Sunday, April 3, 2011

Fiesta Bowl allegations just another Arizona public policy failure

By Evan Weiner

April 3, 2011

(New York, N. Y.) -- If you want to see where everything that could possibly go wrong in government spending for sports facilities, you need to look no further that the Phoenix, Arizona area. In a bid to make the Valley of the Sun one of the most prominent sports areas in the country, local politicians have spent more than a billion dollars of public funding to build two arenas, one Major League Baseball park, numerous baseball spring training facilities and a football stadium.

The Valley of the Sun was a sleepy sports setting until the late 1980s. As people moved to the Phoenix area, someone got the idea that Phoenix should have more "big time" sporting options than the National Basketball Association Suns. No, the area needed to become "major league" and getting a National Football League franchise, a Major League Baseball team and a National Hockey League squad would do the trick. The Suns, major college baseball and the mid-level Fiesta Bowl were not enough.

It hasn't financially worked out all that well for Phoenix, Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe and Glendale. The sacking of Fiesta Bowl chief executive John Junker along with two other top officials could open a Pandora’s box of problems for Glendale, the Fiesta Bowl and the (college football's) Bowl Championship Series for Arizona politicians who allegedly accepted gifts from Junker.

Arizona elected officials have to abide by state laws, which included an “entertainment ban” that prohibits, state employees and elected officials from accepting tickets or "admission to any sporting or cultural event" for free.

The Junker situation could ensnare Arizona elected officials for ethics violations and could be an opening for Congress to investigate the Bowl Championship Series (and maybe tax exemptions that members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association enjoy).

Oddly enough the gadflies at The Goldwater Institute have sat on their hands and have been mum about the Fiesta Bowl revelations, which is so unlike them. The Goldwater Institute doesn't want Glendale to sell bonds to help complete the sale of the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes to a Chicago businessman nor do they seem to care that things didn't work out attendance wise for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Chicago White Sox during the 2011 Cactus League Spring Training part of the baseball season at the new Glendale baseball park.

Overall, spring training baseball attendance was off in the Valley of the Sun.

How did Arizona politicians get into the sports business and when did they go wrong? It started about a quarter of a century ago when Phoenix started to experience a population growth. Urban planners and historians should study the entire history of the “big time sports industry” of the Phoenix area because no city or region has been dumber than Phoenix area politicians.
Had the Phoenix city council been smart, which they were not, they would have approved a multi-purpose arena back in the late 1980s that would have accommodated the NBA's Phoenix Suns and an NHL team. Instead lawmakers approved a $90 million expenditure that was designed to appease Suns owner Jerry Colangelo. The arena was built in such a way that the building was only good for basketball and not hockey or Arena Football or indoor soccer and that severely limited the potential revenues that could be generated in the place. Making sure they further satisfied Colangelo, the terms of the lease between the city and the NBA team required that the franchise pay the bulk of lease payments in years 36-40 of the 40-year lease agreement. The real rent is supposed to kick in around 2028 but given the lifespan of facilities (the Miami Arena was viable for about 11 years, the Charlotte Coliseum for about 13), it is doubtful that the team will even be playing in the arena in 2028 or 2029.
The arena opened in 1992.
In 2003, the city kicked in another $17 million to modernize the place when a second Valley of the Sun indoor athletic facility opened in Glendale, which is west of downtown Phoenix.
After taking care of Colangelo, Phoenix planners decided that a new downtown could be built with the arena and a baseball park as anchors so Phoenix politicians went about the task of getting a referendum in front of the public asking for support to build a ballpark for a Major League baseball team.
Over in Tempe, Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill, who came to the Valley of the Sun with his St. Louis Cardinals football team in 1988, wasn't too happy with his stadium in Tempe. Bidwill started to shop around looking for an Arizona community that wanted his team and was willing to build a stadium that the public would fund and put most of the stadium revenues in Bidwill's pocket. It took 12 years for Bidwill to find the right partner — Glendale — as votes in 2000 said yes to putting up $300 million of the estimated $465 million dollars needed to build a stadium. The money would come from a rise in the hotel/motel tax and car rentals (that is a mechanism designed to placate the locals, out of towners will pay, you won't, however most of the money on the car rental side comes from locals who rent cars more than visitors), Bidwill would recoup the $165 million through stadium naming rights and through a loophole in the 1986 Federal Tax Act which limits the money a municipality can take from stadium generator revenues to eight cents on a dollar.
Mesa said no to Bidwill in 1999.
Colangelo spearheaded the baseball stadium drive. He wanted a Major League Baseball team and went back to Phoenix-area politicians to make his pitch. They listened again.
In 1994, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors (despite huge budget deficits and cutbacks in the funding of services) said yes to Colangelo and gave the go ahead for a quarter-cent increase in the county sales tax to pay for a part of the stadium's cost. There was a string attached, the approval had to come by March 31, 1995 which meant Major League Baseball had to either relocate a team to Phoenix (unlikely as there was nowhere to play in Phoenix) or expand. MLB awarded Phoenix and St. Petersburg teams beginning in 1998 when the Phoenix stadium would be completed.
The Maricopa sales tax hike was a problem.
Maricopa County residents were not allowed to vote on the issue of funding a baseball stadium with general sales tax revenue. In August 1997, Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox was shot by Larry Naman after leaving a county board meeting. The shooter testified in court that Wilcox's support for the tax justified the attack. In May 1998, Naman was found guilty of attempted first-degree murder.
Colangelo had his stadium whether Maricopa County residents liked it or not. Colangelo's stadium was supposed to have cost $279 million but the ballpark actually price tag was over $350 million and Colangelo's group had to make up the difference. Colangelo's group paid $130 million for the expansion team, there was the cost overruns and a high payroll and throw in the fact that Major League Baseball didn't give Arizona and Tampa Bay full revenue sharing between 1998 and 2002, and that nearly caused the team to declare bankruptcy by 2004.

