Friday roundup: Miami ripped off again by Loria, Rays roof removal proposed, America’s journalists snookered

I’ll keep this short today, in deference to any Texas readers who may be trying to save battery life thanks to that state’s power outages. Once your bandwidth is back, here’s a good reminder from the New York Times that climate change is expected to cause unseasonable cold snaps and winter storms as well as insane summer heat, so you have lots more of both to look forward to. Or, if you prefer, here’s an article on a similar theme from the Village Voice a few years back that I wrote a much snappier headline for.

Stadiums, right, that’s what you came here to read about! Let’s see what we’ve got:

Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own a sports team

There are many open questions about the proposed Tennessee Smokies stadium in Knoxville — questions like “How will Knoxville pay for $65 million in construction costs without ‘burdening’ taxpayers?” and “Will team owner Randy Boyd get out of paying property taxes if he ‘donates’ the land to the city while still building his private stadium on top of it?” and “Why are the players in the rendering so huge?” So, sure, it’s definitely time for WBIR-TV to run a news story that consists almost entirely of Boyd saying how great a new stadium would be:

The millionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist believes it can be “The People’s Park,” a place for walkers, shoppers, sports fans, craftsmen, music lovers, even couples who want to say, “I do.” …

“The idea of building a baseball park is not something of creating a venue just for baseball, but creating an entire entertainment venue that can have concerts, soccer, all kinds of other tournaments, family reunions, we could have farmers markets.” …

“We’ve got a lot of enthusiasm. We’ve got a lot of plans. But we still got a lot of work left to do,” he said.

Okay, eventually Knoxville Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie shows up to ask some questions — or rather, to say that she has questions and “I’m looking forward to just getting more information” — but then it’s back to Boyd to rave about how people could go to the stadium on their lunch hour or for a walk before work, because those are things that actual humans actually do in the actual world.

WBIR being a TV station, there’s a video report as well, which starts off with the reporter describing how a stadium development would “transform” a “crumbling industrial site” (can a site crumble?) before going on a walk around the site with Boyd, who talks about the “tangible return” the stadium would bring, without presenting anything tangible. This is described as one in a series of reports on the stadium plan by the station, but the last two I can find are another report that is mostly Boyd talking about how great it would be, and one on Boyd launching a new website to promote it.

This is pretty common practice for local news outlets, but, seriously, does anyone think it’s actually journalism? Sure, Boyd is a “newsmaker,” but when certain people get free TV time to expound on their sales pitch while everyone else just has to sit at home and watch, that’s a huge problem. Compare, for example, with this story (recounted in Field of Schemes: The Book, go buy it now if you don’t have it already, there are ebook and Kindle versions too!) told by Tiger Stadium Fan Club activist Frank Rashid of the time he tried to get a local newspaper not even to quote him, but just to run a correction of some stadium propaganda it repeated without checking:

On one occasion, Rashid recalls, he wound up calling the [Detroit] Free Press to complain about an inaccurate story about the Fan Club. He pointed out to a city desk editor that the reporter had printed inaccurate statements by the group’s opponents about the Fan Club, statements that the reporter himself had to have known were untrue.

The editor, according to Rashid, replied with indignation, “What do you expect? [Tigers owner Tom] Monaghan has made money. He’s paid his dues. Who are you guys?”

“I really appreciated the honesty,” says Rashid. “But, damn! None of us is disreputable. We’re all people who are solid citizens, but we don’t have money. Solid citizens without money don’t count as well as somebody who’s got a big corporation.”

If the book, and this website, have a motto, it’s probably that last line. It’s a sentiment that doesn’t seem to have changed at all in the 25 years Joanna Cagan and I have been reporting on this — though I guess it’s only three more years until the Bell Riots, so maybe things will finally improve after that.

