Posts tagged ‘NHL’

Surprise: Near Bankrupt City Finds that Throwing Good Money After Bad is Not a Good Investment

I have written here any number of times about the crazy ongoing subsidies by Glendale, Arizona (a 250,000 resident suburb of Phoenix) to an NHL franchise.  The city last year was teetering at the edge of bankruptcy from past hockey subsidies, but decided to double down committing to yet more annual payments to the new ownership of the team.

Surprisingly, throwing more money into an entreprise that has run through tens of millions of taxpayer money without any hint of a turnaround turns out to be a bad investment

Revenue from the Phoenix Coyotes is coming up short for Glendale, which approved a $225 million deal to keep the National Hockey League franchise in 2013.

City leaders expected to see at least $6.8 million in revenue annually from the team to help offset the $15 million the city pays each year for team owners to manage Jobing.com Arena. The revenue comes from ticket surcharges, parking fees and a split of naming rights for the arena.

Halfway through the fiscal year, the city has collected $1.9 million from those sources, and nearly $2.3 million when including sales-tax revenue from the arena.

Even including the rent payments on the publicly-funded stadium, Glendale is still losing money each year on the deal.

The source of the error in forecasting is actually pretty funny.  Glendale assumed that it could charge very high monopoly parking fees for the arena spaces ($10-$30 a game).  In some circumstances, such fees would have stuck.  But in this case, two other entities (a mall and another sports stadium) have adjoining lots, and once parking for hockey was no longer free, these other entities started competing parking operations which held down parking rates and volumes (I always find it hilarious when the government attempts to charge exorbitant monopoly prices and the free market undercuts them).

Had the parking rates stuck at the higher level, one can assume they still would have missed their forecast.  The Coyotes hockey team already has among the worst attendance numbers in the league, and hockey ticket buyers are particularly price sensitive, such that a $20 increase in the cost of attending a game likely would have driven attendance, and thus parking fees and city ticket surcharges and sales taxes, down.  Many private companies who are used to market dynamics still fail to forecast competitive and customer reaction to things like price increases well, and the government never does it well.

Corporate Welfare and the Thin Edge of the Wedge

The other day, the City of Glendale approved a deal which has the city subsidizing (more in a second) the buyers of the Phoenix Coyotes hockey team to get them to actually stay in town rather than move to Seattle.  The deal is arguably better than deals it was offered in the past (it gets shares of parking and naming rights it did not have before) and may even be a rational deal given where it is today.

But that is the catch -- the phrase "where it is today."  At some level it is insane for a city of 250,000 people to pony up even more subsidies for a team that has the lowest attendance in the league.  The problem is that the city built the stadium in the first place -- a $300 million dollar palace for a metropolitan area that already had a major arena downtown and which was built (no disrespect to Glendale) on the ass-end of the metropolitan area, a good 90 minute round trip drive for the affluent Scottsdale and east-side corporate patrons who typically keep a sports franchise afloat.

Building this stadium was a terrible decision, and I and many others said so at the time.  But once the decision was made, it drove all the future decisions.  Because the hockey team is the only viable tenant to pay the rent in that building, the city rationally will kick back subsidies to the team to keep it in place to protect its rent payments and sales taxes from businesses supported by the team and the arena.  The original decision to build that stadium has handcuffed Glendale's fiscal situation for decades to come.  One can only hope that cities considering major stadium projects will look to Glendale's and Miami's recent experiences and think twice about building taxpayer funded facilities for billionaires.

The deal the other night to keep the team went down in the only way it could have.  As I had written, the NHL was insisting on selling the team for its costs when it took it over in bankruptcy, which were about $200 million, which was well north of the $100 million the team was worth, creating a bid-ask gap.  Several years ago, the city tried to just hand $100 million to a buyer to make up the gap, but failed when challenged by the Goldwater Institute.  The only real avenue it had left was to pass the value over to the buyers in the form of an above-market-rate stadium management contract.

And that is what happened, and I guess I will say at least it was all moderately transparent.  The NHL came down to a price of $175 million, still $75 million or so above what the team is worth.   The City had already sought arms-length bids for the stadium management contract, and knew that a fair market price for that contract would be $6 million per year.  It ended up paying the buying group $15 million per year for the 15-year contract, representing a subsidy of $9 million a year for 15 years.  By the way, the present value of $9 million over 15 years at 8% is... $75 million, exactly what was needed to make up the bid-ask gap.  Again, I think the city almost had to do it, because the revenue stream it was protecting is likely higher than $9 million.  But this is the kind of bad choices they saddled themselves with by building the stadium in the first place.

