Rays sell out home game and get permission for Tampa stadium talks, it’s bizarro week

The Tampa Bay Rays won their first home postseason game in six years yesterday, but the headlines were that they also sold out their stadium for the first time in recent memory. They’ll try to make it two straight at tonight’s ALDS Game 4, with just a few hundred tickets remaining as of this writing.

All of which is good news for the potential viability of the team in its current home — despite the long drive across the bridge from Tampa, the talking down of the stadium by owner Stuart Sternberg, the general weakness of the Florida sports market, and all the other reasons why the Rays haven’t drawn well of late. So, naturally, team execs are celebrating by again trying to get a new stadium built in Tampa:

On Friday, Kevin King, St. Petersburg’s chief of policy and public engagement, confirmed that the city has no objection if Hillsborough and Tampa want to try again to persuade the Rays to move across the bay after 2027, according to Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill.

This is more than a little odd and unexpected, given all the hullabaloo last December when Sternberg’s option to pursue a stadium in Hillsborough County expired, leaving him stuck with his lease through 2027 that prohibits even speaking to other locations than St. Petersburg about a new stadium. And sure, Sternberg has been decidedly uninterested in pursuing a St. Pete stadium, but from St. Pete’s perspective, why give up your leverage when you don’t have to?

What changed, apparently, is that St. Peterburg Mayor Rick Kriseman was sick of being asked if he was standing in the way of a new stadium in Tampa:

Merrill called King on Friday for an explanation after Times reporters informed him that St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman is disputing the notion that he is blocking Hillsborough from negotiating with the Rays…

On Wednesday, Kriseman was asked by a Times reporter why Tampa couldn’t talk to the Rays if Montreal could. The mayor declined to address the question.

“I’m here for the game,” he said repeatedly, while guest-bartending at a downtown St. Petersburg tavern as the Rays played the Oakland Athletics in the American League Wild Card game.

Now, there are reasons why Kriseman might actually want to see the Rays move to Tampa: St. Petersburg would get to redevelop its current stadium site, the Rays would stay in the area, and Tampa taxpayers would be on the hook for any public stadium costs. (On the downside, St. Pete residents would now have to drive across the bridge to get to games, and there would be some loss in tax revenue from Rays spending taking place across the bay, but probably not enough to offset the gains from getting the land back.) Still, this was a surprising concession from Kriseman without asking for anything in return.

What seems to have happened here is that Sternberg’s Tampontreal Ex-Rays gambit worked — not in that anybody is particularly taking seriously the possibility of a team playing home games in two countries at once, but in that by going and negotiating with Montreal officials and saying “Go ahead, try to stop me,” he established a precedent that he can carry out stadium talks regardless of what his lease says, so why shouldn’t he get to talk to Tampa, too? Or at least enough to get Kriseman to say, Fine, if he really wants to move to Tampa, I’m not going to be the one standing in his way, now please go away and let me watch the game.

All of which may not immediately help Sternberg all that much: He’s still facing a massive budget shortfall for any Hillsborough County stadium, so getting to resume talks about how neither side is ready to spend more isn’t likely to get anything done immediately. Still, he’s successfully escaped the corner he had painted himself into, without even the mild concessions he agreed to the last time he got an opt-out clause, just by hanging out a bunch with his new Montreal pal Stephen Bronfman. The squeaky wheel gets the grease!

MLB threatens A’s could move to Vegas unless Coliseum lawsuit dropped, city moves to drop Coliseum lawsuit

When I reported last week that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred had marked the happy occasion of Oakland hosting the A.L. Wild Card playoff game by threatening to move the A’s out of town if the city of Oakland didn’t drop its lawsuit against Alameda County over proposed development rights to be provided to the team owners, I assumed it was just one of those typical amorphous “Wouldn’t want to see anything happen to your precious team” threats that sports commissioners are required to level every now and again. But no, apparently Manfred got way more specific:

According to [Oakland city councilmember Larry] Reid, Manfred told Oakland officials that the A’s have options elsewhere if the city doesn’t change its stance.

