Thursday, July 30, 2015

Bass Pro Got Your Money; Why Shouldn't a Baseball Team?

In case you missed it, good column in today's Trib from Joe Brown, opining that the monster crowd at yesterday's Bass Pro Shop demonstrates Hillsborough County probably didn't need to give the private sector $6 million to make it happen.

It's a topic I delved into quite a bit in 2013, writing the Rays are just like Bass Pro: a private business that creates the exact kind of job the county admits it shouldn't be subsidizing...yet it does anyway:
Bass Pro isn't all that different from a pro sports team: a big-time retail business that makes hard-to-prove and potentially misleading claims about its value as a tourist attraction.   In fact, a month ago...Rays' vice president Michael Kalt identified the team as a "retail business" that had trouble getting people to drive more than 30 minutes to visit.
Then, I asked if commissioners would also just roll over for the Rays the way they did for Bass Pro:
On Wednesday, the Hillsborough County Commission heard every argument imaginable against public subsidies for a new Bass Pro Shops complex.  Then they asked Bass Pro to more or less "open its books" and reveal its annual sales numbers.  And promptly after Bass Pro said "no," commissions approved the $6+ million subsidy anyway, 6 votes to 1.
After all, why should a private business open its books to demonstrate need, ROI, or job creation when elected officials could just take their word for it?

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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Single Most-Important Man in the StadiumSaga is Retiring

The city of St. Petersburg will say goodbye to a legend this week: city attorney John Wolfe, better known as The Man Who Drafted the Ironclad Agreement with the Rays.

So how important is this man to the 8-year-long (and counting) stadium stalemate?  Not only does MLB's commissioner praise the city's contract, but so does the Sultan of Subsidies, Neil deMause!
Wolfe was also the steady force in city hall advising against letting Rays look in Tampa more than a decade before their contract expires in 2027, for fear it would only weaken region's leverage to keep team.

So his departure is welcomed by many frustrated Rays fans in Tampa...but it's not clear if much will change in the Stadium Saga.  Wolfe's mentee, Jackie Kovilaritch, takes over as the city's top attorney.

She's no stranger to Rays discussions; Mayor Rick Kriseman tasked her - not Wolfe - with drafting the tricky Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) he negotiated last fall with the team.  And numerous attorneys I spoke with complimented her handiwork, including Wolfe:

So while it's a new day in St. Pete, it may not necessarily translate into a new chapter in the Stadium Saga.

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Monday, July 27, 2015

Rays Announce Big Radio Ratings; Contract Extension

According to an afternoon Rays press release, radio ratings are up substantially from 2014:
The Tampa Bay Rays and iHeart Media today announced a multi-year extension that will keep game broadcasts on WDAE 620 AM/95.3 FM. The Rays and iHeart Media have partnered for all 18 seasons of Rays baseball. 

“We are very excited about the extension of our partnership with the Rays,” said Sam Nein, iHeart Media Market President. “We have been the Radio home for the Rays since game one when Wilson Alvarez threw out the first pitch in the team’s history and we look forward to being with the team and part of many more historic moments in the years ahead!”

“The Rays and iHeart Media have enjoyed a terrific, long standing relationship,” said Rays Senior Director of Broadcasting Larry McCabe. “Our Rays Radio flagship station delivers consistent coverage and continuous promotion for our games that Rays fans enjoy. We’re also excited to introduce new FM listening opportunities during the second half of the 2015 season.”

Beginning in early August, Rays play-by-play will also be available for fans on Thunder FM for all Friday, Saturday and Sunday games.

In addition, the team released Nielsen Audio ratings for games through mid-June that showed a marked increase compared to the same period for 2014. Ratings have increased 27 percent for adults 18 and older, 21 percent for persons 6 and older and 51 percent among women listeners.

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Friday, July 24, 2015

Top Tweets from Brian Auld's Tiger Bay Appearance

Rays President Brian Auld spoke to St. Pete's non-partisan political club, Tiger Bay, today and had a few interesting responses. Especially the last one:

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New Rays Stadium Verse, Same as the First

Add another chapter to the eight-year-long Stadium Saga that will probably mean very little in the long-run: St. Pete's council approved a land study of the Tropicana Field site to either "show the Rays what advantages exist within Tropicana Field" or "tell us a bunch of things we already know,” depending which councilmember you ask.

Mayor Kriseman and the Rays still have to sign-off on the study, however, since the $125,000 cost would be split between the team and the city.

Also in "didn't this already happen?" news, the Times endorsed Lisa Brown-Wheeler for St. Pete's pivotal D7 council seat.