This May Finally End NHL Hockey in Arizona

Let me bring you up to speed:  The NHL owns the Phoenix Coyotes hockey team, having taken them over in bankruptcy.  It needs to sell the team and is demanding $200 million for the team, having promised the league owners it would not accept anything less (so they will not take a loss in the investment).  The team is worth, however, something like $100 million, at least if it stays in Arizona.

The team plays in a stadium built by the relatively small city (250,000 people) of Glendale, which put something like $300 million of taxpayer money into the stadium and has provided operating subsidies to the team the last several years that probably total another $100 million, at least.  The city has a bad hand, but keeps doubling down on its bet to try to retain the team.

The problem, of course, is the $100 million difference in the bid-ask for the team.  Glendale first tried to fix this by agreeing in a previous deal couple of years ago to basically give the buyer $100 million of taxpayer money to bridge the bid-ask gap.  The Goldwater Institute sued, saying that the Arizona Constitution pretty clearly states the government can't directly subsidize commercial interests.  They prevailed (before it ever reached court) and the deal died.

The only way left for Glendale to make the deal happen was to give a buyer $100 million in taxpayer money but to do so in a more disguised manner.  The one option they had was in the stadium management contract.  If they agreed, say, to pay the buyer $10 million a year over market rates for the stadium management contract, over 15 years that has about a $100 million present value.  They can get away with this because there is no objective valuation of what a management contract would cost on the open market.

But their ability to do this is, thankfully, about to die.  Under intense pressure, and in a fit of good government that I am sure Glendale regrets, it actually went out and sought arms-length contracts for stadium management from third parties.  It is enormously unlikely the city will accept any of these bids, because it needs the stadium contract as a carrot for someone to buy the Coyotes at the NHL's inflated price.  Besides, I bid on large contracts a lot and I have often been presented with bid packages from an entity that had no intention of awarding, but wanted me to go through all the bid effort just to establish an internal price benchmark or to keep their preferred provider honest.  I can smell these from a mile away now.

The problem Glendale will have, though, is that when these 3rd party bids become public (which they inevitably will), it will then be impossible to hide the implicit subsidy in the management contract.  Presumably, taxpayers then will push back on any future deals using this dodge, though Glendale citizens seem pretty supine so one never knows.  Also, the city can also tweak the responsibilities of the stadium contract, thereby allowing them to claim that comparisons against these past bids are apples and oranges (though this will be hard as I expect arms-length bids around $5 million a year vs. $15 million they propose to pay the team buyer).

PS-  It is hilarious to see worried comments from Gary Bettman (NHL Commissioner) about how hard on Glendale it will be if the Coyotes leave town.  Merely lowering his asking price to something less than 2x the market price would solve the problem in an instant.

A Crony Gift By Any Other Name is Still The Same

Via the AZ Republic

The true cost to operate Jobing.com Arena ranges from $5.1 million to $5.5 million a year, which is about $10 million to $20 million a year less than the Glendale City Council has agreed to pay hockey-related interests to manage the facility in recent years.

The net management costs, included in documents recently published on the city’s website, are bundled in the city’s solicitation for a new company to operate the city-owned arena.

Glendale council members interviewed by The Arizona Republic said they hadn’t reviewed the documents and were surprised by the figures.

“I wasn’t aware of that,” Mayor Jerry Weiers said. “Then again, I know damn good and well that the way it’s been run, they’re not putting anything extra into it whatsoever.”

This is unbelievably easy to understand .  It is a hidden subsidy, and everyone knows it.  The pictures of politicians running around saying "what, we had not idea" is just hilarious.  The Phoenix Coyotes hockey team has the lowest attendance in the league, and loses money.  In addition, the NHL, which owns the team, has committed to its members that it will not take a loss on the team, meaning that it needs to sell the team for north of $200 million.  The team is worth over $200 million, but only if moved to Canada.  In Glendale, it is worth $100 million or less.

The city was close to a deal a few years ago to sell the team.  It tackled the team value problem by basically throwing $100 million in taxpayer money into the pot for the sale (to make up for the difference in value between the asking price and actual worth).  When this encountered a Constitutional challenge (under the AZ Constitution corporate welfare is illegal though you would never know it living here) the city council disguised the subsidy in the form of an above-market-rate payment for running the arena.

So absolutely everyone knows what is going on here.  This has become a massive black hole for the town of 250,000 people that achieves nothing but the self-aggrandizement of the local politicians, who feel like bigshots if they have a real major sports franchise in town.  Oh, you heard that this all actually pays for itself in tax money?  Hah!

The justifications for previous management deals revolved around a commitment to keeping the team in Glendale. Loyal fans pleaded with council members for the team’s future. And a council majority saw advantages, including thousands of fans trekking to their city 41 nights a year to watch hockey and spend money in the city’s restaurants and shops.