“The commissioner pointed out that Bay Area fans will soon be going to Las Vegas to see the Raiders and that unless things changed, Bay Area fans may be going to Las Vegas or elsewhere to see the A’s as well,” Reid said.

Okay, “Las Vegas or elsewhere” isn’t that much more specific than “someplace,” but actually name-checking the Raiders’ move to Nevada is a step above what was reported last week.

Las Vegas, as I’ve discussed elsewhere previously, is a pretty lousy option for MLB, what with its small and largely low-income population and broiling summer temperatures. (These are less of a problem for the NFL, which has only a fraction of the number of tickets to sell, gets much more national TV money to share among all its clubs, and plays in the fall and winter.) But apparently Manfred’s threat was enough to scare Oakland officials into line:

On Thursday, [council president Rebecca] Kaplan issued a statement saying that “in the interest of reducing strife and litigation, the Oakland City Council has unanimously asked our administration to meet directly with county leaders on strategies to resolve issues regarding our shared public property.”

[Mayor Libby] Schaaf says she wants the city to get the land, but through negotiations and not a lawsuit. She said she has always supported a privately financed ballpark that is “responsible to taxpayers.”

“I’m confident we’ll get there,” the mayor said.

All of which is fine on the one hand — if Oakland and Alameda can work out the ownership of the Oakland Coliseum site without a lawsuit, that’s fewer legal fees to pay — but significantly less so if it’s MLB using heavy-handed tactics to force the two sides to the negotiating table under (likely idle) threat of having their team yanked away. This never-ending A’s stadium controversy may yet be resolved in a way that doesn’t screw over Oakland residents too hard, but if so, it won’t be because MLB is refraining from acting like an 800-pound gorilla to get its way.

Columbus hid $48m in Crew stadium subsidies in “Other Projects” budget

For some somewhat better journalism, let’s head over to Columbus, Ohio, where the Columbus Dispatch reports that the $50 million the city had promised toward a new Crew soccer stadium will actually amount to nearly twice that, thanks to a secret second budget:

Starting early this year, as city department heads planned for the stadium, documents show they didn’t have one budget, but two: costs included in the $50 million and those outside of it, spread across various departmental budgets and funding sources…

In one spreadsheet circulated among city officials in March titled “Updated Project Budget and Timeline,” City Auditor Megan Kilgore tallied up what at the time were the project costs — almost $98 million, split between two “buckets”: ”$50 million” and “Other Projects.”

“This is our best effort at keeping track of projects,” Kilgore said in the March email to which she attached the spreadsheet. “The above will dictate how we continue to push expenditures that EXCEED the above amounts into the ‘Other Projects — outside of $50 million bucket’ pot.”

The “Other Projects” budget includes such items as building a 600-car parking garage for the stadium and moving electrical lines underground, items that a city spokesperson insisted would be happening with or without the stadium. (Burying the electrical lines, for example, has been assigned to the costs of a Chipotle Mexican Grill headquarters a half-mile away.)

This is all some great reporting that required digging through piles of public records requests, and could have been improved only by including the total public cost of the project to city and county taxpayers: The Dispatch itself previously reported this as $140 million plus land costs, and while I got $130 million with my adding machine, this would still mean the total public cost of the project is now more like $178 million. Or, if you prefer, $130 million, plus $48 million for a really vital Chipotle headquarters.

Baltimore Sun: Pimlico to receive $200m in upgrades, funded by elfen magic

The city of Baltimore and the owner of Pimlico race track have reached agreement on a deal to keep the Preakness in town, and the Baltimore Sun has all the details! You just have to, you know, search for them a bit:

The Stronach Group has pledged to donate the land to the city or an entity created by the city for development in and around the track. Pimlico’s antiquated grandstand and clubhouse would be demolished. A new clubhouse would be built and the track rotated 30 degrees to the northeast to create nine parcels of land that could be sold for private development.