Pawtucket, Des Moines approve maybe $90m in soccer subsidies, local reporters can’t be bothered to explain it

A $46.2 million subsidy for a Pawtucket USL soccer stadium was approved last week by … okay, let’s let the dueling crappy press reports explain it. First, the Providence Journal:

The Rhode Island Commerce Corporation board Friday afternoon approved $46.2 million in state incentives for a proposed $284-million soccer stadium and residential and commercial development on the Seekonk River in Pawtucket…

The 8-to-0 votes Friday approved $36.2 million in state borrowing for infrastructure improvements associated with the project, to be paid off by new tax revenue from Tidewater Landing. It also included $10 million in Rebuild RI tax credits, plus rebates of the sales and use tax on materials used during construction.

That seems pretty straightforward: The Rhode Island Commerce Corporation is the state development agency, and $46.2 million worth of future tax kickbacks (for a stadium that will only cost $40 million to build, plus a bunch of other non-soccer development) is about the size of what was being discussed last week. So, now it just needs to be approved by the state legislature, presumably? Let’s see what the Associated Press has to say:

A city committee approved the use of bonds and tax rebates amounting to $46 million for the project on Thursday, the city said in a statement.

The city … council? According to an earlier Providence Journal story, the “new tax revenue” kickbacks will include both state and city money, so it makes sense that the city would have to approve it. But why only a committee? Is there a full council vote still to follow? Anyone? Have our nation’s journalism outlets just totally given up on explaining anything that isn’t in the press release?

Meanwhile, in Des Moines, where last week it was reported that the city was working on subsidies for its own USL stadium that would amount to “much less than $45 million” (“much” here being a technical fiscal term meaning “something”), the city council voted last night to … the only reporting is from something called We Are Iowa, and here’s what it says:

The Des Moines City Council voted Monday night to approve a preliminary plan for the Capital City Reinvestment District, which formerly belonged to Dico, Inc.

The Council also voted to approve preliminary terms to sell part of the area for an urban renewal development agreement with Krause Group…

The Stadium District will transform the area into a “welcoming gateway into the downtown” part of Des Moines. A 6,300-seat, multi-use soccer stadium is hoped to be built in the area as well as a 150-room hotel with office buildings and a parking ramp.

Okay, what are those “preliminary terms”? Would the project still get tax kickbacks, just like in Pawtucket? Hello?Come on, guys, seriously, this is like your one job!
More news on both of these as they’re reported, I guess, which may or may not ever happen. (There’s video of the Des Moines council hearing, I see, but I don’t have time to watch it all right now to see if it includes any more details.) In the meantime, here’s a rendering of some sad people walking around the outside of the Pawtucket stadium because they can’t afford a ticket, or maybe don’t like soccer, or maybe decided to leave in the middle of the match because it was so boring, I mean seriously, half the fans are choosing to stand at an outward-facing railing and stare into the distance rather than watch the game … which is actually pretty much how I felt at the last low-level U.S. pro soccer match I went to, so points for realism!

 

What time was the Super Bowl superspreader event?

The NFL held another Super Bowl last night, and as was discussed in the run-up to kickoff, there were widespread concerns that doing so with fans in attendance in Tampa’s stadium — and fans gathering elsewhere for Super Bowl parties — might set off a spike in coronavirus infections just like that other recent big mass gathering event did. How did America do?

Let’s start with inside the stadium, where the NFL allowed in 22,000 fans while augmenting them with 30,000 cardboard cutouts. There are roughly a billion articles today saying that this made the game look more crowded than it was; so how crowded was it?

That’s pretty crowded, even if you account for the few cutouts visible. Not to mention pretty sporadically masked. And while one of those two things might be acceptable in an outdoor space, the one proven way to spread the virus even outdoors is to be unmasked, close together, and singing or shouting.

But 7,500 of those fans were vaccinated health care workers! They’re just like cardboard cutouts, right, because now that they’re vaccinated, they can’t catch or spread the virus? Well, no:

“Currently, we do not have enough data to be able to say with confidence that the vaccines can prevent transmission,” [Dr. Anthony] Fauci said in a tweet during an online Q&A session. “So even if vaccinated, you may still be able to spread the virus to vulnerable people.”