The city collects revenue associated with the team and arena through leases, parking fees and tax collections for food and merchandise sales in the nearby Westgate Entertainment District. Those figures have been on the upswing, particularly since an outlet mall opened last fall.

Total collections were $4.7 million in fiscal 2011, and reached $6.4 million through just the first eight months of the 2013 fiscal year, according to the city. That money helps pay, but doesn’t fully cover, the city’s debt to build the arena.

The town spent $300 million on a stadium and subsidized the team between $25 and $40 million a year, depending on how you count it, all to get an "incremental" $6-8 million in tax money.  And by the way, just because they collect it in this area does not make it incremental -- these sales could well have cannibalized another area of town.

Phoenix Coyotes Sale

Well, it looks like the NHL may have a buyer for the Phoenix Coyotes.  I have not seen all the terms, but the problem in finding a buyer has been this:  based on comps from other recent sales (e.g. Atlanta) the price for sunbelt teams is something like $100 million max, but the NHL has promised its owners it would not sell it for less than $200 million.  The NHL has to find a sucker, and if billionaire buyers are not willing to be a sucker, then they have to find a third party sucker to just kick in $1oo million of present value to make the deal work.

Enter the city of Glendale.  It has tried very hard on multiple occasions to be that sucker, and only was stopped from doing so by efforts of the Goldwater Institute to enforce a state Constitutional injunction on corporate welfare.

Glendale has apparently found a new way to subsidize the transaction by promising to pay an above-market stadium management fee.  I have talked to some sports executives, including one very familiar with this stadium, and they have all said that in a free market, a third party might take the stadium management contract for free, because though it carries operational costs, it also yields offsetting revenues (like stadium rentals for concerts).

By paying an above-market rate for stadium management services, Glendale can provide a corporate subsidy but retain the fiction that this is a service contract rather than crony welfare.  Over the last two years, Glendale has paid the NHL $25 million a year in stadium management fees, a payment everyone understands to actually be a subsidy to keep the team in town.

I presume the new buyer has met the NHL's $200 million price tag.  But that is obvriously overpaying.  So Glendale is going to kick a bunch of money back to the buyer to make it work, in the form of $306 million in stadium management fees.  Via the Sporting News:

Longtime Glendale city councilor Phil Lieberman on Monday, in an interview with Sportsnet.ca, estimated that arena management fees paid by the city to Jamison under terms of the deal would total $306 million over the next 21 years, or an average of $14.6 million. A large chunk of that money, Lieberman says, is front-loaded, with Glendale on the hook for $92 million over the next five years. Nearby University of Phoenix Stadium, home to the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL, carries a $9.2-million management fee annually.

By the way, University of Phoenix Stadium is far larger and more expensive to operate, so one would expect the Coyotes arena management payment to be less than $9.2 million.   And the $9.2 million, since it comes from Glendale as well, likely has a subsidy built in.  But let's for a second assume something like $8 million a year is the high end for what a market rate for such a contract would be.  This would be $168 million over 21 years, implying $138 million minimum in subsidy built into the management contract.  There you go, there is the sucker payment to make up the difference between market value of the team and the NHL's price.

In fact, according to numbers at the WSJ, the city would have been better off leaving the stadium empty and just paying off the note  (and they certainly would have been better taking Jim Balsillie's offer to move the team but help them pay down their note).

The NHL has announced a tentative sale to a group headed by former San Jose Sharks executive Greg Jamison, under terms that would essentially institutionalize Glendale's commitments. Under the proposal that the NHL has laid out for city council members, the city would continue paying an arena-management fee that would average about $14.5 million a year.

On top of the city's average $12.6 million in debt service, that amounts to annual expenses of about $27.1 million—to be offset by anticipated Coyotes-related revenue of $14.2 million, according to projections by Glendale's city management department. That adds up to a projected annual loss for Glendale of $12.9 million.

Of course, Glendale wants to keep the team because it cut a crony deal with a few real estate developers to build a retail and condo complex around the stadium.  Of course, these ventures have also gone bankrupt.  So the city is trying to bail out and keep a bankrupt hockey team to sustain an already bankrupt retail developer.

The logic of course is that Glendale wants to attract retail businesses to Glendale from nearby Peoria and Phoenix.  But in the end, they are just messing up their own goal:

Some Glendale business owners may also oppose the deal, including David Kimmerle, owner of Sanderson Ford car dealership in Glendale. A longtime sponsor and fan of the Coyotes, Kimmerle felt betrayed when Glendale officials recently proposed raising the city's sale tax, in large part to support the cost of the team. The proposed increase would make a $30,000 car on Kimmerle's lot $330 more expensive than in the neighboring suburb of Peoria. "No one is going to pay a premium to shop in Glendale," Kimmerle said. "If it is choosing between the Coyotes or a business that is been in my family since 1955 and employs 500 people, I have to choose my business."

