Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Free Tickets for Tampa Bay Politicians

Many of the politicians who decide how many tax dollars will go to benefit Tampa Bay’s professional sports franchises are also accepting free tickets to those teams’ games. And many of those elected officials are failing to properly disclose the gifts.

As part of my duties for WTSP-TV, I've been tracking the attendee lists for Tampa Sports Authority’s luxury box at Raymond James Stadium, as well as state gift disclosures for Tampa Bay-area politicians over the last three years. And a number of potential conflicts of interest might be present, as the Bucs, Lightning and Rays have all courted local governments for tax money in the past 12 months.

The Tampa Sports Authority (TSA) refused interviews for this story but said its suite typically includes beer, wine, liquor, and a number of casual food items such as burgers and Cuban sandwiches.  Occasionally, crab cakes and sushi may be added. And access to politically-influential business leaders is always on the menu.

Florida law generally allows local politicians to accept gifts, such as free tickets, but it also requires politicians to publicly disclose any gift received over $100. Some officials tell me they outright reject any ticket or gift offers, for they could be perceived as a conflict of interest. But some gift-receiving politicians are better about filing their required state disclosures each quarter than others.

“I believe that anybody who is making a decision, if they are serving a public entity ... should disclose (receiving tickets),” said former Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who filed quarterly gift disclosures every quarter while in office, even if he didn’t accept any gifts during the period.

“Needless to say, I think we all know we have to keep a very close eye on politicians,” said current Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Stacy White. “Sometimes a gift can be a favor in return for some type of preferential treatment, perhaps a vote.”

But White was among the politicians we found failing to disclose some of the tickets he received from the TSA. While he had filled out gift disclosures for tickets in the past, he did not in the spring of 2015 or 2016, when he received a total of 10 Monster Jam tickets to the TSA suite (value: $450).

“That was simply an oversight by my part, but I genuinely appreciate and respect that you hold government officials accountable,” White replied. “Rest assured that we’re going to look at these not only once or twice, but three times looking forward.”

10Investigates also found that tickets to the TSA’s suite at Raymond James Stadium commonly end up in the hands of politicians’ friends and family members, rather than in the hands of business leaders or charities. An agency spokesperson said the TSA’s goal of the ticket allocations was “to further community relations, economic development and the like.”

Other findings:
  • Hillsborough Commissioner Sandy Murman received three luxury box tickets to the 2016 Outback Bowl for her husband but did not disclose them. She said she thought it was to be disclosed at the end of the year. She purchases her own Bucs tickets to avoid any appearance of a conflict.
  • Commissioner Les Miller has regular access to Bucs and USF suites, but because the tickets are always left for his wife, former city councilwoman Gwen Miller, he isn’t legally obligated to disclose them.
  • Tampa City Council members and Hillsborough County commissioners on the TSA board do not consider their stadium tickets as gifts, even though they get two suite tickets to every game, match and concert held there. 10Investigates found no disclosure for the tens of thousands of dollars in tickets they receive each year, and there is no way to tell if they are bringing friends, family, associates or even campaign donors.
  • Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a frequent guest of local sports teams, has publicly disclosed receiving Tampa Bay Lightning playoff tickets four times from three different sources: the team, SunTrust Bank and the Tampa Bay Times (twice).  He also disclosed a pair of tickets to the Glazer Family’s Buccaneers suite in 2014, but told 10Investigates he has never received any suite tickets to Tropicana Field.
  • St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman – as well as city council members – regularly disclose receiving free concert and sporting event tickets, typically from the city’s allocation at public venues such as Tropicana Field, the Mahaffey Theater and the St. Petersburg Grand Prix. Several Pinellas commissioners and Tampa City Council members also received Rays tickets from local organizations and businesses.
  • Many politicians have also disclosed receiving free travel expenses for trips to Cuba (including Kriseman and Pinellas commissioner Janet Long) as well as international economic development missions (Kriseman and Hillsborough commissioner Al Higginbotham).
  • State Senator Tom Lee, who is not allowed to accept any gift worth more than $25 as a state legislator, received a pair of suite tickets to the Feb. 2016 Monster Jam at Raymond James Stadium from the TSA’s lobbyist, Ron Pierce. Lee later paid Pierce for the Monster Jam tickets, but Pierce was allowed to keep the money. Lee sent 10Investigates a canceled check to Pierce for tickets to a number of undisclosed events.
  • The office of USF President Judy Genshaft is given full discretion on whom to invite to her suite at Raymond James Stadium for USF home games, but the office has struggled to provide the records on who has attended in recent years.  An invite list shows most local mayors and Congressional members have been invited, but several of the individuals said they never attended. The university receives – and lobbies for – tax dollars from local, state, and federal governments.
  • 10Investigates requested the public records on politicians receiving free tickets at University of Florida and Florida State University football games, but neither university was able to provide records in time for publishing.
  • About half of local council members and commissioners in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties did not fill out a single gift disclosure in the last three years.
The Rays, Buccaneers and Lightning also all invite politicians to games, often in the club or suite level. But since the teams are private businesses, their records are not available through public record requests. The Lightning use the same lobbyist as the Tampa Sports Authority.

