Friday roundup: Cincy stadiums still gobbling tax money, XFL to use old Rangers stadium, Crew stadium to require $50m+ in public cash

So very very much more stadium and arena news from this week:

Senators owner denies asking for public arena funding, except for that time he did

Now that Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk is blowing up his LeBreton Flats arena plans by suing his development partners, the gloves are coming off. In the latest twist, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, who Melnyk’s suit claims threatened to withdraw support for the arena if Melnyk pulled out of the plans — yeah, I know, just go with it — said yesterday that Melnyk tried to get public money for the project even after promising “no government money” would be involved:

“Their original opening discussion with our staff is that they wanted the city to build the arena, and I said that we’re not in the business of building arenas,” Watson told reporters after the final council meeting of the term.

A Senators exec immediately denounced Watson’s statement, but in a classic non-denial denial:

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Nicolas Ruszkowski, the team’s chief operating officer, called Watson’s comments “disappointing and inaccurate.”

He said the two sides met at the city’s suggestion to talk about funding models, but when the city made it clear it didn’t want to be involved, the Senators moved on.

“Numerous options for the development of the site were discussed; including, for instance, the adoption of Edmonton’s arena development model. When informed that this was impossible, [Rendezvous LeBreton] moved on,” he said in a statement, adding Melnyk never demanded the city build an arena.

So the Edmonton model — which, as a reminder, involved more than $300 million in public cash, mostly from handing over property tax receipts from the entire area around the arena — “was discussed,” meaning somebody raised it. Then the mayor’s office informed Melnyk that that model wouldn’t work, and the mayor clearly wouldn’t have proposed it only to immediately un-propose it, so obviously it was Senators officials who asked about getting taxpayer money. But that’s not “demanding the city build an arena,” because it’s just different, okay?

Then Ruszkowski doubled down by saying that even though he would never have asked for tax dollars for the Senators, not giving them tax dollars is a double standard, because the city previously spent money on renovating its CFL stadium for the RedBlacks. That’s so unfair! Not giving Melnyk money that he would never think of asking for! The nerve of some people.

Senators owner gives up on building arena, sues development partner instead

When last we checked in with Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk back in April, he’d won a discounted deal to get land and development rights for a new downtown arena project at LeBreton Flats, but was stalling on actually starting building it because he called it a “tremendous risk.” And if you had “sue your development partners” next on your Eugene Melnyk bingo card, you’re a winner!

While people involved in the LeBreton negotiation have accused Melnyk of being the roadblock to landing a final development deal, Melnyk’s lawsuit claims he was kept in the dark about [Trinity Developments’ John] Ruddy’s development interest at 900 Albert St., across from the Bayview LRT station and near LeBreton Flats…

The lawsuit says Melnyk hired PricewaterhouseCoopers to look into the residential market and found the massive project at 900 Albert would “destroy the viability of the LeBreton project outright.” The market, according to the lawsuit’s description of the report, couldn’t support both projects.

That certainly sounds like Melnyk being a roadblock — “we don’t to build housing with our partner because they’re also building housing elsewhere” is a strange argument, especially since Ruddy would be effectively shooting himself in the foot as well. The Ottawa Citizen cites “three sources with direct knowledge of the negotiations” (without saying which side they’re on) as alleging that the Senators owner is just trying to get out of paying for an arena, while indicating that “no one is quite sure what Melnyk’s end-game is on LeBreton Flats.” Presumably by “no one” they didn’t include Melnyk himself, though given the man’s behavior so far, it’s always possible he has no idea what he’s doing either.

Whether this is good news or bad news for Ottawa residents depends on whether a developer can now be found for the site whose plan is something other than “get rights to the land, sit around complaining until someone else pays to build on it,” but presumably that won’t be too hard. It’s probably bad for Senators fans, who will have to keep shlepping out to the existing arena way out of town for games (or not, which has more often been the case), but that’s still arguably better than paying once for tickets and again for an arena with tax money, as seemed to be Melnyk’s goal.