So, which would you bet on:  That retail buyers will choose a location based on prices and taxes, or based on its proximity to a hockey team?  Glendale is betting hundreds of millions of dollars its the latter.  Which is why they are idiots.

Oh, and those Goldwater folks.  Per the Sporting News article:

As for Goldwater Institution opposition to the deal, the league, Jamison and Glendale are aggressively striving to craft a sale that avoids Goldwater opposition and possible legal action.

And how are they doing this?

The NHL, city and Jamison are also not producing public documents on their deal so they can avoid records falling into Goldwater's hands.

Your transparent government at work.  Its not breaking the law if no one can prove it.

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.

Another Lesson In Why We Shouldn't Subsidize Sports Teams

The city of Glendale, Arizona (a 250,000 population suburb of Phoenix) continues to pour money into its NHL Hockey Team.  The city has already spent $200 million on a stadium and is trying to find a legal way to hand $100 million to a private individual to buy the team and keep it in Glendale.  But that is not even the end of it:

The Phoenix Coyotes are expected to stay in Glendale at least one more season, with or without a permanent owner, if the City Council pledges another $25 million to the National Hockey League.

The cash would go to offset team and arena losses.....

The pledge is the second financial promise in as many years.

Glendale this week paid $25 million it pledged the league a year ago in hopes of keeping the Coyotes in town until a permanent owner was found.

The city paid this year's $25 million from a utilities-repair account.

It's unclear whether that same fund would be used again and when the city would have to pay.

The NHL says the team and arena lost $37 million last season.

Just to give you a sense of scale, $25 million a year is larger than the city's fire department budget.  It is over $100 for every man, woman, and child in the city, each of the last two years.  Residents of the town are subsidizing a money-losing team mainly enjoyed, to the extent it has fans, by people outside of the city of Glendale.  It is a $25 million city annual expenditure that mainly helps three or four bars and restaurants next to the facility.  Just paying off those obviously politically connected retail owners a few hundred thousand each would be cheaper.

Hey, I Can Like Ice Hockey But Still Hate Subsidies

Spend a few nights listening to the news on TV, and you will quickly discover the one of the bedrock logical fallacies of political discourse:

If it's good, the government should subsidize it.  If it's bad, the government should ban it.  If outcomes are in any way perceived by any group to be sub-optimal, then the government should regulate it.  Anyone who opposes these bans, subsidies, and regulations must therefore be a supporter of bad outcomes, hate poor people, want people to get sick and die, etc.

Just last night, I was watching the local news (something I almost never do) and saw a story of one of those kids' bouncy houses that blew out of someone's backyard into a road.  There was a girl inside who was scared but unhurt  (after all, she was surrounded on six sides by giant airbags).   Of course the conclusion of the story was a call for more government regulation of tie downs for private backyard bouncy houses.  And those of us who think it's absurd for the government to micro-regulate such things, particularly after a single freak accident when no one was hurt -- we just want to see children die, of course.

Which brings me to this little gem in a local blog, which reflects a feeling held by many area sports fans.  Remember that I have supported the Goldwater Institute in their opposition to the city of Glendale giving a rich guy $200 million to buy our NHL ice hockey team and keep it here.    My (and I presume Goldwater's) motivation has been opposition to a huge government subsidy that equates to nearly $1000 for every man, woman, and child in Glendale.  This subsidy appears illegal under the Arizona Constitution.  But that is not how political discourse works.  We are not defending the Constitution, we just hate hockey (emphasis added)

If you believe Canadian newspapers, tonight's game against the Detroit Red Wings will be the Phoenix Coyotes last game in the desert.

Canadians like hockey. Judging by attendance at Coyotes games, Phoenicians don't (at least not enough to drive to west side), which is why Canadians are so optimistic that their beloved Winnipeg Jets will be returning to our overly polite neighbors to the north.

The Coyotes ended the season with the second worst attendance in the NHL. That, coupled with the Goldwater Institute's crusade to drive the team out of the Valley, is not helping the city of Glendale's attempt to keep the team.