ALSO READ: In Trying to Advance Their Interests, Newspapers May Do Opposite on Rays Stadium

I wrote in May the Times would endorse "the first candidate to support the mayor's deal with the Rays" and sure enough, they did.  But the question remains if it will matter since most of the paper's readers can't vote in the St. Pete municipal elections.  Allowing the Rays to look in Tampa isn't the most popular stance in St. Pete.

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Thursday, July 23, 2015

In Trying to Advance Their Interests, Newspapers May Do Opposite on Rays Stadium

Flashback to a May post on this blog:
It's pretty much guaranteed the first candidate to support the mayor's deal with the Rays (when {Wengay} Newton would not) would a shoo-in for both the endorsement of the Times and potential political muscle of the Rays.

That may explain why Lisa Wheeler Brown, the only candidate in District 7 who has filed a campaign report so far, said 
she would likely support the mayor's lead on the issue

Even though St. Petersburg is a complicated city with nearly a billion-dollar budget, the newspapers have, of course, made the upcoming August city council elections about a single issue: the Rays.

The five-way District 7 race will likely determine if the mayor gets his necessary fifth vote to allow the Rays to explore stadium sites outside of St. Pete, or whether the proposal continues to fail along 4-4 lines.  Chasing endorsements along the campaign trail, four out of the five candidates have now said they'd approve the mayor's compromise.

The Times hasn't released its endorsements yet (Wheeler-Brown is a virtual lock), but the Trib printed one endorsement today:
Lisa Wheeler-Brown, a community activist and past president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, says she will support a deal like the one Kriseman negotiated. In contrast, Winthrop “Will” Newton, a retired firefighter and brother of Wengay Newton, says the deal Kriseman struck with the Rays wasn’t good enough.
Making the whole endorsement about a single $25 million-or-so dispute between the city and a single business entity kind of undermines the brains and capability of Wheeler-Brown, who is capable of a much more comprehensive undertaking.

But it also may not do her any favors in St. Petersburg, where voters are currently enjoying the services of the Rays and may not want to let them leave.  Remember, most readers of the Tampa Tribune can't vote in city elections.

In fact, a recent poll showed the frontrunner in District 7 is the guy who's raised a paltry $1,250, Will Newton, who happens to be the only candidate opposed to the Rays compromise as currently proposed.
We'll see if the Rays follow the strategy I laid out in March: influencing the election with hard or soft political money
We'll also see if the newspapers ever write an editorial suggesting the Rays simply cough up a few million more dollars a year (the price of a middle reliever) to break the stalemate and move on with their search.

UPDATE: Florida Politics reports councilman Steve Kornell, who also said it would take more money to get a "yes" vote out of him on the stadium deal, issued his endorsement or Will Newton.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Glazers' Sweetheart Deal Keeps Getting Sweeter

You know that "sweetheart deal" the Bucs got at Raymond James Stadium, where they basically pay for nothing and keep all the profits?  The Times' Rick Stroud reports it's about to get better as the county will spent $25 million more to upgrade the place "as a part of a bid that landed the January 2017 college football title game for Tampa."

More significant upgrades are still on the table, however, as the Bucs and Tampa Sports Authority (TSA) are also dangling the "Super Bowl" carrot over taxpayers, since you know, you can't get those big community "benefits" without paying the NFL's ransom upgrade demands first.  And clearly, Super Bowls demand far more from a facility than the NCAA championship game would.

But don't worry, taxpayers will totally benefit from RayJay's new scoreboards and flat screens and seat cushions since you know, otherwise, Raymond James Stadium wouldn't be able to attract top-notch events to Tampa. 

Oh wait, what's that you say?  Taylor Swift tickets are selling like hotcakes for the October RayJay show?  Even without those upgrades?

Maybe Hillsborough County could get great economic returns from an unrenovated Raymond James Stadium after all!

Oh wait, what's that you say? The first $2 million of profit from the Swift concert - and 50% of everything after that - goes to the Glazers even though a concert has nothing to do with football?

That is one helluva sweetheart deal
But don't worry, elected leaders swear it'll never happen again...

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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Don't Hate the Players, Hate the Game

John Romano wrote in this morning's Times the Rays' have plenty of fans; they're just predominately choosing to watch on TV.  This blog has been writing since 2010 the Rays stand to make a huge windfall on TV money in 2017 (or sooner if they would just negotiate a mutually-beneficial extension).

But it begs the question - why didn't the Rays forcefully negotiate its way out of its less-than-ideal contract early for the sake of the team's bottom line and longevity? 

While we're at it, why didn't the team ask Grant Balfour ($7.5M salary this year) for the same favor?

The Rays have no problem asking the City of St. Petersburg for similar concessions...

