Columbus splits ticket tax plan in half to keeps arts money from paying for Blue Jackets arena costs

The Columbus city council has revamped its ticket tax proposal, lowering the rate from 7% to 5% on all tickets over $10, and permitting only taxes on events at the Blue Jackets‘ Nationwide Arena to go toward arena renovations, with the rest going to arts organizations.

This is getting pretty close to an arguably fair deal, if the goal is to have entertainment venues pay for their own upgrade costs. As I’ve discussed here before, ticket tax money mostly ends up coming out of the pockets of the people selling the tickets, for the simple reason that venues are already selling tickets for as high as the market will bear; if the Blue Jackets decide that they can get away with charging $50 for a certain seat, they’re not suddenly going to be able to get away with $52.50 just because there’s a new 5% tax surcharge, so they’ll have to lower ticket face values (or at least refrain from raising them) to keep the new total price the same. (It’s a little more complicated than that since all entertainment venues in town will pay the same tax — it’s possible ticket buyers may end up having to pay a bit more on the economic principle of “nyah nyah, suck up higher ticket prices or stay home and watch TV,” while that $10 limit creates a rather large incentive for venues to charge $9.99 for tickets instead of $10.50 — but the basic principle still holds.)

This should help placate opponents who were upset that non-arena tickets were going to be taxed to pay for arena renovations; whether it placates the Blue Jackets owners, who previously came out against the earlier version of the tax, is another story. Though there’s nothing saying the Columbus city council has to come up with a tax that the team owners agree to, and the Blue Jackets’ lease that bailed the team owners out at public expense runs through 2039, so maybe they’ll just have to suck it up and accept a tax that will benefit their own arena, which isn’t actually all that onerous when you put it like that.

Friday roundup: Skip right past the first four items and go directly to the hidden-camera video on the Austin soccer-vs.-soccer beef, you know you wanna

This was feeling like a long week even before Americans with guns decided to make a late rush to break last year’s record for most people killed in major mass shootings. Fortunately, we have news in the field of whether to devote scarce public resources to boosting the profits of professional sports team owners to amuse us! Ha ha! Are we amused yet?

  • Los Angeles has been selected as the host of next year’s inaugural World Urban Games, a thing that is like the Olympics only it involves sports no one cares about, like three-on-three basketball. (Though admittedly, the Olympics also involves plenty of sports no one cares about.) L.A. had to offer no actual money to be the host, just use of its sports venues, so if anyone actually travels to L.A. to see these things, there’s an actual chance this might work out to the city’s economic benefit! Crazy talk!
  • The group that wants to bring an MLB team to Portland has pulled its offer to buy the city’s school headquarters to build a stadium on the site, saying it would be better used for affordable housing. (Read: The community hated the stadium idea, and they didn’t want to fight about it.) The group will reportedly announce a new site by the end of the month, but it’s not worth holding your breath over because MLB isn’t giving Portland a team in the immediate future, if ever.
  • Saskatoon city officials are looking into building a new downtown arena for about $175 million because … they didn’t actually say why. The old one is old? Mark Rosentraub sold them on a new one? Not that a new downtown Saskatoon arena is necessarily a terrible idea, especially if the city can collect rent and other revenues from it, but an even less terrible idea would be focusing on “Do we need a new arena?” before jumping straight to “How can we build one?”
  • There’s a new pro-ticket tax group in Columbus calling itself Protect Art 4 Columbus that describes itself as “a group of art enthusiasts, sports fans and other community members,” and if this isn’t an Astroturf group, they really needed to come up with a name that made themselves sound less like one.
  • I do not have the energy to explain the beef between the wannabe Austin MLS team owner and the wannabe Austin USL team owner and how they’re both building stadiums and supporters of one stadium are accusing supporters of another stadium of lying about their ballot petitions by saying “we’re trying to build a soccer stadium” when it’s really to stop the other guys from building a soccer stadium, so just watch the video, it’s blurry and confusing and shot in portrait mode, just like the kids today all like!

