Friday roundup: Helicopter rides for rich fans, pricey bridge prices, and why Deadspin mattered

In case anyone hasn’t been following this week’s Deadspin drama, pretty much the entire staff has resigned over the past two days, following Tuesday’s decision by CEO Jim Spanfeller to fire acting editor-in-chief Barry Petchesky because the staff had responded to Spanfeller’s edict to “stick to sports” by posting a ton of excellent non-sports content. A few last posts have gone up the last couple of days, some to burn off features that were already scheduled to run and some to take classically Deadspinesque digs at management for burning down a popular website seemingly out of spite for continuing to do exactly what it had been doing for years before they bought it.

This is very bad news for journalism and America and humanity, and not only if you, like me, will miss the site’s potshots at our Big Wet President. There’s a popular notion that sports is just a fun diversion where the “outside world” of politics has no place — and that, as I hope the entire 21-year history of this site has made abundantly clear, is an extremely dangerous notion, because it means that concerns over what taxpayers are being charged for places to play sports or what athletes are being paid to play sports or who is allowed to speak out on what issues involving sports are dismissed with a Can’t we just watch the game? But games are serious — and lucrative — business, and can’t be divorced from the greater culture, any more than we should be just watching movies as pure entertainment without attention to the bigger issues involved. Deadspin was dedicated to erasing those lines and allowing its writers to address whatever they felt needed addressing at the moment, whether it was the meaning of who you’re seen sitting with at a football game or what we’re getting stuck in our rectums each year, and until and unless a successor emerges to pick up the torch, the world will be a sadder, dumber place.

(Already yesterday I read about Josh Hamilton’s arrest after his daughter said he threw a chair at her — a phrasing I owe to this excellent Deadspin non-sports article, incidentally — and wished I could read Deadspin’s analysis of it. Then I read about John Wetteland’s arrest for reportedly sexually assaulting a four-year-old child, and thought I wonder if maybe men’s sports should just be banned altogether at this point given the kind of behavior it encourages and realized Deadspin was probably my best bet for reading that take, too. It’s going to be a long however many weeks or months until something arises from Deadspin’s ashes, if that ever happens.)

Anyway, on to the weekly muddling of sports and politics:

  • The Indiana Pacers‘ arena will still be named after the bank that stopping paying for naming rights in June until the team has found a new naming-rights sponsor, which seems weird at first but actually makes total sense: It costs money to change the signage so why do it twice, and also the value of naming rights goes down with each new iteration of a corporate moniker that dilutes the name’s image for the public — quick, tell me what the Oakland Coliseum’s official name is these days — so calling it “Pacers Arena” or whatever for a few months might get fans to start calling it that permanently, and we can’t have that. And if you’re wondering why the Pacers get to sell naming rights to a building that was built entirely with public dollars and is owned by the public: It’s Indianapolis, Jake.
  • St. Louis’s new MLS stadium finally has a site picked out — Market Street near Union Station, if you’re scoring at home — and new renderings as well, though they look pretty much like the old renderings except for the one that is just a closeup of a kid riding on his parent’s (?) shoulders. The state of Missouri has received approval to sell 22 acres of land for the stadium to the city’s Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority, which will then lease it to the MLS team for … oh, that doesn’t seem to have been reported. Just look at the pretty pictures and don’t worry your head about that nasty money business.
  • A public city database in Atlanta is indicating that the city’s $23 million pedestrian bridge for the Falcons actually cost $41.7 million, but the city insists it’s really just that they entered the same checks multiple times. I’m not sure “spent $23 million on a pedestrian bridge for a football team and also can’t do basic bookkeeping” looks much better, honestly.
  • The San Antonio Spurs — whose mascot is for some reason a kangaroo, is that a kangaroo? — have installed four new helipads so that fans can buy helicopter rides to games, which really tells you everything you need to know about 1) who sports teams are interested in marketing to these days and 2) just how ridiculously much money rich people in America have to burn these days.
  • Fresno FC owner Ray Beshoff has declared he “will almost certainly be relocating the team” because he hasn’t been provided with a new soccer-only stadium, unless “in the next two or three weeks if people come to the table with ideas or suggestions that we think are tenable.” This will come as a huge shock to fans who’ve been dedicated followers of the USL team since (looks up team on Wikipedia) March of 2018.
  • The San Francisco 49ers are raising ticket prices by 13% but giving season ticket holders free food and soda, which I guess means 49ers fans will be spending most of games from now on pigging out on all-you-can-eat nachos instead of watching the action on the field. Also, you can’t get the free food if you buy tickets on the secondary market, only if you’re the original season ticket holder. Or, I guess, borrow the season ticket holder’s free-food card? Or have a season ticket holder go up to the counter for you and get your nachos? I don’t live anywhere near Santa Clara and hate football, but I am very excited at seeing how fans figure out how to game this system.
  • Still nobody is sure which minor-league teams MLB will threaten to eliminate as part of its plan to restrict minor-league affiliates, or what criteria MLB will use for deciding who shall live and who shall die or whether MLB is even serious or just trying to scare minor-league players into not demanding they be paid minimum wage. I really should write about this for Deadsp — crap.
  • It rained at the Buffalo Bills game last weekend, so a local country music station ran a poll asking listeners: “Would you be in favor of a roof stadium or no?” Not included: any mention of what a roof would cost, or what WYRK has against the word “roofed.”
  • The corporate newspaper that helped gut a free daily by selling it to people who immediately laid off most of the editorial staff ran an article this week asking if the new New York Islanders arena will make it harder for the nearby Nassau Coliseum to draw events, but I’m not going to link to a union-busting-enabling outlet that put the article behind a paywall anyway, so let me just answer the question here: Duh, yes!
  • A former assistant to Inglewood Mayor James Butts has changed her testimony in the lawsuit against the Los Angeles Clippers‘ proposed arena, and Inglewood officials are asking that her revised testimony be rejected because they say she’s in “cahoots” with Madison Square Garden, which opposes the arena because it doesn’t want competition for its own arena nearby. Elephants, man.
  • The DreamHouse New Mexico Bowl has been canceled, because alleged film production company and title sponsor DreamHouse turns out not to exist, but rather to be a scam perpetrated by “a relentless self promoter who lies about nearly everything he says he does.”
  • A giant water droplet named Wendy has made a video suggesting that Washington’s NFL team should move back within city limits. Sorry, Sean Doolittle, this is actually the most 2019 Washington thing ever.
  • The Sunshine Coast Pickleball Association is seeking funding from the city of Sechelt for a new pickleball stadium. I don’t actually know where Sechelt is and am only dimly aware of what pickleball is, and I’m not going to ruin the perfect sentence above by looking either thing up.