That’s a whole lot of passive voice — who, exactly, would be building all this new stuff, and who would be selling land for private development? Let’s keep going and see:

In all, Pimlico would receive $199.5 million as part of the project.

From … somebody! No help there.

Crucial to the plan is convincing lawmakers to extend the life of a subsidy for the tracks called the Racetrack Facilities Renewal Account. The state’s casinos each pay a certain percentage of their slot machine profits into the fund, which is used for upgrades at the tracks.

Backers of this new Pimlico and Laurel proposal want to use that money to help pay off $348 million worth of bonds, to be issued by the stadium authority, that would finance most of the $375.5 million redevelopment.

Now we’re getting somewhere, down in paragraph #11. The state casino tax, it turns out, has been going to that Racetrack Facilities Renewal fund, which provides matching funds for upgrades at Maryland racetracks; so far, Pimlico’s owners have mostly been spending the cash on Laurel Park, another track they own. And the tax runs out in 2032, so the state would have to extend it for another 17 years to use it to pay off 30-year bonds to upgrade Pimlico.

Maryland’s casinos also pay taxes to fund education in the state, though the take is less than what was projected and too often lawmakers just use it as an excuse to grab other education funds and redirect them elsewhere, something that Maryland legislators have tried to remedy by setting up a lockbox for education funds. Would extending the racetrack tax cut into education funding, or would it be an additional tax on top of that? The 2,000-word Sun article that took two people to write doesn’t address this.

(There would also be a 30-year lease by Stronach on the racetrack, with the track owners paying a reported $8 million to $10 million a year toward new luxury suites, and if you’re hoping to learn from the Sun whether that’s part of the $199.5 million in reconstruction money or on top of it, don’t hold your breath.)

In short, this looks like it’s probably very bad economic policy — even the racetrack’s owners say it wouldn’t make sense to pour a ton of money into something that hosts just 12 racing days a year, and horse racing overall is plummeting in popularity — but it’s undoubtedly truly terrible journalism, intended to parrot the line being put across by local politicians rather than explain what it would actually mean for the Sun’s readers. Fortunately, Baltimore has another newspaper option, and … what’s that you say, the Sun bought it and then shut it down? Never mind, then.

Friday roundup: More on MLB attendance decline, plus stadium rumors and the reports of rumors

In case you missed it, I revisited the question of MLB’s attendance decline for Deadspin this week, by way of picking apart a New York Times article on the topic that got a couple of things right and a whole bunch of things less right. The upshot is that team owners don’t really need lots of fans to show up, but they sure would like them to, but only if they can accomplish this without cannibalizing the luxury seat sales that are their bread and butter these days — all of which makes all the “Whither baseball?” handwringing even less justifiable. Lesson: Don’t try to measure the demand curve just by looking at product sales. (Okay, maybe that’s only the lesson I take from it, but it’s one lesson.)

Meanwhile, news!

A’s, Rays celebrate Wild Card game with dueling move threats by proxy

The Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays faced off in the American League Wild Card game last night, before a sold-out crowd at Oakland Coliseum who paid an average of $129 for tickets on the resale market. One might think this would make it harder for the teams’ owners to claim that they’re doomed to failure on and off the field without the new stadiums they’re seeking — which means it’s time to pull out everybody’s favorite entry in the stadium-grubbers’ playbook, the oblique move threat:

Now, you will notice that neither of these threats came explicitly from the teams’ owners: A’s president and de facto stadium campaign spokesperson Dave Kaval limited himself to saying he was “surprised” by the city lawsuit, while leaving the heavy threatmongering to Manfred. And Sternberg insisted that he wasn’t the one who revealed that he bought Wild Card game tickets for Bronfman (they wouldn’t be sitting together, he said), but rather a member of Bronfman’s executive team who tweeted about it.