The important distinction here is that while the available vaccines have been shown to be extremely effective at preventing people from getting extremely sick, they don’t actually prevent people from getting infected. And people who are infected but not sick can still spread the virus — there’s some early evidence that at least one of the vaccines dramatically reduces the number of people with active virus in their noses, which is a great sign that they’ll spread it less, but that still makes those vaccinated health care workers at best 67% cardboard.

Outside the stadium, meanwhile, things were if anything much worse, especially once the hometown Tampa Bay Buccaneers won:

Now, all this is outdoors, and the vast majority of coronavirus spread has been indoors, so maybe things will be more or less okay despite the lack of masks and close quarters, much like they were after last spring’s Black Lives Matter protests, though the protestors then seemed to be on the whole more consistently masked. We’ll find out in a couple of weeks, once we see whether virus levels spike in Tampa. (And other cities where people gather to watch the Super Bowl, which I understand happens even in cities without teams in the game!) And if it does, it could have a major impact on whether other sporting events like the MLB season or the Tokyo Olympics are considered safe for fans — assuming that either the leaders of sports leagues or elected officials use epidemiology and not businesses’ profit concerns as their guide, which is probably not a safe assumption at all.

Plus, of course, how much the virus spread last night will determine whether a whole lot of people get infected and die: not just the people at the game and the street parties, but the people who then get infected by them, and the people who get infected by them, and so on. One of the problems of public health and infectious disease vectors is that “I’m willing to accept the risk” is seldom a reasonable justification for risky behavior — your behavior can end up bringing sickness or death to someone you never even meet, just like that one poor person who went to a biotech conference in Boston last February and ended up leading to the infection of at least 245,000 people. If we’re lucky, that didn’t happen last night in Tampa; if we’re unlucky, allowing fans to celebrate the Super Bowl up close and maskless could end up costing us a shot at an earlier end to this pandemic.

Friday roundup: We have entered the Golden Age of minor-league stadium scams

Welp, that was another week. I know from comments that some of you think that the stadium and arena subsidy racket is about to come grinding to a halt, either because of the Covid economy or everybody already having a new enough stadium or something, but it sure looks like team owners didn’t get the memo — my RSS feeds are as hopping as they’ve ever been with tales of sports venue funding demands, and it’s still a rarity when local governments say no or even hmm, really? Check out this week’s roster, which, as yours truly predicted a couple of months ago, is especially jam-packed with minor-league baseball stadium plans:

Super Bowl foes’ billionaire owners got richer thanks to $468 million in stadium subsidies

As the proprietor of the world’s most comprehensive site on stadium and arena financing news (the competition is something fierce, let me tell you), I occasionally get requests for research help, and one of those came recently from the Institute for Policy Studies and Americans for Tax Fairness, which were putting together a report on how much richer America’s sports billionaires have gotten during the pandemic. (The total is $98.5 billion, if you were wondering, a rise of 30% in wealth in just one year, enough to pay for $1,400 stimulus checks for almost half of those eligible.) I crunched the numbers on how much the wealth of those owners had been boosted by public stadium and arena subsidies, and the answer is:

Over the past several decades, according to data maintained by Field of Schemes, 28 pro sports teams owned by 26 billionaires have received $9 billion in taxpayer subsidies to help build or update stadiums and arenas and make other investments billionaires could presumably afford on their own. These publicly subsidized team owners have seen their wealth increase $45 billion in the last 10 months.

That public largesse for billionaire sports barons has included both teams in this year’s Super Bowl. The Chiefs received $250 million in taxpayer subsidies for stadium renovations in 2006. Taxpayers provided a total of $218 million in subsidies for construction and renovation of the Buccaneer stadium in 1998 and 2015.

Now, there isn’t a direct link between the stadium subsidies and the billionaires’ wealth boom during the pandemic — most of the benefits from the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers subsidies were absorbed by their billionaire owners years ago. If anything, the surge in concentrated wealth is more a reflection of how during troubled times, the rich generally find a way to get richer, as with Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, whose Quicken Loans empire has sent his personal value soaring 589% to more than $44 billion, thanks to the tanking economy leading to low interest rates and lots of cheap loan refinancing. According to the IPS/ATF report, even Oakland A’s and The Gap owner John Fisher has seen his wealth soar by 34% during the pandemic, despite the advent of Zoom work meaning nobody has had to buy any new pants.