Friday roundup: Senators owner stalling on arena commitment, Jaguars owner wants to buy Wembley, and gondolas, forever gondolas

As late as Wednesday, I thought this was turning out to be a slow news week. Then the news made up for it in a hurry:

  • The New York Islanders owners held a question-and-answer session for residents near their planned new arena on Tuesday, and when asked about how they plan to increase Long Island Railroad service to avoid tons of auto traffic, a state development official said, “We are in very active discussions with the LIRR — meeting with them once a week — and those talks are ramping up.” Hopefully they’re involving Dr. Strange in those discussions, because they badly need to find some new topological dimensions.
  • Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson says he plans to talk to Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk about whether he actually plans to pursue the LeBreton Flats arena development he won rights to last year, after Melnyk called it “a huge project with tremendous risk” and said, “If it doesn’t look good here, it could look very, very nice somewhere else, but I’m not suggesting that right now” and “Something’s got to break somewhere and I mean a positive break.” Melnyk has made threats like this before, but you’d think now that he has an agreed sale price for the land he’d be happy; it sure sounds like he’s angling for some additional public subsidies now that he has his mitts on the land, which you can’t really blame him for, since Watson opened the door to that already. Come on, mayor, haven’t you learned yet not to get the can opener out when the cat is around?
  • Tampa Bay Rays 2020, the group started by the Rays to push for business support for a new stadium, is signing up plenty of members, but DRaysBay notes that “the real test of commitment will come when businesses are asked to make clearer financial commitments to a stadium plan.” Yeah, no duh. (The subhead here, “Business leaders line up behind stadium plan, but financing questions linger,” is also a masterpiece of understatement.)
  • MLB commissioner Rob Manfred says that the Toronto Blue Jays‘ Rogers Centre “needs an update to make it as economically viable as possible,” noting that other stadiums “have millennial areas, things like that that have been built and become popular more recently.” So, like, an Instagram parlor?
  • Here’s a story about how 25 years ago the NHL handed Norman Green the rights to move the Minnesota North Stars to any open market as consolation for putting an expansion team in Anaheim, where he’d wanted to move, and he ended up going to Dallas. Also it has Roger Staubach in the headline for some reason.
  • And here’s a story about how 50 years ago NHL expansion inadvertently kicked off the rise of arena rock, which is probably overstated but it has links to vintage Cream videos in it, if you like that sort of thing.
  • Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan is in talks with the Football Association to buy London’s Wembley Stadium for £600 million, which is certain to raise eyebrows about the possibility of the Jags moving to London, but is probably for right now more about Fulham F.C., which Khan also owns, being about to get promoted to the Premier League and wanting a bigger place to play. Khan also said, “I think it needs investment and updating. Compared to American stadiums the video boards are something that need to be looked at. The lounges are a little bit dated.” The current Wembley Stadium was built in 2007.
  • The son of former disgraced Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt wants to build a gondola to take fans from Union Station to Dodger Stadium to avoid traffic. “It’s not actually crazy,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti insisted on Thursday, which, given that this is a city considering allowing Elon Musk to build a network of tunnels to whisk residents about via some unknown technology, maybe we should take that with a grain of salt.
  • San Diego State says its stadium plans could eventually be expanded to fit an NFL team, for a mere additional $750-$850 million. Most San Diegans responding to an internet poll (which means some San Diegans, some non-San Diegans, and some dogs) don’t think they’re getting an NFL team anytime soon, anyway.
  • The Port of Oakland has approved giving the Oakland A’s owners exclusive negotiating rights to develop Howard Terminal, which now gives the A’s exclusive rights to two possible stadium sites. As DRaysBay would say, financing questions linger.
  • NBA commissioner Adam Silver has toured the new Milwaukee Bucks arena and says it has “unique sight lines.” Hopefully he means that in a good way, though I’m still wondering about that “sky mezzanine level.”

