NY Times real estate section says exactly what it always says about everything, everywhere

The New York Times real estate section has a long piece up today about plans for a new D.C. United stadium, because … actually, I’m not sure why. The New York Times real estate section usually focuses on, you know, New York, and even if the D.C. council is voting on the United stadium plan today, it seems a bit outside the usual bounds, but, you know, whatever.

The article itself interviews the owner of D.C. United, the owner of the development company that owns the stadium land, D.C.’s planning director, D.C.’s incoming mayor, and one woman who lives in the planned stadium neighborhood, presumably for local color. My Vice Sports colleague Aaron Gordon has put together a Storify detailing all the flaws in this piece, but seriously, people, it’s a New York Times real estate section article. This is not, and never has been, journalism; it’s a service provided to realtor advertisers that dutifully identifies which neighborhoods real estate professionals are trying to hype as up-and-coming, enabling them to sell more housing there at inflated prices, and thus plow more money back into ads in the Times real estate section. It’s a win-win! Unless you 1) rent in a neighborhood thus targeted or 2) prefer to have news in your newspaper, but those people will be crushed like grapes by the tide of history, right?

Anyway, if you insist on reading the article beyond the “Real Estate” slug at the top, Gordon’s Storify is a worthwhile corrective. But really, you have better uses for your time. How about this article on how economic inequality is helping to drive the Uber economy? Or one about how ground squirrels are accelerating global warming? I never did like the look of those guys.

Missouri governor to announce task force to decide how much ransom to pay Rams not to move

After months of silence on both sides, Gov. Jay Nixon will hold a media conference call Wednesday to discuss the Rams’ stadium situation and the next step towards keeping the team in St. Louis.

Oh boy oh boy I can hardly wait—

Expectations are that there will be no specific details on the stadium plan discussed in the conference call, but according to sources familiar with the situation, such plans will be made public by the end of the calendar year.

It is expected, however, that Nixon will talk about formation of a committee or task force to deal with the stadium issue.

Aw man, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, come on, spoilers!

There’s actually been relatively little action on the Rams stadium front since the city/county/state-controlled tourism board decided to tear up the team’s old lease the summer before last rather than give the franchise $700 million in required improvements, the legacy of the worst lease ever. (You can either interpret that as team owner Stan Kroenke waiting on public officials to make him an offer, or on him biding his time until he can move to Los Angeles, take your pick.) If nothing else, Nixon’s announcement is expected to kick off the official start of stadium dickering season, marked as always by a long, pointless Ken Belson article in the New York Times.

(For those new to this site and unfamiliar with the oeuvre of Ken Belson: Here, read up.)

The latest exercise in Belsonism wanders around through the obvious (Kroenke wants a new stadium, stadiums are expensive, voters don’t like spending money on stadiums), before arriving at what could be a point, kind of, about the possibility of the Rams relocating to L.A.:

“If they do it properly, it’s hard to see how the Rams would qualify to relocate under existing league rules,” Marc Ganis, a consultant to several N.F.L. teams, said of the governor’s task force.

The league’s relocation guidelines designed to prevent teams from moving willy-nilly are extensive. When other owners consider whether to let a team move, they look at whether a team is profitable, received public financing and made credible attempts to build or refurbish its stadium. According to Forbes, the Rams are worth $930 million, the least of any N.F.L. team, yet they generated $16.2 million in operating income last year. At least three-quarters of the owners must approve any relocation.

Yes, the NFL has rules on the books saying that it has to give existing home cities a chance to keep the team, but be serious — this is mostly just an exercise in butt-covering, so that they can justify any relocations on the grounds of “The old city didn’t mount a serious offer.” (Or to help shake down cities for serious offers. Take your pick.) If the other NFL owners decide that it’d be a good thing for Kroenke to move the Rams to L.A. — which will mostly depend on whether Kroenke thinks it’s a good idea to move the Rams to L.A., which will depend on whether he can get a better stadium deal in L.A. than in St. Louis, which right now looks doubtful but it depends on what kind of St. Louis offer has to be beat — they’re not going to let any stinking bylaws get in their way. C’mon, Marc Ganis, you’re the next best thing to an official NFL economic consultant, you should know that.

If nothing else, at least this article adds to our long list of crazy things Ken Belson has put into print, with:

The owners will have to weigh many other factors, including whether a team in Los Angeles will hurt the Chargers in San Diego, and whether abandoning St. Louis, the country’s 21st-largest television market and home to several big sponsors, will hurt the league.

That’s right, the New York Times’ chief sports business writer has wondered aloud whether leaving St. Louis for Los Angeles will hurt TV contracts and sponsorships. It is truly a strange and wonderous world we live in.

