Russell Wilson gets in helicopter with wannabe Portland MLB owner, struggling newspaper devotes precious staff time to covering it

I’m not honestly sure exactly what has sparked this sudden flurry of interest in applying for MLB expansion franchises that MLB isn’t even offering yet — I guess MLB commissioner Rob Manfred keeps vaguely talking about how expansion would be nice, but that seems a bit much to be basing entire development plans around — but if you want a summary of where the madness is leading in a nutshell, you could do worse than this photo caption from the Oregonian:

Russell Wilson and Ciara take a selfie Saturday after holding a news conference in Northwest Portland to discuss their investments into the Portland Diamond Project’s effort to land a Major League Baseball team.

Yes, this is where journalism is right now: The quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks and the singer of “Goodies” took a helicopter tour of potential stadium sites with potential MLB owner Craig Cheek, were “whisked in a Mercedes SUV to Saturday’s news conference” (per the Oregonian), then posed for some photos in front of an “MLB PDX” backdrop. And then some poor college football writer who is one of the few people left in the newsroom had to write the whole thing up for the Oregonian, probably with occasional breaks to check Indeed.com for alternative career opportunities.

If you were hoping for any word on what an actual Portland baseball plan would look like, or what MLB would demand for an expansion franchise (either in terms of a franchise fee or stadium amenities or whatever), or really any details at all, needless to say this was not the article for you. Art Thiel at SportspressNW made a slightly better attempt, but even he was forced to rely on speculation and a few hints dropped by Manfred over the years, because really there is no solid information at this point at all. When a news vacuum exists, it will apparently now be filled with selfies, which is as good an epitaph for our age as any.

Friday roundup: The news media are collectively losing their goddamn minds edition

It’s a full slate this week, so let’s do this!

How not to evaluate how much public money to spend on a stadium, in seven easy steps

I’ve often said that cities should calculate what sports teams are actually worth to them before writing a blank check for a stadium or arena — you know, like Naheed Nenshi has tried to do in Calgary — so when Andrew Dunn, editor-in-chief of something called the Charlotte Agenda (“Charlotte Agenda exists to make Charlotte the smartest, most human city in the world”! Also: “We believe in drinking beer at work”!), set out to do just that today for a Carolina Panthers stadium deal, gotta give him at least some props, right? Let’s see how he did:

  • “Economists generally agree that the costs to taxpayers outweigh the benefits of all the additional spending on construction, hotels, restaurants, tickets and concessions.” He can read! Good start!
  • Notes that Charlotte paid $87.5 million in 2013 for a six-year lease extension for the Panthers, which means “the going rate is at least $13.75 million per year to make a team stay put.” He doesn’t note that that was one of the worst returns on a stadium subsidy in history, so maybe his reading doesn’t extend to this site.
  • “I believe that the Panthers are worth public money.” That’s kind of assuming your conclusion there, but in case he means “something, even if it’s only a penny,” I’ll allow it.
  • “I’ll grant that Charlotte’s government will never be able to directly recoup in employment and sales taxes the money it puts toward the Panthers. But putting public money toward pro sports shouldn’t be analyzed that way. Think of it more as a marker of what kind of city we want Charlotte to be.” Followed by an assertion that the Hornets and Panthers “put the Charlotte name in the national consciousness and touched off a business boom,” his sole presented evidence being a 1994 Chicago Tribune article in which a Hornets season-ticket holder says that the teams put Charlotte on the map.
  • “An investment in the Panthers is not using the same money that would build affordable housing.” This because the city could use hotel and rental car tax money that is earmarked for promoting tourism, notwithstanding that if general fund revenue ends up being used on a tourism project because the hotel and rental car tax fund is all spent on a football stadium, it’s absolutely taking away from money for things like affordable housing.
  • “Let’s figure out what we’re willing to do before a new ownership group gets involved. They’ll buy the team knowing what support they can count on from the community.” I.e., let’s make an offer before we’ve even been asked for anything. Where figuring out what a team’s presence is worth to a city (and, just as important, whether it has any better options for leaving if you don’t lavish its owners with cash) is a great preparatory step for negotiations, up and telling new team owners, “Hey, we have a check this big waiting for you!” is a terrible, terrible idea. What were we just saying about bidding against yourself?
  • “Perhaps both sides will come out in the black.” Uhhh, remember bullet point #1 back up there? Where you wrote that economists agree a win-win situation almost never happens? Maybe his reading doesn’t even extend to the very editorial he’s writing.

