Friday roundup: Return to some pretense of normalcy (for now, depending) edition

Morning, everybody! We’re coming up on halfway through June, and the sports world is beginning to awake from its pandemic-inspired slumber: Spain’s La Liga soccer league held its first restarted games yesterday, with fake crowd noise and CGI fans (I’m watching via DVR right now: the fans disappear periodically and are replaced by ads, something I’m sure league broadcasters wish they could do in normal times); England’s Premier League is set to begin games next Wednesday. Japan’s J League is set to restart on July 4, with fans possibly returning at reduced capacity a week later. Germany’s Bundesliga, meanwhile, is several weeks into its restart and going full speed ahead despite occasional players testing positive and going into quarantine.

Over in the U.S. — currently 7th worldwide in new Covid deaths per day, behind Chile, Peru, Brazil, Mexico, Sweden, and the UK — the NBA is planning to finish its season and then play the playoffs entirely at Disney World starting July 30, though it’s not certain that all players will show up given they’d be isolated from their families for seven weeks at minimum. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has promised “100 percent” that there will be a 2020 season of some kind, though again, it’s always possible lots of players will just stay home rather than risk their health to get less than a third of their regular salaries in exchange for a month-long preseason plus a month and a half of games. MLS is relaunching with a World Cup–style tournament at Disney World, to be followed by a season as yet to be determined. The NHL is shooting for a playoff tournament starting in August, maybe, depending. The NFL is still insisting it will be able to play its regular season as usual in September with full stadiums, though individual teams are planning otherwise.

In short, the grand sports epidemiological experiment has begun, and we’re just going to have to keep checking back week to week to see how it’s turning out. Playing fan-free games in regions with low current infection rates seems to be working out okay — at least if you don’t mind that players will occasionally keep turning up infected and have to be quarantined, which is fine enough on public health grounds even if it might leave players antsy — but how that translates into fans in seats, or a world where a second wave kicks in starting in September just as leagues are in full swing, remains a work in progress. The best bet remains not to plan anything more than a few weeks in advance, which is understandably hard when you’re trying to steer an aircraft carrier of an institution like a sports league, but for individual fans we can just enjoy whatever’s on TV this week while we wait for our ticket refunds to trickle in one month at a time.

Anyway, on to the week’s stadium and arena news:

  • To the confusing lack of firm information about the Carolina Hurricanes‘ new arena lease, add the news that Hurricanes owner Thomas Dundon has “termination rights” and the executive director of the local sports authority is mumbling about how maybe it’s time for a downtown arena. This still looks to be in the long-game phase — if you’re not playing the long game during a hopefully temporary global health crisis, you’re pretty dumb, not that sports team owners can’t be dumb when necessary — but it’s worth keeping an eye on, because we know well that sports team owners and elected officials love nothing more than to meet behind closed doors to plot things while waiting for the money to return.
  • Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi is defending spending tons of city money on a new Flames arena and other big development projects as the smart thing to do during an economic downturn, and he has a point in terms of government spending being a smart thing to do when the cost of borrowing is cheap and people need jobs so they’ll start spending again. Whether it’s a smart thing to spend that money on a new hockey arena when the city is in the middle of slashing school budgets is another question.
  • Henderson, Nevada has issued some renderings of its planned arena for the Silver Knights (what the Vegas Golden Knights‘ farm team will apparently be called, which, okay), and I gotta say, they are seriously lacking in batshittery. Long-distance images of generic fans, with no lens flare or fireworks or Mitch Moreland? Okay, there’s a giant statue of a knight and one fan raising his hands in the air in the parking lot for no particular reason, but step up your game, Henderson, America needs entertainment, or else we’ll have to start pretending that our game consoles are hockey arenas!
  • Speaking of long-term vs. short-term thinking, people who want to own major-league (or minor-league) sports teams are lobbing plenty of lowball offers, but aren’t getting many takers.
  • Here’s an article about how college football teams will only let you into games if you’re old or rich, which seems about right for America.
  • Wait, there was a baseball stadium named after Marge Schott? Who ever thought that was a good idea?
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Friday roundup: Ohio could cut stadium funds, A’s could delay stadium plans, sports could return, world could end, anything’s possible

