Column: A city fights back against the ol' arena flimflam
Congratulations are in order for the good people of Tempe, Arizona.
They might’ve cost themselves an NHL team, but that was a small price to pay to hang on to their wallets.
In a rare setback for billionaire owners and their endless scams to get the public to build them new places to play, the Phoenix suburb decisively turned back a $2.3 billion proposal that included a new arena for the Arizona Coyotes.
This one was a stunner for the NHL and the Coyotes, who thought they had worked their flimflam so well that nobody would notice it was nothing more than another egregious example of corporate welfare.
"The voters seem to understand, deep down, that these things are a bad idea,” said J.C. Bradbury, an economics professor at Kennesaw State University in suburban Atlanta and vocal critic of publicly funded stadiums and arenas.
“Why are we subsidizing sports teams, no matter how much they claim it's going to spur economic development?" he asked. "It's like an extended warranty. Once you read the fine print, you don't want to do it.”
Unfortunately, the owners still have the upper hand in their quest for newer and more profitable sporting venues.
Unlike the situation that played out in Tempe, most have recognized that you can’t put these matters before the voters. Too much risk there. Just ask the Coyotes, who were convinced their proposal would pass easily based on internal polling.
It’s much better to woo the local politicians, get them on board, rather than allow those whose money is actually being spent make the call.
Just look what happened in Nashville, where city leaders recently signed off on a boondoggle that hands the Tennessee Titans a new domed stadium with the largest public commitment ever — a staggering $1.2 billion from local and state coffers.
“Awful. Indefensible,” Bradbury describes it. “The worst deal I've ever seen.”
Not surprisingly, the voters in Nashville and Tennessee never got a chance to decide if that's how they want to spend all that money.
Their money, it should be noted.
“There's a reason the owners don't like to go to the voters. The voters are suspicious,” Bradbury said. “But if you look at most city council members, they're easy marks. They're mostly male, college educated, wealthy. We're talking sports fans. You can invite them to cocktail receptions in their luxury suites to shake hands with hall of famers. It's easier to convince these people. You can't invite all the voters to the owner's box.”
Meanwhile, another team is trying desperately to get a huge amount of public funding for a new stadium.
The Oakland Athletics want to move to Las Vegas, and they've already announced one site, and then another, for a $1.5 billion stadium on the famed Strip. They started out asking the public to kick in $500 million. When told that was a no-go, the A's reduced their asking price to $395 million. But there's still resistance to providing that much money, so the deal has yet to be finalized.
No matter what the price tag winds up being, it's sure to be a bad deal for the taxpayers of Las Vegas and Nevada, according to Bradbury.
“Why does this keep happening?" he said. “It's not even a debate. All of these are bad projects that the public shouldn't be involved in whatsoever. Yet they keep passing over and over again. They keep saying this one will be different. But it's the same old song and dance.”
The ever-wily owners have figured out another angle to sell their awful stadium and arena deals: build more stuff around the venue.
Some are called mixed-use developments. In Tempe, all the extra bells and whistles were described as an entertainment district. Whatever the name, it's a bad deal for the taxpayers.
The Atlanta Braves established the model for this shakedown when they moved from perfectly functional Turner Field after the 2016 season to a new suburban stadium largely funded with public money.
But more important than the stadium was the hefty chunk of available land next to it. The Braves were allowed to build a development known as The Battery, which is made up of restaurants, shops, hotels, apartments and office buildings.
Not surprisingly, all that additional revenue from non-baseball sources has made the team's multi-billionaire corporate overlords at Liberty Media a whole lot richer. Now, of course, this is the model that all sports teams are being urged to pursue when they start pushing for a new venue.
There's even talk of building a similar, but even larger, complex in Atlanta's far northern suburbs that would include an 18,000-seat arena — all with the idea of luring an NHL team back to the city.
Never mind that two previous incarnations, the Flames and the Thrashers, both struggled financially and wound up relocating to Canadian cities.
A supersized Battery would be a terrible idea, according to Bradbury, who has pushed back against the Braves-led talking point that its complex has been a huge success for both the team and Cobb County.
“I've been to The Battery. It's a nice place to go spend money and spend time,” he said. “But most of the people who go there live right here in Cobb County. Every dollar they spend at The Battery is money they would've been spending in other areas outside the stadium. So, when you go to (a restaurant) at The Battery, you're not going to another restaurant here in Cobb. It's not a net gain.”
Now that Tempe has voted down the proposal for a new hockey arena, the Coyotes are expected to head elsewhere.
They left the last arena they scammed off the Phoenix-area public, the one on the other side of town in Glendale, which forced the Coyotes to play this season at a 5,000-seat college hockey arena — by far the smallest venue in the NHL.
They plan to stay there one more season, but will surely be looking for a new place to call home the following year.
Maybe they'll wind up in suburban Atlanta, playing in a new arena-slash-entertainment district like the one they wanted in Arizona.
Rest assured, there's always another scam to be had.
Paul Newberry is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org