NY Times version of Braves stadium story: County considered public vote, it didn’t happen, the end

How to soft-pedal affronts to democracy, New York Times edition:

Tim Lee, the Cobb County chairman who steered negotiations with the [Atlanta] Braves, said Tuesday a vote had been considered for the 700,000 residents of a county historically cautious about government spending. Ultimately, there was no referendum, just an agreement that the county chip in about 45 percent of the actual construction cost, with the Braves picking up the rest.

Not mentioned in this story of a county considering a referendum but “ultimately” having one quashed by the passive voice: The Cobb commissioner who said that a referendum on a $300 million stadium subsidy would be too expensive because it would “cost taxpayers 300, 400 thousand dollars.” Not to mention the part where any public agitation for a referendum was avoided by having county commissioners hide in hallways so that the deal could be announced just two weeks before the commission’s vote. The Times really should have gone with one of the alternate slogans.

Milwaukee paper: Bucks will leave town without new arena, according to someone we won’t tell you who it is

The inimitable Don Walker had an article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel over the weekend that is ostensibly about how if the Bucks don’t have a new arena in place by October 2017, the NBA can buy back the team and move it elsewhere. We’ve known about that buyback clause since April, though — Walker’s story moves up the deadline by a month, but in the grand scheme of things, that’s insignificant.

No, the real news here is the introduction of one of the first new sports venue strategies in the last 20 years: the ghost threat.

Some quick backstory: Sports team owners go into stadium and arena battles with a quandary, which is that their best leverage is to threaten that the team will move without subsidies for a new building, but at the same time outright threatening to move the team is not the best way to win friends among the politicians and voters who you’re asking for money. One way around this is to proclaim something along the lines of, “The last thing we want is for this team to leave town.” (In the book Field of Schemes, we dubbed this the non-threat threat, though if we’d had hotlinks available we might have gone with the paratrooper gambit.) Another is to have league officials make the threat on your behalf, because that’s what league officials are for.

Walker’s story, though, breaks new ground by having the threat levied not by a mock-hesitant owner or the NBA commissioner, but by someone who won’t even give their name:

“The date is in the provision as part of the sale agreement,” [a source familiar with the Bucks lease deal] said. “It’s written as such. When you get to the point where (a new arena) is not going to happen, (moving) will have to be discussed at that point.”

There is no shortage of cities waiting to become one of 30 with an NBA franchise: Las Vegas, Kansas City, Louisville and Seattle have been mentioned as suitors, even new markets in Canada. And there seems to be no shortage of wealthy people willing to secure a franchise; Steve Ballmer paid $2 billion for the Los Angeles Clippers.

“[Bucks owners] Marc [Lasry] and Wes [Edens] have no intention of moving the team whatsoever,” said the source. “But they understand that a new arena is a significant necessity for the ongoing success of the franchise, which is to have a state-of-the-art facility that rivals their counterparts.”

This is precisely the kind of use of unnamed sources — to allow the source to put across his or her message in the media without actually having to be accountable for it — that has led to widespread criticism of the overuse of anonymity in the U.S. media. In fact, Walker’s article arguably violates the Journal-Sentinel’s own ethics policy, which states:

Except in unusual circumstances, we should allow anonymity only when the source has a legitimate fear of suffering harm or reprisals if identified. We should not allow anonymous sources to make personal attacks; criticisms of character should be stated on the record. We will characterize anonymous sources as completely as possible so that readers can make judgments about their authority, expertise or bias.

Clearly someone putting forth the NBA company line doesn’t have a “legitimate fear” of reprisal if it’s a league source, though “unusual circumstances” is a pretty big loophole. Likewise, saying “a source close to the deal” isn’t much of a complete characterization, since there’s no way for readers to tell whether this is someone with the Bucks, the league, the city of Milwaukee, or what.

Walker’s article, sadly, isn’t that unusual — the use of unnamed sources is widespread, even in places where it’s not necessary. But allowing an unnamed source to levy a move threat, without having to put on the record who’s making the threat, is new to the sports venue game.

Meanwhile, neither Walker nor anyone else in the Milwaukee media has investigated the question that’s been hanging out there since spring: Did Lasry and Edens (and former Bucks owner Herb Kohl) conspire with the NBA to insert that buyback clause into the lease, to give them better leverage in gaining subsidies for a new arena? It would take more actual investigation than making a phone call and saying, “Sure, I’ll print what you say without putting your name in the paper,” but it’s kind of what we have newspapers for, you know?

184 Chargers fans want a publicly funded stadium, TV station calls this “split” support

I have a busy day today (more on that … Thursday, looks like), so fortunately it was a slow news weekend around here. Though we did get an exceptionally stupid poll, courtesy of KGTV in San Diego:

The issue over how a new stadium for the San Diego Chargers would be funded continues to be divisive, according to a new KGTV poll released this week.