A little distracted this morning with a new work project and the usual pandemic stuff and the not-so-usual riots on TV, but there’s a passel of stadium and arena news I didn’t get to, so let’s get to ’em:

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Friday roundup: Stadium construction continues despite sick workers, drained city budgets may not slow subsidy demands, and other news from our continuing hellscape

How did everyone do during Week Whatever (depending on where you live) of the new weirdness? I finished another jigsaw puzzle, spent way more time than I thought possible trying to understand the new unemployment insurance rules, had the best idea ever, and wrote another article about how the media should stop feeding the troll. (Here’s the previous one, if I neglected to post a link to it before, which I probably did.) And, of course, continued to write this site, even if the subject matter, like all subject matter everywhere, has taken a decided turn for the microbial. Hopefully it’s helping to inform or at least distract you, because it looks like we may be here a while.

Anyway, it’s Friday again, so let’s celebrate getting another week closer to the end of this unknowably long tunnel with some stadium and arena news:

  • Construction is now shut down on the Worcester Red Sox stadium, but continues on the in-progress stadiums for the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers, the Las Vegas Raiders, and the Texas Rangers, even after workers on the latter two projects tested positive for COVID-19, and despite it being pretty much impossible to do construction while maintaining a six-foot distance from your fellow workers. The USA Today article reporting all this cites continued construction as a “boost to the economy,” which is slightly weird in that 1) pretty much all economic activity is a boost to the economy, but everyone has kind of decided now that keeping millions of people from dying is more important (okay, almost everyone), and 2) given that these stadiums will all have to be finished eventually regardless, shutting down construction would only push the economic activity a few weeks into the future, to a time when construction workers would actually have stores and restaurants open where they could spend their salary. It really would be nice if journalists writing about economics talked to an economist every once in a while.
  • Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin says she’s preparing for a “recession budget” that could require cutting back on planned projects including “a planned renovation of the PNC Arena, an expansion of the Raleigh Convention Center, an addition to the Marbles Kids Museum, a proposed soccer stadium in south Raleigh and a recreational complex at Brier Creek,” reports the News & Observer. Since every local government in the U.S. if not the world is about to see its tax revenues plummet, could this mean a temporary lull in stadium and arena demands while teams have to wait for treasuries to refill? Or will team owners just do like during the Great Recession and pivot from “times are good, now is when you should spend your surplus on giving us new sports venues” to “times are tough, now is when you should be spending to promote any development jobs you can get”? Hawaii officials say the latter, and they don’t even have a team owner lobbying them, so I think you know where I’d be laying my bets.
  • A new poll shows that sports fans believe they’ll be less likely to go to live sporting events once they’ve been “deemed safe,” mostly over fears that they won’t actually be safe. (Nearly two-thirds said they’d be concerned about “health safety,” and more said they’d avoid indoor events than outdoor ones.) There’s presumably some push-poll effect here — if someone asks you if you’re going to be concerned about your health at large events, that’s going to get you thinking about how you maybe should be concerned — but still it’s at least one data point suggesting that game attendance could suffer for a while despite pent-up hunger for live sports.
  • Meanwhile, ratings have plummeted for pro wrestling events before empty venues, which could be a sign that a big part of watching televised sports is enjoying the roar of the crowd, or that pro wrestling isn’t really a sport, take your pick. Where are those New Jersey Nets sound operators when you need them?
  • Don’t count on getting back your “sports fee” on your cable bill even if there’s no sports to watch, though maybe if your TV provider can recoup some fees they’re paying to sports leagues, they’ll consider sharing some of the savings with you.
  • A study by an “advertising intelligence and sales enablement platform” that is no doubt really annoyed right now that this press release didn’t get me to use their name and promote their brand projects that ad spending on sporting events will drop by $1 billion this year. And will that cost sports teams, or the cable and broadcast networks that are contracted to carry them? Sorry, didn’t study that part, we figured Forbes would report on this even without that info, and we were right!
  • Speaking of dumb Forbes articles, here’s one about how baseball should make up for lost revenue by expanding, which overlooks both that this is undoubtedly the worst time imaginable to get the highest expansion fee possible, and that MLB teams are all owned by billionaires so really the issue isn’t having cash on hand, it’s getting yearly income back up, and diluting your share of national revenues by one-fifteenth (if two new teams were added) is no way to do that.
  • But hey, at least stadiums come in handy for herding homeless people into en masse to keep them from getting sick, that’s neither disturbingly dystopian nor terrible social distancing policy, right? What’s that you say? You’re right, let’s instead spend some time revisiting cab-hailing purse woman, that’s a much more soothing start to the weekend.
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County approves $125m tax gift to Carolina Hurricanes, city approval next up