Overall grade: D, maybe C-minus for a good essay topic, but the execution needs a lot of work. To do this right you need to analyze the actual return on a stadium investment in tax revenues, the emotional value of an NFL team to a community, any measurable impact on business activity as a result of the presence of sports teams (though those economists back in the first paragraph have it covered for you: there is none), what other options the team has to move, and so on. Instead, Dunn’s analysis comes down to: Economists say stadiums don’t pay off, but I really like football, and there’s tourism tax money just sitting right there, so somebody just offer something already, I can’t take this uncertainty! Sounds like somebody needs another beer.

NY Times business section cheers urban stadium trend, doesn’t seem to know why

The New York Times has a weird affinity for big sweeping articles about the stadium industry that don’t quite justify their declarative headlines, and the latest one ran in Friday’s business section under the headline “Welcome to the Neighborhood: America’s Sports Stadiums Are Moving Downtown“:

Across the country, in more than a dozen cities, downtowns are being remade as developers abandon the suburbs to combine new sports arenas with mixed-used residential, retail and office space back in the city. The new projects are altering the financial formula for building stadiums and arenas by surrounding them not with mostly idle parking lots in suburban expanses, but with revenue-producing stores, offices and residences capable of servicing the public debt used to help build these venues.

There is a germ of truth in this: Yes, more stadiums and arenas are being built near city downtowns instead of out in the suburbs, the Atlanta Braves‘ new ballpark notwithstanding. That’s true of everything, though, not just sports — we’re in the middle of what’s been dubbed the Great Inversion, a decades-long process where people are increasing moving back to cities instead of out of them. (For “people,” here, read “people with money and options” — plenty of people continued to live in and especially immigrate to big cities even in the 1960s and ’70s.) So yes, there are lots of mixed-use urban developments being built around sports venues, but there are plenty built even with no stadium, or even when a stadium was planned and not built. “America’s Sports Stadium Builders Jumping on Urban Land Rush Bandwagon” might have been a fairer headline.

On top of that, the Times article tries to counterpose the traditional business model where “owners threatened to move their teams if governments did not build them new stadiums along with the roads and public utilities needed to operate them” against the new downtown development trend. But plenty of urban ballpark districts have gotten public funding after team owners threatened to move — hell, the Sacramento Kings arena that is the article’s centerpiece is getting $226 million in public subsidies that were approved only after the team owners threatened to move the team to Seattle.

There are plenty of good things about building sports venues near urban centers: They’re easier to get to by public transit, they support more economic development in cities (such that they support much of any at all), and in general they promote the idea that cities are good places to live and work and go see high-priced entertainment. They also take up valuable land that could better be used on buildings that aren’t dark a couple hundred days a year, displace residents and businesses, and by promoting the idea that cities are good places to live and work and go see high-priced entertainment, spark gentrification and force out the city residents who are supposed to benefit from all this alleged economic development in the first place. The urban-stadiums trend is not a simple good, in other words — and it certainly has nothing to do with any shift away from public stadium subsidies, even if some urban stadium developers are using ancillary land grabs to help pay for their construction costs.

If you want one paragraph that neatly sums up the Times’s perspective, this quote from Kansas City city manager Troy Schulte on that city’s publicly funded downtown Sprint Center should do the trick:

M. Schulte acknowledges that although tax revenue from the district is steadily increasing, it is not clear that enough will be generated to cover the debt service. “But from the perspective of economic development and economic resurgence,” he said, “it’s the best $300 million we’ve ever spent.”