A few facts to remember:

  • As the article states, local residents have already voted with their feet, since the team has nearly the lowest attendance in the league despite going to the playoffs both last year and this year.  They have trouble selling out playoff games.
  • The team has lost money every year it has been here.  It lost something like $40 million this year
  • The team is worth $100 million here in Phoenix.  That is the going rate for warm-market teams.  The buyer is willing to pay $100 million of his own money for the team.   So why is a subsidy needed?  The NHL insists on selling the team for $200 million or more.  Though it piously claims to want to keep hockey in Arizona, it is selling the team for price than can only be paid by buyers who want to move the team.
  • The City of Glendale appears to have lied outright in selling this deal to the public.  In particular, it claimed the $100 million was not a giveaway, but a payment for the team's rights to charge for parking.  But many insiders say the City always retained this right, and it strains credulity that while losing money for seven years, the team would not have exercised this right if it really owned it.
  • Glendale has only itself to blame, confounding an already difficult marketing task (ice hockey in the desert) by putting the stadium on the far end of a sprawling city.   The location is roughly the equivalent in terms of distance and relationship to the metropolitan area of moving the Chicago Blackhawks or Bulls stadium to Gary, Indiana.  The stadium ended up in Glendale because neither Tempe, Scottsdale, nor Phoenix was willing to make a $200 million, 30-year taxpayer-funded bet on the profitability of ice hockey.

I Can Die a Happy Blogger Now. George Will Quoted Me in a Column

Those of you who are regular readers are probably tired of hearing me rant about the proposed Glendale, Arizona subsidy of the Phoenix Coyote's team (here, here, here), a subsidy that runs afoul both of our state Constitution and of common sense.  This week, George Will enters the fray, and actually quotes me at the bottom of his column.  Most of the column should be familiar to those following the story here, but of course being George Will it is so much pithier than I could tell the story.  I liked this bit:

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman agrees with McCain that the world is out of joint when people can second-guess the political class: “It fascinates me that whoever is running the Goldwater Institute can substitute their judgment for that of the Glendale City Council.” He will learn not to provoke Olsen, who says, “It happens to fascinate me greatly that the commissioner thinks a handful of politicians can substitute their judgment for the rule of law.”

Get Down In The Mud With The Rest Of Us

I wanted to leave Glendale's proposed $100 million subsidy of the purchase of the Phoenix Coyotes hockey team by Matthew Hulzinger behind for a while, but I had to comment on something in the paper yesterday.

The Arizona Republic, which is an interested party given that a good part of their revenues depend on having major sports teams in town, had an amazing editorial on Tuesday.  Basically, it said that Goldwater, who has sued to bock the bond issue under Arizona's gift clause,  needed to stop being so pure in its beliefs and defense of the Constitution and that it should jump down in the political muck with everyone else.

I encourage you to read the article and imagine that it involved defense of any other Constitutional provision, say free-speech rights or civil rights.  The tone of the editorial would be unthinkable if aimed at any other defense of a Constitutional protection.  Someone always has utilitarian arguments for voiding things like free speech protections -- that is why defenders of such rights have to protect them zealously and consistently.  The ACLU doesn't get into arguments whether particular speech is right or wrong or positive or negative -- it just defends the principle.  Can't Goldwater do the same?

My thoughts on the Coyotes deal are here and her.  Rather than dealing with the editorial line by line, which spends graph after graph trying to convince readers that Darcy Olsen, head of the Goldwater Institute, is "snotty,"  here are some questions that the AZ Republic could be asking if it were not in the tank for this deal

