Friday, October 26, 2012

Goodbye Islanders - Sort of.

As regional Long Islanders are well aware, recently Long Island lost its one and only professional sports franchise when the NY Islanders decided to relocate from Nassau County into Brooklyn. As you can imagine, I am both relieved and saddened by this development. Saddened because I, like all sentient human beings, take a perverse pride in rooting for my neighborhood sports franchise. And the Islanders really are (or were) the only major sports team to be based on Long Island. For readers outside of the NY metropolitan area, Long Island is customarily (though not geographically) assumed to be the counties of Nassau and Suffolk (I am a resident of the latter). The Islanders played in Nassau and both the County and the Town of Hempstead have been negotiating with Charles Wang, founder of Computer Associates and owner of the NY Islanders, on a new stadium for, well, I guess as long as I can remember - 10 years maybe? It certainly seems that long. At one point, it actually seemed like the Islanders were headed to Kansas City for sure (which would have been idiotic in the long-term but, as I've discovered, most of these franchise relocations are more influenced my hubris and personal pique than actual sound, financial planning). So it was with some relief to find out that the Islanders will be staying in New York, albeit further removed from my residence.

Ironically, though the Isles are moving further away from my home, I'm actually excited about the move, but not because Nassau Coliseum was some kind of decrepit shithole. It wasn't. Nassau Coliseum was a perfectly fine place to watch a live hockey game (which are massively improved in-person, more-so than any other sport). There really wasn't a bad seat in the house. But two things sucked about the Coliseum and both of these things are immediately remediated by the move to Brooklyn. One, there is nothing to do immediately in and around Nassau Coliseum. And no, I don't really count Hooters (which is turning into Bud's Ale House anyway). Two, there are no public transportation options to get to games. You have to drive to games which makes pre and post-gaming problematic. Now, with the move to Brooklyn, public transportation options are available (albeit, imperfect ones). That's a lot more convenient for me. And Brooklyn is an awesome place to hang out. So that's a massive upgrade there. I am very much looking forward to my first Isles experience at the Barclays Center.

However, I wanted to take this opportunity to once again bash owners who use their ownership of sports franchises as an opportunity to blackmail citizens, politicians, municipalities, and regional economic development teams for massive taxpayer-funded handouts for, what amounts to in essence, their extremely lucrative luxury items. I am a Islanders fan. I also, occasionally, find myself in a position where I can influence regional economic development. But there is no way I would have supported a taxpayer funded stadium for the Islanders in Suffolk County, even in (or especially in) the current economic climate. And Nassau was right not to either. Right now, there are a lot of fingers being pointed at Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano and Town of Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray for allowing the Islanders to leave Nassau County. Bizarrely, few fingers were pointed at the citizens themselves who overwhelmingly voted down The Lighthouse Project voter referendum which would have redeveloped the area and constructed a new Isles stadium. And you know what - the citizens were right to vote down the proposal! Put simply, taxpayers shouldn't pay for stadiums. Period. See here. And here. And here. And here. And, well, I can do this forever.

“The basic idea is that sports stadiums typically aren’t a good tool for economic development,” said Victor Matheson, an economist at Holy Cross who has studied the economic impact of stadium construction for decades. When cities cite studies (often produced by parties with an interest in building the stadium) touting the impact of such projects, there is a simple rule for determining the actual return on investment, Matheson said: “Take whatever number the sports promoter says, take it and move the decimal one place to the left. Divide it by ten, and that’s a pretty good estimate of the actual economic impact.”
Building sports stadiums for billionaires is a suckers game and we should refuse to play. They are public handouts, pure and simple. I don't think corporate subsidies are all bad. Many of them are quite good actually. But tax and bond giveaways for sports stadiums are awful. Giveaways of this nature combine the worst components of a purely socialist system, a pure free market system and a purely oligarchy/corporatist system. It socializes the costs and risk at public expense while privatizing all of the profits. And these profits are funneled to a politically well-connected billionaire who wants free public money to sign and swap human beings like they are playing a real-life version of Baseball Stars.

Think of it this way. Let's say everyone's favorite asshole, Donald Trump, wants to build the world's largest, most luxurious yacht and he is going to dock this yacht at Chelsea Piers. He tells Mike Bloomberg that he will let the hoi polloi take guided tours at $25 a person on weekdays between 9a-5p. However, on nights and weekends, he retains ownership and he can take the yacht wherever he likes. He also gets a 6 month window at the end of summer to take the yacht around the world at his own leisure. Also, after ten years, he can permanently take the yacht to any other dock in the world and NYC gets nothing in return. He says he wants NYC to chip in $300 billion through a combination of cash, docking fee waivers, and tax breaks for this "tourist attraction." Trump also reserves the right to sell this yacht after ten years. Should NYC residents agree to fund this boondoggle? Of course not.

Or let's try a different fuckwit. Let's say conspiracy theorist Jack Welch wants to buy the Mona Lisa which he plans to exhibit in the Guggenheim Museum for three months in the fall and three months in the spring. Welch collects all Guggenheim entrance fees during that period. The rest of the time, he is free to exhibit the Mona Lisa around the country (of which he allowed to charge fees) or simply hang the Mona Lisa in his bathroom next to the shitter as he sees fit. He is also allowed to sell the Mona Lisa after fifteen years and he appropriates 100% of the subsequent value increase (which is pretty much guaranteed in an item of this nature). But he wants NYC to chip in half of its $768 million assessed value first. Should Mayor Mike agree to this deal? Of course not!

These might sound like absurd examples but they really aren't. These are the kind of deals sports owners demand and receive all of the time. And please keep this important point in mind - no major professional sports team in America, has ever, ever, been sold at a value lower than its purchase price. Professional sports teams might be the safest investment in world history, regardless of whether or not that franchise is running operating profits. Operating profits are really ancillary to a professional sports owners primary anticipation - which is to own and control the coolest, most amazing luxury item in the world. Ask yourselves - how much would you pay, out of pocket, to own and operate the NY Islanders? Or the Cleveland Browns? Or the Toronto Raptors? (intentionally picking terrible teams here). Hell, I'd take a $20,000 pay cut to own any one of those teams. So why should we give a shit if professional owners make any money on their franchises? The answer is, we shouldn't. Neither should we fall for the discredited argument that professional stadiums pay for themselves. Because they don't. Trust me, I wish it were so. I'd love to plant the Islanders in Ronkonkoma and watch my hometown blossom into the economic powerhouse I've always envisioned it to be. But the reality speaks differently. And as citizens, and decision-makers and policy analysts, we must acknowledge these realities. We just cannot allow ourselves to be blinded by rich bullies who don't give a shit about the municipalities they purport to adore.

So yes, in conclusion, I shall miss my Nassau-Suffolk Islanders. It was fun while it lasted. But I shall see them again someday. In Brooklyn. You know, when the world's most "unselfish" people agree to let them play hockey again...

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