The remedies proposed by the two organizations are to close loopholes that tax income generated by wealth at lower rates than wages — stock dividends and stock gains are currently taxed at a maximum of 20%, a discount that benefits billionaires way more than penny investors, those plucky Redditors notwithstanding — instituting wealth and estate taxes, and restoring the corporate income tax rate to 40% from the 21% that Donald Trump cut it to. Getting rid of stadium subsidies would be a drop in the bucket on top of this, but a $9 billion drop is still nothing to shake a stick at.

Des Moines could spend $45m on tax kickbacks for minor-league soccer stadium

With the explosive growth of pro soccer leagues in the United States has come an explosive growth in new soccer stadium demands, and the latest city to be hit is Des Moines, home to the Des Moines Menace of the semi-pro USL League 2 (the fourth tier of pro soccer) but hoping to move up to USL Championship (the second tier). And where in most of the world the team would need to earn promotion by winning games, in the U.S. there’s an easy shortcut: spend a bunch of tax money to build a soccer stadium and surrounding development complex.

Pro Iowa, a campaign to bring profession soccer to Iowa, along with the real estate arm of Krause Group and the city of Des Moines, plan to use sales and hotel-motel taxes generated from the Iowa Reinvestment Act to help pay for the $535 million project that would include 29 separate projects.

There’s lots of gibberish about “activated plaza space” and “heritage festivals,” but mostly what you need to know is that the Iowa Reinvestment Act allows cities to create special districts where hotel/motel and sales taxes are kicked back to developers to fund the cost of new construction. (Yep, that’s a TIF.) Des Moines city officials aren’t yet revealing exactly how much tax money would be siphoned off and given to the stadium developers, but the Des Moines Register reports that “early discussions” were in the $40-45 million range; deputy city manager Matt Anderson told the paper that “we are still working on the final amount, but it will be much less than $45 million.” (The total cost of a stadium was previously reported at around $60 million.)

The Des Moines city council is set to discuss the project on Monday, at which point maybe we’ll have more details. For now, here’s a rendering of people standing in a combined pedestrian plaza and parking lot — does that make it a woonerf? I’m calling it a woonerf until somebody tells me otherwise:

Red Sox owner seeks to pepper Fenway area with high rises, take over public street

When John Henry bought the Boston Red Sox in 2002, as part of the three-way ownership deal that ended up with the Florida Marlins in the hands of Jeffrey Loria and the Montreal Expos eventually being moved to Washington, it was seen as a victory for opponents of tearing down historic ballparks and replacing them at public expense: The old ownership’s plan for a new, larger Fenway Park went out the window, and Henry instead set out to renovate the 1912 ballpark with mostly private money, though he did get $80 million in state and federal historic preservation credits.

Henry also set his sights on the Fenway neighborhood around the park, with an eye toward making money by expanding his team’s footprint outside the stadium proper. He bought several adjacent buildings, moving some ballpark operations into them, and struck a deal with the city to close down Yawkey Way (now Jersey Street because former Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey was a racist jerk who was the last owner in MLB to bring in a non-white player) on game days for a pittance so he could use it as an outdoor concessions mall. And now Henry is preparing his biggest move yet, seeking city approval to partner with two development firms to build 2.1 million square feet of office, residential, and retail towers on eight acres of land near Fenway:

“The Project’s guiding principle is to allow the city fabric to envelop and embrace the historic ballpark and create welcoming, people-first places and buildings that contribute to the quality and vitality of the public realm in the heart of the Fenway neighborhood year-round,” WS [Development] wrote in its letter to the [Boston Planning & Development Agency].

They also plan to shut down Jersey Street — which today is closed on Red Sox game days but otherwise open to traffic — to create a permanent pedestrian plaza alongside Fenway Park. That would happen only after the extension of Ross Way — which today connects Boylston and Van Ness Streets — all the way through to Brookline Avenue. A mix of storefronts and taller buildings would line Jersey Street, according to images filed with the letter.

