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!

Milwaukee business leader wants Bucks arena plan by January, or he’ll hold his breath and turn purple

If there were an award for the most slavishly stenographic sports stadium journalism, we might just have to retire it in the name of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Don Walker, who has never seen a press statement by a Bucks exec or elected official that he didn’t want to rush into print. Yesterday it was Milwaukee chamber of commerce president Timothy Sheehy, who noted that the 2015 Wisconsin legislative session starts in January, so he wants to have an arena plan ready to go in January, even though there’s a gubernatorial election in November and all state-level arena talks are on hold until then. This could have led to a headline along the lines of “Tight timetable for arena talks before 2015 session,” but instead they went with “Local leaders say arena plans must be in place by new year,” because the Journal-Sentinel.

Let’s move along, then, to the one piece of almost-news in Walker’s article, which is that Sheehy is considering proposing diverting income taxes paid by NBA players to pay off arena bonds. Sheehy says about $90 million in total costs could be funded with $6-8 million a year in tax proceeds; the math on that is correct, anyway. Whether NBA players really generate that much in income taxes is more doubtful: The Bucks’ salary cap is currently $56 million, the top state income tax is 7.65%, which gets us to about $4.3 million a year. (Yes, visiting players would pay the tax as well, but Bucks players could also deduct their out-of-state income taxes.) But NBA salaries will go up, so … maybe.

The bigger leap is Sheehy’s conclusion that “if there is no NBA play here in 2018, there’s an assortment of revenue that flows to the state that will no longer be there.” Even if one assumes that the Bucks will leave in 2018 without a new arena (possible, but hardly a sure bet), Bucks fans won’t go with them, and will still need to do something with their winter evenings other than watching terrible basketball. Those other things could include just about anything, but with a couple of obvious exceptions, they’ll all put income in somebody’s pockets that will be subject to income tax. So all that “new” money thanks to the Bucks isn’t actually new — some of it is just Milwaukee entertainment spending that happens to be going to basketball.

In any case, it looks like we can see where the Bucks’ (or at least Sheehy’s) strategy is going here: Piece together $200 million or maybe it’s $300 million who can say in private money, $90 million in player income taxes, maybe another $100 million in sales taxes on spending at the arena (likewise much of which would be cannibalized from other in-state spending), and voilà, you have half a billion-ish dollars and nobody’s really spending any public money, because public money that is rebates on your sales and income taxes doesn’t really count as public money, because it just doesn’t, okay? Now if the Bucks (and Sheehy, and Walker) can only convince the governor, whoever that may be, of this in the few weeks between the election and the start of the legislative session, they should be sitting pretty. At least for the 25 years it takes until they want another new arena.

Birmingham domed stadium advocate: “We don’t need public support”

There really isn’t much I can add to this lede from an article yesterday at AL.com:

Birmingham will get a domed stadium in the next few years whether the public wants one or not. That was the message shared by Gene Hallman, CEO of the Bruno Event Team and Executive Director of the Alabama Sports Foundation at a Birmingham CREW luncheon on Tuesday.

“We don’t need public support,” Hallman said. “I don’t mean to be arrogant, but we aren’t running a campaign like we did in 1998 where we need a vote– we are looking to fund the stadium using existing funds from the city, county or state. The best thing we can do is just get it done and then tell people why it’s a good thing we’re doing it.”

Then, because he couldn’t help himself, Hallman told people why he was doing it anyway:

“Right now we are turning down a number of conventions and trade shows because we have nowhere for them to go,” Hallman said. “It’s shocking the number of associations that exist out there that need a place for their convention or trade show. They need to be able to make Birmingham their destination.”

This, as Heywood Sanders makes clear in his excellent new book Convention Center Follies, is an even worse idea than a city like Birmingham building a domed stadium in hopes of getting an NFL team, because there is at the moment a massive convention center glut in the U.S., to the point where many if not most cities that expand their convention facilities don’t actually get any additional convention business.

As for how Birmingham would fund a domed football stadium tapping only existing public tax dollars — what it would take to do this without a referendum — Hallman didn’t say, because he doesn’t have to tell you, okay? He just knows he doesn’t want any votin’, because last time Birmingham did that people voted the wrong way, and we can’t have that, can we?

Hallman does make one valid point, which is that if Birmingham is going to go after a team in any sports league, it should be the NFL, because “the NFL shares its revenue equally among all 31 teams,” so a small market like Birmingham could legitimately survive. Er, except for the part where the NFL has had 32 teams for the last 12 years. But hey, the guy’s been busy pushing for a domed stadium in Birmingham since 1996, you can’t really expect him to keep up with current events, now can you?

