Flames say their arena plan was fair, because paying taxes is like putting in money, right?

In the continuing Calgary war of publicly released arena proposals, the Flames owners revealed some details of what they’d proposed to the city on Wednesday, and it’s a fascinating glimpse into the mind of business executives in an industry that relies heavily on corporate subsidies.

The Flames’ presentation, touted on a special page of their team website, was largely in the form of pie charts, like this one:

If you’ve been following this story, you’ll know that this is not extremely helpful, since it shows who would’ve been fronting the money for an arena — the owners of the team that would play in it would put in slightly more than the owners of the city whose residents would pay the team to watch games in it, whoo! — but not who’ll get to recoup their costs from new revenues from it. Since this was the entire issue that negotiations broke down over, kind of a slight omission there, Flames pie-chart renderers.

Chart number two, though, comes with a table, and it’s an extremely illuminating one:

Forget the chart on the right, which is designed to convince Calgary residents that hey, Edmonton did a deal kinda like what we proposed, so it must be fair, right? (And also can’t punctuate the name of the Edmonton arena properly, unless they think it’s actually the sequel to a short-lived but acclaimed 1980s dramedy.) The one on the left is what’s important: If you check out the fine print below, you’ll see that the Flames honchos are claiming that under the city’s proposal they’d have to pay for more than 100% of the cost of the project, because future property taxes on the arena ($243 million) would be more than the city’s share of the up-front cost ($130 million).

This is kinda mind-boggling: In no other walk of life would anybody count the taxes that everybody has to pay as a capital cost — it’d be a bit like going to a car dealer and saying, “Sure, you’re knocking almost 50% off the sticker price, but what about all the money I’m going to have to spend on gas, huh?” [UPDATE: Or maybe a better way of putting it would be: If I take out a student loan from the U.S. government, I don’t get to say, “Hey, it’s nice and all that you want your money back, but can’t you take it out of the income taxes that I’m already paying?”]  Or to flip it around, this is saying to the city, Yes, you’d have to put up half the money for our private project, but we’d pay taxes, and sure we know that normal humans and even business pay taxes on top of paying for things that they want and that’s how government can afford to pay for schools and roads and all that, but come on, man, pie charts!

It’s a perfect exemplar of the Casino Night Principle, in other words, where any cash that the private party has ever touched is “our money,” and how dare do you city officials think the public is entitled to it just because that’s the law? In fact, the Flames’ plan even takes credit for money that the team has never touched, by proposing that the city recoup its share via a “community revitalization levy” (a CRL, which is Canadian for a TIF) on property taxes from unspecified development around the arena.

Anyway, all this is now moot, because Flames CEO Ken King told Global News yesterday that “we’re no longer pursuing this concept and need to move on” and “we’ll just get about the business of operating our teams and having some fun and try to win some championships.” Which sounds like good news — yay, enough with the whining about needing a new arena and just play hockey! — but was clearly meant as a threat against Mayor Naheed Nenshi in the run-up to elections this fall. Speaking of which, how’s that going?

Speaking to Global News on Wednesday, Mount Royal University professor of Communication Studies, David Taras, said arena funding seems to have become “ground zero” for the election.

“To some degree, I think there’s an argument that the [Calgary] Flames handed the election to Nenshi, because if you look back at the last election, Nenshi positioned himself brilliantly as ‘I’m fighting for the little guy against the big developers.’ In this election, he’s positioning himself as ‘I’m fighting for ordinary citizens who don’t want to subsidize billionaire business people – and I’m fighting for them against the super-rich.’”…

“It’s boxed in [opponent] Bill Smith a bit,” [Mount Royal University political science professor Duane] Bratt agreed. “It splits his brand, which has been strong on sport and also strong on taxpayer protection.”

Sticking to running a hockey team is probably a good idea for King & Co. — they don’t seem to be much better at electoral meddling than they are at pie charts.

Nenshi’s election rivals aren’t eager to throw public money at Flames arena, either

That whole “let’s blow up our arena negotiations and hope everyone gets mad at the mayor during the election campaign and forces him to make us a more lucrative offer” plan by the Calgary Flames owners is really not going as planned at all:

  • Asked whether he thought Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s plan to split both costs and revenues with the Flames was a good one, opposition candidate Bill Smith said: “There’s still a lot more to be looked at, and one of things I’m waiting to see is where the Flames sit on this … you need to see what the whole deal looks like. … One of the reasons we’re in this situation right now is a failure of leadership. We have a mayor who won’t deal fairly with anyone.”
  • Andre Chabot, another Nenshi opponent, declared the city’s plan “reasonable.”
  • Nenshi taunted Smith for not taking a position, saying, “If you want to be mayor, you’ve got to tell people who’s giving you money, who you’re working for and, for heaven’s sake, you’ve got to tell people how you’re going to spend billions of dollars. I think it’s kind of important.”