Wake County, North Carolina yesterday approved $46.6 million a year in tourism tax spending — money from a 6% hotel tax and 1% restaurant tax imposed in 1991 — and the beneficiaries are set to include the Carolina Hurricanes and the Raleigh Convention Center, though not yet a proposed Raleigh soccer stadium:

  • The Hurricanes would get $9 million a year in tax money for the next 25 years, a present value of about $125 million. The NHL franchise has been looking at an arena renovation cost of up to $200 million, so this would pay for the bulk of that.
  • The convention center would get $3 million a year for maintenance, $2.2 million a year for parking and infrastructure, $19 million flat fee for renovations and new land acquisition, and $17.575 million a year starting in the mid-2020s for an expansion and new music venue.
  • The North Carolina FC USL team didn’t get its proposed $11 million a year stadium grant, but can still apply for part of the remaining funds, where it would compete against other arts groups.

I know that some of you are thinking about now, “But isn’t the whole point of a tourism tax to promote tourism, so the tax money should be spent on things that will bring tourists to town?” Sure, but then it’s important to ensure that the spending will bring tourists to town, and the return on sports and convention spending is historically really awful in that regard: Sports teams only bring in a tiny sliver of new spending compared to what they cost in subsidies, and conventions are equally dismal.

One solution, if you’re really determined to use tax dollars to encourage people to come to your town, would be to demand some kind of direct repayment from the beneficiaries: Sure, we’ll give you a pile of free cash, but then you need to share the resulting increased revenues with the public treasury. But that doesn’t appear to be what’s going on in Raleigh; rather, the Hurricanes and other operators will keep any windfall revenues, and local government will just sit back and hope that the rising tide lifts their fiscal boat as well.

This whole plan still needs to be signed off on by the city of Raleigh, but at this point it looks like all that’s left to decide is which private interests to funnel tax money to, not whether to do it at all. (It’s possible there are some ways that Wake County could use tourist tax dollars to displace other spending that would then be freed up for broader social goods like schools or whatever, as has been the case in other locales, but none of the coverage has addressed that.) If anyone was wondering why somebody would spend $420 million to buy an NHL team with attendance near the bottom of the league, you may have just gotten your answer.

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Hurricanes exec says sweetheart lease must be sweetened more to make team “sustainable”

Remember last year around this time, when a new rich guy bought the Carolina Hurricanes and didn’t immediately demand a new or renovated arena and I was all “he has a sweetheart lease through 2024 so maybe he won’t complain for a few more years”? Well, forget all that:

“If you look around the league, for public buildings, we’re at the bottom of the league,” Hurricanes president Don Waddell said. “It’s nothing that anyone did wrong. Those were the times back in the ‘90s. But if we’re going to be a sustainable franchise in this marketplace for a long time, the lease plays an important role. The economics of the deal have to change in our favor.”

Well, that’s a tidy bundle of threat bombs! Without changing the “economics” of the lease — read: giving Hurricanes ownership more and the public Centennial Authority less — the franchise won’t be “sustainable” for “a long time.” (I will skip including here my usual link to the Army Protection Racket sketch. Oh, paralipsis!)