Selig marks retirement by noting that he never got around to getting the A’s that new stadium

MLB commissioner-for-life Bud Selig is finally retiring, which I guess means either that that “commissioner-for-life” thing really was a joke, or that even stranger forces are at work here. Anyway, Selig took time out from his ballpark farewell tour to make clear that he still really, really wants somebody to build the Oakland A’s a new stadium:

“This is always something I wanted to get resolved before I leave office, which is another 5½ or six months,” Selig said. “If it were easy, just like if it were easy in Tampa, then I would have been 24 out of 24 (in new ballparks). I have hopes in both places. But do I wish it had been solved? Of course I do, and I understand people’s frustrations.”

Oh, yeah, he still really, really wants someone to build the Tampa Bay Rays a new stadium, too. In case you’d forgotten the last few times he mentioned it.

This is actually an interesting moment, because we tend to look at commissioners like Selig as all-powerful gods, wreaking vengeance on cities and any owners who don’t toe the line by flinging thunderbolts from on high. In reality, they’re more like corporate CEOs: At the helm of a hugely powerful enterprise, but having to answer to major shareholders, and having to constantly strategize how to best use their leverage to extract concessions both from external forces and in internal power struggles.

All of which is to say: No, Bud Selig was not able to get new stadium for the A’s and Rays just by waving his magic Bud Selig wand, nor should we have expected him to. The Rays have that ironclad lease that St. Petersburg is holding them to, and the only easy route to a new A’s stadium would have been to force the Giants to let them move to San Jose, which would have been “easy” only in the sense that the massive shitstorm that would have followed would have been internal among baseball owners, not out in public like most stadium battles. Selig has been very adept at steering his massive money-sucking craft to suck as much money as possible — since becoming The Commissioner Who Canceled the World Series he’s even managed to avoid labor strife — which is worthy of some measure of props, I suppose. But in the end, he’s just this guy, and Rob Manfred will be another guy, and most of the forces determining who gets stadiums where will be beyond their control, if certainly not their influence.

First Santa Clara 49ers game reviews: Great food, try not to die from heat

I’m on wonky internet in an undisclosed location, but here are the top headlines from Sunday’s first-ever San Francisco 49ers game at their new stadium in Santa Clara:

So, new 49ers stadium overall report: Great place to eat and go to the bathroom, not impossible to get to if you leave enough time, don’t stay in your seats to watch the game on a sunny day or you’ll maybe die. I think in headlinese that qualifies as “mixed reviews.”


AJC reveals: Cobb chair hired secret stadium lawyer, Braves demanded cut of bus fares, and more!

The indefatigable Dan Klepal of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has unearthed some fresh public documents on the Braves stadium deal with Cobb County, and man, oh man, are they juicy. Klepal’s two articles so far are now behind the AJC paywall, but here are some highlights:

The Braves’ initial proposal, according to documents obtained by the AJC via open records requests, included:

  • The county providing $442 million in cash to the stadium deal, pretty much exactly as the AJC initially reported, though the final number turned out to be somewhat less than that.
  • The Braves demanding tax dollars to “move roads and build bridges,” something that is still being worked out, even as construction on the stadium begins.
  • Team execs wanting the county to use its eminent domain powers to obtain stadium land, something that county negotiator Dan McRae underlined in the draft MOU, writing “no” next to it.
  • The team initially proposing getting “all revenues from … train, circulator, bus or transit stops and vehicles” at the stadium.
  • A county negotiator noting in October, shortly before the deal was finalized, that they expected they’d “get about $50 million from governor,” which so far hasn’t happened.

All this is an indication that all that negotiating in secret — a secret that carried on after the negotiations were concluded, since it took Cobb officials eight months to respond to the AJC’s open records request — at least accomplished something, in that county leaders did whittle down some of the Braves’ most lavish demands. Which is a silver lining, considering that Klepal also reported this weekend that Cobb Commission chair Tim Lee last year hired McRae as an outside stadium negotiator off the books, not even telling his fellow commission members what he was up to. This led to one of the greatest quotes in recent memory, from Emory University ethics professor Edward Queen:

“It’s either an issue of incompetence or unethical behavior,” Queen said. “Neither one reflects particularly well on the individual.”

Nobody from either the Braves or Cobb County is commenting much on these revelations, though the team did release a statement denying that it really meant to demand collecting bus fares from people riding public transit to games. Which is as expected, since the deal is more or less done, so traditional PR strategy is just to wait for the whole thing to blow over and everyone to ooh and aah over the new shiny thing. If only they could have held out on that open records request for a couple more years…

Free luxury suite for Sacramento pols in Kings arena deal raises eyebrows

We’re starting another travel week for me, so expect posts to be somewhat sporadic and abbreviated — like this one:

As part of Sacramento’s deal to spend $226 million (or more, depending on how you count) on the new Kings arena, the Sacramento mayor’s office will be getting a luxury suite of its own to be used for “city business.” Some people are not happy:

“For me,  I didn’t feel it was appropriate,” said outgoing city councilman Darrell Fong.  “I think it’s a perk, and I saw this, and I’m definitely not going to use this. If the city has business there, that’s great. But how does the public benefit from that?”

Which was entirely predictable:

Roger Noll, a Stanford economics professor who has researched arena deals, told KCRA 3 that suites aren’t given to all cities during arena negotiations.

“Most cities don’t do that, but some do, because usually it’s a political hot potato. But if you can get away with it, you do,” he said.

It’s entirely possible that City Hall will end up deciding to give the suite to charity or something, as has happened in other cases. (Which I don’t have time to look up right now. Abbreviated, remember?) But for now just add it to the list of ways that City Officials Do Things That Make It Look Even More Like They’ve Been Bought Off Than It Did Already.

Warriors release rendering of what new SF arena will look like from orbit

People love the arena renderings, even if the actual buildings seldom end up looking quite like the original drawings, so here you go. Courtesy of the San Francisco Business Times, renderings of the latest Golden State Warriors arena plans:

Toilet bowl? Trash can lid? The Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy? (Snohetta designer Craig Dykers actually compared the design to one of these three — see if you can guess which!)

Okay, this doesn’t actually show us much of anything of what the arena will look like to humans who aren’t paragliding overhead. (Snohetta didn’t release any ground-level renderings.) You can see where two 160-foot office towers would go (only a bit taller than the arena itself), but other than that, for now you’ll just have to imagine yourself being one of those teensy dots looking up at the building.

Rooftop owners finally sue over Wrigley ad signs, but as landmarks violation, not contract breach

Jeez, finally:

Owners of the rooftop clubs near Wrigley Field sued the city Thursday, seeking to block a city-backed plan that will allow the Cubs to expand the aging ballpark.

The rooftop owners derided the improvement plan as “irrational, arbitrary and capricious.”

None of those things are illegal, though, so the rooftop owners actually sued the city for violating its own landmarks rules (specifically, the 2004 landmark designation that protected “the unenclosed, open-air character, the exposed structure system and generally uninterrupted ‘sweep’ and contour of the grandstand and bleachers”) and depriving them of property rights (since the Cubs, who aren’t a defendant in the suit, would be able to strong-arm them into giving up their rooftop businesses).

You can read the full complaint here. I’m not going to begin to guess what kind of shot this has in court, but it is interesting that the rooftop owners are suing over violations of the landmarks designation, not their contract with the Cubs, as they implied they would back in January. There’s certainly a good philosophical argument to be made that the landmarks commission shouldn’t be able to just change its mind about what a landmark is — I’ve made it myself — but that’s a long way from a legal argument.

At least it looks like this suit — and the ultimate verdict on the Wrigley redo — is going to be fought over something resembling issues of public policy, and not just contract law. That not only makes more sense, but potentially allows for rulings along the lines of “You can put up some ad signs, but only if they don’t change the character of Wrigley too drastically,” which I think most people who are conflicted over the renovation plan would consider a more meaningful compromise than “Do whatever you want, but pay the rooftop owners a pile of money for breaking their contract.”

Raiders owner: Two can play at “we won’t sign a lease, we’ll be homeless” game

So Oakland A’s owner Lew Wolff thought he was clever with that “we’re only going to sign a long-term lease under our conditions, or else just we’ll go play in the street” threat? Well, Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis knows how to play that game, too:

Davis said he hasn’t asked for a one-year extension on the Raiders’ lease at O.co Coliseum – which expires at the end of next season – and has no plans to do so.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell recently brought up the idea of the Raiders renting the field at the 49ers’ new stadium in Santa Clara, but Davis is opposed to that idea and seems to be looking for other places to play in 2015.

Now, it’s important to remember that absolutely everything in Oakland right now has to be viewed in terms of the long game of which team (if either) will get control of the Oakland Coliseum site, both for stadium-building purposes and for other-development-building purposes. Looked at in that light, this tells us absolutely nothing: If Davis genuinely has a secret plan to move the team elsewhere, sure, this is exactly how he would be behaving. And if Davis doesn’t want to move, but just wants leverage to force Oakland to make him top dog in any Coliseum site plans, this is also exactly how he would be behaving.

In fact, it’s an absolutely typical gambit: Everyone from the Florida Marlins to the New York Yankees has warned that if they didn’t get what they wanted, their lease would expire and they’d be left homeless — and in every case, when push came to shove, a short-term extension was agreed upon where needed, because it’s not really like Oakland would say to the Raiders, “No, you can’t play in the Coliseum” or Davis would say “We’ll just sleep on our friend’s sofa,” would they?

Still, what with all the chatter about San Antonio wanting a team and Magic Johnson wanting L.A. to have a team, this is bound to kick up lots of “Where will the Raiders play in 2015?” headlines. Which is just what you want when going into lease talks with local elected officials, so nicely played, Mr. Davis.