Also, Smith and Chabot are likely to split any anti-Nenshi vote, leaving the mayor likely to win election to a third term. So, yeah, this threat seems to have fizzled. How long you think before Flames CEO Ken King tries having himself photographed at the Seattle airport?

Flames CEO says city recouping its arena cost via taxes means “us paying for everything”

As promised, on Friday the city of Calgary released its proposal for funding a new Flames arena that team owners rejected, and it looked pretty much exactly as previous reports had had it: Costs would be split one-third/one-third/one-third between the city, the team, and a new ticket surcharge, and the city would recoup its third via a combination of property taxes on the building, team rent, and revenue from non-hockey arena events:

Sounds simple, right? Split the costs, split the revenues. Unless you’re Flames CEO Ken King, who immediately fired back that this would leave his team paying “120%” of the costs:

“Their proposal has us not only paying for everything, but more, when you consider incremental taxes,” he said. “Flames’ cash comes from Flames’ revenue—I think we all agree on that. User fees comes from Flames’ revenue, I think we can all agree on that. And in whatever form they want this payback, that comes from Flames’ revenue, as well.

What’s going on here is a fundamental disagreement over the nature of “our money.” I could explain this in economic terms — King wants to count every scrap of arena income, and even taxes they’d be paying just as everyone else pays, as Flames revenue — or in metaphorical terms — as I told the CBC on Friday, the Flames’ position that they should get to pay off their costs with arena revenues but the city shouldn’t is like asking someone to dinner and saying, “Let’s split the check, but then I get to eat both meals.” But I’d prefer to direct you to the ultimate authority on this matter, which is the Odd Couple’s “casino night” episode. If you don’t want to sit through the ads, here’s a transcript of the relevant part, which starts at around the 11:00 mark and comes after one of Oscar’s friends has won big at the casino night fundraiser for Felix’s opera club:

Felix: What have you got there? Where’d you get all that money?

Oscar: From Arnold, he owed it to me.

Felix: What?

Oscar: Yeah. He owed it to me since the year one.

Felix: The “let it ride” guy owed you money?

Oscar: That’s my Arnold.

Felix (reaching for a pile of cash): Well, that’s wonderf—

Oscar: Don’t touch the money, Felix.

Felix: But what a—

Oscar: Don’t touch it, I told you not to touch it.

Felix: But now the opera club gets its money back. Yay!

Oscar: I don’t think I heard you.

Felix: We’re saved! We get our money back!

Oscar (hastily gathering up his money): Now I know I didn’t hear you.

Felix: Surely you’re not thinking of keeping that money?

Oscar: Why not? It’s my money!

Felix: No, it’s not! It belongs to the opera club!

Oscar: How do you figure that?

Felix: Well, Arnold got it from us, you got it from him, you give it back to us! Then everybody’s even!

Oscar: That can’t be right. See, I’d be out all this money.

Felix: No, you wouldn’t! You’d just be back where you started from!

Oscar: Yeah, but only Arnold wouldn’t owe it to me anymore. See, I had this money coming to me.

Felix: But it came from the opera club! From them to him to you to me! It’s like an isosceles triangle!

To his credit, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi was calmer than Oscar about the whole thing, replying that “our argument is that the city needs to share in the upside, if we’re going to share in the cost,” and that he was open to any and all ideas for achieving this: “If it makes more sense for the city to own and the [Flames] owners to pay rent we can absolutely look at that. If it makes more sense for there not to be rent, but a revenue-sharing agreement we can look at that.”

As for what the Flames ownership were asking for, meanwhile, the Globe and Mail reports (citing unnamed city sources) that the team wanted not only to pay no property taxes and share no arena revenue, but to have taxpayers foot the bill for police presence at games and give Flames fans free public transit rides on game days:

The requests would put a multimillion-dollar dent in the city’s finances and could result in higher taxes. Waiving transit fares on game days, for example, would mean giving up about $10-million in revenue annually, according to one of the sources. Calgary would then have to fill this gap, perhaps by cutting transit services to other parts of the city or raising property taxes, the source said. Covering the cost of extra policing would also amount to an operating subsidy, according to the source who provided the detail about security expenses to The Globe and Mail.

