Yard Goats stadium sparking literally dozens of hotel-room conversions, yay?

Next in today’s rundown of questionable media spin, the Hartford Courant is reporting that “the city’s shiny new minor league ballpark has dramatically transformed what for decades was a just barren stretch of land north of downtown.” How dramatically? This dramatically:

The owners of the nearby Radisson Hotel are combining guest rooms on the top nine floors of the 18-story hotel into apartments. The $19.5 million project will create 96 rentals, some of which will overlook Dunkin’ Donuts Park. The first apartments are expected to be ready by this summer.

Hotel owner Inner Circle U.S. said the apartment project was planned prior to the plans for the stadium, but the ballpark helped sell the idea of rentals to Inner Circle’s lenders.

VERDICT: I do not think that word “dramatically” means what you think it means. Building a new sports facility may not have the kind of economic impact that sports team owners pretend it does, but it does have some, and “making the hotel-to-rental-apartment conversion that developers already had in the works marginally more marketable” is just about perfectly the size of it. Downtown Hartford is starting to draw more interest from renters with money, but that’s thanks to the Great Inversion, not anything to do with sports, and certainly not a minor-league baseball stadium that until recently wasn’t certain ever to open.

That said, I am eagerly awaiting the chance to take in a Yard Goats game this summer. I will almost certain make it a day trip from New York City, and will probably stop for pizza or falafel in New Haven. My footprint on the Hartford economy will be exceedingly light, but if some millennials want a view from their apartments of my car pulling in and out of the stadium parking lot, more power to them.

Only thing standing between Indianapolis and MLS is meeting league’s stadium extortion demands

It’s a hectic Monday morning, and time for a quick game of “What have been newspapers been spinning inappropriately this weekend?” First up, the Indianapolis Star:

Unless the General Assembly finds surprise funding for a new stadium in the coming days, Indy Eleven has no discernible path to join America’s premier professional soccer league.

VERDICT: Yes, but… There’s no reason MLS can’t approve Indy Eleven as an expansion franchise without a new stadium — as recently as two years ago there was talk about the team owners settling for upgrades on their current stadium — except that the league is dedicated to a business model based on “bring us a $150 million check and some new stadium blueprints, and you’re cool.” A more accurate report would have been something along the lines of “Indy Eleven is ready to make the leap, but MLS is holding out for stadium subsidies” — but that would have made the sports league the bad guys instead of the politicians, and this is a business column and team owner Ersal Ozdemir is a major local businessman, so.

St. Louis mayor says Blues arena needs $70m to keep wrestling finals, but what does math say?

I spend a fair amount of time here ragging on media outlets that go out of their way to parrot the arguments made by sports team owners and their political allies on behalf of stadium and arena subsidies. But it’s also instructive to stop and take a look at a more routine kind of media bias: the kind where journalists do their basic job of reporting the facts, but stop short of the most important step, actually explaining to readers what those facts mean.

For today’s punching bag, I present reporter Austin Huguelet of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, whose entirely competent article on St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay asking the state of Missouri for subsidies to his city’s hockey arena (or the Blues‘ hockey arena that is on the city’s books, if you prefer) included the following:

A proposal from Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, would allow the state to contribute up to $6 million per year to upgrading the St. Louis Blues’ 23-year-old home ice, which officials say needs urgent fixes if it is to continue attracting top-flight sporting events and concerts…

Without the money, Jack Stapleton of St. Louis Sports Commission said Scottrade could lose out on events like the wrestling championships to better equipped facilities with better public support.

“The competition is stiff,” he said. “We are going to up against a lot of cities with newer buildings with public funding.”

He listed Louisville, Chicago and Oklahoma City as examples.

Proponents also offered an array of statistics to support the bid. A report prepared by Johnson Consulting and given to legislators said Scottrade has generated nearly $170 million per year in spending from visitors and an average of about $11 million in annual tax revenue for the state.

So far, so good, though it’d be nice to explain who Johnson Consulting is or what their track record is for economic projections for their other consulting projects. (One example from this site’s archives: Johnson’s prediction of hotel stays due to Austin’s new convention center ended up being overly optimistic by more than 25%.) But more to the point, let’s connect the dots between the first and last figures in that story: The state is being asked for $6 million a year in subsidies in order to avoid hurting an arena that produces $11 million a year in state tax revenues. Unless the wrestling championships are a huge chunk of the arena’s business, that seems like a pretty terrible return on Missouri’s investment — taxpayers would be far better off letting Louisville have the damn wrestling and keeping their $6 million a year for other, more economically productive uses.

