Over the next month, our Metrodome replacement building will be featured in establishing shots on national TV at least twice. (For our friends who are Vikings fans, let’s hope it’s featured three times.) Happily, for the folks at US Bank, who paid Lord-knows-what to secure naming rights, TV cameras will not feature prominent Wells Fargo signage in the background.
(Yes, Wells Fargo tried to put up such signs, got sued, and lost. Banks are so funny!)
But this isn’t a story of sibling rivalry between banks. Nor is it a story about US Bank Stadium per se; a building so bizarre that fans have given it many odd nicknames, like The Sandcrawler, The HP LaserJet, The Bird Killer, or simply A Bad Use Of Taxpayer Money. Personally, whenever I see the thing, I expect Daleks to be standing guard.
It’s a story about how stadiums are sold to the public (or their elected representatives, at least). And about the Minneapolis company that does this selling, all over the world.
And it’s the story of a blog. A blog that’s been shouting in the darkness for 20 years.
In 1998, Neil deMause and Joanna Cagan published Field Of Schemes, the still-seminal book on stadium shenanigans (it’s since been revised & updated). Around the same time, they launched a website of the same name. The website publishes well-sourced tales of swindles and scams at least five days a week, sometimes more. It has no ads. All revenue comes from reader donations.
(I know people who’ve been blogging quality work for ten years and are burnt out; imagine 20!)
It’s one of the few websites I visit daily. Because deMause/Cagan always seem to make their stories fresh. Cagan’s a teacher, deMause a journalist, and it’s a perfect combo. The posts make me mad, they make me laugh, and I often learn something I didn’t know before about how these deals actually work.
Which brings us to our Minneapolis company, CS&L.
Conventions, Sports, & Leisure International isn’t exactly a homegrown affair; their HQ is in a Dallas suburb. But their other office is here (it’s across the train tracks from Xcel Energy). Feel free to apply for a job!
What Does CS&L Do?
“Our consultants provide in-depth information, creative solutions to underlying issues, a thorough analysis of financial implications, and various measurements of risk and return surrounding alternative courses of action...”
Essentially, corpo-speak for “we help you make money.” Which is a useful thing. If you’re in the entertainment facility business, you can hire CS&L to estimate how much that new construction/upgrade for a stadium or fairground or convention center will cost, and what it will bring you in return. I presume they’re good at it; their client list is enormous.
So far, so good. But CS&L also offers “Negotiation Services” and “Economic Impact Analysis.” Because “committing public dollars to a project is often dependent on an independent analysis of the benefits.”
Here’s where things get dicey.
If you tell a team that some new luxury seating will bring in $10 mil, and it only brings in $5, well, that’s bad. So those estimates have to be pretty sharp.
But if you tell a city/state that some new sports building will bring in $100 mil of tax revenue, and this turns out to be a $100 million overestimate, well, that’s good. Because you got the building funded. This is all that matters.
And the estimates of economic benefits provided by stadiums are always, always wrong.
I won’t belabor the details — you can read the website/book Field Of Schemes, or the scholarly report Sports, Jobs, & Taxes, or similar work by Kevin J. Delaney & Rick Eckstein & James T. Bennett and friggin’ John Oliver ... there’s no shortage of research on this topic, and none ever indicates that stadiums bring back any smidgen of revenue to the public. (Besides the unquantifiable return of team pride, etc.)
So one job companies like CS&L are hired to do is sell stadium benefits which don’t exist. Clearly, they do it very well. As Cagan/deMause have documented, not only are American taxpayers putting up more for stadiums each year, the replacement time for those stadiums grows ever shorter. Not because there’s anything wrong with the buildings. Because owners can expect a small boost in revenue — especially luxury-box revenue — for the first few years a new building is open.
(For grim fun, watch this video of a demolition team recently trying to blow up the Pontiac Silverdome. The thing was so well-made, they couldn’t nuke it at first. They had to send a crew back inside to place new charges. Second time was the charm; lucky the building didn’t collapse while workers were in it.)
How do they sell these imaginary benefits? There are several standard methods:
- Estimate sales/income taxes generated by building, ignore taxes that other businesses at the same site could generate.
- Ignore tax breaks given to teams. Few pay property taxes. Many (such as the Wild & Timberwolves) get free public transit rides for ticketholders.