Still, sports team owners have a long track record of levying move threats by proxy, since it allows them all the leverage benefits while avoiding the nasty bits about being burned in effigy by outraged fans. It’s particularly unlikely that Manfred would be dropping threats in interviews without the explicit permission of A’s ownership, since the 30 MLB owners pay his salary; as for Bronfman, it’s possible that Sternberg said, “Here’s some tickets, now keep it under your hat that I paid for them, it would look really bad if people thought I did this just to rattle sabers about moving to Montreal during my team’s first postseason appearance in six years” and someone in Bronfman’s crew got Twitter-happy and ignored this, but somehow that doesn’t seem the most likely scenario.

Anyway, the Rays drove the A’s out of the playoffs with a pile of home runs, which means now we’ll get to see how attendance at Tampa Bay’s much-maligned stadium looks for games that really matter. Tickets for the A.L. Division Series vs. the Houston Astros go on sale today at 4 pm, and I for one will be as glued to the SeatGeek resale prices as to the start of the N.L. Division Series that’s happening at the same time.

K.C. mayor on new Royals stadium: city already spending too much on downtown redevelopment, go hit up states instead

The push for a new downtown Kansas City Royals stadium that nobody actually seems to be pushing for except maybe downtown business interests has reached the “ask the mayor what he’s going to do” phase, and here’s what Mayor Quinton Lucas has to say:

A new downtown stadium could cost upwards of $700 million, and Kansas City taxpayers have already ponied up big tax incentives for other downtown development, Lucas said.

“They’re subsidizing on dead obligations, $13 million a year for the Power & Light District,” Lucas said. “We have to incentivize every parking garage that Cordage builds, and then connect with luxury housing. That’s about $20 million a pop.”

This is true! The Power & Light District, which has been touted as a model of downtown revitalization in pretty much every city where downtown interests are looking for revitalization, has also been a massive money suck as a result of $295 million in city bonds that were supposed to be paid off by new tax revenues that then didn’t materialize. So it’s perfectly reasonable for Mayor Lucas to respond fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.

Let’s see what else the mayor had to say, according to KMBZ radio:

Lucas has not totally ruled out the possibility of a downtown stadium. He says he’s willing to talk with the new owners about other financing options, such as a bi-state plan.

“I’d like to hear from the ownership group what type of money they’re putting in, and frankly from the the entire region, the type of investment that I think we’re going to make region wide,” Lucas said.

Oh, so actually Lucas is saying fool me twice, and I will send you to go fool the states of Missouri and Kansas, instead. This would make pretty much exactly zero sense for the states — any new economic activity in downtown K.C. is going to come at the expense of spending somewhere else in the bistate region, unless you really think lots more people are going to drive down to Royals games from Omaha if the stadium is downtown instead of out in the suburbs surrounded by giant parking lots — but makes tons of sense if you’re a city mayor looking to placate downtown business interests while pushing the costs off onto somebody else’s plate. This whole multiple levels of government thing may have more pitfalls than the strangely behatted ducks would have you believe.

Phantom Nashville MLB team releases stadium design that would require changing Earth’s orbit to work

The would-be owners of the would-be Nashville Stars MLB team don’t have much more than a team name and, uh, that’s pretty much it. But now they also have some renderings of what a Nashville MLB stadium might look like, and oh my goodness:

There is a lot going on here: the usual fireworks (in a location unviewable from the seats, which are empty anyway) and gratuitous spotlights. There’s also a quintuple-decker seating plan that, if this is remotely to scale, would put the cheap seats about 200 feet in the air, plus what initially looks like some sort of enormous curving sun shield in foul territory down the right field line — though honestly the stadium could use a sun shield in fair territory, given that batters would be facing almost due south, which isn’t normally done because then the sun is in their eyes. (The Detroit Tigers‘ stadium is close, but not as bad as this proposal; of course, it’s always possible the geometry of the rendering is off, given that it seems to have eliminated a nearly 90-degree curve in the Cumberland River at that point.)

Any other pretty pictures that aren’t quite as goofy?

That appears to be … a sold-out rock concert going on at the same time as a sold-out baseball game? Is there any world in which this would be a good idea? Did those fans on the hazardous-looking sky bridge buy tickets to the concert or to the ballgame, or does tickets to one get you access to the other for free? Do you have to choose which to watch, or does the band only play between innings and during pitching changes?