Ottawa Senators owner threatens to threaten to move team, but not “right now”

And speaking of oblique move threats, Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk dropped some more on Friday:

“If it doesn’t look good here, it could look very, very nice somewhere else, but I’m not suggesting that right now. All I’m saying is that I would never sell the team.”

This isn’t anything new, as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman just said essentially the same thing last month, though it is new for Melnyk to say it quite so bluntly. Melnyk is still angling for final development rights (and a discounted price) for land for a new arena in Ottawa, and hinting at moving the team is always a good way to turn up the heat on that, except of course that the easiest alternative option would be Quebec, and he’d have to sell the team to have it go there since Quebecor wants to own any team that plays in its new arena, so that’s out if “would never sell the team” is a hard and fast rule. And Seattle is reportedly only being considered for an expansion franchise, so … Houston? Are we supposed to think that it looks “very, very nice” in Houston for the Ottawa Senators? It’d really help if team owners would be more specific about their threats, though I suppose being specific is exactly the opposite of the effect they’re shooting for.

It’s everybody threaten the Senators will leave Ottawa without a new arena week!

The Ottawa Senators story so far: Then-owner Rod Bryden built an arena in the suburbs in 1996 to be the anchor of a new retail district, then that didn’t work and he went bankrupt. Then new owner Eugene Melnyk decided in 2014 that what he really wanted was an arena downtown, blaming this on the suburban one not being “built to last,” and started angling for development rights to a plot of downtown land, which he got the rights to negotiate for last year. But Melnyk still needs to negotiate how much he’ll pay for those rights, plus whether he’ll get public money toward construction costs despite having promised that “no government money” would be involved, all of which means it’s high time for move threats! Levied by anyone other than Melnyk, because that’s the way this game works.

First up, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman:

“A new downtown arena is vitally important to the long-term future, stability and competitiveness of the Senators,” Bettman said. “The process is ongoing, but I think asking Mr. Melnyk or the Senators the status would be more appropriate than asking us.

“However, we believe there needs to be a solution for the long term.”

That’s a pretty oblique threat, admittedly — “vitally important” to the team’s “stability and competitiveness” could mean a lot of things, from the team leaving town to it just not making as much money as it might otherwise, I think? It’s a nice start, and why Bettman earns is salary, but really you want somebody to come right out and say — oh, hi, legendary hockey announcer Don Cherry:

“If they don’t put an arena downtown they’re gone,” Cherry said during Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday. “I think they’re just hanging on here in Ottawa, not drawing out, with a great team like that.”…

“If they’re not drawing out with that team… I say they’re gone, and I say they go to Quebec,” said Cherry.

The Senators are definitely not selling out despite a contending team, and the suburban location probably isn’t helping. Moving to Quebec, though, would require selling the team to Quebecor, the media giant that owns the management rights to Quebec’s arena and has said it wants to be the owner of any NHL team there. And Melnyk has been pretty adamant that the team is not for sale — even saying “the team is not for sale” and that he’s promised his daughter she can own it when he dies — so that doesn’t seem like a thing that is likely to happen.

More to the point, meanwhile, is that if the Senators need a new arena, they can build one right now: They have the land, and if a downtown venue would be so much more lucrative that it’d be worth the construction costs, then Melnyk can just go to a bank and borrow the money. Unless what Bettman et al are saying is that the only way it would pay off for the team is if Melnyk got public subsidies to help pay for it — either via a sweetheart lease or straight-up cash or tax breaks to pay for construction — in which case this isn’t actually “the Senators need a new downtown arena” so much as “the Senators owner is unhappy with how much money he’s making, and would appreciate it if someone would undo the previous owner’s mistake and build a new arena in a better location, please.”

As for how much money Melnyk is making, Forbes estimates the team turns a profit of a few million dollars a year, while the team is valued at $355 million, up from the $100 million that Melnyk paid for it in 2003 — an annualized return on investment of about 9.5%, thanks to the discounted sale price he got in part because of that whole bankruptcy thing and the lousy arena location.