Miami, San Diego to vote on MLS stadium proposals today, also fate of nation or somesuch thing

Happy U.S. election day, when Americans will be waiting up to learn the fate of a bunch of stadium and arena proposals! And the direction of an entire nation, but this site doesn’t have time for that, so on with tonight’s sports venue scorecard:

  • Miami voters will decide on Referendum 1, which would allow the city of Miami to waive competitive bidding and give David Beckham the right to negotiate a 99-year lease on the city-owned Melreese golf course, for the purpose of building a stadium there for his Inter Miami MLS club. Polls close at 7 pm Eastern; this being Florida, however, there’s always a good chance no one will know the results until December.
  • In San Diego, voters will be faced with two competing ballot initiatives: Measure E, which would have the city lease 253 acres of land on the Chargers‘ former stadium and practice sites to developers of the proposed Soccer City, which would include a soccer stadium and other stuff; and Measure G, which would have the city sell the land to San Diego State University for a new campus, including a new college football stadium. Polls show Measure G winning and Measure E trailing; if both measures get a majority, whichever gets more votes will win; if neither measure wins, it’ll be left up to the mayor to determine what to do with the site. The San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board has declared that neither measure is worth voting for, while letter writers to the paper — yes, there are still people who express their opinions by writing letters to newspapers, in 2018! — are all over the place in how to best game the system. San Diego polls close at 8 pm Pacific, so expect to wait up for this one.
  • Inglewood will elect a mayor today, and with incumbent James Butts in favor of a new Los Angeles Clippers arena and challenger Marc Little opposed, the outcome will be important for the city’s sports future. Polls close at 8 pm Pacific here as well, but a mayoral race is high-profile enough that we could see earlier projections.
  • Contrary to what I implied on Friday, Columbus voters will not be deciding on a 7% ticket tax that would apply to all large sports and entertainment venues — but maybe not Ohio State University football, nobody’s actually sure — and use the proceeds to fund arts programs and the Blue Jackets arena, because while a vote is indeed coming up, it’s a council vote, not a public referendum. A completely unscientific poll of Columbus Business Journal readers shows massive opposition to the measure, but even if that were a valid measure, the city council can still do whatever it wants, because representative democracy, yay!

Vote early and vote often!

Friday roundup: Election Day could have big consequences for Rays, Blue Jackets, Clippers

Happy last week before Election Day! Unsurprisingly, we lead off with a bunch of vote-related news:

  • Tampa Bay Rays president Brian Auld says he’s confident team execs will be able to meet a December 31 deadline for stadium funding without having to ask for an extension, even though right now there’s currently a $300 million funding gap. Frequent FoS commenter Scott Myers has theorized that the Rays ownership is hoping Hillsborough County voters will pass a 1% sales tax hike for transportation on Tuesday, which would free up other public money to pay for transportation improvements for a Rays stadium; that doesn’t seem like it’d provide $300 million, but every hundred million dollars counts, so everybody watch the ballot results carefully. (Which you should be doing anyway. And voting!)
  • The Columbus Blue Jackets owners, who have been criticized for being the main beneficiaries of a proposed 7% ticket tax in the city because their arena would get the lion’s share of the proceeds, surprised everybody this week by coming out against the tax, saying it “would materially harm our business.” Maybe this is reverse psychology to get residents to vote for the bill, since they’ll no longer think it’s a sop to the hockey team? Okay, probably not.
  • Madison Square Garden has given $700,000 to the campaign of the chief challenger to Inglewood Mayor James Butts in an effort to block plans for a new Los Angeles Clippers arena that could compete for concerts with MSG’s Forum, and the Clippers have fought back with $375,000 in spending to support Butts’ campaign. Poor grass.
  • In non-electoral news, the University of Connecticut is building a $45 million hockey arena on campus even though its team will continue to play most of its games in Hartford’s XL Center, just because its new NCAA conference requires an on-campus arena. (It also requires that the arena have at least 4,000 seats, but UConn got a waiver to only build 2,500 seats.) Since UConn is a public university, this technically means that public money will go into the project (though the university says it can pay for it from its own reserves), but mostly it’s bizarre to see an entire arena being built just to meet a technicality — what do you think the carbon footprint will be for this?
  • Transit experts are worried that the 2020 Olympics will overwhelm Tokyo’s already-crowded subway system, though they may not be anticipating how much the Olympics tend to cause anyone not interested in the Olympics to stay the hell out of town. The government has been encouraging local businesses to stagger work hours and open satellite offices to accommodate Games traffic, since “everybody call in sick for three weeks” would be anathema to Japanese work culture.
  • Opponents to Nashville SC‘s stadium plans are seeking a court injunction to block construction of a new expo center to replace the one that would be torn down to make way for the soccer stadium on the grounds that it would interfere with parking for a flea market, which is a first in my book.
  • Louisville is officially not bidding for an MLS franchise (yet), which unofficially makes it the only city in the whole U.S. of A. that isn’t. How is MLS ever going to meet its dream of a franchise for every individual person in North America if these keeps up?