While Colangelo was looking for a baseball team, he also wanted a National Hockey League team to take up dates in the city's new arena. In 1994, Colangelo told this reporter that Phoenix was a perfect spot for the NHL. The NHL needed to fill the Mountain Time zone for TV purposes and Phoenix and Denver were in the mix for NHL franchises.

Colangelo, who was not a hockey guy, was spot on. Denver investors bought the Quebec Nordiques in 1995 and moved the team to the Colorado city and Richard Burke put together a group that included Steven Gluckstern and bought the Winnipeg Jets. Burke and Gluckstern moved the team to Colangelo's building in 1996 and that is when trouble started.

The building approved by Phoenix politicians in 1988 had more than 3,000 view-obstructed seats or about 25 percent of the house. No NHL team can survive in a flawed arena even if the building was just four years old. Burke bought out Gluckstern in 1998 after Gluckstern teamed up with Howard Milstein to buy the New York islanders in a real estate deal (The Islanders real estate deal is still festering with present owner Charles Wang apparently shelving an arena-village concept and Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray not approving the project for reasons only known to Supervisor Murray).

In 1999, Burke was hoping to move the team to Scottsdale. Bidwill had struck out in his bid to win voter approval for a $1.8 billion football stadium-village on May 18 of that year but Burke had won a preliminary vote on that date for a new arena with the help of Steve Ellman.

Burke got his arena project approved by Scottsdale voters in November 1999 but the arena was never built. Ellman bought the Coyotes in 2001 after the Scottsdale deal fell through. Ellman worked out an arena-land developing deal with Glendale officials in 2001 and moved his Coyotes to a new arena in 2003. Glendale paid $180 million for the building, Ellman did some developing but the real estate deal turned bad. Eventually Ellman's partner Jerry Moyes took control of the team and hemorrhaged money and the NHL now owns the team. Moyes and the league battled after Moyes got Canadian investor Jim Balsillie to buy the team. The NHL stopped the sale and the confrontation ended up in court when a Phoenix judge said the NHL had the right to control individual franchises in terms of sale and market. The franchise remained in Glendale and Balsillie's plan to move the franchise to Hamilton, Ontario fell through.