What we have here, folks, is a good old-fashioned impasse, though only one of the two parties has math (or geometry) on its side. I’d suggest Nenshi and King settle this by trying to double their money at the pool hall, but I’m not sure the showrunners would go for it.


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.

Flames rejected Calgary’s arena plan because taxpayers would’ve gotten paid back

Following Calgary Flames CEO Ken King’s announcement on Tuesday that his team was going to take its arena-negotiating ball and go home, the Calgary city council voted yesterday to release the city proposal that King had called “spectacularly unproductive.” The details aren’t public yet, but the basics, according to Toronto Metro:

  • An estimated $500-600 million in construction costs would be shared one-third by the city, one-third by the Flames, and one-third by a ticket surcharge.
  • The city wanted to get its third repaid either by new property taxes or by getting a cut of arena revenue.

That’s … perfectly reasonable? That second item would be, in fact, required by law if this were Seattle, and in any event “We’re splitting the costs, let’s split the revenues” is a sensible proposal in any world other than the sports one.

The Flames owners, according to Metro, “balked” at this, and asked for an exemption from property taxes on top. That wasn’t going to get a deal done. So while the talks may have been “spectacularly unproductive,” that doesn’t appear to have been the fault of Mayor Naheed Nenshi or the council.

Declaring an impasse now is clearly meant to put pressure on Nenshi with elections coming up; already two of his opponents in the upcoming election tried to take advantage by saying how they think a new Flames arena is important, though only at the right price, which is actually what the mayor himself is saying, so. There’s also, as Maclean’s columnist Jason Markusoff points out, an element of “the Edmonton Oilers got a new arena, we deserve one too”: Flames CEO Ken King grumbled yesterday, “If we can beat the guys up north—apparently we can’t beat them on the building front, but maybe we can beat them on the ice.” This will not go over well, predicts Markusoff:

A large portion of the Calgary populace will view ceding the arena-building race to Edmonton not as a loss, but as a win: that Cowtown didn’t acquiesce to its hockey barons’ demands. Until the Flames owners can appreciate that, they’ll be stuck in their current saddle.

Maybe? Certainly the mayor and the council’s first reaction — we made a perfectly good offer, here, look at it — doesn’t smack of panic, but we’ll see where things head as the election campaign continues. Ham-fisted threats and unintentionally hilarious self-promotion are kind of Flames exec trademarks by now, but there is that old saying about blind pigs and acorns.

Flames CEO: Mayor Nenshi was mean to us, we don’t even wanna new arena now

As surprise announcements yesterday go, this was less of a shocker since we’ve seen things like it before, but still a bit of a bombshell: Calgary Flames CEO Ken King announced that the team was cutting off talks with the city over a new arena after what he called “spectacularly unproductive meetings,” and will instead remain at the Saddledome for “as long as we can”:

“Scotiabank Saddledome will continue to host a couple million people a year,” he told reporters at a hastily-called news conference Tuesday afternoon.

“We’ll just go on and run our business and do what we can to operate and try and figure out what the future will look like at some point later.”

If you’re wondering if that was a threat, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was on hand to not make it any clearer for you:

“They’re going to hang on as long as they can,” the commissioner said. “At least, that’s the current view.

“That’s not a prospect that thrills them or anybody else. But it is a realistic assessment of the situation they find themselves in.”

This is partly the old “we can’t be competitive without a new arena” gambit, which we detailed in Chapter 4 of Field of Schemes way back in the first edition. The timing, though, is almost certainly intended to put pressure on Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who is in the middle of a re-election campaign, as well as the rest of the city council — or at least to send a message to voters that if they want arena negotiations to resume, they’d better pick some leaders with less backbone.

How well that will work out is hard to predict — the number of mayors who’ve been voted out of office for standing up to sports team subsidy demands remains zero, and Nenshi’s tough stand against the Flames owners’ demands has been fairly popular. Still, with the mayor’s poll numbers softening to where his re-election is maybe no longer going to be a walk in the park, King and the other Flames execs clearly saw an opportunity here and went for it; the puck is now in Nenshi and the council’s, uh, ice.

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.