- Pretend the new building will generate tourism (slightly true, but wildly overstated). Or draw new residents to live in the area (completely untrue).
- Ignore the economic costs of draining city/state budgets. Roads that need repair, schools that need funding, etc. (Things that can actually cause people to leave your city.)
Another trick is that elected officials are pushovers on this subject. They’re terrified of voters angry about wasteful spending, and they’re terrified of voters who might blame them if the team leaves. A bogus “economic benefit” estimate like the kind CS&L provides gets officials off the hook in both directions.
It also works for local media, who often have a vested interest in the success of local sports teams. Sports stories get huge readership, hence ad revenue, etc. In a particularly egregious moment, the Star-Tribune’s Sid Hartman complained that stadium opponents were “going to deprive those inhabitants of the many nursing homes, and those shut-ins who always look forward to the Sunday telecast of the Vikings.” (Presumably there is an uptick of nursing home/shut-in deaths every year after football ends.)
But the big kahuna — and every single team’s “economic benefit analysis,” whether provided by CS&L or a similar firm, uses this one — is to cite the spending that goes on at businesses around the stadium. Restaurants, bars, etc.
People only have so much money to spend! If a soccer stadium opens near me (which one will soon) and I go to a game (which I won’t anytime soon), let’s say I drop $50 on tickets, $15 on a pre-game meal, $20 on souvenir trinkets, and a final $15 in team-victory bar beers. That’s $100 out of my entertainment budget; it’s money I would have spent on movies and pizza elsewhere. I can’t, now: it’s gone.
Stadiums. Do. Not. Generate. Consumer. Spending. They just relocate it.
Show Me The Funny Money
CS&L does not provide examples of “economic benefit analysis” studies on their website. They don’t have to; these are reports clients paid for, and are the clients’ private property. Sports teams (outside of Green Bay) are not publicly-held corporations, and have no obligation to share internal data.
However — we’re back to US Bank stadium again! — the Vikings used a CS&L study, and put it on the team website when they were making their stadium push.
It’s still on their website. Right here. And it’s a doozy.
This masterpiece hits all the high notes. Taxes? Why, we’ll get $830 million, it practically pays for itself! Tourism? “A significant percentage of Vikings fans originate from outside the State.” (Yep, eight days a year, we are flooded with big spenders from the Dakotas.) Unquantifiables? “geographic regions supporting NFL franchises are believed to derive significant benefit from the national and international focus and media attention created by the team ... Professional sports influence a community’s identity and cohesion, resulting in some of the more intangible elements that comprise an area’s quality of life.”
(“are believed” — By whom, exactly? That’s some genius obfuscation, right there. CS&L, I salute you.)
For visual learners, there are lots of charts, such as:
My favorite part included a list of events that may or may not occur at the “Metrodome Next Multipurpose Facility.” So these weren’t factored into the “study,” such as it was, but could be used as a drooling list by politicians/journalists. They include Super Bowls (plural), World Cup games, Olympic events, and Papal visits. Well, we do have a lovely Catholic cathedral here ... and I suppose we could host a Winter Olympics if we subbed out downhill skiing for events such as Don’t Fall On Icy Sidewalk or Drunken Snowmobile Steering Challenge.
If You Build It, They Will Succumb
This duplicitous nonsense has been going on for decades, and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. CS&L is not new. For hockey fans, you’ll be happy to know that CS&L not only helped sell the Xcel Center to Saint Paul. They also helped sell the Stars arena to Dallas. That’s some “creative solutions to underlying issues,” right there!
Meanwhile, Cagan and deMause show no signs of stopping, either. They’ll be celebrating the book anniversary in April. And plugging away, day after day, at their (to date) hopeless cause.
Those two recently posted some stuff from their early blogging days. You should really read this one, “Top Ten Dumbest Reasons To Build A New Stadium.”
It’s old, and some of the stories you will have forgotten (if you ever heard of them at all) ... but wait until you get to #1. I promise, you’ll remember that one forever.
May the mysterious powers that be grant deMause/Cagan the attention their work deserves. May the same powers grant CS&L exactly the attention their work deserves.
And may those Vikings fans get a Super Bowl victory here in the Cylon Embassy Arena. I hate the building and I’m no big football admirer, but c’mon, sports gods. Vikings fans have suffered enough!