The city of Tampa also has an additional provision in the city code requiring all elected officials - as well as any employees who are appointed, work in procurement, permitting or zoning - to fill out additional disclosures annually for any gift, including tickets, over $100 in value. Tampa's public records liason told 10Investigates the city doesn't have a single disclosure on file in recent years.

Commissioner Murman added that Hillsborough’s county attorney’s office will add gift disclosures to its annual ethics training to improve compliance and transparency in the future.

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Role Reversal: Selig and Manfred Lobbying for Rays Stadium

Since there's no Hall of Fame to the business of baseball, Bud Selig was selected for induction into the regular ole' Baseball Hall of Fame. Because, you know, a lasting legacy of competitive imbalance is something we should all celebrate.

But then again, when EVERYBODY in MLB is getting rich....who's to complain?

Of course, Selig was happy to share his opinions on the Rays stadium saga.  However, it was a far cry from the fearmongering theme he used to pressure Tampa Bay for so many years (see links below). This week, he told reporters he was "optimistic" about the situation.

Hell, it's a new offseason! Stu Sternberg has said he's "optimistic" too!

Then, there's current commissioner, Rob Manfred, to rain on the parade.

The man who said just two months ago that he was "positive about the prospects for a (Rays) stadium"...said this week, according to Marc Topkin:
"I think getting, not only a new facility, but a facility that is more appropriately located within the Tampa-St. Pete market would be good.

"Ultimately, there has to be an end game. If in fact, there's not a site or there's not a financial arrangement that's viable and we become convinced of that, our rules allow for the possibility of relocation.

"At that point of desperation, it's possible a team would be allowed to relocate."
Calling on the public to cough up tax dollars?  Check.

A pleasant reminder the team can relocate?  Check.

A non-threat threat and fearmongering?  Check.

Seems like Manfred really did learn a thing or two from Selig.

A brief history of Selig and the Stadium Saga:

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Rowdies to Advance MLS Push Today

Bill Edwards and the Tampa Bay Rowdies have called a 6 p.m. press conference today to call for community support in their push to join the MLS.

It's an challenging, but inevitable attempt by Edwards, and it was first forecasted by this blog in early 2014.

The challenge is twofold:  Edwards needs to convince the MLS and Orlando City Soccer Club to add another I-4 team; and he needs to convince St. Pete, Pinellas County, and/or the state of Florida to fund major stadium upgrades.

Because you don't make money on new stadiums by funding them yourself.

UPDATE: The Rowdies launched a formal campaign for MLS membership and a new stadium expansion.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Rays Want You to Know They (Supposedly) Prefer Tampa

As predicted in 2009, the Rays are seemingly encouraging a tug-of-war between Pinellas, which has more money, and Hillsborough, which has more fans.

