Michigan residents’ $300m for Red Wings arena buying slightly closer seats, plus lasers

This week’s Sports Illustrated has a long profile of the Detroit Red Wings‘ under-construction new arena, which almost entirely consists of quotes from team execs and the arena’s designers, so take with a huge grain of salt. It does include a few tea leaves we can try to read, though, so let’s get to it:

The design starts with putting fans as close to the ice as possible. “We brought in our general manager, Ken Holland, to find which was the most intimidating place we play,” Tom Wilson, CEO of team and arena owner Olympia Entertainment, tells SI.com. “Without question it is Montreal. There is no light. No open concourses. Just a sea of red jerseys screaming at you in French. We went there to see it and, my gosh, they are on top of you.”

George Heinlein, HOK Sports principal, tells SI.com that they designed Little Caesars with Montreal’s Bell Centre’s vertical rise, but with added legroom. “It is about the steepness of the seating bowl,” Heinlein says. “But also the proximity of those fans to the rink.”

This is garbage: Since a hockey arena’s seating starts, by definition, at the edge of the rink, the only way to get fans (in the first deck, at least) closer to the ice is to reduce legroom. This is a tradeoff, obviously — less legroom is bad for the people sitting in those seats, but good for the fans sitting in the rows behind them — but unless HOK has reinvented geometry, they can’t accomplish both at once.

While Detroit’s current Joe Louis Arena has about 40% of seats in the lower bowl, Little Caesars flips the script, putting about 10,500 of the total 19,600 seats in the lower bowl, but with the last row in Little Caesars still able to fit within the last row of Joe Louis.

“More seats in the lower bowl” is actually HOK dogma at this point, apparently because team owners think they can charge more for a seat in the last row of a lower bowl than for a seat in the front row of an upper bowl, though they might be equally good for seeing the game. The last row being no farther from the ice than in the old arena is more promising, if that’s indeed what “fit within the last row of Joe Louis” means.

The baddest bowl eliminates the trendy concept of opening up the concourses to the rink. Instead of creating sightlines through the entire venue, the Red Wings wanted to focus on creating noise, eliminating any holes where noise or energy could escape. “We don’t want to blow out concourses, we want to contain all the energy in the seating bowl,” Heinlein says. “It is a throwback in that regard.”

This sounds like marketing gibberish — “we’re eliminating this thing that everyone has been claiming is one of the best things about new sports venues, and claiming it’s ‘throwback’ and trendy for not being trendy” — and it is, but it’s also potentially kind of cool. One staple of stadium and arena design the last couple of decades has been a large gap between decks, so that fans in concession areas can see the game while waiting on line for food. If you’ve ever been at one of these buildings, though, you know that this usually means “see maybe one corner of the game, or more likely a thin strip of the crowd that is watching the game, while peering around everyone standing around the concourse,” which is entirely useless, especially since there are typically TV monitors everywhere showing you the actual game.

Getting rid of that gap, though, enables the designers to move the entire deck above maybe 10-20 feet down and forward, which is a huge benefit to the people actually sitting in those seats, and could help explain that “worst seat is no worse than in Joe Louis” claim. I’m tentatively optimistic, anyway.

Connecting the interior of Little Caesars with the Via and surrounding neighborhood by blurring the entry plaza concourse with the external streets of the district, Wilson says the space offers diversity and will encourage fans to return over and over to experience new spaces. “The Via is a very active space,” Wilson says. “We want to change the way people come to games. Come at 6 (p.m.), have your choice of sports bars, a market house, a spaghetti house and have a full evening. At the end of the game, there are tons of experiences to still have and discover.”

In other words, the Via (a glassed-in concessions concourse that is meant to feel like it’s “outdoors”) is a cross between traditional concessions areas and an outdoor space controlled by the team like Eutaw Street at Camden Yards or Yawkey Way at Fenway Park. Nothing new, in other words — it’s just team-controlled restaurant space by another name.

Using a 12-laser projection system, the Red Wings can animate the arena, projecting full motion video and images on the arena’s “forward-thinking” metal-panel skin all the way through the Via. “There is nothing like it in Vegas, Disney or Times Square,” Wilson says. “It is an immersive sort of experience that everybody is going to enjoy.”

Dear lord, that sounds awful. Unless you like the stimulation overload of Vegas and Times Square, which I guess lots of people do, but if I count among “everybody,” I expect I’ll be able to personally disprove that last statement.

