Thursday roundup: Teams top off 2020 with added public stadium cash, look forward to more of the same in 2021

Welcome to the long-awaited season finale of 2020! What plot twists do you think they have in store for us? I was going to guess some musical numbers, but we already got that earlier in the season, so it’s really anybody’s guess.

One thing never changes year after year, though, even a year filled with unprecedented deaths and huge hits to local government balance sheets, and that’s rich people who own sports teams trying to get public officials to sign large checks to them. How successful were they this week? Let us count the ways:

  • The state of Ohio officially approved $16 million for F.C. Cincinnati‘s new stadium and a $25 million loan to the Columbus Crew for their new stadium, bringing the total public subsidies for those two projects to $97 million and … a loan at 3% interest isn’t actually a significant benefit to the Crew, so that’s probably still around the $98 million it was at before. Both are well short of D.C. United‘s MLS record $183 million in subsidies, but still Ohio taxpayers are looking at some real money here. And don’t forget the Crew owners are still maybe looking for additional tax breaks, so there could be more public costs to come in stoppage time!
  • Elsewhere in MLS, the New York Red Bulls owners may be looking to build a new training facility just seven years after opening their old one (and just expanding it in 2017), either because they need more room or because other teams have glitzier practice fields now, depending on which part of the SB Nation post you want to believe. Team execs have hinted they may be looking at Kearny, the next New Jersey town over from their home stadium in Harrison, but no details yet on where the training center might go or how it would be paid for.
  • Once indoor concerts are a thing again, there could be a short-term boom for venues like Nassau Coliseum that were otherwise having trouble booking shows, notes Newsday, since everybody is going to want to tour at once and everybody can’t play Madison Square Garden at once. The less good news is that this might not take place until 2022; in the meantime, I’m still very eager to see who’s going to get to play on New York City streets this spring and summer, because man oh man do I miss live music.
  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is allowing the Buffalo Bills to have limited attendance at their home playoff game, and local restaurateurs are griping that they can’t have indoor dining at the same time, even though indoors and outdoors are two different places with two different viral infection rates. (The article also mentions that less than 2% of new infections can be traced to restaurants and bars, apparently based on this spreadsheet released by Cuomo, but since the governor’s office hasn’t revealed whether that’s the percentage of all new infections or just those that can be contact traced — it’s way easier to tell if someone is living with someone who has Covid than if they sat near someone at a restaurant — major grains of salt apply here.)
  • Hawaii is still set to spend $350 million on building a new Aloha Bowl after the old one was condemned. No, I don’t know why Hawaii needs a $350 million football stadium either.
  • Most pro sports teams that applied for Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loans back in the spring withdrew their requests when they realized how bad it looked for them to be scarfing up all the money that was meant to keep small businesses afloat, but that’s not the case with the Pittsburgh Penguins owners, who kept their $4.8 million in PPP loan money and say they needed it to pay their arena rent. On the one hand, the rest of the NHL somehow managed to pay rent (where teams are paying any rent) without the need for a government bailout; on the other, most of the PPP money went to places like giant restaurant chains anyway, so if the Penguins are just taking money out of the mouths of TGI Friday’s owners, I guess whatever.
  • The Metro Millers, an indie-league baseball team set to start play in 2022 in the Minneapolis suburb of Shakopee, have hit a couple of roadblocks on their planned $36 million stadium, namely that private investment is “on hold” thanks to the pandemic and crowdfunding only brought in $7,000 of the team’s $600,000 goal. But they’re still planning on opening in 2022, or maybe 2023, or whenever the money materializes. “It needs a lot of work, at least from the funding aspect of it,” Shakopee Mayor Bill Mars said back when the project was first announced in 2019, with a projected opening date of 2021. “It will be interesting to see how they progress over the next six months to a year as far as funding.” Not going too well! Paying for stadiums is hard when you need to do it out of actual venue revenues instead of finding some other sucker to stick with the tab.
  • The Las Vegas Review-Journal has ranked potential NBA expansion cities, mostly to assert that Vegas should be co-frontrunners with Seattle, the end.
  • There was an article earlier this week on how the Jacksonville Jaguars getting the first pick in next year’s NFL draft and the right to take quarterback Trevor Lawrence “could impact NFL and London to tune of hundreds of millions of dollars,” which really didn’t make much sense — something about how having a marquee player could give Jags owner Shad Khan more leverage to get stadium money from Jacksonville or move elsewhere, somehow. Instead let’s focus on how the New York Jets somehow fumbled away their near lock on the #1 draft pick by winning two games in a row, because #LOLJets is always fun even for someone like me who doesn’t watch football and thinks it should probably be replaced entirely by video games.
  • The city of Cleveland is tearing down two warehouses new the Browns‘ stadium so the team can have more room for hosting fans at the the 2021 draft in April, even though it’s pretty unlikely that large numbers of fans will be allowed to gather in one place, even outdoors, by April. The city says it’s only keeping “attic stock” in the warehouses, so those can be relocated at a cost of just — whoops, article is over, no time for that detail, sorry!
  • New San Diego mayor Todd Gloria told a radio show that he’d like to see a new arena built in his city, and you can listen to his interview at that link if you want, but meanwhile I’m transfixed by this arena rendering, which I had missed until now:
    What is happening here? Is there some kind of giant glass wall (fringed with plants, because plants) taking up an entire corner of the arena bowl so that people outside can see the people sitting inside and vice versa? Won’t that make it hard for people inside to see whatever is going on on the court or rink or stage, with all the light pouring in from outside? Why is there a streak of light in the foreground that passes right in front of (or through) all the people on the street? If it’s one of those time-lapse things where cars just look like streaks of light, does that mean all the pedestrians have been frozen in place by some calamity? Maybe this is the surprise that the last day of 2020 holds for us: the end of time itself? If so, go listen to that radio clip now, it may be the last thing you ever do!
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The year in vaportecture: The future is green and attacked by birds and spiders