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Friday, November 11, 2016

Chris Archer Echoes Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Theory

As if he had emerged from the scenes of the movie Major League, Rays ace Chris Archer suggested Thursday the team's low payroll was impacting the psyche of players:
I get it. We might not be capable of spending with the Yankees and Red Sox. But if we keep harping on it then it permeates the minds of the players. And we don't want the players to think that we're at any competitive disadvantage.
Archer's comments echo the longstanding theory on this blog that ownership's years of lamenting have created a self-fulfilling prophecy, of diminished fan interest in attending games.

If you bash it, they won't come.

Of course, the team's quick willingness to remind fans they may be considering a move to Montreal (as predicted here in 2009) does nothing to stop the attendance death spiral.

But the most interesting thing I read yesterday came from CBSSports.com.  It's either the most insightful - or the most ignorant - paragraph on the Rays' future. Indiana-based Matt Snyder suggests he knows when the Rays' renegotiated TV deal - previously set to expire this offseason - will end, even though the team has refused to provide any details:
Getting a better television deal -- their current deal runs through 2018 -- and moving to the Tampa side in an outdoor (retractable roof?) stadium would probably help matters and enable the Rays to push up into the low-20s in payroll and that's probably all they'd need to be more consistently winning.
Snyder's suggestion that the Rays' payroll would surpass 6-8 teams - if they only had a new stadium - also seems far-fetched.  But weirder things have happened.

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Monday, November 7, 2016

Rays Stir Pot with Non-Denial Denial of Montreal Rumors

Who needs to hold public discussions on when you've got an unsourced rumor from a Montreal sports reporter doing your bidding for you?
If true, it seems to be a violation of the spirit of the team's agreement with St. Pete...and possibly a violation of the letter of the contract too.

But in true MLB fashion, never let a good rumor go to waste!
By refusing to deny the rumors, the Rays are not-so-subtely reminding Hillsborough and Pinellas elected leaders that they miiiight leave if public subsidies for a stadium aren't available here.

After all, you don't get a stadium built for you without first creating leverage.

UPDATE: MLB is also doing its part to stir the pot...and encourage Tampa Bay baseball fans to question their team's commitment to the area:

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Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Tampa vs. St. Pete Tug-of-War Heats Up

This is why Bill Foster didn't want to just let the Rays look at ballpark sites in Tampa without restrictions. I wrote in 2011:
What has been offered is a region-wide search for a better location and Foster already knows what that would yield: a Tampa vs. St. Pete tug-of-war.
And sure enough, in 2016, after the Rays have conducted months of behind-closed-doors meetings with elected officials, the tug-of-war is exactly what we have as Tampa and St. Pete both prepare "competing" offers for a new stadium.

That only serves to benefit the Rays, who are naturally looking for as generous of a public subsidy package as they can get.

And how do you get that?

By creating leverage.

This blog has spent seven years explaining how competition between cities benefits Rays, not taxpayers...and how inevitable a tug-of-war between counties was if the Rays were allowed to control the conversation.

Then-mayor Foster even asked in 2011 for more regional collaboration from then-candidate Bob Buckhorn...but there's been almost none between Hillsborough and Pinellas leaders regarding the Rays.

According to the Times' Steve Contorno, Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan "said the Rays have not yet said how much they are willing to contribute toward a stadium," so the county is trying to find additional revenues (mostly from taxes) that could be contributed toward a stadium.


Maybe we shouldn't be surprised; this is the same Ken Hagan who has spent the last six years "evolving" from his "no public dollars" for a stadium pledge. Contorno writes that Hillsborough could consider a TIF district (which involves property taxes), raising rental car taxes (which were already raised recently), a concessions or ticket tax (which comes out of the team's pocket), selling development rights around the stadium (which could cost the county if it's a land giveaway), and of course, begging the legislature for state tax dollars.

