Blue Jackets bailout could go from bad to worse as team seeks more “glamorous” locker rooms

When I’m asked what I think is the worst sports subsidy deal in history, and I’m asked that a lot, my go-to response is that every unhappy stadium deal is unhappy in its own way. But when pressed to pick a few for the all-time Hall of Shame, I’ll occasionally find room for the Columbus Blue Jackets arena bailout, if only because it turned a model of private arena financing into a massive public subsidy just because the team owners whined that they weren’t making enough money. And then the city of Columbus agreed to give Nationwide Insurance, which put up the money for the original private arena construction, $62 million in added tax money when it turned out casino tax revenues weren’t going to cover the original deal.

If you see this headed toward “more good money thrown after bad,” you’re way ahead of me. Take it away, Columbus Dispatch:

Okay, so maybe the Dispatch got so excited it couldn’t remember how verbs work. The point is, as the paper discussed in an accompanying story with a more grammatical headline, the 20-year-old arena needs not just a new roof, but “$94.4 million in capital-improvement expenses over the next five years.”

The good news is that arena authority director Don Brown says the general public won’t pay for the upgrade costs, because it has a repair fund already set aside, funded by “casino tax and admissions tax proceeds.” The less good news is that these taxes would otherwise go into the general fund if they weren’t being siphoned off for the arena fund; the even less good news is that thanks to casino and admissions tax shortfalls in recent years, the repair fund currently just has $454,000 left in it, plus a $2.4 million reserve fund, which is a lot less than $94.4 million.

The Dispatch article goes on to say that the Blue Jackets and their partners in operating the arena — Nationwide and Ohio State University — will be on the hook for arena upgrade costs, but also that the team’s lease requires that the building be kept in “first class” condition, which seems likely to be a point of contention in any disputes over where to come up with $90 million. Among the items that the arena authority cited the hockey team as wanting to have improved:

The locker room for Blue Jackets players is “reasonably well-appointed but is not as glamorous as NHL home locker rooms in newer facilities,” and could use a “thorough” upgrade. The player lounge and training areas are well-maintained “but not impressive,” and the players’ family lounge “does not present an NHL-level image.”

Well, we certainly can’t have that! What will the neighbors say?

There’s a lot of confusing language in the arena operating arrangement — the public arena authority is part of the management group, but isn’t responsible for upgrade cash unless OSU backs out — but given that we’ve already seen Columbus bail out the private parties for no good reason other than that they asked for it, it’s hard to rule out anything. The main takeaway here is that the Blue Jackets are publicly seeking $94 million to replace their roof and bling up their locker rooms, which is always a sign that taxpayers should hold onto their wallets.

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Columbus throws another $62.3m in tax money on Blue Jackets arena fire

Once upon a time, the Columbus Blue Jackets‘ Nationwide Arena was a privately funded success story, with locally based insurance company Nationwide helping to underwrite construction costs in exchange for a cut of arena revenues (and their name on the thing). Then came the county bailing out the Blue Jackets owners by taking over ownership of the arena, and a new ticket tax to help pay for arena renovations. And now it’s been revealed that the city and county are working on “restructuring” Nationwide’s $44.2 million loan to funnel new tax money into it:

Nationwide, which built the arena through a limited liability company and loaned the authority $44.2 million to buy it, has never received any payments in return because casino-tax revenue backing the loan never generated what was estimated…

Though Columbus officials had repeatedly stressed that the risk on the loan was solely Nationwide’s should casino-tax revenue come up short, the city has now also contributed to the deal, restructuring tax-increment-financing agreements on Nationwide properties to, in effect, let Nationwide repay itself from its future property taxes…

The memorandum indicates that city TIF funds could generate up to $10.8 million toward repaying the loan.

The city’s contribution would be on top of a one-time, lump-sum payment in December 2029 of $51.5 million from the authority, according to the memorandum. Brown said the authority will make the payment by issuing new bonds backed by casino taxes and hotel revenue from its lease with Hilton Columbus Downtown.

