitement, and/or consider backing off on those PSL prices some, because they’re going to have quite the sales drive required once it’s time to convince all those empty seats to become full ones in 2020.

Hurricane Irma fails to knock over any of Florida’s sports venues

Time for your “What damage did Florida sports facilities suffer during Hurricane Irma?” rundown!

Also, two-thirds of the state is without power and many residents could remain so for weeks, at least 11 people died in the U.S. and 38 in Caribbean nations, nobody knows how many people are currently trapped in the Florida Keys, and a whole island of 1,800 people is now evacuated and uninhabitable. The Jaguars may move Sunday’s game to Tennessee if they have to.

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.

Houston has needed new dams for decades, built stadiums instead

I may have noted to The Nation’s Dave Zirin last week that building tons of sports venues and giving the surplus ones to megachurch operators who balked at opening them up to disaster victims was an inefficient way for Houston to get hurricane shelters, but I didn’t suggest that Houston’s flood damage could be directly linked to its stadium spending spree or anything. Washington Post sports columnist Kevin Blackistone, though, has no such qualms:

Two Januarys ago, the City of Houston, after a delay of at least seven years, finally started a critical long-term project. It was patchwork on two dams constructed during the post-World War II era to protect the city from catastrophic flood and deemed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to have fallen into as dangerous state of disrepair as possible. The cost: $72 million in federal funds.

Two decades ago, Houston found itself without a professional football team for the first time in seemingly forever. There was no holdup. There was no skimping.

Okay, so it’s not like Houston had a simple choice between fixing dams and building stadiums, and decided, “Stadiums it is, on the double!” But as Blackistone points out, there’s been no shortage of editorials and the like pointing out that aging dams needed to be shored up — or else “floodwaters could submerge downtown, west and south Houston and the Texas Medical Center,” in the words of one Houston Chronicle editorial last year — but the city’s response has been to wait for federal money to pay for the work. Meanwhile, Houston area taxpayers have spent around $1.4 billion on new buildings for the Astros, Texans, and Rockets in recent years (per the numbers in Judith Grant Long’s book with the really long name). As the kids today say, that’s not a good look.