Could same parkland issue that blocked Mets mall trip up Islanders arena?

I was a little bit dismissive of the lawsuits against the proposed Belmont Park New York Islanders arena when they were filed last month, mostly because lawsuits claiming that the state isn’t following its own rules don’t exactly have a glorious record of success in New York, since courts have largely allowed the state to define its rules as it sees fit. But as the fan site Eyes on Isles reports, there’s one element of the suit that could be more effective:

The lawsuit sets out four pages of its petition/complaint discussing Public Trust Doctrine and how that process was ignored in this case.

New York State Franchise Oversight cannot usurp the Elective Official Authority to transfer or lease public park/state land without a legislative act. -Halop et al v. Empire State Development Corp. et al. pg.13

What is Public Trust Doctrine? Essentially, it’s the idea that the parkland can’t be sold without the authority of a legislative body, in this case, the New York State Legislature.

So why does that argument have legs? Well, it’s been used before, quite recently and it won. The same argument was used against the construction of a mall at Willets Point and it won.

That isn’t quite right — the proposed mall, though named Willets West, was actually proposed for the Citi Field parking lot — but the gist is correct: The land involved was mapped as city parkland, so the legislature was required to vote to de-map it first, and they hadn’t, so the project died.

The big question, then, is: Is Belmont Park mapped parkland? That’s not as easy a question to answer as one would hope: It’s owned by the state and run as a park, but this is all about what the official designation is — the Citi Field land had been used for parking for decades, but it was still officially parkland, so building a mall on top was ruled out of order. The state Empire State Development agency wrote in its response to Request For Proposals questions in 2018 that “No part of the Site is considered parkland that would require Legislative approval for alienation purposes,” but then, New York City insisted that the Willets West land wasn’t really parkland that would require legislative alienation, and it was. And while a hockey arena could conceivably be considered a “public purpose” that would be allowable on parkland (as the Mets’ stadium is), the rest of the surrounding development would be way more dodgy.

So, in short, dunno, but I’ll keep researching it. Of all the last-ditch attempts to block the Islanders arena, though, the parkland issue legally has the most teeth, so it’s worth watching. The next court date is set for December 6, so if nothing else, hopefully we’ll get some more info then.