The project also calls for buildings on a large surface parking lot across Brookline Avenue from Fenway Park, and on the site of a squat garage along Landsdowne Street behind the Green Monster. Longer term, the group is considering building a so-called “air rights” development over the Turnpike behind that garage — though those highly-complex projects typically take years of careful planning.

Here are some renderings, complete with skyways and clip-art people enjoying leisurely strolls (with their bicycles, for some reason) along public promenades:

Is this a land-development-rights stadium scam, like is becoming all the rage these days? Not precisely: Henry doesn’t appear to be asking for public money, and there’s no quid pro quo where he’s threatening to leave town if he doesn’t get what he wants or anything like that. It’s just Henry behaving like other local developers who have taken advantage of booming real estate values to erect a ton of high-rise buildings in the Fenway area. (If you haven’t been to a Red Sox game lately, check out what’s happened to Boylston Street.)

Still, developer scams are a thing too, and this has all the hallmarks of one: Henry would almost certainly need to demand a rezoning to allow for higher development than would otherwise be allowed on land that he or his partners bought for a price based on lower zoning limits. Plus, there’s that bit about shutting down Jersey Street permanently, which while maybe a good idea from a pedestrian traffic-flow point of view, still amounts to a land grab to make up for Fenway Park’s small footprint by annexing his own version of Baltimore’s Eutaw Street.

As with the original Fenway renovation deal, I don’t feel the need to call out the pitchforks and torches — this could be so, so much worse for both Boston taxpayers and Boston fans of historic stadiums and historic neighborhoods. Still, it’s decidedly an indication of how billionaires, whether they own sports teams or not (but it helps), can leverage their way into redesigning entire areas of cities. In American capitalism, we get not the cities that we deserve, but the cities that our 700-pound gorillas think will make them the most money.

Florida man wants to host Tokyo Olympics in Florida, called “batshit crazy”

And to top off this when-the-stadium-news-rains-it-pours day, here’s some light comedy, courtesy of everyone’s favorite clown state:

In his letter to the [International Olympic Committee], Jimmy Patronis ― the chief financial officer for the state of Florida ― cited reports that Japan has decided to call off this summer’s games due to the pandemic after already delaying the event by a year. (The IOC has called such reports “categorically untrue.”)

“There is still time to deploy a site selection team to Florida to meet with statewide and local officials on holding the Olympics in the Sunshine State,” Patronis wrote. “I would welcome the opportunity to pitch Florida and help you make the right contacts to get this done.”

He touted Florida’s “ample hotel capacity and well-maintained transportation network” as well as the state’s “12 major universities that have existing sporting facilities.”

Jimmy Patronis, for those not familiar (like me, until ten minutes ago), is the heir to a Panama City seafood restaurant who has largely turned his back on the family business to serve a variety of roles in Florida state government, from serving on the Florida Elections Commission to his current role as state CFO. What possessed him to write an open letter to the IOC offering to host the Olympics on six months’ notice in his state — a state, it’s worth noting, that currently has a coronavirus case rate per capita that is 1360% higher than Japan’s — is unclear, but the pointing and laughing was fast and furious:

Victor Matheson, an economist at Holy Cross and an expert on the economic impact of the Olympics, called Patronis’ proposal “batshit crazy.”

“The idea that just because Florida has a lot of hotels that they could organize an entire Olympics event within six months is absolutely crazy,” Matheson said…

“Let’s be honest here: If Tokyo is not safe enough due to COVID to host the event, there’s no way in a million years, Florida is safe enough to host the event,” he said. “It simply means that Tokyo actually cares about whether they want a mass superspreader event in their city while Florida doesn’t.”

And:

“It’s very different if they were having the Super Bowl or something like that,” [Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University for Health Security] added. “That’s actually easier than the Olympics because the Olympics are coming from multiple different countries with different testing regimens and different levels of infections and different levels of vaccination.”