It’s that time of the season again, when we look back on the year just past and count all the dead stacked up like cordwood and the life we missed out on thanks to — no, no, it’s time to look at silly pictures of sports venues and what underpaid renderers tried to pass off as the future of sports spectating! After a year in which actual sports spectating was largely reduced to robot fans and the occasional small groups of drunk people not wearing masks in states that decided to just say “fuck it, let’s sell some tickets,” what has that done to the visions of sports dancing in designers’ heads? Let’s take a gander:

The Columbus Crew celebrated getting $98 million in stadium subsidies by releasing some fresh vaportecture of what the resulting stadium would look like. It featured strange drink rails and giant soccer balls suspended in midair, fans throwing their hands in the air for no reason (as one does), and one shot of the stadium seemingly under attack by a flock of birds that, I must remind you, some human person put in the image on purpose:

So I didn’t notice this the first time around, but the stippled pattern on the roof of the stadium (which doesn’t seem to be shaped in a way to maximize coverage of the fans beneath, but never mind that just for now) actually looks a lot like a flock of birds, so maybe the real birds have been attracted by decoys? Or maybe part of the plan for the stadium is that actual birds will provide a structural element, in some kind of futuristic melded artificial-natural ecosystem? Maybe the players themselves will be replaced by birds, to save on payroll? So many questions.

Soon after this, ArchDaily, which is one of a seemingly endless number of websites dedicated to the wet dreams of starchitects and the people who for some reason idolize them, just straight-up ran a bunch of unrelated vaportecture images from around the world with no context, then declared this “the future of sports architecture.” A lot of them seemed to involve plants, or stadiums hidden under plants, or pretending to be plants:

Apparently the future is going to be mostly about plants, either because we’ll have learned that plants are key to preventing climate change or because we’ll have killed them all with climate change and will be busy erecting monuments to what they used to look like in the Before Times. (No, not those Before Times, the other Before Times.)

The Kansas City Royals owners haven’t formally demanded a new stadium yet, preferring to let downtown development interests do the dirty work for them. And early in the year, a local architecture firm released images of what they would build in downtown K.C., if only someone gave them a few hundred million dollars to pursue their dream:

That doesn’t look like much of anything in particular: an inclined donut with a donut-shaped roof sitting atop it, though the trees growing 50 feet up off the ground are a nice touch, lending it that all-important air of greenness without having to specifically address how much extra steel would be needed to support all those root systems. Front and center, though, is the real star of the show, our old friend Cab-Hailing Purse Woman, who had been previously sighted outside Worcester’s new baseball stadium and standing on a blank void in Halifax while athletes played various sports at the same time nearby. (She even brought her friend from Halifax, Taking A Picture Of The Sky In Green Shirt Lady!) Clearly somebody’s focus groups have shown that while people may like to go to sporting events to throw their arms in the air wildly and watch fireworks during the daytime, the real attraction is getting to hail cabs, and seeing that in action creates a subliminal reaction that is guaranteed to separate voters from their money.

