10 June 2014

First New York, Now Miami: Another MLS Expansion Stadium Deal Collapses

 Just two weeks after MLS Expansion Team NYCFC lost it’s hoped-for practice stadium (article here), soccer great-turned-investor David Beckham’s efforts to find a location for a new Miami-based soccer team has suffered a similar fate: Mayor Tomás Regalado and City Manager Daniel Alfonso told Beckham’s investment group that their proposal to fill in a nine-acre waterway and build a $250 million, 20,000-seat stadium adjacent to the Miami Heat’s Arena on public park land was a no-go. 

In spite of Beckham’s offer to privately fund the construction and pay the City $2,000,000 in annual rent for use of the public land, public opinion was deeply divided; a Miami Herald/el Nuevo Herald poll taken last week showed county voters evenly split over the location. Local residents offered the usual complaints about traffic and losing their water views; Cruise lines opposed the proposal as well, and the entire process may have been poisoned by the bad feelings remaining from a recent failed attempt at a taxpayer-supported stadium for the Miami Marlins. 

City and county leaders continue to insist that they want an expansion franchise in Miami. But Tuesday’s decision marked the second time a proposed location was rejected by the political leadership that once not only supported the project, but even recommended the location.   

A third possibility - sharing a downtown stadium with the University of Miami college football team ended with no agreement in sight.

According to theguardian.com, Beckham's investment group, “which includes the entertainment impresario Simon Fuller and the Bolivian telecoms billionaire Marcelo Claure, said it would pause to consider its options, one of which will presumably be withdrawing from the project altogether.

We presented a strong proposal for the site suggested to us by the two mayors the group, Miami Beckham United, said in a statement after a meeting on Tuesday with city officials in Miami.

Our package was the most equitable soccer stadium proposal that Miami, or any other city in America, has ever seen, 100% privately funded without any local taxpayers' money.

Our team will now pause and weigh alternatives. The people of Miami deserve a team and stadium that they will be proud of for decades to come."


09 June 2014

Add NYCFC to the List of New York City's Homeless....

 The proposed “New York City Football Club” (NYCFC) is quickly finding out what most native New Yorkers already know: housing is hard to find, and it ain’t cheap.

When Major League Soccer decided to go on an expansion binge last year, someone apparently decided that there was some sort of synergy in creating “local rivalries.”   Instead of attempting to locate teams in places like San Antonio (the 7th largest city in the entire United States, with a huge media market, a ready soccer-friendly Latino majority, and only a single professional sports team – the Spurs – of their own), the powers that be went for geographic "doubling up:" they announced new teams in Orlando and Miami (the latter partly owned by soccer great David Beckham), both in Florida, along with a new franchise in Atlanta (I have NO explanation for that one). But before those clubs came the announcement of a second club in the New York metro area, presumably to rival the existing New York Red Bulls.

Certainly, with over 8 million people, New York appears  big enough to host multiple professional sports teams: Mets & Yankees, Jets & Giants,  Nets & Knicks, and Rangers, Islanders & Devils  all come to mind.  

So why not a second MLS team?

Well, first of all, the existence of a team sure doesn’t guarantee its success.  As I write, the Mets are heading once again for a losing season, and can not claim more than 20% of the NY fan base, even on its stronghold of Long Island; The NY Islanders have lost money every year since 2001 and were listed by Wall Street 24/7 as one of the top 7 teams on the brink of financial collapse;  The Jets made it to the Superbowl…..once…..45 years ago.   I have to question the wisdom of launching a second MLS team in the same media market where one team, the Red Bulls, has just ‘emerged’ in their own right.  

But perhaps more importantly, one wonders if MLS just doesn’t “get” the real estate market in New York. New York stadiums need a critical mass of open land, direct transit service, and both neighbors and real estate developers who don’t mind.

In other words…..good luck.

When the NYCFC was first announced, there was a concerted effort to build a new stadium in Flushing Meadow Park in Queens.  That went over like a lead balloon, as local residents, having already lost green space due to the new construction of the Mets’ Citifield next to the existing Shea Stadium, opposed the move.  (New York is a place where neighbors call City Hall to complain about the neighbors patch of grass being too high – one can only imagine how a 30,000-seat stadium would fly.)  One suspects that the Mets, struggling to fill the seats in their new antiseptic stadium, may not have been too happy about a rival sports stadium either.

In the end, the NYCFC declared that they would be playing at Yankee Stadium, another huge concrete stadium built for anything except soccer. 

But even if the games could be played there, practices could not – and so NYCFC set out looking for a different piece of real estate to practice in, beginning January 2015.  In a reasonable good faith effort, NYCFC offered to fund a $10 million renovation of Manhattanville College’s gymnasium and soccer fields, in return for calling it their practice home. But Manhattanville College, in spite of its city-sounding name, is not in New York City: it is in Purchase, in Westchester County, squeezed between the wealthy enclaves of Scarsdale, NY and Greenwich, Connecticut.  The "Purchase Environmental Protective Association" and three residents filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court against the team and the college….a process which, even if unsuccessful, will drag out beyond the planned Jan 2015 practice dates.

It’s an old ploy used by anyone who wants to stop anything in New York: delay, harangue, file suit, raise issues of traffic and the environnment.  The New York Jet’s efforts to build a new stadium on the Hudson Railyards on the West side of Manhattan came to an end when political opposition arose; all that opposition, of course, was silent when realtors made a bundle as construction began on the current six, luxury high-rise condominiums instead.

The Jets and Giants share a stadium…in New Jersey.  The Red Bulls are located in nearby Harrison, NJ. The Nets and the Islanders share a home only because the city took an entire blue-collar working class neighborhood in Brooklyn by eminent domain and provided public subsidies to help politically-connected real estate mogul Bruce Ratner build what has now become the Barclay Center.