  • How smart is it for the taxpayers of Glendale to have spent $200 million plus the proposed $100 million more to keep a team valued at most at $117 million? (several other teams have sold lately for less than $100 million)  And, despite $300 million in taxpayer investments, the city has no equity in the team -- just the opposite, it has promised a sweetheart no-bid stadium management deal of an additional $100 million over 5 years on top of the $300 million.
  • The Phoenix Coyotes has never made money in Arizona, and lost something like $40 million last year.  Why has no one pushed the buyer for his plan to profitability?  The $100 million Glendale taxpayers are putting up is essentially an equity investment for which it gets no equity.  If the team fails, the revenue to pay the bonds goes away.   The team needs to show a plan that makes sense before they get the money -- heck the new owners admit they will continue to lose money in the foreseeable future.     I have heard folks suggest that the Chicago Blackhawks (Hulzinger's home town team) are a potential model, given that they really turned themselves around.  But at least one former NHL executive has told me this is absurd.  The Blackhawks were a storied franchise run into the ground by horrible management.  Turning them around was like turning around the Red Sox in baseball.  Turning around the Coyotes is like turning around the Tampa Bay Rays.  The fact is that the team lost $40 million this year despite the marketing value of having been in the playoffs last year and having the second lowest payroll in the league.  The tickets are cheap and there is (at least for now) free parking and still they draw the lowest attendance in the NHL.  Part of the problem is Glendale itself, located on the ass-end of the metro area  (the stadium is 45 minutes away for me, and I live near the centerline of Phoenix).
  • If taxpayers are really getting items worth $100 million in this deal (e.g. parking rights which Glendale probably already owns, a lease guarantee, etc) why can't the team buyer use this same collateral to get the financing privately?  I have seen the AZ Republic write article after article with quote after quote from Hulzinger but have not seen one reporter ask him this obvious question.  I have asked Hulzinger associates this question and have never gotten anything but vague non-answers.  A likely answer is what I explained yesterday, that Hulzinger is a smart guy and knows the team is not worth more than $100 million, but the NHL won't sell it for less than $200 million (based on a promise the Commissioner made to other owners when they took ownership of the team).  Hulzinger needed a partner who was desperate enough to make up the $100 million the NHL is trying to overcharge him -- enter the City of Glendale, who, like a losing gambler, keeps begging for more credit to double down to try to make good its previous losses.
  • Glendale often cites a $500 million figure in losses if the team moves.  Has anyone questioned or shown any skepticism for this number?  My presumption is that it includes lost revenue at all the restaurants and stores around the stadium, but is that revenue really going to go away entirely, or just move to other area businesses?  If your favorite restaurant goes out of business, do you stop going out to eat or just go somewhere different?
  • We hear about government subsidies to move businesses from other countries to the US, or other states to Arizona, and these tend to be of dubious value.  Does it really make sense for Glendale taxpayers to pay $400 million to move business to another part of the Phoenix metropolitan area?
  • Why do parties keep insisting that Goldwater sit down and "negotiate?"  Goldwater does not have the power to change the Constitutional provision.  Do folks similarly call on the NAACP to "negotiate" over repeal of Jim Crow laws?  Call on the ACLU to negotiate over "don't ask, don't tell"?  This may be the way Chicago politics works, with community organizers holding deals ransom in return for a negotiated payoff, but I am not sure that is why Goldwater is in this fight.  The Gift Clause is a fantastic Constitutional provision that the US Constitution has, and should be defended.
  • Jim Balsillie offered to buy out the team (and move it to Canada) without public help and to pay off $50 million of the existing Glendale debt as an exit fee.  Thus the city would have had $150 in debt and no team.  Now, it will be $300 million in debt and on the hook for $100 million more and may still not have a team in five years when, almost inevitably, another hubristic rich guy finds he is not magically smarter about hockey and can't make the team work in Arizona.   Has anyone compared these two deals?  Private businesses cut losses all the time -- politicians almost never do, in part because they are playing with house money (ours).

The Chicago Political Paradigm

Over the last few weeks I have been following the story of the city of Glendale, AZ, in order to protect a previous $200 million public investment in our hockey team, proposing to issue another $100 million bond issue to help subsidize the purchase of the hockey team out of bankruptcy.

The real furor began when the Goldwater Institute, a local libertarian-conservative think tank, said they were considering suing over the bond issue because it violates the gift clause of the Arizona Constitution, which basically bans municipal governments from providing direct subsidies or lending their credit to private institutions.  The gift clause has been frequently breached in the past (politicians do love to subsidize high-profile businesses), but of late Goldwater has successfully challenged several public expenditures under the gift clause.

I won't rehash the whole argument, but I found this bit from Senator McCain interesting

He called on the Goldwater Institute, a Valley watchdog that intends to sue to block the deal, to sit down and negotiate to keep the team

The buyer Matthew Hulsizer and his staff have taken this position throughout the deal -- they have lamented that they are more than willing to "negotiate" with Goldwater, and they are frustrated Goldwater won't come to the table with them.

This claim seems bizarre to me. If Goldwater thinks the deal is un-Constitutional, what is to "negotiate?" I don't know Hulsizer or anything about him, but it strikes me that he is working from a Chicago paradigm, and is treating Goldwater as if it were a community organizer. In Chicago, community organizers try to use third parties to protest various deals, like the opening of a Wal-Mart or a new bank. These third-parties are nominally protesting on ideological grounds, but in fact they are merely trying to throw a spanner in the works in order to get a pay off from the deal makers, almost like a protection racket. The payoff might be money or some concession for the group (e.g. guarantee of X% jobs for this group in project, $X in loans earmarked for group, etc).

Everything I have seen tells me Hulsizer is approaching Goldwater in this paradigm.  Even going out and rounding up the most prominent politician in the state (McCain) to put pressure on Goldwater is part of this same Chicago paradigm.

Here by the way  is what Hulsizer is apparently offering

As one part of the deal, Glendale would sell bonds to pay Hulsizer $100 million, which the Chicago investor would use to purchase the team for $210 million from the National Hockey League.