A few months later, Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno released renderings of his own new stadium development he’ll be building with the aid of $350 million in discounted land, and look who he invited to the party:

Somebody stuck a (badly deformed) foam #1 finger on her hand, but I would recognize that purse anywhere! Too bad she’s trying to hail a cab, or possibly exult that the Angels are #1 (pro tip: the Angels are not #1) to a bunch of people speeding away from her in a bike lane, but she gets points for trying! (Moreno’s people also included some green roofs, though with all the trees depicted as safely on the ground, this honestly feels like the old future.)

New Mexico United, not to be dissuaded by not knowing where it would build a stadium or how much it would cost or who would pay for it, released images of a soccer venue dominated by a giant Muffler Man robot and what appears to be a giant spider on its roof:

On the inside of these vaporstadiums, meanwhile, things don’t get much less weird. Some people, like in this Nashville S.C. stadium rendering, throw their hands in the air in excitement even though they can’t even seen the match from where they’re standing:

Others, as in this Hartford arena rendering, just go on their laptops and ignore the game entirely, or rather one basketball game and one hockey game, since even the arena’s internal video feed director can’t imagine that many people will be interested in watching the Wolf Pack when there’s a basketball game on somewhere:

And some fans watch a sport that is played by people lovingly depicted by a watercolor artist as 20-foot-tall homunculi:

And then, courtesy of Phoenix Rising F.C., there was, uh, this:

Finally, we have what is hands-down the worst stadium detail of the year, or maybe of all of recorded human history. Once again from that set of Royals stadium renderings:

Yep, it’s a clip-art fan holding up a handmade sign (check how the second line of text doesn’t even line up, they clearly used Letraset) reading “HEY CDC KC HAS THE FEVER.” In the year 2020. Sure, it was January 2020, but even then Covid was enough of a known entity that I cracked a joke about it at the time, so really, WTF? Even if the renderer was just trying to distract us from the fact that the base coaches had been raptured out of existence and taken the protective netting with them, this seems in extremely bad taste — but then, unveiling images of people packed in like sardines enjoying sporting events at stadiums requiring massive infusions of public cash during a pandemic that has put the world’s economy on hold and left millions of people and businesses at risk of eviction or bankruptcy is in extremely bad taste to start with, so maybe this is truly the most 2020 vaportecture image of them all.

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That time the Boston Globe said to raze Fenway Park because it was unfair to Jim Lonborg

It’s a slow news time, the interregnum between Christmas and New Year’s, so lots of news outlets are filling space with best-of lists and the like. We’ll get to those soon enough, but today I’d like to focus on the Boston Globe revisiting an article on its 53-year-and-two-days anniversary, about why the then-American League champion Boston Red Sox desperately needed a replacement for Fenway Park.

The writer, Harold Kaese, who had been a Boston sportswriter long enough to have covered Babe Ruth when he played for the Boston Braves, started off with the list of reasons not to approve a new stadium bill, which was then up for consideration by the legislature:

No open bidding on contracts, the secret books of the Turnpike Authority, the right to acquire land without compensating anybody except the BRA (Boston Redevelopment Authority), no provision to compensate Boston for taxable property lost to the stadium, and so on.

Those are some intriguing reasons! But Kaese was bringing them up only to dismiss them, because he was readying a volley of justifications for a Fenway replacement that should be familiar to any modern sports fan:

Why does Boston need a new stadium?

Because other cities with empty ones may steal the Red Sox and Patriots from us.

Because the Turnpike Extension needs more traffic.

Because the city’s hotels, motels, restaurants, taxi cabs, and parking lots need more business.

Because Fenway Park is an antediluvian playground, inadequate in its capacity, parking facilities, and dimensions.

That’s pretty much one from every category of the stadium playbook in Chapter 4 of Field of Schemes: the move threat; the promise of economic riches; the warning that the old place is “obsolete,” defined as whatever you feel like. And it adds the bizarre rationale that the Mass Pike needs more traffic, which I guess was because the toll road wasn’t generating enough revenue, even after large swaths of greater Boston had been seized and demolished to make way for the highway.

Kaese was just leading up to his main point, though, which was that Fenway Park needed to be razed because it was unfair to Jim Lonborg:

The best pitcher in the American League last season, not only because the baseball writers said so, but because he won the most games (22), had the most strikeouts (246), hit the most batters (19), and competitively was the toughest, was Jim Lonborg of the Red Sox.