When asked if public money should be used to finance a new stadium, 36 percent responded yes, 47 percent said no and 17 percent were unsure.

That’s a bit worse than “divisive” — an 11-point deficit is “opposition” in most people’s book, even for polls with high margins of error. But more to the point, who was being polled, exactly?

The 15-question poll was conducted by SurveyUSA. 510 fans were polled for each question.

No indication how “fans” was defined (probably “people who answered ‘yes’ to ‘Are you a Chargers fan?’ on a robocall“), but still, if you take this poll seriously, the most reasonable takeaway would be: Even Chargers fans are mostly opposed to public money being used for a Chargers stadium. Still a stupid poll, then, but even stupider article reporting on it.

Yup, media still suck at covering sports stadium subsidy debates

If I link to an article and only quote the part that quotes me, that’s not narcissism, it’s repurposing, right? I’m going with repurposing.

Anyway, David Uberti of the Columbia Journalism Review has an article up today about how local journalists drop the ball on covering sports stadium subsidy debates, a topic that you know is near and dear to my heart. After discussing how the Buffalo media has largely skipped over the question of whether the city should help fund a new Bills stadium in lieu of the question of where to build it — something that’s devolved into self-parody at this point — Uberti asks me why the hell this is:

“You might end up with sportswriters covering this, whose eyes glaze over when they see an economic-impact report,” said deMause, who co-authored a book, Field of Schemes, on the topic. “Or you have news people handling it, who might be able to handle the economic aspects, but they can easily get distracted by the sports aspect of this.”

He added, “When you have to fight against the fact that nobody has this issue as their beat, no one has the time. It’s easy to cover it in a very surfacey way.”

The CJR piece also cites some other friends of FoS (correspondent Bob Trumpbour of Penn State Altoona and Holy Cross economist Victor Matheson, among others), and is well worth reading for a reminder of how the news media really isn’t helping promote more intelligent public discourse on stadium issues. Though I’d still love to see an article digging into the dynamics of why individual reporters who get assigned to these stories end up punting on the bigger issues — lack of time, lack of expertise, lack of editorial support. Hey, David, I’ll race you to it!

NY Times still asking if the Olympics pay off, five years after answering own question

The New York Times investigated the pressing question of “Does Hosting the Olympics Actually Pay Off?” this week, and discovered exactly the same thing everyone else ever has found: There’s pretty much zero evidence that any Olympics has helped any city, ever, anywhere.

Even though Brazil, like other recent hosts, has sought to make stadium spending more palatable by also building general infrastructure, like highways and airports, the public would derive the same benefit at far less cost if the transportation projects were built and the stadiums were not. The Los Angeles Olympics were successful, after all, because planners avoided building new stadiums. Barcelona, long neglected under the rule of Francisco Franco, was in the midst of a renaissance that would have probably occurred without the Olympics.

Organizers and their supporters routinely neglect what economists call “opportunity costs” — in this case, what might have happened if a country didn’t host the Games. In some of the world’s most expensive cities, perhaps the greatest opportunity cost is the loss of scarce and valuable real estate. While many facilities remain in use after the Games or are converted for new purposes, quite a few sit virtually as empty as the original in Olympia, Greece. Tourists can ride a Segway around the Bird’s Nest in Beijing for $20.

Similarly, it’s misleading to calculate how much money is spent in a city during the Olympics. A fair comparison requires some estimate of how much would have been spent without them. When the Games come, after all, other kinds of tourism go. During the 2012 Games, the Adelphi Theatre in London’s West End suspended performances of “Sweeney Todd.” The British Museum received 480,000 visitors that August, down from 617,000 the previous year. Indeed, Britain received about 5 percent fewer foreign visitors in August 2012 than it did in the same month the previous year. Those who showed up spent more, sure, but London spent billions of dollars to lure them. “If Boston hosts the 2024 Olympics, there’s no doubt that [the city] is going to be overrun with sports tourists,” said Victor Matheson, an economist at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. “But Boston is already overrun with tourists in the summer.”

The article is actually a good overview of all the reasons why the Olympics are a massive money suck for host cities, but having the headline in the form of a question is pretty unforgivable — especially when the Times’ “Room for Debate” page asked the exact same question five years ago and came to the exact same conclusions. Here’s a suggestion for the next Times investigative story: “Can Overwhelming Evidence Get the Times to Make a Declarative Statement Even When It Might Anger Powerful People?” It would work just as well under Betteridge’s Law!