And that’s more than enough time to spend on a team PR statement. Let’s close with a reminder of the $300 million in public money this is costing Michigan residents, since SI somehow forgot to mention it.

Detroit music critic’s review of new Red Wings arena seems not to understand what crowds are

The Detroit Free Press got to send its “pop music critic” (I swear, that’s his official title) on a tour of the Red Wings‘ new arena construction site this week, and you can read his report on how cool (the Red Wings say) it will be for concerts here. But really I just want to focus on its entry into the ongoing Bad Journalism Theater competition:

Joe Louis event-goers dogged by cramped concourses near concession spots and merchandise booths will find relief: The new arena will feature nearly double the number of purchase locations.

Sure, that reads like something the writer ripped from a press release and tacked an awkward transitional clause onto, but what is it even supposed to mean? “Cramped concourses” aren’t a function of how many purchase locations there are, they’re a function of, you know, cramped concourses. Unless the actual concourses themselves are more spacious — they certainly look nice on the renderings, but that doesn’t tell us much — putting the same number of people on twice as many lines in the same amount of space isn’t going to be any better, and leads to situations like this.

But really, the main lesson here is: Journalists, if you can’t fact-check your stats you get from press releases, at least sanity-check them. Even your mother could be bending the truth, after all.

Red Wings president boasts about how new arena will have tons more ways to sell you crap

Chris Ilitch, president of the Detroit Red Wings and son of team owners Mike and Marian Ilitch, told the Detroit Economic Club yesterday how totally awesome the new arena the team is building (with the help of about $300 million in state and city money) will be:

He said the arena will have five restaurants, seven clubs, a concourse area three times the size of Joe Louis Arena’s and several stories of glass enclosing a “vibrant, urban experience.”

And there, in a nutshell, is what’s driving the new sports venue craze. (That and the ability to get $300 million checks from the local government by crying about how your old building is just so old, anyway.) You’ll note that none of the above has anything to do with actually watching hockey, but rather about all the things you can do (and buy) while not watching hockey, because who goes to a hockey game to watch hockey?

Okay, Ilitch also promised (in the Detroit Free Press’s paraphrase) “seats closer to the rink with better sight lines,” which in the paper was accompanied by this rendering of Wii characters accompanied by the caption, and I am not making this up, “‘gondola’ seating that will put fans closer to the action”:

635822289991312743-gondolaAll this should be a reminder of why sports stadiums and arenas have been found to be terrible economic catalysts — they’re designed to get people spending more money inside the gates, not across the street at whatever stores and restaurants are there. Also that some people will say that absolutely anything is done “for the fans,” and say it with a straight face. Though after the recent New York Yankees ticket resale fiasco, I’d hope that everyone would have learned that lesson already.

Public official who helped approve $284m for Red Wings now working for (you guessed it) Red Wings

Hey, remember George Jackson, the city of Detroit development chief who really hated Tiger Stadium and anyone who loved it and who helped push through the Red Wings‘ new arena plans? What’s he doing these days, anyway?

Jackson went on to start his own real estate consulting firm, Ventra Group. In November, Ventra started work under a contract with the Ilitch family’s arena development company. That same month, Jackson hired a former top lieutenant at the DEGC, Brian Holdwick, who also was on the lead negotiating team for the city on the arena deal.

For some critics, the contract and players involved give the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Gee, no, ya think? Pushing for $284.5 million in public subsidies for a new hockey arena, quitting your public-sector job, then going to work for the hockey arena and being paid out of that same $284.5 million … I can’t see why anyone would think that would appear to be a conflict of interest. Or why Jackson would need to write a typically cranky and defensive press statement about the whole matter:

“I left public service well over a year before my firm accepted a private client,” he said in the written statement. “Why should I be denied the opportunity to earn a living in my hometown, when I have skills, experience and knowledge that can be put to good use — and will create jobs and opportunities for other Detroiters?”

I don’t know, maybe because this is exactly why “revolving door” laws exist, so as to insure that government officials are doing what’s best for the public, and not what’s best for their next client? But, hey, “jobs and opportunities,” so let’s not think about that too hard.

Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch just wrote John Oliver’s show for next week

If you slept through the last week, this headline from Detroit Curbed probably has you utterly baffled:

Ilitch Responds to John Oliver’s Critique of Stadium Deal

Yes, that’s the owner of the Detroit Red Wings (and Detroit Tigers, and Little Caesar’s Pizza) issuing a press statement in response to an HBO comedian’s criticism of his deal to get $300 million in public subsidies for a new hockey arena. And what was Ilitch’s response?

“This project is about so much more than a world-class sports and entertainment arena; it’s about transforming a core part of our city for the benefit of the entire community,” the statement said. “The new Detroit arena and The District Detroit will create 8,300 construction and construction-related jobs, as well as at least 1,100 permanent jobs. To date, the Detroit Downtown Development Authority has approved nine contracts worth $121 million, of which Detroit-based and -headquartered businesses have won more than 88% — or $106 million. Initiatives of this size, scope and impact — $1.8 billion dollars for our city, region and state — are almost universally public-private partnerships. The majority of this development is being privately financed, and no City of Detroit general funds are involved whatsoever.”

That doesn’t actually counter any of Oliver’s criticisms, which amounted to pointing out that 1) Ilitch is getting $280 million in public funds, 2) Ilitch is worth an estimated $5.1 billion, 3) Detroit filed for bankruptcy the week before all this was approved, and 4) Little Caesar’s Crazy Bread sucks. In fact, the majority of the development is not privately financed (it’s 58% public, even by the Detroit Free Press’s conservative math), and while city general funds aren’t being used, development funds that would otherwise go to other city projects are, as is a gift of free city land.

In short: Watch John Oliver’s show next week, because he just got handed a whole lot of new material. Thanks, funnyman Mike Ilitch!

Stadiums can be anchors for related development, say newspapers in search of cheap headlines

You know what I missed while I was away? Having the time to read long, misinformed articles about new stadium projects and how they’re just totally different from those old bad stadium projects of a couple of decades ago. Got anything like that for me, Google News?

With the era of standalone, isolated stadiums largely over, sports team owners increasingly are taking on the role of developer and using their stadiums as anchors for entertainment districts or retail and residential developments.

Oh, yeah, that’s the stuff.

The article in question is from the Tampa Tribune’s Christopher O’Donnell, and argues that this newfangled stadium-plus-other-development model being used by teams like the Atlanta Braves and Detroit Red Wings (or “Redwings,” as he calls them) could be used by the Tampa Bay Rays for a new stadium as well. It ignores the fact that these stadium-plus projects aren’t especially new, going back well over a decade (the St. Louis Cardinals‘ “ballpark village” was one of the earlier ones, but I’m sure I’m forgetting others), and mostly ignores, aside from a comment by stadium architecture consultant Philip Bess (who O’Donnell calls “Phillip” — fired all the copy editors, did you, Tampa Tribune?), the problem that if development around a stadium were profitable enough to pay off a stadium, teams would be able to pursue this strategy without public subsidies. Not to mention that if stadium-related development is profitable it could be pursued without the money suck of a new stadium attached, that it could just end up displacing development that otherwise would have taken place somewhere else in town, that development around stadiums has typically appeared years late when it shows up at all, etc., etc.

Anyway, good to see that these articles still pop up every once in a while for me to throw rocks at, and — whoa there!

The new Minnesota Vikings football stadium, to be completed a year from now, is helping draw nearby office towers, upscale housing and other developments, according to its supporters.

Guys! One article at a time, please! I’m still getting back up to speed here.

Red Wings almost ready to build new taxpayer-subsidized arena, are Pistons next in line?

The Detroit Historic District Commission is set to vote this afternoon on whether to allow Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch to demolish the historic (but long-vacant) Park Avenue Hotel to make way for his arena district construction project, which promises to draw to a close the city’s debates about sports arena construc — oh, come on now, seriously?

Pistons owner Tom Gores launched Project “Big Math,” a sweeping idea for change and economic growth for the city of Detroit and state of Michigan, when he hired agent Arn Tellem last week as vice chairman of Palace Sports and Entertainment.

One of Tellem’s first agenda items when he takes over Aug. 3 is to explore bringing the Pistons downtown from Auburn Hills. … The Pistons have two viable options. They can move into the new Red Wings arena, which is scheduled to open in 2017, and share it with Olympia Entertainment. There is also a Hail Mary option to tear down the half-built Wayne County Jail and build an arena in conjunction with Quicken Loans chairman Dan Gilbert.