That’s all for this week — go vote! And try to fight your way past the journalism extinction event to educate yourself about all those downballot races and initiatives and such, since as we cover here every week, they can have huge consequences.

Friday roundup: Vegas MLB rumors, North American soccer superleague rumors, and everything just costs untold billions of dollars now, get used to it

I published two long articles yesterday — one on sports stadium and arena deals that haven’t sucked too badly, one on a particular non-sports subsidy deal that looks to be sucking pretty hard — so I wasn’t able to post anything here, despite a couple of news items that might have warranted their own FoS posts. But as the saying goes, Thursday omissions bring a shower of Friday news briefs (please don’t tell me that’s not a saying, because it is now), so let’s dig in:

Columbus arena needs renovations, says local paper, because all the other kids are getting them

One of the trickiest bits for a sports team owner seeking a new or renovated stadium or arena is establishing why they “need” one, especially when the old one isn’t that old at all, and the only problem with it is that the other teams on the block have even newer ones. So when a newspaper — in this case the Columbus Dispatch — sets out to make that argument for you, man, it’s Christmas in June. Let’s follow the bouncing quotes:

“Certainly, every time somebody else builds a new arena or renovates an arena, we look and feel just a little bit older. It’s just the nature of everything,” said Xen Riggs, CEO of Columbus Arena Management.

I would argue that this is not actually the nature of everything. Okay, sure, the circle of life can get you down when you notice that you’re forever aging and other, younger beings are arriving to take your place, but 1) the song is supposed to make you feel better about that, not worse, and 2) how is it that when somebody builds a new arena in, say, California, that makes an arena feel older to Columbus Blue Jackets fans? Do they spend a lot of time traveling to other cities and coming back thinking, Man, our arena doesn’t have Bluetooth-enabled cupholders, that’s the last time I’m ever going to a game? How does the arena experience objectively change just because another, newer building exists somewhere else? Is it a quantum entanglement thing?

Moving on:

Action on the ice or court sometimes is the secondary reason for why people attend events, said Ryan Sickman, director of sports and convention centers for Gensler, the architectural firm behind Quicken Loans Arena’s renovations.

“What an NHL fan in Columbus wants isn’t the same that they expect in D.C. or Las Vegas,” he said. “They’re different people, and their expectations are different. … We need to be designing arenas and venues around that.”

First off, asking a guy whose livelihood depends on people hiring him to renovate arenas what he thinks of renovating arenas might not be the absolute best way to get an objective verdict on whether it’s necessary to spend money on renovating arenas. Secondly, I’m not entirely sure what this statement has to do with an 18-year-old arena being deemed in need of renovations — was it somehow built not Columbus-y enough? Is Gensler designing Quicken Loans Arena’s giant glass wall to meet the particular glass-wall needs of Clevelanders?

Overall, this article is a classic example of media coverage that seems objective on the face of it (“Let’s compare our city’s arena upgrade spending to other cities’!”), while the actual bias resides not in how the reporting is carried out, but in how the question being asked reflects the priorities not of the public the newspaper is supposed to be representing, but rather of the sports team owners who built the arena then demanded that the public bail them out because they were losing money on it. (Or in this case the arena managers running the place — the Blue Jackets owners haven’t been publicly agitating for renovations, but then, with landlords like these, they don’t have to.) Put it all together, and it’s Why don’t we have a glass wall like that arena across the state, you’re embarrassing us in front of our friends, which really isn’t the best way to run public infrastructure policy.

Fortunately, the Dispatch did interview one person — literally only one person in the whole article, but I’ll take what I can get — who doesn’t have a vested interest in more money being spent on ever-newer arenas:

“Every major-league team in the country, either at the arena or stadium level, wants to start replacing their stadium starting at about 20 years, said Victor Matheson, a professor who studies arena deals at the College of the Holy Cross. “Whether they need to replace their stadium or arena at 20 years is a totally different question.”

