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.

Virginia Beach approves “private” arena plan that would use $7m/year in public money

The Virginia Beach city council voted last night on which of two arena plans to pursue, and according to the Virginian-Pilot, it “chose United States Management’s privately financed proposal” over a competing bid that would have “relied almost exclusively on taxpayer money from the city and state and would have forced the city to pay $262.5 million in debt service over the next 25 years.”

Well, that’s a no-brainer, right? So how does USM intend to pay for the arena without public money? Let’s see:

USM’s plan calls for it to spend more than $200 million of its own money to build the arena, then receive up to $7 million annually in tax revenue to pay down its debt.

Um, excuse me, what?

People, people. I understand that this whole “money” thing is hard to wrap your brains around. There’s money now, and money next week, and my money, and your money, and it can all be so confusing sometimes. But even elected officials and journalists have to understand that $7 million a year in tax revenue isn’t private money, right?

Actually, it could be more or less than $7 million a year — USM is asking to get 1% of the city’s hotel tax, plus a full kickback of all “taxes generated by the operation of the arena,” which presumably means sales, income, and property taxes, though don’t go looking in the Virginian-Pilot archives for an explanation of any of this. If tax revenues go up, USM gets more money; if they go down, USM has to cover the shortfall.

This is still likely better for the city than the competing W.M. Jordan plan, which would have required the public to pay off $10.5 million in annual bond payments, plus other costs. (The city would own the arena under the Jordan plan, but as we’ve covered here before, the last thing a city wants is to own an arena; it’s owning the arena’s revenue streams that’s the important part.) Of course, the USM plan could still fall apart — which given that it relies on getting a $200 million loan from a bank in China, seems like a pretty likely scenario — in which case the Jordan plan would be back on the table.

The important thing is, though, that whether you have the city paying to build an arena and “repaying” itself through the taxes paid by arena patrons that would normally go to the general fund, or the team paying to build an arena and repaying itself with those exact same taxes, it’s pretty much the same kind of tax subsidy. The Virginian-Pilot could have run a headline like “Council chooses less risky arena proposal,” but instead it went with “Va. Beach council picks privately funded arena plan,” which has the advantage of being more grabby, if the disadvantage of not actually being true.

Everything that’s wrong with sports stadium coverage, in one sentence

I’ve made no secret of how unimpressed I’ve been with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s coverage of the Bucks arena debate, but this, from today’s column by Michael Hunt, really takes the cake:

So now it becomes a matter of trust that the extraordinary financial commitments by Kohl and the new owners toward the building won’t languish on the table in another unseemly political fight.

So, to recap: The owners of a professional sports team offering to pay for less than half of the cost of their new arena is “extraordinary.” Public officials not wanting to pay for the other half, meanwhile, is “unseemly.” Got that?

(For those who would like an alternate perspective, I have a longer piece on the Bucks situation up at Sports on Earth, hot off the presses.)

Hey, it’s a dog-bites-man story that isn’t from Sochi!

Oh, Mike Florio, what have you written now?

With cities suddenly less relucntant to cough up the cash, the looming effort to build the next generation of stadiums could be aided by the promise of a Super Bowl.

Right, because that never happens currently.

I can only assume that Florio was stuck for a column idea on a boring Friday (the Super Bowl is too far in the past to recap, and somebody else already covered the Olympic cross-country skiing stray barking dog story), and dug into the back of his desk drawer for an old story idea he stopped working on in about 1993. To be fair, he seems to be implying that the success of the New Jersey Super Bowl (it didn’t snow, and people only got stuck changing trains for two hours!) will lead more cold-weather teams seeking stadiums to dangle a Super Bowl as a carrot, but the only cold-weather NFL teams without new or newly renovated stadiums are … hmm. Buffalo, I guess, but they’re about to get a pile of renovation money from the state. Does St. Louis count as “cold-weather”? Washington? And haven’t team owners been using this promise anyway, but using it as  additional leverage to try to pry loose a roof as well? How are poor NFL owners going to get their retractable roofs now, huh, Mike Florio? There, I just wrote next Friday’s column for you. No charge.