And:

“This is an idiotic, delusional, uninformed, ignorant Florida politician trying to put his name out there,” [Smith College sports economist Andrew] Zimbalist said of Patronis. “And whether or not he himself believes this can be done, I don’t know. It’s got no chance. It’s just stupid.”

And:

https://twitter.com/FakeWelt/status/1354377928134561793

As am I, after five posts today. See you all tomorrow, or maybe Friday if the news cycle blessedly stops spinning for a minute.

Why Arizona mayors asked for spring training delay then unasked for it (tl;dr: money)

A kerfuffle has broken out in Arizona over the start of baseball spring training next month, with officials from host cities requesting that the opening date be delayed, and also not actually requesting it, and — you know what, let’s begin at the beginning.

Spring training is set to start in less than three weeks, with pitchers and catchers reporting on February 15 and exhibition games starting on February 27. When those dates were first set last fall, it wasn’t thought to be an issue — teams were already playing games in their home cities across the nation, with frequent testing (more or less) making it possible to do this without massive virus outbreaks. But coronavirus rates are roughly a squillion times higher now than they were then, with Arizona at the top of the list for cases per capita. Plus, as noted on Friday, Arizona city officials started realizing that nobody was going to come to those games and stay at their hotels and stuff, and while that’s not actually a huge economic benefit, it’s all they get.

Soooo, a whole bunch of Cactus League mayors and city managers sent out this letter to MLB on Friday:

 

If that’s too small to squint at on your phone, the gist is:

In view of the current state of the pandemic in Maricopa County — with one of the nation’s highest infection rates — we believe it is wise to delay the start of spring training to allow for the COVID-19 situation to improve here. This position is based on public data from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which projects a sharp decline in infections in Arizona by mid-March (an estimated 9,712 daily infections on February 15 and 3,072 daily infections on March 15).

And if you look at Arizona’s infection-rate curve, that pretty much checks out:

Yesterday, however, Cactus League executive director Bridget Binsbacher quickly walked that back:

“If it is determined that spring training is going to start on Feb. 27, we’re prepared for that,” Binsbacher told ESPN in an interview. “Our focus is having a safe, secure experience for all involved. We believe we can do that on the 27th. We believe we can do that a month from the 27th.”

The subtext here has to do with MLB’s need to consult with the players’ union on delaying the start of the season — or, more to the point, consult with the union on paying players less if the season is delayed. Players, needless to say, despite any concerns about reporting for duty in the nation’s Covid capital, are also not crazy about MLB keeping them safe by furloughing them without pay, and have turned down any delay in the start of the season without pay. MLB owners, for their part, have no interest in not playing games if they have to pay players anyway. So everyone is just sort of moving ahead by pretending that all this will be safe enough, probably:

In a statement, the MLBPA said: “While we, of course, share the goals of a safe spring training and regular season, MLB has repeatedly assured us that it has instructed its teams to be prepared for an on-time start to spring training and the regular season.”

The league, in a statement, said: “As we have previously said publicly, we will continue to consult with public health authorities, medical experts and the players association whether any schedule modifications to the announced start of spring training and the championship season should be made in light of the current COVID-19 environment to ensure the safety of the players, coaches, umpires, MLB employees and other gameday personnel in a sport that plays every day.”

And, you know, it might work out okay! There are very likely to be outbreaks at spring training camps, and some players might get seriously sick (hopefully Eduardo Rodriguez is doing better now), especially given all the airports that players will be shlepping through to get to Florida and Arizona. But there are plenty of players at spring training if you need substitutes, and for that matter it’s easy enough to cancel spring training games if needed since they don’t count for anything. So maybe if by late March coronavirus rates are down to more reasonable levels, and there isn’t a second (fourth? I’ve lost count) wave thanks to new mutated variants, then by April everyone will be ready to start the season on time with at least some practice in. Maybe. It’s no dumber than what the NBA is doing, certainly!

Still, it’s important to note that whether MLB gets this right or not will be almost entirely down to dumb luck, since everyone concerned — owners, players, mayors — is looking at this from a money standpoint first, and a public health standpoint at most second. Is it too late for all sports to take a gap year?