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Saturday, July 18, 2015

Weekend Reading: Rays Stadium Saga

Let's get right to some good reading for your Sunday!
  • If you thought it had been a while since the last Tampa Bay Times editorial calling on St. Pete councilmembers to let the Rays out of their contract, it's been more than a month - an eternity to the Times (see more below).  But the dry spell ends this weekend with a piece calling for St. Pete to study the value of Trop land and ultimately allow the Rays to leave it.

"Eagerly awaiting Wisconsin politicians to start replacing 27 year old bridges, roads, hospitals and schools."
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A brief history of Times editorials on the Stadium Saga:
The history goes further back than that, but for a good synopsis, watch my 2010 piece on newspapers cheerleading for new stadium projects.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Brilliant Way Rob Manfred is Manipulating Fans All Across North America

Gotta give MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred a lot of credit - he's a smart guy.  His recent All-Star Game comments about the Rays not only positioned him as a more open-minded and patient version of his predecessor, but at the same time, they also may serve to create more competition for franchise relocation.

The Times' Marc Topkin writes:
Manfred also said MLB "absolutely feels the (Tampa Bay) market is viable" and the Rays' attendance issues are "facility related," in terms of the Trop building and location.
Manfred did say he is "open to the idea" of possible expansion, and that MLB has a list of viable cities, and offered some praise for Montreal. But, after noting the success of exhibition games the last two springs at aged Olympic Stadium, Manfred said, "It's a long way from two exhibition games to 81 home games in a facility that is consistent with major-league standards.''
Manfred's mention of possible expansion sure drew a lot of headlines in Charlotte, Portland, North Jersey, Montreal, etc.  But if you believe big-market teams like the Red Sox and Yankees hate sharing revenue with mid-market teams like the Rays, they sure as hell don't want to dilute league revenues more with more mid-market teams.

Ultimately, Manfred's comments are a "step up your game!" call to fans and politicians in the aforementioned cities.  Because the more excited and willing they are to subsidize a new stadium, the more it'll help teams like the A's and Rays leverage their current markets for new stadiums.

Bud Selig spent five years hinting the Rays may move without a new stadium.  But there was nowhere to move them.  Now, the league is fortunate enough to have Montreal as a possible relocation market (even though it failed miserably last time)...and it would love a few more mid-sized cities hungry for a team, just as it had in 1990s, the golden ages of stadium subsidies.

That Manfred sure is a smart guy.

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Monday, July 13, 2015

John Oliver Calls Attention to the Stadium Subsidy Racket

Did you catch John Oliver last night?  He realized what many of us realized long ago - one can make true sport out of "taunting taxpayer-funded stadiums":

John Oliver may not break much new ground on his weekly show, but he shines an important spotlight on watchdog journalism from around the U.S. and beyond.
Time's summary included:
 Why are tax dollars being used to fund stadiums? “Sports teams are wealthy businesses with wealthy owners and they still get our help,” Oliver said. “Pretending you’re poor is wrong. It wasn’t okay when Mary-Kate Olsen went through her hobo phase, and it’s not okay now!”

To prove his point about how cities like Cincinnati and Milwaukee have bent over backwards to keep sports teams happy, Oliver noted that just six days after Detroit declared bankruptcy, they got approval to spend more than $280 million in taxpayer money for a new arena for the local NHL team — even though the Red Wings owner, Mike Ilitch, is the founder of the Little Caesar’s pizza chain and worth an estimated $5.1 billion. As Oliver noted, “That’s a little hard to swallow.”
Neil deMause, the Sultan of Subsidy-Smacking, tweeted:
The piece was really well done and it's worth 19 minutes of your time...but if you prefer condensed summaries, here's our 2-minute-long version of the stadium subsidy game in Florida.

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Sunday, July 12, 2015

Rays Attendance Watch: All-Star Edition

It's been nice letting Mike Lortz and Chris O'Donnell handle the Rays' attendance watch, but to keep tradition alive, here's how $#!^ stands going into the 2015 All-Star Break.

2015 halfway attendance: 14,730
2014 halfway attendance: 16,902
2013 halfway attendance: 17,760

The good news is the Rays' attendance has been ticking upward a little bit since the end of the Lightning playoff run, but the team's recent two-week slump could mean hopes of a huge recovery due to an MLB playoff run are getting dimmer.

There are lots of reasons contributing to the team's struggles at the gate, but the first explanations I've always turned to is the team's self-fulfilling prophecy and the region's lack of ability/interest in supporting three pro teams at once.

Happy All-Star Break.


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Hillsborough Tourism Will Fuel More Rays Rumors

It's been an impressive 2015 for Hillsborough County tourism, with recently-reported bed tax receipts up 15% from the same time last year.  The growth is so explosive, it could have an immediate impact on Rays stadium talks.

Hillsborough County is on-pace for $27 million in bed tax collections this fiscal year - short of what its beach-benefitting counterpart, Pinellas County, routinely draws - but increasingly close to the magic $30 million figure that would designate the county a "high-impact" tourism center, eligible to increase its bed tax from 5% to 6%. 

The extra penny on hotel room stays could conceivably fund $75-80 million in stadium construction (although it could also fund a number of other beneficial programs).  Pinellas County already reached the milestone and is preparing to extend its bed tax to 6%.

Hillsborough County may not continue its explosive tourism growth at the current pace, which would put it on-pace to achieve "high-impact" status by 2017-2018, but either way, it's encouraging news for baseball fans in Tampa.


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Monday, July 6, 2015

"Florida is the No. 1 State for Baseball in the Country”

Sometimes, you gotta wonder who writes Florida Governor Rick Scott's material.

This morning, after he held a "ceremonial" signing for a bill that allowed the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros to move forward with a lucrative trip on the spring stadium subsidy train, the Governor's office released the following quote:
“Spring training and Major League Baseball are a major reason why Florida continues to welcome record numbers of tourists. Last year almost 99 million people visited Florida - and we’re on pace for even more visitors this year. With the Nationals and Astros announcing their spring training operations will remain in Florida for the next 30 years, and the news that our state will host the MLB All Star Game in 2017, it’s clear that Florida is the number one state for baseball in the country.” 
I'm guessing this blog's readers have plenty of opinions on the "number one state for baseball" comment...but let's humor the governor for a moment and acknowledge that the Grapefruit League draws a lot of visitors to the Sunshine State each spring.

The bigger problem with his quote is his guarantee that the Nats and Astros will remain in their $135 million stadium for 30 years.  If you're of the belief the Rays' contract isn't perfectly ironclad, you certainly don't believe a spring training deal is ironclad....

That's because last year, Governor Scott signed a bill making it easier for Florida's spring training teams to break their leases.  It was nothing more than a giveaway to powerful franchise-owners by specifically limiting their damages if they break their spring training leases.  Scott has repeatedly dodged my questions about pro teams' reliance on taxpayer subsidies.

Of course, two years ago, I wrote Scott should have cut a deal with Arizona to stop the spring stadium arms race where the only winners are MLB teams and the only losers are taxpayers.  How hard would it be for the two states that host all 30 spring training stadiums to agree to simply stop the handouts?

Apparently very hard,! And photo opportunities!!


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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Hillsborough Stadium Deal for Rays Could Mirror Cobb Co's Secret, Not-So-Great, Potentially-Illegal Deal for Braves

The Tampa Tribune splashed another stadium story across its front page today, this time focusing on how a next-generation Rays stadium could be built in conjunction with other retail, residential, and entertainment options, just as the Braves are doing in Metro Atlanta. 

It's really not a new idea - the Blue Jays incorporated some of those ideas into the SkyDome, and the Red Sox realized a decade ago there was a ton of money to be made by building new bars on the streets outside Fenway.

But it's interesting to hear Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan, Tampa's single-biggest stadium proponent, suggest the process for a Rays stadium could mirror that of the Braves' new deal in Cobb County:
Hagan said the speed with which the deal between the Braves and Cobb County was approved — commissioners signed off on it just eight weeks after it was announced — shows that it need not take up to two years to get a deal done once the Rays get permission to look.
“The Atlanta model was very different,” he said. “That is encouraging to me, that with all the due diligence we’re doing on the front end, once we’re given the opportunity to sit down with the team, it will not take as long as it historically has to determine a location and a fundraising package.”
Let's remember the expedited timeline for moving the Braves to Cobb Co. was due to secret dealings behind closed-doors that caught taxpayers off-guard.  It also prohibited any real public input, prevented taxpayers from getting a better deal (they're forking over $300M+), and negatively impacted other essential county budget items, like parks.

Oh, and as a kicker, the Braves' new stadium deal will also lead to 45% higher ticket prices!   But that would never happen in Tampa, right???

UPDATE: Good synopsis from Field of Schemes on other flaws with development assumptions:
If development around a stadium were profitable enough to pay off a stadium, teams would be able to pursue this strategy without public subsidies. Not to mention that if stadium-related development is profitable it could be pursued without the money suck of a new stadium could just end up displacing development that otherwise would have taken place somewhere else in town...development around stadiums has typically appeared years late when it shows up at all, etc., etc.


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