Meanwhile in Pinellas... the Times' Charlie Frago and Mark Puente write about the "battle" St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman is waging with county leaders over how much of a new stadium bill each municipality would potentially foot....but Kriseman responded to the article by calling financial discussions "premature": It's not like St. Pete has any other pressing needs for its tax dollars....

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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Get 'yer Stadium Subsidies Herrrrrrre!

Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan knows if you repeat a lie enough, people will believe you.

But it's still unconscionable that he'd keep repeating a job claim he was nationally lampooned for in 2013.

Mitch Perry reports:

At least the $1 million in Hillsborough County bed tax money will be better spent on this "heads-in-beds" event than it would be on a straight-up subsidy to another local rich guy. 

But it also serves to debunk another Hagan claim - that bed tax dollars can only be used on stadiums and tourism-promotion.   By now, readers of this blog know bed tax dollars can help pay for a bevy of community needs related to Florida's largest industry, tourism.
In other news, I reported last week how the Bucs were seeking state dollars to help subsidize their Raymond James Stadiums renovations - and how they then planned to raise ticket prices again when completed - but it turns out they'll be the only applicant this year after Florida's legislature rejected all applicants in each of the last two years.

And up in Oldsmar, those big-dreamers actually have their act together pretty well when it comes to a possible Rays stadium. There are plenty of politicians in St. Pete and Tampa with financial ties to interests that don't want an Oldsmar stadium. And by no means am I suggesting it's ideal.

But the irony is that pro teams appear to be trending toward stadiums OUT of the downtown core, so they can control more of the ancillary development.

And if local politicians are serious about working together to keep the Rays long-term...and they're serious about giving them public dollars to do it...Oldsmar appears the only place where both counties could contribute dollars to a stadium effort without breaking their respective banks.

Just don't feel bad for those poor MLB owners...they continue to rake in the revenues by the billions (and growing).

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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Bucs Want More Tax Breaks Because Raising Ticket Prices is Good for Economy

After analyzing the Bucs' 700-plus-page application (DOWNLOAD) for state stadium subsidies, I broke the news over on WTSP.com today of how the Bucs expect another large jump in ticket prices next year: a 15% increase, on average, across all events at Raymond James Stadium.

While some increases will be in suite and club seats that have seen the most improvements, it's safe to say just about every event at the stadium is going to get more expensive when the team's two-year construction project is completed. The expected increase is on top of the 24% increase the Bucs instituted on their own season tickets this year, their first in eight seasons.

Previously, we've exposed how pro teams and leagues were seeking tax dollars for renovations that ultimately reduced stadium capacities and increased ticket prices. The Buccaneers haven't reduced capacity at Raymond James Stadium much, but are apparently trying to capitalize on an improved fan experience to increase their revenues.

The Buccaneers are paying for the majority of their $125 million renovation project, with Hillsborough County sales taxes covering $28.8 million of the two-year construction project. Now, the Bucs are asking for another $1 million each year, through at least 2027, from the state, on top of a $2 million per year incentive it's been receiving since 1998.

The new request is far from guaranteed, however, since Florida's legislature has denied all stadium subsidy requests in recent years. Bucs' COO Brian Ford said the team just wants "a seat at the table" if the state decides to award subsidies this year.

The Bucs hopes to lure another Super Bowl to Tampa before their stadium contract expires at the end of 2027, and many of the improvements were considered necessary to land the 2017 college football championship. Chief Operating Office Brian Ford said the team hopes to land other world-class events once renovations are complete.

However, the state money hinges on the team's ability to prove that it "serves a public purpose" and return on investment from the state.

The Bucs' application indicates the team will see an increase in revenues of nearly a million dollars this year, "driven primarily by premium area revenues and certain pricing changes" at games and concerts. The team, which splits profits from non-football events with the Tampa Sports Authority, estimated the average ticket price across all events is approximately $63.

Then, in the fiscal year of 2017, the team projects a 15% average increase in tickets across all events - a jump of nearly $10 per ticket. However, the hikes may hit areas harder with the most improvements, such as suite and club seats.