But in earned run average, Lonborg rated 18th with his 3.16 runs allowed per game, which was 1.10 runs per game behind Joe Horlen of the White Sox.

Was Horlen 35 percent more effective a pitcher than Lonborg, as the ERA indicates?

Nobody who followed the American League last season will say so. Rather than say Horlen was 35 percent better than Lonborg, it would be more accurate to say that Comiskey Park, Chicago, is 35 percent easier to pitch in than Fenway Park, Boston.

So very much to unpack here! First off, there’s the common old-baseball contention that the best pitcher is the one who wins the most games, even though it’s just as easy to win games by having a team that scores lots of runs for you than by stopping the other team from scoring yourself. Lonborg won the A.L. Cy Young Award largely on the basis of those 22 wins, which came thanks to the 4.48 runs per game that the Sox scored in his starts that season; league average was 3.77 that year, but Boston had the best offense in the league, thanks partly to Fenway but mostly to Carl Yastrzemski, who won the triple crown with one of the best hitting seasons in baseball history despite playing under an expanded strike zone against pitchers standing atop a 15-inch mound.

Second, there’s the idea that Lonborg was the best pitcher in the league because he hit a league-high 19 batters, which … I guess was supposed to be an indication that he was a tough competitor or something, but mostly seems to have had to do with the fact that he threw hard but had terrible aim. (Lonborg walked 83 batters, just missing the league’s top ten.)

As for the rest of Kaese’s argument, thanks to living in the distant future with our computers and our flying cars, we are now in a great position to see whether Lonborg was indeed a great pitcher who was being held back from recognition by his home park, notwithstanding that he had just been recognized with the biggest pitching award baseball had to offer. Modern baseball analysis has come up with something called Wins Above Replacement, which combines various stats to estimate how many more wins a team got thanks to having this one player instead of some random schlub from the minors. (There are several different ways to calculate WAR, but let’s go with Baseball Reference’s, which is a common standard.) Lonborg in 1967 was worth 4.0 WAR, which compares to other American League pitchers that year like so:

1. Merritt • MIN 6.5
2. Chance • MIN 5.9
3. Horlen • CHW 5.5
4. Hunter • KCA 4.6
5. Siebert • CLE 4.6
6. Boswell • MIN 4.6
7. Tiant • CLE 4.6
8. Hargan • CLE 4.5
9. Downing • NYY 4.5
10. Kaat • MIN 4.2

Lonborg doesn’t even make the top-ten list, and look who does: Yep, Joe Horlen of the Chicago White Sox, that guy who only won the ERA title thanks to his fancy run-suppressing home park. It turns out Horlen actually did pitch better than Lonborg in 1967, as did a whole lot of other guys. (WAR takes into account how hard it is to score in a pitcher’s home stadium.) WAR, in fact, suggests that the real best A.L. pitcher of 1967 was Jim Merritt, who struck out 161 batters while walking only 30, but got zero Cy Young votes and didn’t even make the All-Star team thanks in large part to only going 13-7 in win-loss record, while the Minnesota Twins only scored 3.96 runs per game for him. Maybe the state of Minnesota should have passed a bill tearing down Zoilo Versalles?

Dumb 1967 baseball analysis aside, this should stand as a reminder that there has always been dumb newspaper writing about stadiums and why they should be replaced at public expense. (The cost of a new combined baseball and football stadium was estimated at $97 million, the equivalent of $747 million today.) And while both Horlen’s and Merritt’s home stadiums had been demolished by 1991, Fenway Park survives to this day, and is one of the most lucrative in baseball, thanks to both its popularity with fans and that antediluvian capacity, which enables the Sox to jack up ticket prices thanks to the relative scarcity of tickets.

Not that that’s stopped calls for Fenway Park’s replacement, most recently from Globe sportswriter Kevin Paul Dupont, who is old enough to have watched Lonborg pitch in 1967 while in high school. Earlier this month, Dupont wrote that Fenway needed to be razed because, and I am 100% serious about this and apparently he was too, the Cleveland Indians were deciding to change their name because it was racist:

If we were suddenly Cleveland, and the term “Red Sox” was deemed a pejorative and socially unacceptable (it came close here in the early ’60s), what would be harder, to see the team have to surrender its name or give up its ballpark?

Would it be easier on the heart and soul to accept the Boston Americans (or other new name) still playing at the existing Fenway, or the Red Sox, operating under their same name since 1908, playing in a dazzling new park, with 42,000 seats, dynamic views, sparkling bathrooms and enough electrical outlets to bring Nikola Tesla to tears?

