Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Manatee County taxpayers to get clotheslined again with new football league

One of the advantages of living in one media market and working in another is that you get to see several different local governments play the economic development game.

The good part about the game is that the taxpayers always lose, and anyone unfortunate enough to be hired by the companies that relocate to the area for the tax breaks ends up back on unemployment soon enough.

For those seeking to play one county against another in Florida, it’s a fun game because the people in one county rarely read the newspapers or websites in another county, and may be oblivious to what’s happening elsewhere in the state.

I live in Ellenton, Fla., a suburban area just off I-75 and U.S. 301 near Bradenton. Bradenton is in Manatee County, which is north of Sarasota County and its county seat, the city of Sarasota. Just north of us is the Tampa-St. Petersburg metroplex.

I work, however, in Polk County, which features the cities of Lakeland and Winter Haven. It’s about a 40-mile drive north on I-75 and then about 20 miles east on I-4 for me to get the 63.5 miles to my job at the Lakeland Ledger. It’s also a privilege to see two very different areas of Florida, and watch the counties get screwed over by economic development schemes, especially those involving sports.

Sarasota County has the legendary Sanborn Studios mess, which is still plowing through the courts, but Manatee County has shown that it likes being screwed, too.

Recently, Manatee’s Economic Development Corporation offered a financially busted entity called “Major League Football” more than $200,000 to place its headquarters in Lakewood Ranch. The promise is that the league would succeed where the U.S.F.L. and the XFL failed, and make great profits in football outside the regular NFL season.

Of course, many promises fail to get kept, and the fact that the U.S.F.L. and XFL now exist as Wikipedia entries shows that taking on the NFL is not a winning proposition.

According to the Bradenton Herald, on Friday, June 5, a press conference will announce the league’s location decision.

According to the very seriously deluded Sharon Hillstrom, president and CEO of the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp., as quoted in a May 23 piece in the Bradenton Herald:

“While MLFB has not officially announced it will locate its headquarters and training facilities in Lakewood Ranch, the anticipation is building, said Sharon Hillstrom, president and chief executive officer of the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp.

“‘We would obviously be thrilled to have Major League Football here in Manatee County,’ she said. ‘Just goes to give further credibility of the sports performance industry as an important sector in the economy.’

“This speaks volumes in terms of sports performance as a driver for the local economy, Hillstrom said.

“ ‘This is a big deal,’ she said.

“Manatee County and the region are set apart from other areas with its sports performance industry focus, Hillstrom said.

“ ‘I don’t know other areas that have sport performance as a targeted industry sector,’ she said.”

“When companies locate to the area, there is typically a multiplier effect as employees will buy houses and go to restaurants, Hillstrom said.

“ ‘This is all good stuff, she said.’ ‘The other thing is the Major League Football will be bringing events here. …I don’t see a downside.’”

Lakeland vs. Lakewood Ranch

There was similar hyperbole up in Lakeland, when a nearly defunct X-League arena football team called the Lakeland Raiders, which had been playing at The Lakeland Center – across the street from The Ledger – managed to persuade Polk County that its economic future was in some form of indoor football.

The Raiders tried all sorts of gizmos and tricks, including turning nonprofit and inventing a military tie-in – very popular in sports today – by renaming the team the Lakeland Marine Raiders. Recently, according to my paper, the Ledger, the team canceled its final game at The Lakeland Center amid an issue about rent payments.

A May 31 story in the Bradenton Herald on Major League Football noted that the league was financially in pretty bad disarray, including an accumulated deficiency of $12.8 million and cases pending over nonpayments to other entities.

The person running the league made much of negotiations underway for team locations and TV deals, but as usual nothing has been finalized yet.

Remember the Lakewood Ranch hockey arena?

Local government officials tend to get wet over the prospect of minor league sports in their communities, and will open the government’s checkbook – or do so through an economic development corporation – to get the league or a franchise of a league to sign up.

I like to tell the story of the great Lakewood Ranch hockey arena, and how the plans for a minor league hockey team in that area fell apart.

The astoundingly rich founder of the AFLAC insurance company pitched the idea of a hockey arena in Lakewood Ranch. Indeed, one of the roads in the development was called “Center Ice Parkway.”

Work began on the arena but stopped when contractors stopped being paid. At the end, there were three walls that had been built, and they were dubbed “Stonehenge.” They stood for years as various maneuvers were made to try to get construction restarted, and finally the three walls were razed, and the road was given a new name. Today, the idea that there would be an ice hockey arena in Lakewood Ranch has been forgotten for the most part.

So I guess that’s why the area is prime territory for a new pro football league: No one remembers what happened last time pro sports was pitched in the area.

Stadium game redux

I have always been critical of governments getting into the sports funding business. While minor league baseball is a little more on the level than these independent football leagues that seem to crop up like wildflowers on the highway, we have to remember that cities in Florida have been screwed in the stadium game. Vero Beach got a royal screwing from the Dodgers before the team packed up for Arizona. Decades of tradition are no protection against a fast departure, and when a municipality buys a stadium from a team and then leases it back to the team, it’s a sure sign that the team is getting ready to leave town.

No one remembers, I’m sure, that there was a minor league basketball league called the Continental Basketball Association (CBA), and there was a franchise in West Palm Beach called the BeachDogs. The latter didn’t last very long.

Sports is simply a bad bet for economic development. I guess that’s the gist of what I’m saying. I doubt if this new football league will ever attain anything beyond being a footnote in a Wikipedia entry. But so long as elected officials keep buying into the schemes, I suppose we taxpayers will have to keep funding them.

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June 5, 2015 - Posted by | Living in the modern age, The business of sports | , , , , , , ,

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