Friday roundup: How Kansas City evicted a team for rent non-payment and ended up costing itself $1m, and other stories

This week’s recommended reading: Girl to City, Amy Rigby’s just-published memoir of the two decades that took her from newly arrived art student in 1970s New York to divorced single mom and creator of the acclaimed debut album Diary of a Mod Housewife. (Disclosure, I guess: I edited an early version of one chapter for the Village Voice last year.) I picked up my copy last week at the launch of Rigby’s fall book tour, and whether you love her music or her long-running blog (guilty as charged on both counts) or enjoy tales of CBGB-era proto-gentrifying New York or coming-of-age-stories about women balancing self-doubt and determination or just a perfectly turned punchline, I highly recommend it: Like her best songs, it made me laugh and cry and think, often at the same time, and that’s all I can ask for in great art.

But first, read this news roundup post, because man, is there a lot of news to be rounded up:

Unnamed “backers” want Islanders arena to lead to redeveloping Aqueduct with casinos and other crap

The New York Islanders‘ new arena at Belmont Park — or The Stable, as some people on Twitter are already trying to get you to call it, which must make the people in charge of selling its official naming rights just thrilled beyond belief — won’t open until 2021 at the earliest even if it survives its multiple legal challenges, but that doesn’t mean its too soon to start planning how it will become the linchpin of a massive strategy to close Aqueduct Racetrack to horse racing and build new casinos and maybe other development there. Allow Newsday to explain:

Redevelopment backers have a grand vision of Belmont becoming a “sports destination” that goes like this:

• Consolidate downstate horse racing by ending it at Aqueduct Race Track in Queens, and moving all racing to Belmont. Then promote Belmont as a destination with hockey, horses, hotels and shopping.

• Authorize three new downstate casinos by 2023, or sooner.

• Allow Aqueduct, which already rakes in money from thousands of video slot machines, to become a full-fledged casino, and maybe do the same for Yonkers Raceway.

• Consider selling to developers the acreage at the sprawling Aqueduct facility that won’t be part of a casino. The state owns the land and the horse racing business is just a tenant.

All of which makes some sense, even if the only “redevelopment backer” actually named is the Long Island Association, a business lobbying group: Horse racing isn’t exactly a thriving pastime, and Aqueduct is potentially valuable property, though whether state-run casinos are really the best use of it is extremely arguable.

More to the point, though: What does any of this have to do with a new arena at Belmont? I am far from an expert on horse racing (I owned a horse racing board game at around age 10, I recall), but it seems to me that if Aqueduct and Belmont’s racing schedules can be merged effectively, that can happen with or without a hockey arena next door. The new train station that the Islanders’ developer group is helping to pay for but absolutely not paying for without taxpayer money should help, sure, but is it really vital to the plans, or just a way for these Aqueduct redevelopment advocates, whoever they are, to get the attention of Newsday?

And speaking of which, how did this article end up in Newsday anyway, given that it seems to be just the grand vision of one business-lobby spokesperson accompanied by a bunch of reaction quotes from local elected officials? There’s definitely something happening here, but what it is and who’s pushing it still ain’t exactly clear.

How a falsehood becomes a fact (New York Islanders groundbreaking division)

The New York Islanders owners held a groundbreaking for their new arena yesterday as promised, and because this mostly meant a bunch of politicians (and Ralph Macchio) scooping ceremonial dirt with shovels with hockey-stick handles, many publications sensibly enough chose to skip the event and instead run wire service copy from the Associated Press.

Unfortunately, the unnamed AP reporter wrote this:

As part of the work, developers have agreed to pay to build a new Long Island Rail Road station nearby.

No. No, they have not. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo may have claimed this in a press release, but state officials later revealed that the developers are putting in $30 million up front and the state $75 million, with the developers additionally making $67 million in payments, without interest, to the state over the next 30 years. How much of a subsidy that is depends on how you calculate the discount rate on future payments — I previously got a figure of about $41 million in state costs — but clearly this train station will be costing state taxpayers something, even if the developers will eventually pay for most of its price tag. (Assuming there are no significant cost overruns, anyway.)

Now, this may seem trivial: Does it really matter if newspapers report that developers “have agreed to pay to build” a new train station or “have agreed to help pay to build”? But yeah, it really does. Because the way that fact-checking works in journalism today — to the degree that journalism conducts fact-checking at all — you’re just checking to see that some other news outlet has reported the claim in question, and then you can mark it as confirmed. And so a falsehood can become an officially confirmed fact, for all time.

I’ve contacted the AP asking for a correction; I’ll update this post if I get a response. Meanwhile, at least a few outlets didn’t use the AP story, such as CBS New York, which had this to report on the governor’s statements:

“A new transportation terminal, a great economic development vehicle and a great new sports stadium. Three things all together in one project. The technical term for that is that is a hat trick, my friends. Congratulations,” Cuomo said.

No, a hat trick is when you get three of the same thing. Getting three different things is a trifecta. Jeez, people, do I have to do everything around here?

Islanders arena to break ground today right after getting hit with second lawsuit charging it’s illegal

A groundbreaking is expected to be held today for the planned $1.3 billion New York Islanders arena project at Belmont Park, and the team celebrated on Saturday by getting hit with its second lawsuit challenging the project’s legality.

The previous lawsuit, you’ll recall was filed by the neighboring village of Floral Park, and charged that the bidding for the site was skewed toward the arena developers and that the environmental impact study was insufficient. The new lawsuit, filed by a bunch of community groups in neighboring Elmont, doubles up on claims that the EIS is faulty, while adding that the state Empire State Development agency shouldn’t be allowed to conduct the project at all because it’s only allowed to arrange for the development of blighted properties, and Elmont isn’t blighted:

“In order to use the UDC Act you have to have the prerequisite of blight,” [Elmont civic leader Aubrey] Phillips said. “Over the years, Elmont has been the brunt of mischaracterization. It is totally inconsistent with statistics. Elmont is a firm middle-class community.”

Argument #2 first: It’s absolutely true that the UDC Act only authorizes ESD (the descendent of the 1960s-era Urban Development Corporation) to act on blighted property. It’s also true, however, that courts have let the state define “blighted” as pretty much anything it wants — just take a look at the Islanders’ current home, the similarly ESD-masterminded Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where the state agency fulfilled a requirement that the project target a high unemployment area by creating a gerrymandered district weaving for over a mile through different neighborhoods which journalism Norman Oder dubbed the “Bed-Stuy Boomerang.” So while it may or may not be “wrong” or “illegal,” this sort of thing is definitely standard practice for New York development agencies.

As for the EIS complaint, the new suit charged that the state’s study “did not properly address major issues like traffic, ‘cumulative impacts’ and the safety of local residents,” according to Long Island Business News. Again, you can make this case — as the previous suit noted, the state’s traffic and transit analysis was written before the state even added in plans for a new commuter rail station near the arena, with shuttle buses to take fans from there to games — but the number of lawsuits trying to overturn EISes as insufficient are few and far between, in New York, anyway.

The plaintiffs in this suit have former New York Civil Liberties Union director Norman Siegel as their attorney, and he previously represented Brooklyn residents in their years-long but ultimately fruitless battle against the arena project there, so I guess at least he knows what not to do? Predicting lawsuit results is almost as hopeless a task as predicting sports results; let’s just call this an “uphill battle” and leave it there.


First lawsuit is filed against Islanders arena, charging rigged bid and invalid environmental study

With the New York Islanders arena plan having received final state approval last month, the Belmont Park project is now facing the first of several lawsuits, as promised:

The Village of Floral Park has filed suit against the state to block the $1.3 billion redevelopment of Belmont Park, including the new arena for the New York Islanders, ahead of a ceremonial groundbreaking on the property expected this month.

The Article 78 proceeding, a lawsuit against a municipality, asks a judge to overturn all approvals of the project, stop construction on the site and restart the environmental review process, according to documents filed in state Supreme Court in Mineola.

Floral Park’s complaint is twofold: First, that the public bidding process was rigged because the state had already received plans for a hockey arena at the site; second, that the environmental review didn’t fully study the impact of a new Long Island Rail Road station planned to service the arena. And while the first may seem, as the Wii soccer announcer likes to tell me whenever I try a shot from midfield, “speculative to say the least,” the latter sounds pretty reasonable, at least in IANAL terms, considering that the train station plan wasn’t even released by Gov. Andrew Cuomo until the day the final environmental impact statement was being voted on.

Lawsuits to block development projects are always longshots given that developers can afford the best lawyers, among other things, but even longshots sometimes win, so we’ll see how this goes. My question: If they end up losing, will the developers have to re-plant the trees they already chopped down?

Friday roundup: When is a football stadium too old to be a football stadium?

If it wasn’t clear from the photos of devastation in the Bahamas, the death toll from Hurricane Dorian is going to get much, much worse than the official confirmed number (30, at this writing). You can find a list of some organizations raising money to help survivors here; please give generously if you can. And remember as you do that it’s the warming oceans that helped make this so bad.