Hulsizer said he notified Goldwater he would guarantee the team will pay Glendale at least $100 million during its lease on the city's Jobing.com Arena through $75 million in team rent and fees and by covering $25 million in team losses that the city promised to pay the NHL this season, which is included in the hockey team's purchase price.

"We need to move forward now," he said. "I expect that Goldwater and other people who have come out against this deal will hopefully recognize the benefits of it and will now use all of that energy and tenacity and aggressiveness to go out and help us sell these bonds and make hockey work in the desert forever."

Hulsizer said Goldwater had not yet responded to him.

By the way, I hesitate to trust the Arizona Republic to report such deal terms correctly, but if what is reported above is correct, the offer appears to be non-sense

  1. What kind of guarantee is he offering?  Is it a guarantee by the corporate vehicle buying the team, because if it is, this is worthless.   The last team ownership group promised to pay the lease for 30 years -- what does that mean once they went bankrupt?  I am sure Borders Books promised to pay a lot of real estate owners money for leases, and many of them are going to end up empty-handed in the bankruptcy.  If this is a personal guarantee, that is a nice step forward, though not enough because....
  2. The $75 million in rent is largely irrelevant to the new bond issue -- these rents support the old $200 million bond issue.  What they are saying is "issue a new $100 million bond issue for us and we will guarantee you can make 40% of the payments for the old bond issue."   So?  When Balsillie wanted to move the team, he didn't ask for an additional bond issue and agreed to pay off $50 million of the old one as an exit fee.
  3. At the end of the day, if the $100 million is not a subsidy, not at risk, and fully backed by guaranteed cash flows, then Hulsizer should go out and get a $100 million private loan.  Period.

Unfortunately, this might be enough to get the deal through the courts.  Glendale will argue that for the $100 million, they will get $100 million paid against their existing bond issues that would not otherwise be paid if the team folds or leaves town.  This may fly with the courts, unfortunately, but it still sucks for taxpayers.   At the end of the day, nothing about this offer makes the $100 million bond issue any safer.   If the team goes bankrupt, it is lost.  That is an equity risk the city is taking with taxpayer funds, and equity risk for which we are getting no equity.  See here for full discussion of the risks and problems.

Postscript: The following is pure speculation, but I think it is close to correct.  The team is worth about $110 million at best (remember, it has never made money in AZ).  Forbes values it at $117 million but several similar franchises have sold for under $100 million lately.   The reason it is selling for $210 million is that the NHL, which bought it out of bankruptcy, guaranteed its other owners the league would not lose a penny on the team.   But the team has been racking up losses, and the accumulated cost to the NHL is now $210 million.  The NHL is insisting on a price that is $100 million north of where it should be.  In effect, the taxpayers of Glendale are bailing out the NHL for this crazy promise to its owners.

I can just see the negotiation.  Hulsizer, who by every evidence is a savvy financial guy, is not going to pay $210 million for an asset worth $110 million.  Glendale has way too many chips on the table to fold now, so it rides in and says it will contribute the $100 million difference.  In fact, the best evidence this is a subsidy is the difference between the purchase price and any reasonable team value.  Someone has to make up the ridiculous gap between the NHL asking price and reality, and Hulsizer is too smart to do it.   I have been calling this a subsidy of Hulsizer, but in fact this is really a subsidy of the NHL.   The NHL has Glendale by the short hairs, because Glendale knows (from the Balsillie offer, among others) that the only way the NHL can get a $210 million price is from a buyer who wants to move the team.

This, by the way, is EXACTLY the reason I opposed the original stadium funding deal.  Once they built the stadium, and then went further and lured businesses to develop around it, they were wide open to blackmail of this sort.

The problem with doubling down at this point is that the team has never made money and has no real public plan for doing so.  I have talked to NHL executives and none of them see how the turnaround is possible.  So how many years will it be before the new owners tire of their plaything and throw the team back into bankruptcy, so that Glendale will be in the exact same spot except $300 million, rather than $200 million, in debt.

Taxpayer Money and Professional Sports

My column is up this week at Forbes, and discusses the role of taxpayer money in professional sports.

A  critical battle is underway challenging the very heart of the professional sports economics model — and it is not the NFL labor negotiations.  The unlikely fight is between a struggling league (the NHL), a suburb with delusions of grandeur (Glendale, Arizona), and a small, regional think tank (the Goldwater Institute).   At stake is an important source of value for nearly every professional sports team:  taxpayer subsidies....