The team's application also projects a steady increase in attendance at the stadium due to renovations such as its new scoreboards, even though Bucs attendance is down approximately 5% through two regular season home games so far.

In addition to several hundred construction jobs over the project's two-year duration, the Bucs say the renovations will create seven new full-time jobs, including several in concessions and merchandising. The team says the project will also create a full-time job related to non-event catering, and two new maintenance jobs, one of which will be paid by the taxpayer-funded Tampa Sports Authority.

The application also revealed ambitious economic impact goals associated with the January 2017 college football championship game, including more than 55,000 out-of-state visitors spending an average of four nights each in Florida.

The projection, done by the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, estimates each out-of-state visitor will spend an average of $410 per day in the region - plus hundreds more for four nights of hotel stays - accounting for more than $5.5 million in extra sales tax revenues the week of the championship. However, recent studies of tax receipts during Tampa's most recent Super Bowl as well as the 2012 Republican National Convention have shown no evidence of any bump in tax receipts during the events.

The Bucs estimate the stadium generated approximately $6.4 million in state taxes in each of the last three years, with the first $2 million annually forgiven by the state as part of its previous stadium incentive program.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Bucs to Apply for More Tax Dollars on RayJay Renovations

This blog was the first to report on the Bucs' bid for state tax dollars last year - a bid that ended in an embarrassing rejection - and history repeats itself again today.

The Tampa Sports Authority (TSA) meets this afternoon, expected to approve a resolution declaring that the Bucs' renovations of Raymond James Stadium "serves a public purpose," so the team and TSA can apply for millions of dollars in new subsidies.  The state money would essentially reimburse the Bucs for costs they've already sunk in.

Taxpayers already footed the entire original bill for the stadium, plus more than $28 million of the 2016 renovations...despite the fact that the team wouldn't agree to extend its lease past 2027 (presumably, so it can threatmonger its way to more tax dollars).

But the team will try its luck again anyway with a legislature, likely pitting two powerful forces against each other: stadium advocate Jack Latvala, the Senate Appropriations Chair, and stadium subsidy critic Richard Corcoran, the Speaker of the House.

The Bucs have also increased the size of the renovation package (see below), to a proposed $125 million - with another $16 million in possible additions - by the time all is said and done. It will be interesting to see what happens to that number if the team doesn't get the state money.

The TSA is also expected today to approve its agreement to use state money to help pay for the Yankees' Spring Training improvements...because the Yankees need your financial help.

Hopefully the Yanks will put those new revenues to good use and buy a real economic impact report next time. 

Buccaneers' prospective $141 million renovation list

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Sunday, October 23, 2016

How November's Elections Could Sway Rays Stadium Saga

As long as Hillsborough and Pinellas commissioners are going to continue to wage a bidding war over the Rays, we may as well take another look at the candidates vying to get onto the board of county commissioners.

In Pinellas, I recently profiled the high-stakes race for chairman Charlie Justice's seat...read about the direction Justice - and his challenger Mike Mikurak - want to take the stadium discussions.

And in a hotly-contested race for an open seat in Hillsborough, Tim Schock, who favors more regional collaboration, takes on Pat Kemp, who favors more regional transit.

Election Day is November 8.

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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Lightning Named No. 1 in ESPN Ultimate Standings

TAMPA, Florida – The Tampa Bay Lightning franchise is the best. In all of sports. At least, according to the just-announced 2016 ESPN Ultimate Standings, which rank all 122 NHL, MLB, NFL, and NBA franchises “in categories that matter most to fans.”

For the first time in its 14-year history, the Ultimate Standings honor a Tampa-area team, after ranking the Lightning No. 3 in all of pro sports last year. The standings consider 25 criteria, including as ticket prices, recent on-field successes, and how owners & players show appreciation to their fans, a factor in which the Lightning ranked No. 1 out of 122 franchises.