Sure, there are other benefits to having the shiniest arena on the block. (Though there are also other downsides that aren’t reported here, like the roughly equal amount of money that the city of St. Louis would be putting up under the Blues owners’ proposal.) But still, this is one of the huge drawbacks of a media industry that sees its job merely as accurately reporting what elected officials and business leaders say, not exploring whether it makes any damn sense. Doing basic math isn’t bias, and neither is investigating the bona fides of the institutions you’re reporting on — though both take time, something that’s increasingly in short supply at newsrooms stripped to the bone in response to declining revenues (and demand for higher profits). So my sincere sympathies to Huguelet and his ilk, but if you have a moment to spare, please try to up your game some next time, okay? Little things like an informed public and the fate of democracy depend on it.

 

It’s not just Sheldon Adelson’s paper running crappy articles on the Raiders stadium plan

I, along with pretty much everyone else, have been extremely critical of the Las Vegas Review-Journal for its coverage of the $950 million Raiders stadium subsidy proposal being pursued by the paper’s owner, Sands casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson. But as I always try to point out, there’s plenty of bad journalism out there being committed by news outlets that don’t have an overt conflict of interest, and today it’s the Las Vegas Sun’s turn. Here’s the lede on today’s Sun story on whether Nevada will call a special session to vote on the stadium subsidy:

It’s that time of year again: The only thing standing between Nevada and what many would see as an economic-development win is a legislative deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

In 2014, it was Tesla. In 2015, Faraday. This year, an NFL stadium.

That’s bad, for starters, because of the way it contorts itself to paint a Raiders stadium (plus the equally problematic Tesla and Faraday subsidy deals) as a big win that’s being held up by legislative red tape. (“What many would see,” seriously?) But it’s also bad because the article contains a bunch of interesting information about what’s going on behind the special-session talks, all of which it buries:

  • “Sands executives have said they’ve been in touch with lawmakers daily — sometimes two or three times a day — in an effort to woo their approval of [a special session this month].” That’s a crazy amount of lobbying, and would seem to demand asking legislators if they’ve really been getting daily calls from Adelson’s people,  investigations of how much Adelson is spending on lobbyists, and so on. None of that appears in the article, which is mostly he-said-she-said stuff running down who seems to be leaning towards or against approving the special session.
  • “There’s also concern about the impact voting for the stadium could have on the outcome of the election itself. Republican Assemblyman Ira Hansen, who is running unopposed in his race in Northern Nevada, pointed to a recent KTNV/Rasmussen Poll that showed 55 percent of Clark County voters oppose pledging up to $500 million in public funds to the stadium. ‘The polls I’ve seen in Southern Nevada are about 50-50,’ Hansen said. ‘Politically, this could hurt somebody running for re-election.'” Does Hansen have access to some other polls, or does he really think that 55%-35% opposition is “about 50-50”?
  • And way down at the bottom of the story: “A two-thirds vote in both houses would be needed to raise the room tax, so 42 legislators need to be on board. If that doesn’t happen, Plan B is to punt the decision to the Clark County Commission. Legislators could pursue a permissive vote, which would only need a simple majority, and pass the tax-increase vote along to the seven-member county commission, which would need to pass it with a two-thirds majority.” So if the legislature can’t get a two-thirds majority, it can punt it to the county, which only needs five commissioners to say “yes” to make this happen? Where do the county commissioners stand on this? Sorry, story’s over, check back tomorrow.

I don’t mean to pick on the author of the Sun story too much (though she should be picked on some), since she was probably just assigned to get the temperature of the state legislature, not to actually write a story explaining the more important details of what’s going on. Still, that none of her bosses read this and said, “Nice first draft, now flesh it out by answering some of the questions that it raises” is a pretty depressing indictment of the state of journalism today.