Consider the Arizona Cardinals new football stadium in Glendale, for example.  In part due to the promise of a Superbowl bid, the local taxpayers paid $346 million of the total $455 million cost of the facility — a building that will be used just three hours a day on ten days a year for its primary purpose.  By contrast, in 2010 Forbes valued the Arizona Cardinals at $919 million, meaning well over a third of the franchise’s value accrues from the public subsidy of its retractable roof palace.  It can be argued that much of the increase in player salaries and team owner wealth in the NFL over the last twenty years has come at the expense of taxpayers.

If anything, this example from the NFL understates the importance of public funding of stadiums.  Why?  Because of all the major sports leagues, the NFL gets the lowest percentage of its total revenues from its stadiums.  Leagues like the NBA, and in particular the NHL, are far more dependent on stadium revenue for their well-being.

Let’s return to precocious Glendale.  In 2003, the city agreed to publicly fund $180 million of the $220 million cost of building a new arena for the Phoenix Coyotes hockey team.  Whereas Glendale’s subsidy of the Cardinals represented about a third of that franchise’s value, their $180 million subsidy of the Coyotes represents over 130% of the current $134 million value of the team.  Stuck in Arizona and losing as much as $40 million a year, the team is literally worthless without ongoing public subsidies.

The column goes on to discuss yet another bond issue proposed by Glendale to subsidize these teams.

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?

I Hate Public Funding of Stadiums

One of the government habits that consistently irritate me is the public funding of stadiums.  Never has so much public money been transferred for so little economic benefit to so many billionaires who don't need it.  For example, Seattle ponied up hundreds of millions of dollars for a stadium for Paul Allen, one of the five richest people in the world (and who probably has spent more than the cost of the stadium searching for aliens). 

Credit the owners of sports teams, I guess, for they have learned to use gun-to-the-head threats of moving the team out of town to get local taxpayers to vote them new stadiums.  I mean, for god sakes, we are building a stadium here in Arizona for the hapless Cardinals (and here is our new Glendale Arena, constructed by taxpayers just in time for the NHL strike - but we get roller derby!) Some thoughts:

  • Public funding is totally unnecessary.  Many private owners have built their own stadiums, either through private capital or Personal Seat Licenses.  In fact, with naming rights and luxury boxes, there are more revenue streams than ever to pay for these stadiums.
  • Its all about blackmail. If the mayors of the 50 largest cities in the country got together tomorrow and made a no-public-stadium funding pledge, then owners would be forced to build their own stadiums.  Congrats to Los Angeles for resisting the the NFL's outstretched hand.  What the owners have created is a classic prisoners dilemma for the cities (see update#1 below)
  • Sports teams bring little net economic benefit.  No disinterested economist has found any justification for the premise that they improve the local economy - instead, they just shift benefit around.
  • Teams take better care of stadiums they actually own.  Private stadiums are steadily improved, year-in and year-out.  Public stadiums (I am thinking of Veterans Stadium and the Astrodome in particular) are used up and thrown away.
  • Teams always underestimate the tax burden of the stadium and the implied subsidy.  Often you see them arguing that the stadium will be funded only out of the revenues from the stadium itself -- well if that's the case, then why does the public need to be involved at all?

Here is a Cato paper debunking the economics of the proposed new DC baseball stadium.  Matt Welch has a great article on this topic in Reason here.  Hit and Run has an update today on the Angels' jacking both Anaheim and Tempe at the same timeMakes Me Ralph (lol) has a series of posts here, just keep scrolling.  For even more, see the website Field of Schemes and the related book Field of Schemes : How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit.

UPDATE#1

Marginal Revolution makes the counter-case for public funding, citing a study by two economists who try to put a value on the intangibles of having a team in town.

I have to disagree for three reasons:

  • I am against taxing for such value.  If everyone finds value, find a free-market approach to get the same thing.  Have a telethon or something.  And by the way, this value is fleeting and much more limited than owners let on.  One good example - has anyone south of Chicago noticed that the NHL season has not started?
  • This is a very slippery slope argument.  How many times have you heard politicians say something like "Everyone I know would pay a dollar a week to get this, its not that much".  Yeah, it sounds great, but a dollar a week per person in the US gets us a new $15 billion a year program or tax. 
  • Most importantly, though, is that private enterprises don't NEED the public funding to make stadiums work.  If the product works, like the NFL, they don't need public funding.  And if the product isn't working, like the NHL, then no amount of public funding, like our new arena here, will save it.  Team owners get public funding only because they can, not because they have to.  And they can because of the threat of moving the team out of town.  This is a classic prisoner's dilemma.  If all major cities collude and refuse to fund public stadiums (like the two prisoners agreeing not to cooperate with police) then everyone except the owners is better off, because the NFL will still exist but without public subsidies

UPDATE #2

A nice post with lots of good links from Houston's Clear Thinkers.  A nice blog based in my old hometown and birthplace.