Tl;dr version: Sports executives have a funny definition of “need.”

This week in boondoggle vivisection: Plenty of good seats available in SF, Cleveland, Ottawa

We’ll get to the weekly news roundup in a minute, but first, I need to mention this editorial from yesterday’s Globe and Mail, which makes several eminently reasonable points about how Calgary shouldn’t capitulate to the Flames owners’ extortion attempts for arena cash (“using past bad decisions to justify terrible future decisions does not qualify as logic,” “arena financing is a hamster wheel, and here is an opportunity to jump off”), and then says this:

Everyone involved should take note of a remark this week by Neil deMause, renowned stadium boondoggle vivisectionist and creator of the fieldofschemes.com website: “The number of mayors who’ve been voted out of office for standing up to sports team subsidy demands remains zero.”

That’s right, I am a major-newspaper-certified renowned boondoggle vivisectionist, y’all. Clearly it’s time to order some new business cards.

Okay, the rest of the week’s news:

  • The Los Angeles Rams aren’t the only California team having trouble getting fans to turn out for games in the September heat: The San Francisco 49ers are seeing so many empty seats on the sunny side of their stadium that they’ve hired architects to see if it’d be possible to add a sun shade. One problem: The stadium can’t get any taller, as it’s in the flight path of San Jose’s airport. Until then, the 49ers are handing out free water bottles and sunscreen to fans on the hot side of the stadium, which is nice and all, but probably isn’t what you want for your big marketing push. This once again points up how smart the 49ers management was to stick fans with PSLs before the team got lousy and people noticed how crappy the new stadium was for actually watching football in.
  • And speaking of empty seats, the Cleveland Indians won their American League–record 22nd straight game yesterday, but they still can’t sell out their ballpark, which not that long ago saw a record sellout streak of 455 straight games. Indians GM Mike Chernoff blamed Cleveland’s small size, the start of the school year, and “weekdays,” three things that apparently didn’t exist in the ’90s. At least he didn’t blame the 23-year-old stadium or demand upgrades as a solution — yet, anyway.
  • And also speaking of empty seats, the Ottawa Senators have begun tarping over part of their upper deck for every game, because they can’t sell tickets there. The Senators owner is already blaming his 21-year-old arena for that one (apparently the last owner built it in the wrong place), so team president Tom Anselmi was left to say: “We just need more of us to come to more games more often.” Can’t argue with that!
  • And also also speaking of empty seats, the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics have only sold about 5% of available tickets so far to actual fans (ticket brokers have bought up another 18%), with less than five months to go before the games start. If you’re looking to snap up a bargain to watch curling, though, be forewarned: Not all the new hotels planned for the Olympics are finished yet.
  • And speaking of seats that a team hopes won’t be empty, the Oakland A’s will be letting in fans for free to a game next April against the White Sox. Make jokes all you want about how dismal an A’s-White Sox matchup will be, it’s still free baseball, and you never know what you might see that you’ve never seen before.
  • NHL commissioner Gary Bettman declared that that the scaled-down Nassau Coliseum is “not a viable option” for the New York Islanders, two weeks before the team is set to present plans to Nassau County for a new arena near Belmont Park. A total coincidence, I’m sure.
  • The Rhode Island state senate started hearings on a new Pawtucket Red Sox proposal yesterday, with the team owners and their allies noting that “the team’s 54-percent share of stadium costs is the highest portion of private investment in 14 AA and AAA ballparks built over the last decade,” according to the Providence Journal. What was that someone was just saying about using bad decisions to justify terrible future decisions?
  • Deadspin’s Drew Magary has come up with a new nickname for the Atlanta Falcons‘ new iris-roofed stadium: Megatron’s Butthole. Drew Magary needs to be put in charge of all stadium nicknames, starting immediately.