I didn’t call attention to this at the time, because frankly, it didn’t even seem to have enough argument to it to be worth debunking. (Electrical outlets?) But now that the Globe has seen fit to dredge up an equally half-baked column from 53 years ago … is this the beginnings of a drumbeat to replace Fenway? Or just a newspaper sports department really bored by a team that’s going nowhere just two years after winning the World Series, and desperate for something new to write about? I just wrote 1300 words on this, so I’m probably not one to judge; but maybe let’s keep one eye open for warnings about declining toll revenue on I-90, just in case.

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Thursday roundup: NBA mulls expansion to raise quick cash, 60-year-old community-owned team sold to local rich dude, Crew may seek more tax breaks somehow

Happy pre-Christmas, everybody! (That’s the name for today, right? I really should Google that.) Here’s the stray news for the short holiday week:

  • NBA commissioner Adam Silver has called expansion the league’s “manifest destiny” and said that “it’s caused us to maybe dust off some of the analyses on the economic and competitive impacts of expansion” (what “it”? shh, don’t ask questions, the important man is talking) but “not to the point that expansion is on the front burner.” The implication is after losing like $1.5 billion in revenue, some quick cash from expansion fees sounds real good about now, but Silver’s not going to be the one to say that out loud, not when it might make him look desperate, not when it’s expansion cities and prospective owners that should be begging him to expand, that’s just how this is supposed to work, you know.
  • The Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, since 1958 run by a community-owned non-profit, have been sold to a local rich guy because, um, something about Covid. Also the non-profit’s chair, Tom Lehr, said “100% of the profits from the sale of the team to Third Base Ventures will be invested back into the team,” according to the Appleton Post-Crescent, which, what? This guy gets to buy the team, and also use the money he paid for it on the team as well? What is even happening.
  • The Columbus Crew‘s old stadium, which is set to become the team’s training ground plus public soccer fields, still belongs to the team while the land under it belongs to the state, and the team has to make $210,000 in payments in lieu of property taxes each year under a 2007 court settlement, but they’re working on a long-term lease now and a term sheet proposed by the team mentions “Ownership of existing MAPFRE Stadium to be discussed and examined in connection with real estate tax and other considerations,” and all this is a red flag but no one’s quite sure of what exactly. Maybe something that should have been considered before giving the Crew $98 million toward a new stadium? Ennnnh, that seems like a lot of work.
  • This year’s Rose Bowl is going to be played in Texas because that California has one of the nation’s worst coronavirus surges (Texas isn’t far behind, but Texas’s governor doesn’t care), and also this year’s Pro Bowl is going to be played on Madden, which warms my heart that our glorious future may finally arrive soon. If you’re wondering if the Pro Bowl had to be moved because its home stadium in Honolulu is on the verge of being condemned, nope, it was going to be in Las Vegas this year anyway, but, you know, Covid. Also, Honolulu’s outgoing mayor Kirk Caldwell warns that the city’s indoor arena is even older than the stadium and even though it’s getting a $43.6 million upgrade, “at some point you run out of life” and okay, yes, Caldwell’s plan for a $700 million replacement arena was already rejected and also he’s only mayor for another week, sorry, I don’t know why we’re actually talking about him.
  • There’s now an online petition against “any taxpayer funding being used to finance, construct, acquire, renovate, equip, enlarge, or operate a new baseball stadium within the City of Knoxville or Knox County.” Allow the debates over what counts as “taxpayer funding” to commence now!
  • If you want to work at F.C. Cincinnati‘s new stadium, they’re hiring! What about all the people who worked at the team’s old stadium, which actually averaged more fans per game than the new one will hold? Sorry, no room in the article for that!
  • The owners of the New York Yankees have agreed to provide ten $5,000 grants to local businesses suffering amid the pandemic — wait, seriously, $50,000? That’s roughly how much the Yankees pay Gerrit Cole for each batter he faces. “We are extremely appreciative of this support from the Yankees,” local bar owner Joe Bastone said, according to a statement issued by the Yankees, which ended up getting a bunch of media coverage out of it, all of it positive. Until now.
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How MLB’s war on the minor leagues screws over both players and taxpayers

Speaking of the impacts of MLB’s minor-league putsch and downsizing plan, I have an article up at Defector today that runs down the history and strategy of the move, from its origins in the brain of Astros GM Jeff “Trash-Can-Banging” Luhnow to the ways in which it will enable big-league owners to convert entire leagues into work-for-exposure internships and turn up the heat on cities to cough up for minor-league stadium improvements. Two brief excerpts for those who don’t want to read the whole thing (though you should, I spent long enough writing it):

The nine-team Pioneer League would become an independent “partner league,” with MLB providing some seed money and a bunch of radar guns; the 109-year-old Appalachian League, meanwhile, was converted to a “college wood-bat league,” of which there are already several throughout the U.S. Though the name sounds like a training service—you young’uns come learn how to hit with real lumber, and keep your NCAA eligibility too!—in practice it means that the 10 Appalachian League teams will be replacing paid employees with unpaid ones.