On the one hand, Nationwide was already set to get public money to repay its loan, via those casino tax revenues. On the other, it agreed to take payment from the casino tax funds, and now that those aren’t turning up as expected (apparently Columbus residents just don’t love to gamble like they should, or else are too busy going to Blue Jackets games), this is $62.3 million in new money being allocated to Nationwide. Either way it’s not good news for Columbus residents, and has to be especially galling since the city’s then-auditor said in 2011 that the city’s commitment if the casino revenue fell short was “none.” No word yet on when the city and county will be voting to approve the deal, but one can expect they’ll be getting an earful at that time.

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Friday roundup: Beckham proposes stadium lease, FC Cincinnati pays off evicted tenants, Florida city admits its spring training economic projections were bunk

Is anyone else hugely enjoying John Cameron Mitchell’s new semiautobiographical musical podcast “Anthem: Homunculus” but having a hard time listening because the Luminary podcast platform keeps freezing up mid-episode? Is there enough overlap in the Field of Schemes and John Cameron Mitchell fan bases that anyone here even understands this question? (If not, here’s a good primer by my old Village Voice colleague Alan Scherstuhl.) Is Luminary still offering podcasts on its pay tier without the creators’ permissions? How should one handle it when great art is only available on platforms that have some major ethical issues? Are we ever going to get to this week’s stadium news?

Let’s get to this week’s stadium news:

  • David Beckham’s Inter Miami has offered to pay $3.5 million a year in rent on Melreese Park land for 39 years, plus $25 million for other Miami park projects, as part of a stadium lease agreement. That still doesn’t sound like too bad a deal for the public to me, but as nobody seems to be linking to the lease proposal in its entirety, there could still always be some time bombs hidden in there that weren’t reported on. More news when the Miami city commission actually gets ready to vote on this proposed lease, hopefully!
  • The owners of F.C. Cincinnati have agreed to pay off the tenants they’re evicting to make way for an entrance to their new stadium, but one of the conditions of the payout is that no one can discuss how much it’s for. We do know, however, that “at one point pizza was ordered in during the eight hours of negotiations” — thank god for intrepid journalism!
  • Clearwater, Florida just cut its estimate of the economic impact of the Philadelphia Phillies‘ presence during spring training from $70 million a year to $44 million a year after realizing that it didn’t make sense to include spending by locals who would be spending their money in town anyway. Now let’s see them adjust their estimates to account for tourists who are visiting Florida already because it’s March and Florida is warm and happen to take in a ballgame while they’re there and maybe we’ll be getting somewhere.
  • Good news for Columbus: After a good year for concerts, the public-private owned Nationwide Arena turned a $1.87 million operating profit last year. The less good news: None of that was used to repay the $4.76 million in tax subsidies the arena received, because the profits were instead poured into improvements like “roof and concrete repairs, natural-gas line replacement, new spotlights, metal detectors, and renovations to corporate suites.” The maybe-good news: If this means that the arena managers won’t ask for new subsidies for renovations for a while because they’re getting enough from operations, yeah, no, I don’t really expect this will forestall that either, but here’s hoping.
  • MLB commissioner Rob Manfred again said a bunch of things about the Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays stadium situations, but as usual nobody read them to the end because it’s impossible to do so without falling asleep. I am not complaining when I note that Manfred is an incompetent grifter compared to some of his colleagues in other sports, really I’m not. (Well, a little.)
  • Speaking of the Rays, Minnesota Twins broadcaster Bert Blyleven would like to blow up Tropicana Field because a fly ball hit a speaker, but the game broadcast cut to commercial before he could spell out his financing plan to build a replacement stadium.
  • A street in Inglewood near the Los Angeles Rams‘ new stadium is seeing stores close as a result of luxury blight, but Mayor James Butts says it’s just because of gentrification unrelated to the stadium. Which either way makes it hard to see how the stadium (or the arena that Clippers owner Steve Ballmer and Butts want) is needed to help the Inglewood economy, but mayors aren’t paid to think very hard about this stuff.
  • Washington, D.C., is spending $30 million to install three public turf ballfields near RFK Stadium, which sounds like a lot of money for just three turf fields, but still a better investment than some other things D.C. has spent money on, so go … kickball players? Kickball needs to be played on turf? The things you learn in this business!
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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.

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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!
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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!

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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