There are other pieces of land of course….Floyd Bennett Field (under National Park control and nowhere near public transit) and on Staten Island (little transit available and hey, you might as well be in New Jersey if you go to Staten Island….)

So, in spite of great intentions and the recent signing of Spain’s David Villa as its first star player, the NYCFC has neither its own home, nor a place to practice.

I understand San Antonio is lovely in January…..


06 June 2014

Time for Major League Baseball to Return to Montréal?

“Le baseball peut sauver Montréal” screamed the headline of the Sports section of the 28 March 2014 edition of La Presse, one of Canada’s top 10 newspapers, and the only one with a growing weekly circulation.

“Baseball can save Montréal.

The paper was quoting Warren Cromartie, a versatile outfielder who played with the original Montréal Expos, who has been vocal in generating enthusiasm for a return of Major League Baseball to Montréal.  And Cromartie has not been alone.

On the weekend the full-page news article appeared, not one, but two Major League Baseball games were played at Montreal’s Stade Olympique (Olympic Stadium) as the Toronto Blue Jays hosted the New York Mets for a two-game exhibition series. It was  the first time MLB baseball had been played in Québec since the Montreal Expos left town ten years earlier.

Was there interest in Francophone Québec for this stereotypically “American” sport?

To quote reporter David Lengel of The Guardian,

“Beer was poured, hot dogs were steamed (buns toasted), and programs were sold. Fans, legions of them, cheered home runs, booed errors and gasped at great defensive plays, heckling in both English and French…Montreal was a Major League Baseball city for the first time since its franchise picked up and relocated to Washington DC 10 years ago.” 

The numbers?  More than 96,000 Canadian fans turned out for two games.  They chanted, “Let’s go Expos!” and “We want baseball!”

For comparison purposes, that’s just about the equivalent of two complete sell-outs of the entire 50,000-seat-strong new Yankee Stadium. The average attendance at Boston Red Sox games so far in 2014 has been 36,000; for Seattle, 22,500; for Tampa Bay, just 18,000. The number of fans at the Blue Jays-Mets games was astounding.

 Once upon a time, Montréal had an MLB team in the Expos.  In fact, they were home to the very first MLB franchise located outside of the United States.   

Montréal seemed to burst on the scene in the 1960s. The 1967 World's Fair, called Expo 67 was hailed as a success, and the city subsequently won the bid for the 1976 Summer Olympics and then unveiled a new subway system, the Métro. This was all capped by winning of one of the four MLB expansion franchises awarded 1969.

While they had a long and slow growth period, the Expos had achieved the best record in Major League Baseball (74–40), when the 1994 players’ strike suddenly ended the season.  The strike dragged on through the fall, forcing the cancellation of the playoffs and the World Series. Shut out of their best season to date, the strike damaged the Expos' campaign for a new stadium, and the local ownership group chose not to invest additional funds to retain the team's best players. 

In fact, they did the opposite:During the 1994–1995 offseason, owner Claude Brochu instructed general manager Kevin Malone to conduct a “fire sale” of their players: ties with their major stars were severed, players were released as Free Agents, and others traded away. Game attendance dropped to under 20,000, and Malone resigned in October 1995, saying "I'm in the building business, not in the dismantling business."   Subsequent years found the owners engaged in head-scratching gambits such as having the Canadian team play games in Puerto Rico.

On September 29, 2004, the date of Montreal's last home game of the season, MLB announced that the Montreal franchise would move to Washington, D.C. for the 2005 season, and the team was reborn as the Washington Nationals.

Nonetheless, Montréalers have never stopped hoping for the return of a team, and they made their feelings known this past spring.

Basic sports economics would support the notion that Montréal is ripe for another team:  the largest source of revenue for Major League Baseball teams are local media broadcast revenues, the majority of which stay with (and enrich) the home team; this is why baseball teams are always located in large media markets like New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, and never in media-poor cities hosting NFL teams like Green Bay and Nashville.

Montreal is currently the largest North American media market without a major league baseball team.

Andrew Zimbalist, prolific author and my sports economics colleague 20 minutes down the road at Smith College, agrees.  Interviewed by La Presse, and asked if a Montréal team could be viable, he stated (and this is my translation; original French appears at the end of this blog post),

“For me, there is no doubt. If Montréal possessed a good stadium, it would work. I don’t see why not – there is no longer a serious devaluation of the Canadian dollar against the American, which contributed to the Expos departure in 2004.”

Cromartie and others have started an actual internet campaign to generate momentum for a team, with a website at Montreal Baseball Project and a Facebook Page  .

But does that mean moving the Nationals back, or shuffling the hapless Rays or the Cleveland Indians (currently possessing the poorest attendance records in MLB) to Canada? 

Not necessarily.

In a May 16 article in Sporting News, Jesse Spector of  Sporting News  argued for expansion to 32 teams.

 “With 32 teams, it would be possible to go to four divisions of eight teams each. The playoffs could then place a heavier emphasis on divisional rivalries, with the second- and third-place teams in each division squaring off in one-game wild card playoffs, then facing the division winners….Why wouldn’t a division of the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Phillies, Orioles, Nationals, Blue Jays and Expos 2.0 work?  The time is right for the move from 30 teams to 32.”


*”Pour moi, il n’ya pas de doute. Si Montréal possède un bon stade, c’est un marché positif. Je ne vois pas pourquoi pas non plus d’une possible dévaluation du dollar canadien par rapport à la devise américaine, ce qui avait contribué au départ des Expos en 2004. »