And:

Shaking down bush-league cities has traditionally offered both advantages and drawbacks for baseball owners. Sure, teams had more places to threaten to decamp to—hello, Worcester!—but there were also enough teams out there that cities could hold out reasonable hope of digging up a replacement elsewhere.

With each farm system limited to no more than four affiliates, that hope fizzles, tightening the remaining teams’ monopoly on pro ball.

As noted this morning in relation to the Tennessee Smokies‘ stadium plans, reducing the number of minor-league teams — and placing the decision over which teams survive solely in the hands of MLB league office functionaries — increases team owners’ leverage in shaking down cities for new or upgraded stadiums. But while that may be the more lucrative benefit to MLB from its minor-league takeover, possibly even more alarming is that hundreds of ballplayers will now be expected to play for free, either as college students on summer break or, in the case of the new “MLB Draft League,” as college (or just high school) graduates seeking to showcase their skills to earn a spot in the MLB summer draft. As a former NLRB chair told me, this is kind of a gray area in labor law: Normally if someone tells you when and where and how to work, you’re an employee and subject to laws about minimum wage and overtime and the like; but labor law has traditionally looked the other way when it comes to college athletes, so it may well do the same in the case of college-graduates-but-still-amateurs-until-MLB-says-they’re-not.

Anyway, hopefully this is just the start of a longer discussion about baseball’s cartel power — maybe the 2020s will be the decade that antitrust action finally makes its long-awaited comeback? Plus the start of a longer relationship with Defector, which has hit the ground running after its September emergence from the ashes of Deadspin and is even offering its freelance writers decent wages and rights, against the tide of modern news (and sports) industry practice; consider throwing them some money for a subscription and a tote bag, journalism will be glad you did.

 

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What we know about Knoxville’s plan to spend $65m (or more!) on a new Smokies stadium

The Knox County Commission joined the Knoxville city council in approving the creation of a sports authority yesterday, the first step toward building a new stadium for the Tennessee Smokies. The next step is (checks assembly instructions) figuring out what to build and how to pay for it, which looks simple enough. Who’s got an Allen wrench?

We already went over some of the details back in August, but that’s like a decade ago in 2020 time, so a quick recap and update:

  • Smokies owner Randy Boyd, an invisible dog fence baron, failed gubernatorial candidate, and current president of the University of Tennessee, as well as owner of the Johnson City Cardinals, Greeneville Reds, and Elizabethton Twins of the just-demoted-to-amateur-college-ball Appalachian League, would put up 11 acres of land and $140 million toward a new stadium complex that would also include a “mixed-use development.” The city and county would put up an additional $65 million.
  • Does squeezing a baseball stadium plus a bunch of apartment buildings onto one 11-acre site look like a topological impossibility? You bet it does! (Boyd has said the development would include “apartments with balconies overlooking the field,” which it kind of would have to; he has not said whether the Smokies’ left fielder would double as a doorman.)
  • Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs has said that “in order for me to be supportive, this project cannot and will not put any additional tax burdens on Knox Countians,” which will be a neat trick given that $65 million public price tag. Presumably there will be some sort of TIF deal where future taxes from the project will be kicked back to pay for construction, or something similar, but no details have been released yet.

That still leaves a ton of questions, including how Boyd’s land “donation” will work: If it means he gets to use his land to build a lucrative development project but hand over the deed to the public so he can get out of paying property taxes on it, that could be a significant hidden subsidy on top of the $65 million in taxpayer cash. There also remains the issue of who would pay Boyd’s buyout fee for the remaining years of his lease on the Smokies’ current stadium in suburban Kodak, which could cost as much as $10 million.