Victor Matheson is the best.

Columbus arena hurt by lack of ticket tax, Hartford arena hurt by presence of one?

Columbus’s Nationwide Arena, the privately built and publicly bailed-out home of the Blue Jackets, is running out of money unless the county rides to the rescue with a citywide tax on sports and entertainment tickets:

The initial proposal outlined in January was for the city to levy a tax of 3 to 8 percent on tickets to arts, cultural, entertainment and professional sporting events within the city limits and for Franklin County to contribute sales-tax revenue.

Together, those sources could generate $15 million to $20 million a year, with $4 million being earmarked for the arena and the rest going to artists and organizations that the arts council supports.

Basically, what’s going on is that the county funded the arena bailout, including future renovations, with a casino tax, and Columbus residents just haven’t been gambling their money away like everyone had hoped. And while initially the county arena authority proposed just a tax on tickets at the arena, that’s expanded to a tax on all tickets anywhere in Columbus, and arts groups and their supporters are understandably miffed about the prospect of having to be taxed in order to fund a competing entertainment option just because the Blue Jackets needed to make more money.

(Ticket taxes, as has been covered here ad infinitum, tend to come out of the pockets of those selling tickets, not buying them, as they’re already charging the maximum that the market will bear; though there’s some argument that a citywide ticket tax would hit ticket buyers a bit harder, since they wouldn’t be able to avoid it by going to see some event other than hockey.)

So we have the specter of Don Brown, executive director of the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority, saying of a money-losing arena, “To keep that magic happening, we have to keep reinvesting in the arena itself.” Magic!

Plenty of other local governments have funded their sports venues with ticket taxes, of course, among them Hartford, Connecticut — where the public operators of that city’s arena want nothing more than their ticket tax to go away:

The overseers of the XL Center in Hartford say the venue is feeling the sting, in more ways than one, from a 10 percent state admissions tax that kicked in six months ago.

The levy has played a role in the 16,000-seat arena striking out on as many as a dozen events, mainly concerts, that it bid on, according to Michael Freimuth, executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA), XL Center’s management overseer…

The problem, Freimuth said, is that the tax curtails a show’s potential profit margin “by such a degree that it results in the building losing actual events and the subsequent revenues.”

Connecticut’s is a statewide tax (though some venues have gotten exemptions, including the Hartford arena at times in the past), so it’s not entirely clear what the arena managers or concert promoters are griping about — it’s not like they can get out of the tax by just going to, say, Bridgeport. Though I suppose griping is how concert promoters get better deals — Freimuth told the Hartford Business Journal that “They say ‘you just took my margin down, split it with me,'” which indeed sounds like something a concert promoter would say.

The lesson here is: You can’t get blood from a stone, or much more money from a concert industry that has other options, especially when you’re a market like Columbus or Hartford that big-name acts can just skip if they aren’t feeling the profits. Though if you’re a concert promoter, you totally can try to get a state to cut your taxes to boost your profits by threatening to blacklist them. And if it seems like letting sports teams and promoters play states off against each other in a bidding war to the bottom is bad public policy, yeah, maybe Congress should have listened to David Minge.

A ticket tax would be the least bad thing about the godawful Blue Jackets arena bailout

Nationwide Arena, the county-owned home of the Columbus Blue Jackets, is still barely bringing in enough money to pay operating costs, something that has been a problem for years now, ever since the city, county, and state teamed up to bail out the team from its money-losing private arena construction deal. Now, the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority is proposing a solution: adding a ticket surcharge to build up a surplus to pay for any unexpected repair expenses.

There are probably those among you reading this thinking, “Those bastards! First they take a money-losing arena off the hands of a private sports team, now they’re forcing fans to pay for it with higher ticket prices!” It’s a reasonable enough response, but it’s dead wrong — at least the last part is. Allow me to explain why.

So you’re the head of the ticket sales office for a not-overly-popular NHL team. (Or a super-popular one — it doesn’t matter for our purposes here.) Your job is to figure out how much you can charge for tickets that will make your bosses the most money possible. Selling more tickets doesn’t really cost you anything — you may have to hire a few extra concessions workers for the night, but it’s not like you have to manufacture more hockey — so your calculus is just: How far can I raise prices before fans decide to stay home and watch on TV?