Urban sports venues: They don’t pay off for cities, but they’re still great! Your paper of record, people.

MLB commish, guy clinging to sportswriter job agree: Somebody build Rays a stadium already!

One of the problems with the sportswriting business is that too many sportswriters tend to approach everything as a game, and the only thing they’re interested in is who’s winning or losing. Okay, two of the problems with the sportswriting business are that, and also that they know their paycheck comes from people reading about the local teams, so they’ll do anything in their power to protect that. Okay, three of the problems are those, plus that whenever sports officials talk, they’re used to listening, because these are the guys who grant them credentials and — you get the picture, and if you don’t, I wrote about it in detail almost 20 years ago, and not a hell of a lot has changed since then.

Today’s problem sportswriter is Tom Jones, sports columnist for the Tampa Bay Times, who heard MLB commissioner Rob Manfred say he wants the Tampa-St. Pete region to “move [a decision on a new Rays stadium to the front burner,” and thought, hey, yeah, what’s taking so long anyway?

Just spitballing, but here’s a thought: How about we stop talking about a new stadium and start building one…

You don’t need a law degree to know the Rays need a new stadium in a new location. We all know that. We’ve all known that pretty much since the Trop opened for business in the 1990s.

What we don’t know is where it should be and who’s going to pay for it. Meantime, as we talk and argue and worry and plan, we keep flipping over pages in the calendar. One month becomes the next. One year bleeds into another. And here we are, still talking, and it feels as if we are nowhere closer to digging in the dirt…

Most baseball fans in Tampa Bay don’t really care where a new stadium ends up, just as long as it’s not Montreal, Charlotte, Las Vegas or anywhere outside the 727 or 813 area codes.

But most of all, don’t you just want this thing to be over already? Don’t you just want someone, anyone, to pick a spot and start building? And let’s face reality, we can all shake our heads and complain and tell [Rays owner Stuart] Sternberg that if he wants a new stadium, he can pull out his wallet and pay for it, but that’s not how this kind of thing works.

At some point, someone’s tax money is going to be used to help build it, whether it’s ours or our visitors’.

This, this is why commissioners like Rob Manfred make these statements, over and over — in hopes that someone friendly in the media will pick them up and make his talking points for him. Jones’s column hits most of the strategies in the new-stadium playbook — the team “needs” a new stadium (without specifying whether that’s fan-comfort need or insufficient-profit need or what), the team could move without one, everybody spends tax money on stadiums so let’s just do it already and get it over with.

Years ago, I engaged in a spirited, mostly friendly online debate with a New York historian about the legacy of Robert Moses, the power broker who pretty much single-handedly reshaped New York City from the 1930s through the 1960s, building parks and highways and public housing, evicting hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, and solidifying the city’s racial and class divides in millions of tons of concrete. (Possibly his most defining moment was his decision to build highway bridges on his Long Island highways too low for buses to fit under them, so as to defend his new public beaches from the people he liked to refer to as “that scum floating up from Puerto Rico.”) My frenemy always insisted, yeah, yeah, but at least he got things done, even if all of it wasn’t that great. My response was: Getting things done isn’t always a plus, if things were better beforehand — or if it forestalls doing things a better way.

Would it be nice if the Rays had a new stadium by now? Sure! (Though I haven’t been to Tropicana Field myself, so can’t actually vouch for how much fans would prefer a new and/or differently located facility.) Is it likely that Sternberg would have built one by now if somebody had thrown a whole lot of public money at him? Indubitably! But every time a city gives in and coughs up public money — whether in the form of straight cash or tax breaks or whatever — that just reinforces the “everybody does it” argument, and precludes the possibility that the public might be able to wait out a team owner until he agrees to stay put and pay for any of his own costs his own self. Which does happen!