As Raiders unveil stadium pics, reporters told to ask subsidy questions, keep answers secret (UPDATED)

I have a big stack of news items that I’m going to be playing catchup with all week, but I’m still on the road one more day, so that infodump will need to wait till Tuesday at the earliest. Instead, here’s the latest rendering released by the Oakland Raiders ownership of a possible new stadium in Las Vegas: raiders-vegas-stadium-frontAs stadium watchers and journalists alike immediately noticed, this bears a striking resemblance to the stadium that the Raiders and San Diego Chargers were going to build in Carson, California:
raiders-carson-rendering-08-26-16There’s even the return of the giant Al Davis eternal flame that was originally proposed for Carson, then scrapped because it was just so stupid:

raiders-stadium-vegas-flameWhy cut-and-paste old designs into a new site, especially when you don’t even know which Vegas site it might be? Momentum, duh: This enables Raiders owner Mark Davis and his investment partners Sheldon Adelson and Majestic Realty to make it feel like this thing is going to get built, look, we have pictures of it, rather than having the Nevada public’s main image be of a pile of burning money. It’s the same reason why Davis filed for the trademark “Las Vegas Raiders” and released new stadium spending estimates stressing his own share of costs, even if they were misleading (he’s still failing to mention the roughly $250 million in tax increment kickbacks that Majestic has insisted are necessary for the project) and failed basic math (of a now-$1.9 billion total cost, the state would kick in $750 million in hotel-tax revenues and the private developers would put up $1.25 billion, which wait, what?).

If this stadium does happen, those almost certainly won’t be the final spending numbers, and these almost certainly won’t be what the stadium looks like. But it’s a lot easier to make a deal look like a fait accompli when you have hard numbers and actual drawings, even if those are just things you made up knowing you’ll change them later. It’s the clear plastic binder all over again.

And all this is aided and abetted, meanwhile, by having one of the stadium developers own the biggest newspaper in town, which allows for media manipulation like this jaw-dropping one revealed by Ralston Reports:

Reporters for Sheldon Adelson’s newspaper have been told to ask candidates if they support public money for the stadium proposed by the Las Vegas Sands chairman but that the Las Vegas Review-Journal will not actually publish the answers.

This astonishing request was made in a memo two weeks ago from Assistant City Editor Don Ham:

All of you who are handling state Senate, state Assembly and Clark County Commission races for the tab should make sure to ask this very timely question of the candidates. This question is NOT going to be added to the question asked of candidates for the online election package, though. Should public money, in the form of room taxes, be used to build a proposed stadium in Las Vegas. Why or why not? Any questions, see me. Thanks.

The leading theory here is that Adelson, who owns the Review-Journal, is intent on using the paper’s reporters to gather intelligence on where candidates stand on his stadium subsidy proposal, without actually using any of that information to, you know, inform readers. This would be far from the worst abuse of power by Adelson involving his newspaper holdings, but only because he’s set the bar so very high.

UPDATE: The Review-Journal’s managing editor writes in to say that the stadium questions were too for publication, just for publication in a different part of the paper. I’ll add further updates if I can ferret out whose interpretation of events makes a damn bit of sense.

People love living near stadiums, says paper devoted to saying people love living places

The New York Times real estate section chimes in on stadiums today, which is great news, because it means we can explore the bastion of weirdness that is the New York Times real estate section. First off, let’s hit the checklist: Does the article boast of a hot new neighborhood or neighborhoods that savvy buyers should be aware of? Check!

Once considered neighborhoods to avoid, property around many of Europe’s great soccer stadiums is growing more popular these days, as cities grow more expensive and teams build new facilities. Home buyers are finding bargains near stadiums and developers see opportunities to create new urban communities.

Does it do so by exclusively quoting realtors, developers, and happy residents of these areas? You bet it does: five realtors, one developer, and two residents. Does it describe the featured neighborhoods of having some nebulous trendiness that can’t be measured, only felt? Of course!

“There is a buzz about the place,” Mr. Spooner said. “People come here to have a good time.”

And most of all, does it eventually undermine its own premise with counterevidence, but bury that way at the end of the article so that readers (and the headline writer) can ignore it? You betcha! First it notes that “prices are often lower than in other neighborhoods” (which is noted as an attraction, but is also an indication that living near a stadium isn’t actually seen as that desirable), then the whole premise comes crashing down when the scene shifts to Barcelona and Rome:

Barcelonians are fanatical for Barça, but they are not necessarily eager to live near Camp Nou, the team’s stadium, said Joan Canela, of the Engel & Völkers Barcelona office.

“None of our clients demand to be near the stadium,” he said. The stadium “hurts value, because it is an area that becomes very crowded when there is a match, is complicated to park and the neighbors may have problems to access to their homes,” Mr. Canela said…

Barbara Maravalli, 42, rents a three-bedroom apartment with her husband and two children about half a mile from [Rome’s] Stadio Olimpico. “It played absolutely no role in my choice,” she said. “I wanted to be close to the center and surrounded by green areas.”