This is all taking place against the backdrop of MLB’s downsizing scheme for minor-league ball, which if nothing else makes having a traditional farm team with actual prospects paid actual salaries seem a more scarce commodity. Which isn’t to say that Boyd will threaten anything like “If you don’t approve this, I can ask MLB to move my Double-A team to Johnson City and stick you with a bunch of college sophomores on summer break” — Knoxville still has the advantages of population and fan base — but you and I and he and the sports authority all know he could, and that’s the kind of leverage a savvy negotiator likes to have.

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The sad story of the stadium named Dr Pepper for no good reason

A reader this weekend sent me this otherwise-innocuous article from 2019, which halfway through veers into discussing a stadium naming-rights deal gone wrong. Or, depending on your perspective, gone very very right:

If nothing changes before opening day on April 4, for the second consecutive season the team will play in a Dr Pepper Ballpark that is no longer technically Dr Pepper Ballpark.

After a 15-year relationship, the Plano-based soft drink company didn’t renew its sponsorship with the RoughRiders when its contract expired Oct. 1, 2017. …

Though it stopped paying for the privilege 16 months ago, Dr Pepper’s signage remains up throughout the RoughRiders’ stadium and the “Dr Pepper Stadium” name and logo is still prominent on the team’s website and promotional materials.

The Dallas Observer omits a few details here, so let’s back up a second. The Frisco RoughRiders of the Double-A Texas League are the former Shreveport Swamp Dragons of the Double-A Texas League, whose owner, then-Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks, relocated them in 2003 after getting the city of Frisco to build him a new 10,000-seat stadium. The city put up $67 million in future tax kickbacks toward the project, with Hicks kicking in another $233 million, though a lot of that wasn’t for the stadium but rather for the mixed-use development Hicks built around the stadium. (And was later sued by one of his partners over, before ending up going bankrupt and selling all his sports teams, but that is one if not several other stories.)

Though the city of Frisco helped pay for the park’s construction and owns the building — the better for Hicks not to pay property taxes on it — Hicks kept the revenue for himself, including any cash raised by selling naming rights to the RoughRiders’ new home. (Selling naming rights to buildings you don’t own is standard business practice among sports team owners, apparently for no better reason than that sports team owners tell city officials that it’s standard business practice.) Dr Pepper/Seven Up, which had its headquarters in neighboring Plano, stepped up with a 15-year offer for an undisclosed amount of money to name the new ballpark Dr Pepper/Seven Up Ballpark, which was such a massively stupid name that it was quickly shortened to just Dr Pepper Ballpark.

When that naming-rights deal expired after 2017, the company, by now renamed Dr Pepper Snapple after a series of corporate shenanigans too boring to recount here, decided that maybe having a stadium named after your soft drink wasn’t the best marketing strategy after all, and declined to renew. RoughRiders officials quickly announced that they would be seeking a new $18 million, 12-year deal, and at least one local economist predicted they’d have no trouble finding a company to pay up.

That has not gone so well. Three years later, the naming rights have still not resold, yet the stadium is still called Dr Pepper Ballpark. This is, apparently, because the team can’t be bothered to take down the old signage. As an anonymous former team employee told the Dallas Observer, “It would cost money to pull all those signs down. We know money is pretty tight up there so, congrats Dr Pepper, free advertising!”

For reference, here is a photo of the main stadium signage, which looks like it would be pretty easy to dismantle and take down, or, you know, throw a tarp over:

There is probably much to be said about the shortsightedness of minor-league sports team owners or the effect on naming-rights value of having ingrained one name in people’s consciousness for 15-going-on-18 years, but really I just want to focus on this poor baseball stadium, which not only has to put up with being festooned with drab gray siding and outfitted with a lazy river to coerce people to brave the Texas heat watching Double-A baseball, but is stuck being named after a poorly punctuated soda designed to taste like the inside of a drug store even though no one is paying for it to be called that. This is either an indictment of modern sports or late capitalism or something, but it makes me sad and yearn for simpler times when ballparks were named after racist team owners or something. Allow me some gauzy nostalgia, no matter how ahistorical it may be!

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Friday roundup: Titans seek overhaul of 21-year-old stadium, FC Cincy subsidy nears $100m, plus: bored sportswriters go rogue!

A quick programming note: The next two Friday roundups will be on Thursdays, since the next two Fridays are Christmas and New Year’s. Not that I’ll be doing much special those days — I’ve done pretty much nothing since March other than sit and stare at my laptop screen — but I’m doing this anyway as a courtesy to readers who may feel the need to go out and infect extended family members with a deadly disease or something.

And on to this week’s news remainders:

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Cleveland on hook for $12m in Browns stadium repairs, $50m more to come?