The pointless curving sun shield, meanwhile, turns out to be in fact a curving retractable roof. Except that the first image shows no tracks for it to slide on, and it’s not nearly thick enough to provide the multiple sliding panels that a retractable roof would require, and in any event there would be like a 200-foot-high gap for the setting sun to shine through and get in the eyes of right-handed batters.

“Completing our objective to bring Major League Baseball to Nashville will be a long process. We’re in the very early stages of that process,” Music City Baseball managing director John Loar told the Tennessean, which, tell me about it. The newspaper adds, “The group says it will not seek public money to fund stadium construction or development around the stadium, but has said it wants to explore building on city-owned property (such as that near Nissan Stadium pictured in the renderings) in partnership with the city.” So, we’re looking at a “We’ll build the stadium if you give us a pile of lucrative development rights” plan along the lines of the New York Islanders arena and Los Angeles Angels stadium renovation plans. I, for one, would rather see detailed renderings of who’s going to pay for what rather than these fanciful stadium pictures — but then, that’s exactly why team owners and wannabe team owners choose to release these vaportecture images, the better to misdirect you with.

Unnamed “backers” want Islanders arena to lead to redeveloping Aqueduct with casinos and other crap

The New York Islanders‘ new arena at Belmont Park — or The Stable, as some people on Twitter are already trying to get you to call it, which must make the people in charge of selling its official naming rights just thrilled beyond belief — won’t open until 2021 at the earliest even if it survives its multiple legal challenges, but that doesn’t mean its too soon to start planning how it will become the linchpin of a massive strategy to close Aqueduct Racetrack to horse racing and build new casinos and maybe other development there. Allow Newsday to explain:

Redevelopment backers have a grand vision of Belmont becoming a “sports destination” that goes like this:

• Consolidate downstate horse racing by ending it at Aqueduct Race Track in Queens, and moving all racing to Belmont. Then promote Belmont as a destination with hockey, horses, hotels and shopping.

• Authorize three new downstate casinos by 2023, or sooner.

• Allow Aqueduct, which already rakes in money from thousands of video slot machines, to become a full-fledged casino, and maybe do the same for Yonkers Raceway.

• Consider selling to developers the acreage at the sprawling Aqueduct facility that won’t be part of a casino. The state owns the land and the horse racing business is just a tenant.

All of which makes some sense, even if the only “redevelopment backer” actually named is the Long Island Association, a business lobbying group: Horse racing isn’t exactly a thriving pastime, and Aqueduct is potentially valuable property, though whether state-run casinos are really the best use of it is extremely arguable.

More to the point, though: What does any of this have to do with a new arena at Belmont? I am far from an expert on horse racing (I owned a horse racing board game at around age 10, I recall), but it seems to me that if Aqueduct and Belmont’s racing schedules can be merged effectively, that can happen with or without a hockey arena next door. The new train station that the Islanders’ developer group is helping to pay for but absolutely not paying for without taxpayer money should help, sure, but is it really vital to the plans, or just a way for these Aqueduct redevelopment advocates, whoever they are, to get the attention of Newsday?

And speaking of which, how did this article end up in Newsday anyway, given that it seems to be just the grand vision of one business-lobby spokesperson accompanied by a bunch of reaction quotes from local elected officials? There’s definitely something happening here, but what it is and who’s pushing it still ain’t exactly clear.

Friday roundup: Lots more fans showing up disguised as empty seats

Is public financing of sports venues worth it? If you’ve been noticing a bit of a dip in the frequency of posts on this site over the past few months, it’s not your imagination: I had a contract job as a fill-in news editor that was taking up a lot of my otherwise FoS-focused mornings. That job has run its course now, which should make it a bit easier to keep up with stadium and arena news on a daily basis going forward, instead of leaving much of it to week-ending wrapups.

That said, you all do seem to love your week-ending wrapups, so here’s one now: