Posts tagged ‘Jim Balsillie’

The City of Glendale is Pathetic

For years now I have lampooned the crazy money Glendale, AZ has thrown at the Phoenix ice hockey team in a desperate attempt to trade taxpayer money for prestige.  Let me bring you up to date:

Years ago a town of about 250,000 people committed about $200 million in taxpayer money to build a stadium for a professional ice hockey team, to attract it away from Scottsdale or downtown Phoenix to what is frankly the ass-end of the metropolitan area  (I have no problems with the west side of town, but from a geographic, demographic, and economic logic standpoint this was roughly equivalent to moving the LA Lakers to Riverside or San Bernardino).

For some weird reason, moving an ice hockey team to the desert with no base of hockey fans and locating it a good 45 minutes from the wealthier parts of town caused the team to go bankrupt.  Lots of people were willing to pay good money to haul the team back to Canada where there are, you know, ice hockey fans, but few wanted to pay good money to keep it on the west side of Phoenix.

So enter the NHL, which took the team over.  The NHL commissioner promised the other owners that it would not lose money on the deal, so it set the price of the team not at the market price (which appears to be around $100 million based on the Atlanta sale) but based on its costs, which were about $200 million.   It has agreed to try to keep the team in Glendale, but only if the city covers its operating losses of $25 million each year, which incredibly, the city has done for two years (note this is $100 a year for every man, woman, and child in the city to subsidize a hockey team).

The team may be worth $200 million in Canada, but it is only worth $100 million in Glendale (at most) so it does not sell.  The city agreed to make up the $100 million difference  with a bond issue (and throw another $90+ million in to boot), which almost closed the deal with one buyer until the Goldwater Institute pointed out that this kind of subsidy was illegal under the AZ constitution.  And so the situation sits.  The asking price is still $200 million, which no one will pay if they have to keep the team in Glendale.  And the city keeps forking over $25 million a year to the NHL to keep the team running.

OK, so that is the background.  Here is the new news.

The league, which purchased the Phoenix Coyotes at a bankruptcy court auction in 2009, has been managing the team and city-owned arena until an owner willing to keep the team in Glendale can be found. The city paid $25 million to the NHL during the 2010-11 season and pledged another $25 million for the current season, which is expected to come due in May.

To fulfill that pledge, the city put $20 million in escrow and still needs to come up with $5 million.

The hefty payouts have nearly drained the city's reserves, leading to a recent drop in the city's bond rating.

And the city is looking at a deficit next fiscal year that one councilwoman has estimated could reach $30 million. A possible sales-tax hike, furloughs and program cuts are on the table to close the spending gap....

During Tuesday's budget talks, [Glendale Mayor] Scruggs asked council members to join her in signing a letter to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to "release us from that $20 million in escrow and let us pay over time."

None of the councilmembers responded to her request. Councilman Manny Martinez later told The Republic he would "have to think about it in light of what is going on."

Scruggs said if the city can get back the $20 million from escrow and pay the NHL an initial $5 million, "our problems and everything our employees are fearful of would pretty much go away."

Translation:  Dear NHL, we are idiots and committed a bunch of money to a stupid purpose that we can't really afford.  Would you pretty please let us out of our commitment?  Hilarious and pathetic.  The chickens are coming home to roost by the millions.

Even funnier, the Glendale mayor is trying to blame the NHL for bad faith

The mayor said she and four others councilmembers pledged the second payout last May because city staff and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said a deal with a team owner was nearly complete and that "we should never have to pay that $25 million."

Scruggs said the city was told the money was just a place holder so that the NHL wouldn't move the team out of Glendale.

"Given the stress that our budget is under, there should be a payment plan developed," Scruggs said. "They have no right to that money. They held us hostage for a year."

She said the NHL never intended to do business with Chicago businessman Matt Hulsizer, who wanted to buy the team but walked away from the negotiation table in frustration just weeks after the council pledged the second payment to the NHL....

Scruggs said the NHL last spring "misled us and they can't do this to our city."

In fact, the NHL was totally serious about the Hulsizer deal.  That deal fell through not because the NHL screwed up, but because Glendale did.  The deal fell through because Glendale had committed to a subsidy of the deal which may not have been Constitutional, and even if it had proved legal, became impossible when Glendale's bond ratings started tanking and they realized they could not move the paper.  Glendale officials have been amateurish and dishonest through this entire process.

By the way, several years ago, Jim Balsillie offered a deal worth over $200 million for the team, PLUS he offered to pay off something like $150 million of Glendale's stadium debt.  Glendale opposed the deal, because they would have been left with an empty stadium and tens of millions in debt (given the crash in RIM's fortunes, the offer is unlikely to be renewed).

Glendale is likely going to wish they had taken the first offer.  There is a very good chance that Glendale will lose the team without any sort of payment on their debt and after paying $25 million a year to the NHL.  Glendale will end up with hundreds of millions in debt, an empty stadium, a junk-level bond rating and a busted budget.

There is a saying in the investment world - your first loss is your best loss.  Glendale is about to learn this very expensive lesson.

Chickens Roosting in Glendale

Via the WSJ

Glendale, Ariz., is selling about $136 million in debt in the municipal-bond market this week, just days after Moody's Investors Service cut its bond rating because of the desert city's obligations to cover losses on a National Hockey League franchise.

In exchange for the NHL's promise to manage team operations and keep the team in Glendale until a new owner is found, the city agreed to compensate the league, the city's executive communications director, Julie Frisoni, said.

The Coyotes filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009, and that spring, the NHL became the owner of the team. In exchange for keeping the team, the city signed an agreement to absorb up to $25 million of the team's losses in both 2011 and 2012, in anticipation of finding a new owner, Moody's analysts said.

Glendale is slowly sinking itself in a mountain of debt to pursue its insane strategy to subsidize every billionaire sports owner in Arizona.  The town of 225,000 people is spending $25,000,000 to fund the operating losses of a freaking hockey team -- that's nearly $500 a year for every 4-person family in the city.  Nuts.  And this is just their operating subsidy, it does not include debt service on the $300 million stadium it built for the team.

The problem is that the team is worth less than $100 million in Arizona (based on recent sales comps of other NHL franchises in warm cities like Atlanta) but might be worth $300-$400 million if moved to Canada (Jim Balsillie made an offer in this range, including an offer to pay down $150 million or so of the city's debt, before RIM stock started to crash).  The NHL, which owns the team now, has promised owners that they will not take a penny less than $200 million for the team, and that they will not suffer any operating losses.

So, because they simply cannot admit they were wrong to subsidize the team the first time around, to keep the team in Glendale the city must either fund $25 million a year in team operating losses or it must pony up $100 million or so to bridge the team's $100 million value in Arizona and the league's $200 million price tag (something they tried and failed to do last year when the Goldwater Institute pointed out that such a subsidy was unconstitutional in AZ.

I repeat, what a big freaking mess.  How do you avoid it?  The only way is the Wargames strategy, ie the only winning move is not to lay the sports team subsidy game in the first place.

It's Not Over When it's Over

So the head of the IOC declares the Olympics over, the flame is out, but there still seem to be people on the stage.  It seems that Canadians, so long without an overt sense of nationalism, have decided to use the stage to hold a pep rally for their country.   Can you imagine how unbelievably creepy, and probably scary, it would have been had the Chinese closed the Olympics in a similar China-uber-alles manner.  But since the Canadians are thought to be (mostly) harmless, I suppose its OK.

Postscript: Not 30 seconds before this started, I was lamenting the fact that Rush was not a musical act, with the silver lining that we had not seen William Shatner either, when lo and behold he rises onto the stage.

PPS: I thought the way they opened the show, with the clown fixing the broken torch, was much more consistent with the Canadian style, and more flattering in a sense than the goofy show at the end.  It is particularly funny, to me at least, to see that all the people who they have chosen so far to extol the virtues of Canada actually left the country for the US to make their fortune.  What are they selling, that Canada is a great place to be from?  They couldn't have found someone like Jim Balsillie who actually mad his fortune and reputation, you know, in Canada.

PPPS:  OK, it was only the talking quasi-celebrities I thought was odd.  Who couldn't love the giant inflatable beavers that followed?

This Is Too Much -- The Smearing of Jim Balsillie

Harvard Business School has (or at least had in 1987) its own equivalent of the show Big Brother.  During the first year, a new student gets locked in a classroom for a year with 88 other high-strung, type-A overachievers in an explicitly zero-sum process (there are a fixed number of each grade to be handed out) conducted by sometimes sadistic professors bent on eeking out the maximum amount of stress, fear, and verbal conflict.  Think John Housman's class in the movie "Paper Chase."  Students for some reason react to this process by, instead of branching out and meeting the other 800 students in the class, spending most of their social time with these same 88  (the rugby team saved me to some extent from such narrowness).

By no means are all these folks my "friends," in part because I have a fairly limited definition of that word, but they all became pretty close associates.  I knew most all of them pretty well -- well enough that both the couple that ended up in jail and the couple that became spectacularly successful were no real surprise.

One of those 88 I spent a year with was a guy named Jim Balsillie, now famous as billionaire CEO of RIM (Blackberry) and, more recently, for trying to buy an NHL franchise.  Jim is not a close friend, and in fact I probably haven't exchanged a hundred words with him since we graduated.  But over the period of a year I feel like I had the measure of him, as quiet, bright, kind and fairly humble.   Jim was a much, much nicer guy than I was -- certainly I was far, far more likely in class to rip into another student for being an idiot in class discussion.   I once got so frustrated with a teacher that I went to the front of class and took over.  I can't even imagine Jim doing something like that.

I write this all because I just have to make a public statement concerning a recent statement about Jim Balsillie by the NHL.  The NHL recently chose to vote against letting Balsillie buy the Phoenix Coyotes.  Fine.  I think they are idiots - they should be begging to have a guy of his talents and money in their fraternity - but whatever.  What ticks me off, though, is that instead of dicussing the controversial business reasons for the vote and they choose to smear Jim:  (via Market Power)

"We voted to deny approval to Mr. Balsillie because we concluded he lacks the good character and integrity required of a new owner" under NHL bylaws, said Boston Bruins Owner Jeremy Jacobs, chairman of the league's board of governors.

I suppose it is possible that Jim is some kind of evil smiling sociopath and managed to fool 88 of us for over a year, despite living in close proximity.  I seriously doubt it, but it is remotely possible.  But even if that were the case, there is no way the NHL suddenly figured this out when those who know him better have not.

Matt Nestor has some fun with this:

The NHL owners are obviously good judges of character. Some that have been approved:

● William "Boots" Del Biaggio (Nashville Predators), now headed to jail on fraud charges.

● Henry Samueli (Anaheim Ducks), now awaiting sentencing on SEC violations.

● John Rigas (Buffalo Sabres), currently in jail on embezzlement charges.

● Sanjay Kumar (New York Islanders), now serving time for conspiracy.

● John Spano (Islanders), who deliberately misled the NHL and the Islanders about his net worth.

● Bruce McNall (Los Angeles Kings), who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and defrauding six banks of $236 million.

Why would you want a successful businessman to taint such a group?

Time for Patent Reform

Its clearly time for patent reform as it applied to software.  In the last ten years, software engineers have apparently have been able to convince hardware-centric patent examiners that some pretty basic software concepts are "non-obvious" and patentable.  Guestblogging at Overlawyered last week, I mentioned one such patent, the Amazon "1-click ordering" patent, which to me is clearly copyrightable, but not patentable.

Rob Pegoraro makes a similar point in the Washington Post, editorializing on the Blackberry suit:

No, the problem here is simpler. There are too many bogus patents getting handed out.

One
solution would be to make more things unpatentable. Just as you can't
-- or shouldn't -- be able to patent a mathematical equation, in this
scenario you wouldn't be able to claim ownership of things like the
general workings of software (any individual program is already
protected by copyright) or business methods. The U.S. has been a
pioneer in turning those things into new types of intellectual
property; perhaps it's time to declare this experiment a failure.

Another,
somewhat overlapping solution would make it harder to get any patent.
The patent office would apply a higher standard of "non-obviousness" --
the idea that a patent shouldn't reward "inventions" any competent
individual could have thought up. And any outside party could submit
evidence against a patent before it became final.

I am generally sympathetic to Blackberry's plight, in part because I went to school with Jim Balsillie, the CEO of RIM.  One thing Pegoraro missed in his editorial:  The US Patent Office has already said it made a mistake in issuing the original patent that RIM was found to be violating.  The nullification of this patent is working through the system, and RIM is pleading that the injunction against them wait until this process is complete, sort of like a victim on death row begging not to be put to death because the prosecutor has admitted that based on new evidence, he shouldn't have pursued the case in the first place.  RIM has offered to settle with NTP (the patent holder)if there is a give-back if the patent is invalidated in the future, but NTP has refused this.  This all makes for an interesting drama, with a lot of brinksmanship.

By the way, though I am sympathetic to RIM to some extent, that sympathy is diminished by this:

In 2002, RIM sued software developer Good Technology for its wireless
mail-transfer technology and "smart phone" maker Handspring over its
miniaturized keyboard design. Both wound up forking over licensing fees.

As I wrote before, what goes around, comes around when you use the legal system and the long hand of the government to step on competitors.

Jim Balsillie: Congratulations on Making Me Feel Like a Loser

There is a price one pays for slipping into the Harvard Business School through some mysterious hole in the Harvard admissions process:  From time to time, one must be ready to be humbled by their peers.  Of course, with nearly 900 people in a graduating class, one expects someone in that group to distinguish themselves at some point.  However, this large groups is somehow indistinct - at HBS one spends most of their time with 90 people in their "section", spending the vast majority of waking hours, both in class and in the pub, with this group.  After a couple of years with the same 90 people, one gets the overwhelming impression of normality -- these people are just as full of shit as anyone else I have gotten to know.

So it is both expected and with some surprise that I have begun to see these 90 people start making headlines.  My section-mates have distinguished themselves as executives and industry leaders and entrepreneurs  and lifestyle writers and business writers and fashion moguls and artists even as the notorious.  Humiliating levels of fame and success seem to be the rule among these ostensibly ordinary people.

This week, however, another member of our 90-person section (1989-B, on the off chance you are a fellow alum and were wondering) has gone to the next level.  This week Time magazine named Jim Balsillie, CEO of RIM (the Blackberry people) to their list of the 100 most influential people.  Wow.  Congratulations Jim.  The bad news is we are all totaled humbled about our own success trajectories in comparison.  The good news is that Jim will obviously "draw fire" away from the rest of us when Harvard comes looking for money.  Its a funny combination of old and new to think about the CEO of Lili Pulitzer and the CEO of Blackberry sitting next to each other all through our first year.

Postscript:  By the way, for those of you who may be tempted to put me on suicide watch, I am pretty much joking, though not about my section mates - they are all as awesome as portrayed here -- but about any dissatisfaction with my career.  Several times in my life I have been presented with opportunities to pursue high-profile wealth.  In most cases, I have turned these down, with zero regrets.  In fact, since one of the first of these rejected opportunities involved following Jeff Skilling from McKinsey to Enron, I really, really have no regrets.   Each day I am out visiting my operations at some National Park or other, I will think about the rest of you filling out your TPS reports.

UPDATE:  Welcome to fellow sectionmate Karen Page, author of numerous Amazon 5-star rated books on food, wine and becoming a chef, who links to me today (oops, Karen is slipping - a few of the books only have 4-1/2 stars).  Not only is Karen part of that vast section B conspiracy to make me feel inadequate, she also has a much cooler blog than mine.