Ottawa mayor says he’ll consider public money for arena that’s supposed to use no public money

And meanwhile, in Ottawa, where Senators owner Eugene Melnyk promised last year that he’d build a new arena and surrounding development with “no government money” … you know where the rest of this sentence is going already, don’t you?

Mayor Jim Watson isn’t ruling out investing public money into a downtown NHL arena at LeBreton Flats.

“I don’t know if they’re going to come forward and ask for any of those dollars,” the mayor told reporters after Wednesday’s council meeting. “Certainly I want to make sure that whatever happens there is to the benefit of the taxpayers of Ottawa.”…

While the mayor repeated that he wasn’t going “to speculate on something that hasn’t been asked,” it is the first time he has seemed open to the possibility of putting taxpayers money into the arena.

“My bottom line is, whatever is being asked from us, does it make sense and is there a return on our investment whether it be through property or development charges or the increased market value assessment of the property,” Watson said.

Yeah, you know, if you don’t want to speculate about something that hasn’t been asked, maybe openly speculating about it isn’t the best way to go about it. To be fair, Watson was probably asked about this by a reporter, and felt like he had to say something, and so he improvised a line about “return on investment” based on something he vaguely remembered Naheed Nenshi saying, and it ended up as a headline. So cut Mayor Paralipsis a break, okay? This whole talking-while-governing thing is hard.

Senators owner wins right to develop downtown Ottawa site, cost still TBD

Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk has won his battle with a rival developer for the federally owned LeBreton Flats site, the National Capital Commission awarding him exclusive negotiating rights to develop the 21.6-hectare (that’s 53 acres — you double it and add 30, or something) downtown site. If talks go well, and the federal government approves, then Melnyk would build a whole buncha stuff on the site, including a new Senators hockey arena to replace their old one, which is 20 whole years old but also in the middle of nowhere because their old owner was crazy.

If you’re ready carefully, meanwhile, you noticed that that’s just the right to negotiate to develop the site — still up in the air is how the money would work out, including how much Melnyk would pay for the development rights and whether the project would require any public cash, as he’s previously indicated. (He’s since said there would be “no government money that is going to be granted,” but that doesn’t preclude tax breaks or a discounted price on the land.) This could end being a good deal for Ottawa — if you want to develop undeveloped land, you’re going to need a developer — or a lousy one, depending on how details like that go, and also details like the development timeline, which could stretch as long as 30 years. Win-win or land grab to get a site for a new arena? They still need to talk about it. Meanwhile, are there renderings with beams of light streaming into the night sky? You betcha!

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Developer offers to sell imaginary arena to Senators for imaginary price

The private developer competing with Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk to build an arena (among other things) on the LeBreton Flats site now says it would consider allowing Melnyk to own the rink if that would make things easier:

“Our attitude is, if we win the bid – and we firmly believe that the Senators should be downtown – we’re there and we’re willing and able to have a variety of discussions,” said Daniel Peritz, Canderel senior vice-president and spokesman for the Devcore Canderel and DLS Group, in an interview.

When asked specifically if that included the Senators owning the arena, Peritz answered: “Under the right conditions, everything is on the table.”

Presumably Devcore wouldn’t build an arena and then just give it to Melnyk for free, so how much would he have to pay for it? And how much would he be willing to pay for it? There’s a hint of a hint elsewhere in the Ottawa Sun report:

Earlier in the day, Melnyk told Postmedia’s Bruce Garrioch that playing in a new downtown arena could mean as much as $10 million more for the Sens’ payroll, so the team “can spend more.”

Does that mean $10 million more after paying for arena construction? Because if not, a new arena sounds like a pretty crappy investment, since it would cost around $500 million to build and only produce $10 million a year in new revenue. And even if that’s net gain, it’s a pretty marginal return on that kind of investment — Melnyk would be better off just putting his money in a mutual fund. (Okay, not the past few months, but in the long term.)

The takeaway here, as always, is follow the money. Once somebody has any idea how to pay for all this, it’s worth taking seriously. Until then, it’s not even pretty pictures.