And with that, on to news that’s marginally less life and death:

  • Denver Metropolitan Football Stadium District chair Ray Baker says the Broncos‘ current stadium (which just got a new corporate name, go keep track of these things on your own if you like because I can’t be bothered to remember them) should last “between 50 and 60 years,” at which point Broncos president Joe Ellis replied that “I can’t judge where entertainment venues are going to need to be in the future” and “I can’t tell you whether or not, in 10 years, the city of Denver and our seven-county region has an appetite to host a Super Bowl or an appetite to host a Final Four, which means you need a roof. Or do you need a new stadium?” The new naming-rights deal lasts 21 years, at which point the stadium will be 40 years old; please place your bets on whether it will still be standing by then.
  • RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., will not make it to its 60th birthday in October 2021, which is all well and good as nobody plays there now and it’s costing the city $3.5 million a year for maintenance, landscaping, pest control, security, and utilities. (Note: Yeah, that seems like a lot to me too for an empty stadium.) D.C. officials say they plan to build an indoor sports complex and food market on the site, but have no plans as yet for an NFL stadium, no matter how much Mayor Muriel Bowser might want one.
  • Cleveland Browns COO David Jenkins says team execs still haven’t decided whether to demand a new stadium or a renovated one, but “we’re not far from having those conversations.” Note to Denver: The Browns’ stadium is two years older than the Broncos’.
  • Forbes reports that the value of the Oakland Raiders jumped by $1.5 billion to $2.9 billion after announcing their move to Las Vegas, which is an indication that either there’s something wrong with Forbes’ franchise valuation estimates or there’s something wrong with how much rich people are willing to spend to buy sports teams, or both. Even with the state of Nevada kicking in $750 million, the team will still be on the hook for more than $1 billion in stadium construction costs, which is going to soak up most of the team’s new stadium revenue even if their plan to sell tickets mostly to tourists and visiting fans works out.
  • The Anaheim city council is still squabbling over who knew when that when they voted on a Los Angeles Angels lease extension back in January, they were actually giving team owner Arte Moreno the right to stay through 2029 if he wanted, not just until 2020. (The team owner got a one-year extension of his opt-out clause as well, but the lease is now back in place to its original expiration date set before Moreno opted out the first time last year.) One thing that’s for sure is that this was a major gift to Moreno as stadium renovation talks continue, because “the best friend of a sports team owner is time,” says, uh, me.
  • A bill making it easier for Oakland to create tax districts at Howard Terminal to help raise money for infrastructure for a new A’s stadium passed the California state legislature this week; it’s still unclear exactly how much tax money would be spent on infrastructure, or exactly what “infrastructure” would mean, or even if the stadium will be built at Howard Terminal at all, but that’s one more skid greased, anyway.
  • The new Long Island Railroad station outside the new New York Islanders arena is set to be open by 2022, which only about 90 years faster than these things usually go in New York. It helps to have friends in high places!


Friday roundup: News outlets everywhere get pretty much everything wrong

On a tight deadline this week, so let’s get straight to the news:

New York state okays Islanders arena lease, still won’t say how much subsidies are worth

The New York Islanders arena plan received its final(ish) signoff yesterday, from the obscure state Franchise Oversight Board, which approved the team’s lease with the state. It also revealed how much the project will be paying in payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) as part of its tax break deal with the state:

It also includes a payment in lieu of taxes agreement under which New York Arena Partners would pay $40 million to various municipalities. The PILOT would last throughout ESD’s lease for the arena, and for 20 years for a proposed hotel and 15 years for retail stores at the arena. An estimated $154 million would go to the Elmont and Sewanhaka school districts over almost 50 years, and the state would make at least $1 million per year from rent payments based on attendance.

That is a lot of numbers that don’t actually make sense together, so let’s explain them one at a time:

  • That $40 million PILOT payment appears not to be a PILOT payment at all, but rather the team’s lease payment for the state land it would be using, which we’ve covered previously. (And is also now supposedly up to $50 million.)
  • The actual PILOT payment from the arena will be that “at least $1 million per year” figure, which is certainly way below what an arena would normally pay in property taxes, though no one has revealed how much of a tax break it is.
  • Likewise, the PILOTs for the hotel and stores are actually tax breaks, not special payments to the state, since if the state insisted on the developers buying the land instead of leasing it, it would be subject to normal property taxes.

The upshot, then, is that the state is still giving the Islanders and their developer partners a sweet land deal, plus cash toward a new commuter rail station, plus tax breaks. There are so many moving parts to the financing plan, and so little transparency, that it’s pretty much impossible to put a number on the total public cost, but it’s certainly close to $100 million, and could be much higher.

As far as the approval process goes, I believe the state comptroller still needs to sign off on the deal, but that’s usually a formality. Then will come the inevitable lawsuits; whether the Islanders can meet their aggressive goal of breaking ground in September and opening the place in fall of 2021 will likely depend on whether opponents are able to get court injunctions, or if everyone will be left to calculate the public cost after the horse has escaped.