On game days there are “crazy” traffic jams in the area, Ms. Maravelli said. Her 20-minute drive to work can take an hour if she does not plan carefully. “I would rather they move the stadium, but I love this area so much that I would keep on staying here,” she said.

Add it all up, and you have: A bunch of realtors trying to sell or rent apartments around some of Europe’s big soccer stadiums say they’re a great deal; as for actual residents, some like being near stadiums, some don’t. That’s not actually a story at all, but in Times Real Estate land, it’s more than enough to warrant a headline like “Stadium Neighborhoods Are Becoming Magnets for Home Seekers,” which who knows, might even help stoke interest in those areas, as a Times R.E. mention has been known to do. It happened to Bushwickit’ll happen to you!

 

Report: Economists, team owners disagree on whether stadium subsidies are a good thing

Hey, it’s another “longform” article mulling over stadium subsidies! This time it’s in the Atlantic, headlined, “Is There a Better Way to Build a Stadium?” An excellent question, albeit one that raises suspicions of Betteridge’s Law being at work here, but let’s see what author Alana Semuels has to say:

It has become widely accepted that publicly-financed sports stadiums are a bad deal for cities.

Well, yeah. The only example given here is the St. Louis Rams deal, which was indeed bad but is by no means definitive, but subsidies are long and online attention spans are short, so let’s move on to the nut graf:

What’s different in the case of Milwaukee? Either a whole lot, or nothing, depending on who you ask.

Oh, lord, this isn’t going to be a he-said-she-said “there are opinions on both sides” article, is it?

Next up is a quote from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on the Bucks deal (“we think this is a good, solid move as a good steward of the taxpayers’ money here in Wisconsin”), then a counter from economist Victor Matheson (“There is a fairly big deal of hypocrisy going on particularly in Milwaukee Bucks case”), plus a cite of studies showing bad returns on public spending on stadiums and arenas. Then a confusing discussion of tax-exempt bonds (“Public financing for stadiums came about as Congress tried to limit deals that allowed private entities to profit from tax-exempt bonds,” wait, what?), then “it’s possible that the Bucks, and other teams, have learned something from the public antipathy towards public financing of arenas.” Learned how?

The team isn’t just using public funds to build an arena for itself; it is also pledging to build a seven-story parking structure alongside the arena with mixed-use retail on the ground floor and an apartment complex on the eastern side. It has hired a design team for a block of entertainment, retail, and commercial spaces, and hopes to begin building that area next year, according to spokesman Jake Suski. The team is also the master developer for the entire 27-acre development, which may someday include bars, restaurants, a public plaza, and eventually office space, multifamily housing, and a hotel.

Yeah, that’s not new at all — team owners have been building ancillary development next to sports venues for so long that I’ve already come up with and abandoned a nickname for them. (“Kitchen-sink plans,” because they throw in everything but — you can see why I abandoned it.) Then there’s lots of back and forth about whether this can work out well (conclusion: maybe), and finally a Milwaukee law professor saying, “I remain a skeptic.” And FIN.

This isn’t even an example of Betteridge’s Law so much as an example of an article that sets out to answer a question, then throws up its hands halfway through, because hell, people disagree on the answer. Admittedly, one side is the people who stand to reap a fortune in subsidies — more than $500 million, a figure that is not even hinted at in the Atlantic article, which apparently either doesn’t consider tax breaks to be subsidies or just takes Walker’s word on how much the subsidies are worth — and the other is just about every economist and independent investigator on earth, but hey, who are we as journalists to say who’s right? One thing’s for certain: No one knows.

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.

Tampa Bay Times really can’t stop cheerleading for a new Rays stadium, can it?

Monday morning, and time for Bad Journalism Theater! Let’s get right to it with our first contestant, the Tampa Bay Times, “winner of 10 Pulitzer prizes”:

As the Tampa Bay Rays broaden their search for stadium sites, the 23 acres under the Tampa Park Apartments have emerged as a promising possibility. … But behind the scenes, the complex’s nonprofit owner is embroiled in a 2-year-old lawsuit it filed against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. And HUD officials wonder whether the case has its roots in the property’s potential value to the Rays.

There’s nothing wrong with the reporting here — all of the above is accurate. But the framing is incredibly skewed: The Tampa Park Apartments site, which is controversial because it would require relocating 372 low-income families who currently live there and probably a historic school and a church as well, is suddenly portrayed as “promising,” with the one little snag being the fact that the site’s owner doesn’t want to pay her bills, or maybe she already paid them and HUD lost the money, depending on who you believe. (There’s a bunch of stuff about the eviction issues in the Times article, but they don’t start until the 23rd paragraph, and who has time to scroll that far down these days when there are new tweets to check out?)

Okay, that’s not all that terrible journalism, though it’s always worrisome when stadium plans enter the “how can we clear the remaining obstacles?” stage while skipping over the “is this a good idea?” stage. Let’s move on to contestant number two, which is — hey, look, it’s the Tampa Bay Times again! This time with a profile of the Rays vice president in charge of planning a new stadium, who has this to say about it:

Pressed for details, Lenz, the Rays senior vice president for strategy and development, mentions infusing Tampa Bay’s water and abundant sunshine into the bones of a new stadium, but she’s mum on specifics: capacity, upper decks or retractable roofs.

And … that’s it. Lenz apparently wouldn’t say anything about her stadium plans, and instead of the Times killing the story for having no actual news, we get 38 paragraphs about her “salt-of-the-earth genuineness and small-town Pennsylvania charm,” her “mix of toughness and likability,” and the time she got hit by a pitch while playing Little League and told her concerned mom to “get off the field.” Plus a photo of her standing on a baseball field while holding an adorable child.

This is the kind of puff piece that should be taught in journalism school as how not to waste valuable column inches, and would be a winner in today’s faceoff just on those grounds, but it has an ace in the hole as well: That phrase “infusing Tampa Bay’s water and abundant sunshine into the bones of a new stadium” should also be taught in journalism school as a way never ever to mix a metaphor. Unless Lenz secretly works for Weapon X, in which case never mind, it’s great.

Sacramento TV station stunned to find new Kings arena hasn’t cured homelessness

I’ve never seen it myself since I don’t live in Sacramento, but my impression is that FOX40 is a pretty bad news station, prone to reporting crazy-ass rumors as if they were true. (Though you could say that for most local newscasts, I suppose.) Anyway, last night they went to report on the new downtown Kings arena, and found that, glory be, it hasn’t cured homelessness:

One downtown with two very different faces. The drive to revive Sacramento is evident in a state-of-the-art arena. But that effort is facing a troubling problem on the streets.

One downtown, there is hope for a rebirth of a city and emergence from the shadows. The other: where people feel hopeless, forgotten in the shadows.

“They could spend $500 million on a basketball court, but they won’t put out a dime to help the homeless people,” said Larry, who lives on the streets.

The struggle on the streets juxtaposed to a downtown on the cusp of a rebirth.

It goes on and on like that, and on the one hand, using the Kings arena as a hook to examine chronic homelessness (though the examination doesn’t get much past “it exists”) isn’t the worst thing in the world. But on the other, this report reveals how deeply messed up local development reporting can be.

The key is that word “rebirth.” In developer-speak, all too often parroted by local news reports, rebirth or revitalization or renaissance is what happens to neighborhoods when you build new stuff. And new stuff is new, and newness is supposed to fix everything, whether it’s lack of jobs or a strained city treasury or the team being a chaotic disaster or, apparently, homelessness. We built you a new basketball arena, poor people, why do you persist in not being able to afford homes?

This is, frankly, an insane way to report on anything. If you want to go out and talk about how having homeless people sleeping downtown is an embarrassment to the elected officials who are trying to sell Sacramento as all cleaned up now, go for it. But noting all the new construction taking place downtown and then asking “Will it work?”, as FOX 40 does, shows a stunning misunderstanding of what redevelopment is supposed to accomplish — or worse, is an implication that the only “revitalization” that counts is the kind that makes the homeless disappear to somewhere else. After all, the Olympics get away with it.

I don’t want to come down too hard on the FOX40 reporters, really I don’t. But if you’re going to be a journalist, it’s vitally important that you not only think about what you’re covering, but about how you’re covering it, and what assumptions go into the way you frame your story. This news item ends up telling one story in its text — “homelessness bad and intractable!” — and another in its subtext — “how much concrete do we have to pour in order to fix social problems?” Sometimes good journalism is less about finding the right answers than asking the right questions.