You’re reading this website, so I probably don’t need to tell you most of this, but it’s worth restating every one in a while. As is the reminder that even as we can talk about the structural power-dynamics reasons why cities drop billions of dollars a year on subsidies to new sports facilities for the benefit of private team owners, it’s in this kind of everyday battle of public discourse that the power dynamics take shape. Tom Jones is just a guy who’s putting down in electrons his own thoughts and feelings about a new Rays stadium and whether it matters how it’s paid for — as am I, though I do like to think I’ve done a smidge more research on the topic. If Tampa Bay is going to end up with a denouement for the Rays that reflects even in the slightest the needs and desires of actual residents of the region, they’re going to have to shout really loud, because guys like Jones and Manfred are the ones with the bullhorns.

Washington Post reporters stick heads up NFL team president’s butt, call it journalism

Yeah, that about sums it up:

The Washington Post article in question is about the Washington NFL team‘s president, Bruce Allen, and can be summed up thusly:

  • People like sports!
  • Allen is a sports guy, his dad having been Hall of Fame coach George Allen! And a political guy, his brother being former Virginia governor George Allen!
  • His boss, team owner Daniel Snyder, is campaigning for a new stadium that he can point to and brag about — “not the hand-me-down venue he acquired from the estate of the late Jack Kent Cooke” — and needed a guy to spearhead it! You can see where this is going!
  • Fans hate Allen because he fired the team’s popular GM, but he doesn’t hold that against them!
  • Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe is friends with both Allen and Snyder!
  • Virginia offers non-union labor!
  • Bruce Allen is shorter than his brother George!

If you’ve managed to keep reading to this point, you’ll have gotten the idea that this is a kid-gloves profile of the team president trying to shake down Virginia for a new stadium, so it should come as no surprise that it concludes with the paragraph quoted by Burneko in his tweet (and elaborated on in a longer Deadspin WTF reaction piece), which makes total journalistic sense if journalism consists of viewing the world entirely through the subject’s eyes. (And assuming Allen drinks his own Kool-Aid.) It’s slightly more surprising that this is co-bylined by the Post’s NFL reporter and its former business editor — it took two people to write this crap, and one of them maybe even knows how money works — but given my past experience with the Post, maybe somebody high up the editorial chain is still determined to buy local sports teams’ PR line about economic benefits of stadiums at all costs.

Baltimore Sun claims Camden Yards pays own way, can’t even keep up pretense for whole article

And hey, look, another major media article that can’t do basic math! Let’s start with the headline:

Orioles payments to stadium authority exceed original cost of Camden Yards

Wow, that would indeed be impressive. Is perhaps Camden Yards one of those rare examples like the Minneapolis Metrodome, of a stadium where the public put up a bunch of money up front but then was repaid in full and more by lease payments over time? Spoiler: no.

Documents show the authority has received an average of $6.4 million in annual rent from the team, plus $4.1 million a year as its share of state admissions taxes. The total, through the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016, is $255 million.

That compares favorably with the stadium’s original $225 million price tag, including $100 million for land acquisition and $125 million for the stadium.

Yeah, no, that’s not how money works. Even if you count state admissions taxes as new state revenues (the Orioles would have been paying them if they’d stayed at Memorial Stadium, too), $10.5 million a year over 25 years is only worth about $140 million in present value, still far less than the $225 million price tag. Or if it helps, you could flip it around the other way and see if $10.5 million a year is enough to pay off the state’s annual debt payments — oh, look, the Sun actually did that:

The stadium authority said it pays about $15 million a year in debt service — principal plus interest — on the 30-year bonds issued to pay for Camden Yards.

So by the Sun’s own calculations, Maryland is actually losing money on Camden Yards. Anything else?

The debt service, however, is paid with Maryland Lottery proceeds appropriated each year by the General Assembly. The authority uses the team’s rent money for ballpark operations.

Oh, right, ballpark operations costs. So really the Orioles’ rent payments pay nothing towards the public’s debt on Camden Yards. Lovely headline, though — beautiful plumage.

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.