Sports on Earth blows up real good

Sorry for the lack of news posts yesterday, but I had some other stuff to work on in the morning, then news broke that Sports on Earth, where I’ve written 2-3 times a month since last fall, was shutting down. Also not shutting down. Actually pretty much shutting down after all, even if the site will live on in name only.

This sucks for me as a journalist, because under editor Larry Burke, SoE had become a terrific place to explore important topics in-depth, and get paid an actual living wage while doing so. But it also sucks for me as a reader, because now I won’t be able to read all the great work being done by Patrick Hruby and Jeb Lund and Howard Megdal and … I’m going to stop there before I start worrying about who I’m leaving out, but so many other talented sportswriters who are suddenly out of a job. Or rather, I’m sure I’ll still get to read them somewhere, but not all in one place, and probably not with as much freedom to explore the nooks and crannies of the sports world as they were afforded at SoE.

Anyway, for the immediate future the bulk of my sportswriting will be here, though I do have one article in the pipeline for another outlet. Thanks to all of my supporters for helping pay the bills so I can devote time to this site (if you’d like to become one, that’s what this hotlink is for), and thanks to every Field of Schemes reader for reading, and commenting, and retweeting, and all that good stuff.

And now for the news…

Buffalo op-ed says new Bills owners could threaten selves with moving team

Yesterday’s Buffalo News had an op-ed by an economic development consultant about building a new Bills stadium, and “op-ed by an economic development consultant” should tell you all you need to know about it. But I just want to call attention to it to show how op-eds can make it into the newspaper without making a damn bit of sense. Follow the bouncing logic here:

The Bills’ new owner will likely have to come up with at least $1 billion. The average NFL team is worth $1.17 billion, according to a 2013 Forbes analysis.

Yes, NFL teams are super expensive, because they’re super valuable. Even in Buffalo.

Once a deal is struck and the NFL approves, the new owner will have to deal with the expensive – and politically sensitive – issue of a new stadium.

Okay, “need” is a bit strong, since the Bills’ current stadium is already getting $130 million in taxpayer-funded renovations, but certainly if they want a new stadium they’ll need to deal with the politics of it.

But NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wants more. He told ESPN that without a new stadium, the Bills might leave.

Oh, okay, so if the new Bills owners don’t get a new stadium, then the team might get moved … by the new Bills owners. So they totally have to deal with this, because there’s nothing so awful as spending $1 billion on an NFL team and then having your own self threaten to move the team out from under you.

There is a teeny point here somewhere, which I suppose would go something like “Whoever buys the Bills for $1 billion is going to want to maximize their profits, and the best way to do that might be to move the team to a bigger market, even though market size in the NFL doesn’t matter much and there are no huge markets with NFL stadiums ready to go, and Roger Goodell will stand behind them on any such threat.” But that’s not what this op-ed says at all, which makes you wonder who at the Buffalo News is bothering to vet submissions for making any damn sense. Unless, I suppose, making any damn sense is less important than espousing opinions that don’t anger the powers that be. Nah, couldn’t be that.

If you want to sell a sports subsidy plan, state it in terms of cups of coffee

There was yet another Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel column arguing for public funding for a Bucks arena on Friday, and I wouldn’t even take notice, but columnist James E. Causey brought back the dreaded coffee analogy:

The annual cost to regional taxpayers for Miller Park is about $10, or the cost of two venti Caramel Macchiatos at the local Starbucks.

Even if the figure was $25 a year, it still would be a bargain.

Pricing stadium costs in cups of coffee has a long tradition, most notably back in 2005 when it was the Minnesota Twins seeking public subsidies, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Jim Souhan wrote approvingly, “Twins owner Carl Pohlad will pay $125 million. You’ll pay less than you leave in the tip jar at Dunn Bros.” (That’s a coffee place, FYI.) The problem — other than that the annual cost of Miller Park is repeated over 30 years, so really every man, woman, and child in the Milwaukee area (Causey divides by total population, not just adult taxpayers) is out $300 — is that you can do this trick with just about any public expense you can think of and make it sound reasonable:

Anyway, the point isn’t that big expenditures spread over enough people average out to a small amount — though no doubt writers like Causey are counting on readers’ innumeracy to obscure that realization. (He also buries deep in his article the news that a Bucks arena would cost more like $25 per person per year, or five Macchiatos.) The point should be what else could you be doing with that money. For the estimated $250 million cost of a new arena, Milwaukee could open another 19 libraries, or provide financial aid to an additional 18,000 college students, or, if you prefer, cut the average Milwaukee homeowner’s property taxes by $284 a year.

Not that any of these are necessarily the best uses of $250 million. But you’re talking about how to spend public money, you need to be comparing apples to apples, not to Macchiatos.