Detroit Free Press credits Red Wings arena for fixing blight that Red Wings owner created

The Detroit Red Wings and Pistons are about to open their new Little Caesars Arena (named after the Red Wings’ owners’ pizza company, which is actually a longstanding sports tradition), and the Detroit Free Press could not be more excited! On Thursday, reporters Frank Witsil, JC Reindl, and John Gallagher teamed up for a report on how the publicly subsidized arena and surrounding development promises to “breathe life into a part of Detroit that has long been considered a dead zone”; today, Gallagher is back by his lonesome to call the arena an “exciting new venue” for hockey and an “exciting new venue” for concerts, as well as a “major new attraction to the rapidly revitalizing greater downtown” and “a monument to Detroit’s sports and entertainment history.” Total number of citations across the two articles of studies of how past sports-based city “revitalizations” have gone, or even what the impact was or wasn’t from Detroit’s construction of nearby stadiums for the Tigers and Lions: zero.

All of which is pretty much par for the sports-media course, except for that, as the Detroit Metro Times pointed out after Thursday’s piece, calling the arena district a “dead zone” conveniently ignores what made it dead in the first place:

Well, of course the area was blighted. The Ilitches spent 15 years quietly buying up properties in the area. What interest did they have in developing any of them when (a) they knew they intended to flatten them for a new arena and (b) any investment in them would only cause land values to rise? Chris Ilitch said as much to The Detroit News.

In other words, Olympia is the main cause of the area’s deterioration. You don’t need to be an expert on Detroit development to know that. Even the uninitiated could pick up on the unintended irony when Chris Ilitch reportedly said, “It’s no coincidence that these areas to the north of I-75 are some of the most blighted areas of our city core.”

Metro Times goes on to note that a lot of the unblight that the Ilitch family is getting credit for doesn’t actually have a timetable for construction yet — or in their words, “mostly exists in the fevered imagination of Olympia executives — another example of information not appearing in this article.

The Freep opinion page did demur on one thing, at least: The arena’s official opening will take place next Tuesday, with the first of a series of concerts by confederate-flag-waving, Colin Kaepernick–hating rap-rocker Kid Rock, which editorial page editor Stephen Henderson calls “a sturdy middle finger to Detroiters,” who are 83% African American — though the greater metro area is 70% white, so maybe it’s just a beckoning hand to suburbanites, huh? (Editor’s note: Not all white Michigan suburbanites are fans of racist symbols of slave states. I know a couple.)

The Ilitches have responded with a statement that “Kid Rock has been a consistent supporter of Detroit, and the marketplace has responded accordingly to his appearances. Performing artists’ viewpoints in no way represent an endorsement of those viewpoints by Olympia Entertainment.” So there.

Friday roundup: Everybody still has lots of dumb stadium ideas, sun keeps rising in east

And aside from the Cleveland Cavaliers arena subsidy returning from the dead, Mrs. Lincoln, here’s how some of the rest of the week in stadium and arena news went:

  • Chicago is looking at closing some streets to accommodate DePaul University’s new city-subsidized basketball arena, because of course they are.
  • The new arena for the Detroit Red Wings and Pistons will have a Kid Rock-themed restaurant, because of course it will.
  • San Diego mayor Kevin Falconer wants to build a professional lacrosse stadium, even though the owners of the city’s newly created lacrosse franchise say they don’t need one, because of course he does.
  • Rhode Island state senate president Dominick Ruggerio says he hopes the state legislature will vote on $38 million in public funding for a new Pawtucket Red Sox stadium in November, despite not believing the team has a viable threat to move to Worcester if it doesn’t get what it wants, because “You know what, we’ll get criticized for anything.” And you know, he’s got a point: No matter what elected officials do, there’s somebody somewhere who won’t like it, so might as well do whatever they want, right?
  • The Las Vegas Raiders’ stadium construction could be delayed because nobody realized until now that they needed Army Corps of Engineers approval to remove a flood culvert. (The Raiders have agreed to pay the $1 million cost, at least.)
  • Dave Zirin at The Nation has examined how Joel Osteen’s dithering over whether to let Hurricane Harvey evacuees into his megachurch has its roots in the Houston subsidy deal that turned the Rockets‘ old arena into the church in the first place, and I put in a cameo to note that while littering the landscape with redundant current and former sports venues is one way to create a lot of hurricane shelters, it’s probably not a very cost-effective one.
  • Wells Fargo released a report that “real stadium construction spending” on new sports facilities has “climbed 80 percent over the past five years” to $10 billion per … something. And are they counting money committed, or actual construction money spent, and does this count both private and public funds? I guess we should cut Wells Fargo some slack, they have a lot on their minds these days.