This is still pretty much just at the rumor stage — and the Pistons say they have “no plans” to move from Auburn Hills, for what it’s worth — but still, there’s at least the chance that Detroit may end up talking about building not one but two downtown arenas. Not bad for a city that’s bankrupt. Or, looked at another way, not good.

Red Wings owner has no immediate plans to build most of arena district, no he’s not giving his $300m back

You know how every time some team owner announces that their new publicly financed venue will come with a “ballpark village” or “arena district,” and I shake my head sadly and warn that accompanying development rarely if ever happens on the expected timetable? Well, this just in from the Detroit Red Wings front:

Nearly a year after Olympia Development announced that a big chunk of $200 million in retail, offices and apartments could be open when the Red Wings’ hockey arena debuts in summer 2017, plans, details and timelines of many of those components remain unknown.

“I don’t even see the majority of that 45-block overhaul starting before the arena is open,” said John Mogk, a Wayne State University law professor who closely follows Detroit development.

“You need to prove a strong market for new residential and commercial, and what is in that area now doesn’t make much of a case,” Mogk said.

So, Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch can’t build the new housing and stores until there’s a market demand for it, and there’s no market demand for it yet. I could be churlish and point out that the whole point of the state giving public money for the arena was that the market wasn’t creating enough demand to get anything built on that site, and so the arena was supposed to jump-start things, and if it’s just a matter of waiting for demand for more housing to materialize then Detroit could have done that without having to give Ilitch $300 million, and — you know what, it’s Monday, I have a right to be churlish. Or at least to point out that when developers make promises about all the stuff they’re going to build, you really want to get it in writing.

(Ilitch can reportedly get another $74 million from the city development authority if he spends the $200 million within five years; whether you consider that a valuable incentive or throwing good money after bad is your call.)

Detroit council gives up and lets Red Wings owner have his arena rezoning without job commitments

Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch finally got his rezoning approval from the Detroit city council last night, and it didn’t require a community benefits agreement for local hiring or promising to save two historic buildings or any of that. Instead all that will be worked out later, without the council holding its best leverage, because surely that’s a good plan.

Ilitch celebrated the ruling by tearing down a popular sports bar that stands in the way of his planned arena. (No, not with his bare hands, but if it’s more fun to picture it that way, go for it.)

No, community benefits agreements aren’t the solution to stadium subsidies

Here’s British journalist Ian Betteridge explaining his eponymous law of headlines:

Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no.” The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.

So when Deadspin runs an article asking, “Has Detroit Found An Answer To The Publicly Financed Stadium Scam?” you should probably approach it with a grain of salt. But for the record, allow me to answer Deadspin’s question:


What the Detroit city council is considering is a law to require community benefits agreements for all development projects. CBAs, as they’re known, are agreements that developers negotiate with local residents, community groups, and other stakeholders committing to jobs and other local benefits as part of a project; as state assemblyperson Rashida Tlaib told Deadspin, “We are allowing these large corporations—companies that could build a hockey arena without our money—to get in the corporate welfare line and take resources away from us. In exchange for what?”

In theory, CBAs sound great: If developers want public money, they have to give the public something in return! In practice, they’re more problematic. While everyone loves to point to the CBA for development around the Staples Center in L.A., which got parks and job training for local residents impacted by the new construction, there are far more CBAs that haven’t worked out as well: The one the New York Yankees set up, for example, which arranged for a “charity” that handed out benefits to several groups that barely existed, and which didn’t bother to keep track of how many Bronx residents were hired at the new stadium. There’s also the problem of how the “community” is defined: then-New Jersey Nets owner Bruce Ratner famously paid to set up community groups that he could then negotiate a CBA with, over the objections of much of the rest of the community.

And even when CBAs are legit, more or less, there’s still the problem that they’re less a referendum on whether pumping public money into a development project is good for a city as a whole, and more a way for community members to demand a cut of the boodle. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — as Tlaib implies, at least if you’re shelling out all that money, you might as well demand something in return — but it can end up being just an easily applied fig leaf for developers, and an incentive for community groups to trade their support for what amounts to a cash payoff, rather than keeping the broader public interest in mind.

So, points to Deadspin for covering this, but more points off for a misleading clickbaity headline. Developers may hate the mandatory-CBA plan — developers hate mandatory-anything plans — but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good thing.