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson signed into law $12 million in spending on repairs to the Cleveland Browns‘ stadium yesterday, after the city council approved it last week. Since sports team owners are notorious for calling all sort of things “maintenance” — perhaps most memorably, that time former Detroit Tigers owner Tom Monaghan said that Tiger Stadium needed $100 million in repairs when that was actually the price tag for enclosing it with a roof — let’s see how legit these expenses are:

[The work includes] repairs to the stadium’s electrical and plumbing infrastructure, as well as replacing pedestrian ramps. … The proposed repairs also include the replacement of hot water tanks; the installation of chiller lines to the south end of the stadium; the replacement of compressors in walk-in coolers and freezers; the replacement of the stadium’s lighting control system; the replacement of corroded fire sprinkler lines as well as the patching and replacing of structural and non-structural concrete.

That indeed mostly seems like actual maintenance, not upgrades. (“Replacement of the stadium’s lighting control system” would depend on whether the old lighting control system is actually broken, or the Browns just want one that can run holographic replays.) So, no major shenanigans sighted here!

What this does point out, however, is a hidden cost of many stadium deals where the building is owned by the public, which is to say almost all stadium deals. If a normal company builds a headquarters, they’re responsible for patching the concrete when it crumbles. If they go and rent a headquarters, it’s their landlord’s responsibility, but they make regular rent payments that help underwrite the landlord’s costs. Browns owner Jimmy Haslam pays only $250,000 a year in rent, which isn’t nearly enough to pay off the city’s costs of repairing the stadium, let alone the city’s $296.3 million construction tab and the $120 million it gave the team in 2013 for additional upgrades like a new scoreboard.

But the public will own the stadium! is often put forward as a benefit of a stadium deal, when it’s actually a cost — most significantly, because the team owner then usually (though not always) gets out of paying any property taxes. (For Haslam, this amounts to more than $600,000 a year in savings, or well more than he pays in rent.) But there are additional benefits as well, most significantly the ability to send the city a checklist of items that need fixing and make them pay for it.

And according to an audit of the stadium’s condition conducted earlier this year, there are likely to be more invoices on the way to taxpayers: News 5 Cleveland reports that future repairs “could exceed $50 million over the next 10 years,” including the replacement of seats that are “in fair or poor condition” and “updates” to “broadcast and lighting facilities as well as its technology.” This is sounding like it’s starting to edge into upgrades and not repairs, but that’ll be for future mayors to haggle over — unless, of course, they’re haggling over a whole new stadium by then.

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Hartford unveils $100m arena upgrade so fans can ignore the game in comfort

The city of Hartford is taking advantage of pandemic downtime to move ahead with $100 million in state-funded renovations to its arena, something that would otherwise require interruptions to … the minor-league hockey Hartford Wolf Pack, I guess some concerts, whatever else they use the place for these days. The 45-year-old arena was previously described by its director as “out of its prime” and “tired,” and today we get a bunch of rendering showing how untired it will be with $100 million thrown at it:

Okay, this is some kind of dining area, I think? At least, that looks like a steam table of some kind off to the right, though one without any actual food on it. The woman in the shiny new Adidas appears to be taking a photo of it, because in the future, Instagramming empty plates will be a way to, I dunno, express solidarity with climate famine victims or something?

And this is … a cafe? The two identical bearded servers look to be pouring coffee, anyway. Not that anyone is drinking coffee, or doing much of anything else, other than using laptops and talking on their phones, while both hockey and basketball games play on ignored screens in the background.

This is a “bunker suite,” which would be built below the lower seating level. (You can glimpse the actual arena bowl at the top of those stairs to the right.) There would be a seating area for four to eight people outside the suite, while everyone else could sit on a sofa and watch on TV, or maybe in a comfy chair arranged so they couldn’t see the TV at all, in case the game is too painful to watch.

The Hartford Courant says the goal of all this is to “bring spectators closer to the action,” but if there’s one common theme, it’s that none of the renderings actually show people being able to see the action at all, or even paying the slightest attention to it. The reasonable conclusion is that the state of Connecticut has decided that the way to get people to go to more sporting events and concerts is to make doing so as much like sitting at home or watching at a bar as possible — which is definitely not an uncommon strategy, but does seem a little weird given that watching at home or at a bar doesn’t require shelling out for a ticket. We’ll see how it goes, I guess — the state will need to bring in several million dollars more a year to recoup its $100 million expense, so Connecticut sports fans had better be ready to drink a whole lot of invisible coffee.

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