The irony is that, as mentioned above, Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon has an exceptionally team-friendly lease now, where he gets all the revenues from the arena while paying nothing in operating or capital upgrade costs, just a $3 million a year rent that he can deduct a bunch of expenses from before paying. (He’s still probably losing money on the team, but them’s the breaks when you own a hockey team in a small city in basketball country.) But leases can always get sweeter — hell, the Arizona Coyotes used to get paid to play in their arena! — and you can’t get if you don’t ask, right?

There’s also the issue of upgrades to the Hurricanes’ arena, which “is in need of massive renovations that could exceed $150 million,” according to the News & Observer, citing no sources at all. The paper goes on to report: “While the building’s behind-the-scenes infrastructure has been maintained at a high level by the arena authority, public-facing areas from the arena bowl to the entrances have an understandably dated look compared to state-of-the-art arenas elsewhere.” So it really just needs a more modern paint job? A $150 million paint job? I’d think Dundon would do better asking for $150 million to subsidize his annual operating losses, but I guess if you can ask for both, all the better!

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Friday roundup: Long Island residents yell at cloud over Isles arena, Calgary forgets to include arena in arena district plan, plus a reader puzzle!

It’s Friday (again, already) and you know what that means:

  • New York State’s Empire State Development agency held a series of three public hearings on the plan to build an Islanders arena on public land near Belmont Park racetrack (which the team would be getting at as much as a $300 million discount), and the response was decidedly unenthused: Speakers at the first hearing Tuesday “opposed to the project outnumbered those in favor of the plan by about 40 to one,” reports Long Island Business News, with State Sen. Todd Kaminsky joining residents in worrying that the arena will bring waves of new auto traffic to the town of Elmont, that there’s no real plan for train service to the arena, and that there’s no provision for community benefits to neighbors. Also a member of the Floral Park Police Department worried that the need for police staffing and more crowded roads would strain emergency services. Empire State Development, which is not a public agency but a quasi-public corporation run by the state, is expected to take all of this feedback and use it to draft an environmental impact statement for the project, which if history is any guide will just include some clauses saying “yeah, it’ll be bad for traffic” without suggesting any ways to fix it. I still want to see this plan from the Long Island Rail Road for how to extend full-time train service there, since it should involve exciting new ideas about the nature of physical reality.
  • Meanwhile in Phoenix, the final of five public hearings was held on that city’s $168 million Suns renovation plan, and “out of nine public comments, three involved questions, five voiced support and one was against the deal,” according to KJZZ, so clearly public ferment isn’t quite at such a high boil there. One thing I’d missed previously: The city claims that if it doesn’t do the renovations now with some contribution ($70 million) from Suns owner Robert Sarver, an arbitrator could interpret an “obsolescence clause” in the Suns’ lease to force the city to make the renovations on its own dime. I can’t find the Suns’ actual lease, but I think this just means that Sarver can get out of his lease early if an arbitrator determines the arena is obsolete [UPDATE: a helpful reader directed me to the appropriate lease document, and that is indeed exactly what it means], and he can already opt out of his lease in 2022, it’s pretty meaningless, albeit probably more of the “information” that helps convince people this is a good deal when they hear it. (Also important breaking news: A renovated Suns arena will save puppies! Quick, somebody take a new poll.)
  • Speaking of leases, the Los Angeles Angels are expected to sign a one-year extension on theirs with Anaheim, through 2020, while they negotiate a longer-term deal. It’s sort of tempting to wish that new Anaheim mayor Harry Sidhu would have played hardball here — sign a long-term deal now or you can go play in the street when your lease runs out, like the Oakland Raiders — but I’m willing to give the guy the benefit of the doubt in his negotiating plans. Though if this gives Angels owner Arte Moreno time to drum up some alternate city plans (or even vague threats a la Tustin) just in time to threaten Anaheim with them before the lease extension runs out, I reserve the right to say “I told you so.”
  • The Calgary Planning Commission issued a comprehensive plan for a new entertainment district around the site of the Flames‘ Saddledome, but forgot to include either the Saddledome or a new arena in it. No, really, they forgot, according to city councillor Evan Woolley: “It should’ve been identified in this document. It absolutely should have. Hopefully those amendments and edits will be made as they bring this forward to council.” The 244-page document (it’s not as impressive as it sounds, most of them are just full-page photos of people riding bicycles and the like) also neglects to include any financial details, beyond saying the district would be “substantially” funded by siphoning off new property taxes, “substantially” being one of those favored weasel words that can mean anything from “everything” to “some.” Hopefully that’ll be clarified as this is brought forward to council, too, but I’m not exactly holding my breath.
  • Here is a Raleigh News & Observer article reporting that the Carolina Hurricanes arena has had a $4 billion “economic impact” on the region over 20 years, citing entirely the arena authority that is seeking $200 million to $300 million in public money for upgrades to the place. No attempt to contact any other economists on whether “economic impact” is a bullshit term (it is) or even what they thought of the author of the report, UNC-Charlotte economics professor John Connaughton, who once said he “questions the sincerity” of any economist who doesn’t find a positive impact from sports venues. Actually, even that quote would have been good to include in the N&O article, so readers could have a sense of the bona fides of the guy who came up with this $4 billion figure. But why take time for journalism when you can get just as many clicks for stenography?
  • The San Francisco Giants‘ stadium has another new name, which just happens to be the same as the old new name of the basketball arena the Warriors are leaving across the bay, and I’m officially giving up on trying to keep track of any of this. Hey, Paul Lukas, when are you issuing “I’m Still Calling It Pac Bell” t-shirts?
  • Indy Eleven, the USL team that really really wants somebody to build it a new stadium so it can (maybe) join MLS, still really really wants somebody to build it a new stadium, and hotels, office and retail space, an underground parking structure, and apartments, all paid for via “[Capital Improvement Board president Melina] Kennedy wasn’t available to discuss the proposed financial structure of the project.” It would definitely involve kicking back future property taxes from the development (i.e., tax increment financing), though, so maybe Indy Eleven owner Ersal Ozdemir is hoping that by generating more property taxes that his development team then wouldn’t pay but instead use to pay off his own stadium costs, that would look better, somehow? I mean, he did promise to keep asking, so at least he’s a man of his word.
  • “At some point in time, there’s going to have to be a stadium solution,” declared the president of a pro sports team that plays in a stadium that just turned 23 years old. “If we don’t start thinking about it, we’ll wake up one day and have a stadium that’s not meeting the needs of the fans or the community.” Want to try to guess which team? “All of them” is not an acceptable answer! (Click here for this week’s puzzle solution.)
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Friday roundup: A’s won’t give up on Laney, Isles could play “some” games at Coliseum, more!

Tons of stray news items this week, so let’s get right to them:

  • The Rhode Island state senate’s finance committee approved $44 million in spending by the state and city of Pawtucket for a new Pawtucket Red Sox stadium, which is what everyone expected, because the real opposition is in the state house. A spokesperson for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said that if the bill passes the Senate, “it will be assigned to the House Finance Committee and be given a public hearing,” which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, but then, Mattiello has been saying consistently that his constituents hate this plan.
  • Oakland A’s president Dave Kaval said that the team owners have “identified three final locations” for a new stadium, and … they’re the same three sites the team announced more than a year ago, even after Laney College officials since took themselves out of the running. “We spent a lot of time getting it to three final sites, and those are the sites that are viable,” Kaval told reporters. Props for sticking to your convictions, I guess, but there’s a time to go to a Plan B, and it’s maybe after Plan A told you, “Get offa our lawn.”
  • The city of Liverpool is set to spend £280 million on a new stadium for Everton F.C., four years after saying no to a similar plan, but Mayor Joe Anderson defends the plan as a loan that the team will repay and more. The Guardian reports that “the city council could make £7m-a-year profit from interest charged on a loan of £280m over 25 years, plus extra revenue from business rates and related developments once the stadium is up and running” — which sounds good if the profit is guaranteed just from the loan payments (the city would reportedly have first dibs on Everton team revenue), not so much if it would rely on those “related developments,” which could be stuff that would happen with or without a new stadium. As is so often the case, it all comes down to what that comma means.
  • NHL commissioner Gary Bettman toured Nassau Coliseum on Tuesday, after which New York Islanders owner Jon Ledecky said he was “confident” that “some games” would be played there while waiting for a new Belmont Park arena to be built, but that playing full seasons there would be “difficult.” So that would imply … some games in Nassau and some in Brooklyn, since the two arenas have the same owner? Some in Nassau and some at Madison Square Garden, which is set to help build the new arena? Some in Nassau and some on a frozen-over East River after that ice age that the American Museum of Natural History seems to think is imminent hits? Your guess is as good as mine.
  • A Unitarian minister writes in an op-ed for the Charlotte Observer that if the Charlotte city council is going to spend money on a new Carolina Panthers stadium, it should be required to build affordable housing, too. My theology is shaky at best, so I’m not sure what Unitarianism has to say about a right canceling out a wrong.
  • Speaking of North Carolina, the Hurricanes got a new owner this week, and in his first few hours as head of the team, he didn’t demand a new arena or threaten to move the team without one. Though that may have more to do with the team’s sweetheart lease on its current arena that last through 2024, which had led former owner Peter Karmanos to say in 2015 that “we’d have to be idiots to move from here,” so give the new guy a few more hours, at least.
  • This. You’re welcome.
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Hurricanes, NC State in throwdown over arena dates

There’s a battle brewing in Raliegh, N.C., over the use of PNC Arena by the Carolina Hurricanes and North Carolina State, and some of the accusations are getting pretty ugly. Selfish university officials leaving the Hurricanes open to threats of NHL fines! Team officials going behind the school’s back to press the ACC for schedule changes!

The issue here is that even though the Hurricanes’ parent company manages the arena, the team agreed to a lease upon moving from Hartford that gave it third priority over arena dates behind N.C. State basketball and football (the football team uses the parking lots for its games at neighboring Carter-Finley Stadium). For some reason, this is suddenly causing problems, with the Hurricanes management charging that N.C. State is holding an excessive number of dates for its own usage (129 out of 214 dates, including 26 out of 30 days in November, according to Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford), leaving the team open to league fines of $100,000 if they have to make a late schedule adjustment. N.C. State counters that it’s only holding 65 dates open, and that it can’t do better than that since the ACC’s conference schedule isn’t released until late summer. And N.C. State chancellor Randy Woodson made his own charges, saying that he only recently discovered that the Hurricanes had been directly lobbying the ACC to shift his school’s schedule in order to leave open dates for NHL games.

Why this is suddenly coming up now, 14 years after the Hurricanes moved in, is a bit of a mystery. It’s also not clear what the Hurricanes expect to get out of this, since they agreed to be second fiddle when they signed the lease in the first place (paying only $60 million out of the arena’s $158 million construction cost). Their lease runs through 2024, so it’s a bit early to be making noise about wanting revisions or to get out of it … though on second thought, maybe not. And while this guy is no longer mayor, clearly it’s never too early to start talking about replacing a slightly-used arena.

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Raleigh mayor wants to replace 10-year-old arena

Dog-bites-man story of the week: An online poll (in other words, not worth the electrons it’s printed on) of Raleigh residents shows they’re overwhelmingly opposed to Mayor Charles Meeker’s proposal to replace the Carolina Hurricanes‘ RBC Center, which only just opened ten years ago. Nearly 70% of those voting said they were opposed to building a new downtown arena, while 28% were in favor; 2% for some reason chose to take the poll despite not having an opinion.

To be fair, Meeker doesn’t want to replace the RBC Center until 2019, at which point it will be a mind-numbing 20 years old. At this rate, sports stadiums and arenas are going to have a shorter expected lifespan than cats.

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