“When Jeff Vinik bought the team in 2010, his No. 1 goal was to make this a world-class franchise (and) to serve our fans as well as we possibly could,” said Tampa Bay Lightning Executive Vice President of Communication Bill Wickett. “We feel that the ESPN Ultimate Standings are validation of that.”

ESPN The Magazine, which publishes its rankings in print this Saturday, also heralded the Lighting’s huge crowds at Fan Fest (11,000-plus), Vinik’s charitable efforts, and how the team has turned Tampa into “a hockey town.”

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers placed 73rd out of 122 franchises, while ESPN ranked the Tampa Bay Rays 90th. The San Francisco 49ers ranked last, thanks to high ticket prices, poor on-field performance, and cold owner/player relations with fans.

The entire rankings will be published on ESPN.com later this week.

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Saturday, October 15, 2016

Weekend Reading: USF Football, Rays Stadium Funds in Hillsborough

A few sports business articles worth checking out from recent weeks:
  1. USF Football Attendance is in Crisis: With the Big 12 on the verge of announcing its expansion plans Monday, USF's last chance to make a good impression - and last chance to save its big-football dreams - has been less-than-impressive.
  2. Hillsborough Appears Ready to Raise Bed Tax: Even though the money could be used for a variety of non-stadium-related expenses too, stadium cheerleaders in Tampa are excited the bed tax could be raised a penny to potentially help fund (a small portion of) a new home for the Rays.  But Hillsborough still has a LONG way to go on financing.
  3. Dunedin's Economic Impact Claims are Worthless: This post furthers the points I've made regarding the city's campaign for public subsidies for an $81M Blue Jays spring training rehab.  It's a traveshamockery.
  4. Nobody's watching sports on TV anymore: Double-digit drops in NFL ratings, coupled with similar trends in other sports has some executives concerned...just not publicly.
  5. Everybody's still watching sports on TV: PricewaterhouseCoopers says television rights will officially surpass ticket gate revenues by 2018.  For teams like the Rays, where the cable numbers are stronger than the attendance numbers, that fateful day could come a lot sooner.

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Thursday, October 6, 2016

Tampa Bay Left Out By Forbes 400 List

Forbes's annual list of the 400 wealthiest Americans includes a record 44 sports team owners.

The Glazer family has not made the cut since patriarch Malcolm passed away in 2014.  Nor has the Steinbrenner family.

But Clippers owner Steve Ballmer ($27.5B) made the list, as did Seahawks/Trail Blazers owner Steve Allen ($18.9B).  Kings owner Philip Anschutz ($10.9B), Rams owner Stan Kroenke, and Dolphins owner Stephen Ross ($7.4B) round out the top five, according to Forbes.

Ross, of course, has been asking the state of Florida for three years to help pay for his Dolphins Stadium renovations (to no avail...yet).

Other Florida subsidy-seekers making the billionaire's list include the Miami Heat's Mickey Arison ($7.2B), Jags owner Shahid Khan ($6.9B), and the Magic's Richard DeVos ($5.9B).

Neither the Rays' Stu Sternberg nor the Lightning's Jeff Vinik made the Forbes 400 list...yet.

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Thursday, September 29, 2016

Dunedin May Not Be Eligible for $46 Million They Assumed Pinellas Co. Would Give Them

As if the Blue Jays/Dunedin far-from-finalized $81 million spring training stadium deal hadn't already created enough punchlines, how about this one I just found?

The deal may not even be eligible for Pinellas County's bed tax dollars Dunedin's mayor promised the team (without actually asking the county first)!

Now, I'm no attorney, but according to the county's Capital Projects Funding Program guidelines, the Blue Jays' offer to extend their lease by 25 years - in exchange for major expansions of their training facilities - is not long enough to meet the county's minimum requirements.

So, if I'm reading the guidelines right...it's time for the city of Dunedin to not just go back to the drawing board on this deal, but also time for the city to bring county commissioners into the loop...at least if it expects the county to help pay for it.

Any experts wanna lend their thoughts on this?

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