Now, let’s add a ticket tax to the mix — say it’s $2. If you were charging $50 previously for a certain tier of seats, that’s because you figured that $51 would drive enough fans away that it would end up costing you money. So do you now add $2 to that $50, and charge $52 a ticket? Only if you’re an idiot — we just said you’re going to bring in less money if you charge more than $50, remember? So the only solution is to keep charging $50, and eat the $2 ticket tax yourself.

It’s a bit counterintuitive, because it doesn’t work that way in other economic realms — add a 1% sales tax, and stores don’t all cut their list prices by 1%. But those are for good that actually cost something to procure — if you sell one less of them, that’s one less that you have to buy from the wholesaler — and besides, if consumers choose not to shop at your store (or restaurant or whatever), they’ll still have to pay the same tax if they do something else that evening. Unless people are so desperate for hockey that they’ll pay any price to see it, you’d be insane to do the same for tickets — and if the fans are that desperate, you should be raising ticket prices already, with or without a tax.

There is much that is terrible about the Blue Jackets arena deal: Taxpayers essentially took responsibility for the arena’s losses for no damn reason after the team had initially built it with private money, and now it’s left for the city and state to squabble over who’ll pick up the check. But whenever you hear “ticket tax,” remember, that’s a good thing for fans and taxpayers alike — because the peculiar economics of sports venues means that it’s really a stealth way of sticking it to the team owners. Say, is there anything in the Blue Jackets’ lease preventing the facilities authority from setting fees at, say, $20 a ticket to get taxpayers some of their money back…?

With casino taxes falling short, Columbus could bail on $44m of Blue Jackets bailout

Back in June, I discussed how Columbus and Franklin County taxpayers are doing on their public bailout of the Columbus Blue Jackets‘ arena, which is not well: Thanks to local casino taxes falling far short of projections, the arena is barely managing to pay its operating costs, meaning there’s no money left over to repay $10 million in debt to the state of Ohio and $44 million to former arena owners Nationwide Realty Investors. It turns out that may be good news for Columbus residents, though, since the terms of the deal are that if the casino money falls short, taxpayers can simply skip out on the debt:

The deal was structured so that casino tax revenue would be used to fund part of the arena management company operations, pay for capital expenses and repay the loans — in that order.

So far, casino taxes are generating only enough revenue to supplement management and operating costs at the arena.

The way the deal is constructed, Nationwide would assume the debt if there is not enough money to cover the arena purchase. The city and the county are not obligated to provide any other sources of revenue from their budgets to make up for the shortfall. That means their own budgets aren’t at risk, and without the prospect of an empty or dilapidated arena neither has an incentive now to reopen the deal.

“As far as I am concerned, Nationwide is carrying bad debt,” said City Auditor Hugh J. Dorrian. “ The contract will not be rewritten.”

This doesn’t make the bailout a good deal, mind you: The city and county are still sending $4 million a year in casino taxes to cover operating costs, plus have an estimated $2 million a year in deferred maintenance expenses that it has to pay off somehow. And defaulting on a $10 million loan from the state would just shift the burden from city taxpayers to state taxpayers in general, which isn’t really a net gain for the Ohio public.

That said, kudos to whoever on the Columbus side of things negotiated this “we’ll owe the private arena developers who we’re bailing out $44 million, unless we don’t have it in which case you’re out of luck, suckers” clause. At least it’s prevented a bad deal from going to worse.

Columbus Dispatch editorial: Never mind, Blue Jackets arena is a money pit

I called out the Columbus Dispatch last week for a misleading headline implying that the publicly owned Blue Jackets‘ arena was turning a small profit, so credit where credit is due for a Dispatch editorial today pointing out exactly how and why that was oh so wrong:

Nationwide Arena reports it will end its fiscal-year budget on June 30 with a profit of $316,000. That’s a paper profit, courtesy of a public bailout and the kind of creative accounting that would land an ordinary property owner in foreclosure…

Most people would see their financial situations vastly improved if they, too, could dispense with property taxes and mortgage payments.

The editorial also notes that Columbus residents voted five times against using public money for a sports arena between 1978 and 1997, only to have the Blue Jackets pursue a privately funded arena in 2000 — and then demand a public bailout eleven years later because they claimed they were losing money. Fighting against sports subsidies is really hard when teams owners only have to bat .167 to get everything that they asked for.