Glendale could be kicking in as much as $25 million to keep the team going in 2010-11

Glendale worked with a group called Ice Edge Holdings to keep the team in the arena and create a tax district around the building to help stabilize the Coyotes bleak financial picture. That fell through but another suitor came to the rescue, Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer.

Last fall, Colangelo was back in business in the Valley of the Sun in Glendale. Colangelo wanted to build the USA Basketball headquarters in Glendale and why not? Glendale had an open checkbook for Bidwill, Burke, Reinsdorf's White Sox, the McCourt's Dodgers. But Colangelo is miffed that financing for his headquarters has not come about. But Colangelo left the door open for Glendale (in government sports financing you never close a door) to get someone with money to build a headquarters.

Funny, the Goldwater Institute is not commenting on Colangelo. It must be that Goldwater's trustees don't like the Canadian sport of hockey while American sports like baseball, football and basketball (even if it was invented by a Canadian, Dr. James Naismith) are fleecing Glendale.

Meanwhile Glendale had another problem in 2010. The Arizona Stadium and Tourism Authority (AZSTA) is broke. That is the group that has raised funds for the Cardinals Glendale stadium and various Major League Spring Training ballparks that ring the Valley of the Sun. Hotel/motel and car rental taxes (which is 3.25 percent) from tourists that fund the authority are flat.

Arizona public officials decided in the 1990s to become a sports destination. Spring Training would be a big money maker for Arizona as baseball fans would flock to see their favorite teams in March of every year. The authority took in $34 million last year and has $37 million in expenses, $16 million of which goes to the Cardinals football stadium. Surprise (Kansas City and Texas), Scottsdale (San Francisco) and Tempe (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim) will be getting less money to pay the bills at three spring training facilities. Youth sports will take a million dollar or so hit.

All of this is a product of Proposition 302 that was approved by Maricopa County residents 10 years ago.

The Maricopa County Stadium District and the Arizona Stadium and Tourism Authority are responsible for stadiums around Phoenix. The stadium district was formed in 1991 to make sure Phoenix area-based spring training teams were not lured by Las Vegas.

How expensive is spring training?

The Los Angeles Dodgers now share a new $110 million stadium in Glendale with the Chicago White Sox, who moved from Tucson. Glendale is providing $54 million in financing for the stadium.

Scottsdale and the stadium authorities put together a $23 million package to refurbish Scottsdale Stadium to make the San Francisco Giants ownership happy. About $13.3 million is from the AZSTA funds, $6.67 million from the Maricopa Stadium District, and $3.1 million from the city.

Arizona officials contend that the 2010 spring training slate had an economic impact of $348 million yet there is a deficit.

All of the maneuvering has left an impression. The baseball landscape has changed with all 15 Major League Baseball teams that train in Arizona located around Phoenix. Tucson has lost three teams (the White Sox, Colorado Rockies and the Diamondbacks). The arena in Phoenix has to fight Glendale for non-basketball events. Glendale, not Phoenix or Tempe has the Super Bowl and while Phoenix gets a piece of the event buck, it is Glendale that gets sports spending money from those crown jewel events. The downtown envisioned with the arena and stadium as the pillars of a new downtown Phoenix has not materialized.

The question of whether it was worth spending billions in a state that is broke is never addressed by politicians. Arizona is selling off state buildings to plug a financial gap that in part was caused by poor sports decisions on every level.

They could have said no to Colangelo. They could have said no to Bidwill. They could have said no to the NHL. They could have said no to Major League Baseball. Don't blame the owners for asking for money, they could have asked for whatever they wanted.

There was an awful lot of economic miscalculation when it came to sports planning in Arizona and the battle is far from over. Mesa would like to hold onto the Chicago Cubs, the franchise that allegedly is the economic engine of the Cactus League, and the Milwaukee Brewers ownership could be looking to exit Maryvale. The Sports business is pretty simple have the politicians get involved and make financial guarantees. It has been a good formula for sports owners and players but not so good for taxpayers who have a financial stake in the sports industry whether they watch games or not.

Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy's 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business." His book, "The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition is available at, Barnes and Noble 's, kobo's literati or amazonkindle. He can be reached at

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