Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sam Mellinger: "AEG Killed My Father"

Men, this is apparently the enemy (not Luc Robitaille, the other guy)

As I posted previously, it’s Sprint Center article season at the Kansas City Star.  Additionally, Star sports columnist Sam Mellinger wrote an article in June talking about the NHL and NBA exhibition games coming to the Sprint Center this year (although, the NBA is locked out and stuff).  It was short, sweet, and just the beginning of the “Sprint Center ain’t got no NBA/NHL” media doldrums of the summer.  Mellinger skates around calling out AEG and their lack of getting a team for The Center, going as far as saying “this is one more year when the suits at AEG can pretend there is still a realistic chance of backing up their bravado that helped convince voters to fund the $276 million building” then going off an a tangent about the exhibition games (sorry, no link).  Personally, this is an issue I have always had with Mellinger.  None of his editorials blame someone, and when they do, it is kind of misguided.  But, finally, he did it right.  In his most recent article he blames AEG for insolence and Tim Leiweke for partnering with the Super-Devil.  But, really, he attacks AEG where they live.  Now that’s good reportin’!    
 LOS ANGELES | You should see this. Perhaps the best big sports arena in the country is connected by underground tunnel to one of the nation’s premier theaters. A delicious mess of restaurants and bars sit a hockey rink’s distance away.
Two brand-new, high-end hotels overlook the whole thing, with more nearby and still more on the way, a remarkable development that’s taken this part of downtown Los Angeles from dumpster to epicenter.
What’s happening here now is what we were told would happen in Kansas City.
That dream — the one Kansas City bought into seven years ago in approving construction of the Sprint Center — is now all but dead, at least in part because AEG, the company that pushed it on us, has moved on to a bigger project.
FM:  Mellinger is referring to Los Angeles’s LA Live district, Staples Center, and attempt to lure a NFL franchise by building a downtown football stadium, all owned, planned, and built by AEG.  The reason for the article: AEG did much of the same thing in Kansas City (the Sprint Center, the Power and Light District), but has not gone after an anchor tenant for the arena since about 2008.  That anchor tenant would bring 40+ events to the area per year, meaning additional money for businesses, and less the taxpayers might have to pay. 
Out here in LA, the hottest topic is AEG’s demand that the city council approve a tax-free plan by July 31 to build a new football stadium downtown that the company promises would attract an NFL franchise by next summer.
The measure is expected to pass in large part because AEG president and CEO Tim Leiweke is saying it’ll be easy to land a team. People back in Kansas City will remember that he’s used this playbook before.
Back at the Sprint Center, the chances of landing an NHL or NBA team have gone from Leiweke’s purported lock to cautiously hopeful to dying to now mostly forgotten.
FM:  Ah, Tim Leiweke.  Will Mellinger make him out as the villain this time?  Chances look good...
If you still hold out any hope for a team coming to the Sprint Center, you should know the company that bragged about making it all happen for us is no longer motivated to work on our behalf.
FM:  BAM!  As will see, Leiweke may officially be going from babyface to heel in the metro area of Kansas City.  He has done something that many Kansas Citians fear; treating the city like a second-class city.  Kansas Citians do not like to hear that LA is better, or the East Coast is the best coast, because KC does not like to be left out.  No major city does.  But KC can get lost within the Midwest and the plains as other destinations appear more attractive.  If you don’t believe me read this first, then this.  Mellinger touches on this emotion (“What, you think you are better than us?”) to get citizens on his side, so one day we can go to Leiweke’s house with torches and accuse him of witchcraft.  This is shaping up to be a decent Mellinger article.  Read on!
It’s telling that Leiweke is quoted constantly in the Los Angeles media but hasn’t talked to anyone in Kansas City in quite some time. He didn’t return multiple messages for this column.
He is among the most powerful men in sports and most visible figures in LA — sitting courtside at Lakers games — but he’s mostly a ghost when it comes to what was once presented in Kansas City.
FM:  See...
The official line out of AEG is that Leiweke will comment when something meaningful happens, which realistically means never.
Michael Roth, AEG vice president for communications, showed me around the company’s empire recently. When the conversation turned to what’s (not) happening in Kansas City, Roth talked around direct questions about whether the company is disappointed it hasn’t lived up to its boasts about putting a team in the Sprint Center and how much it’s still focused on doing so.
“Did we think it would be easier?” he said. “I guess so.”
FM:  Bad PR move by Mr. Roth.  “I guess so”?  That’s your answer?  Obviously there must be more to this discussion, but the basic truth remains that AEG does not appear to be doing much.  It makes sense that Leiweke and AEG won’t talk until something happens, but Mellinger makes it clear that nothing will happen.  I guess a better question would have been, “Does AEG care about KC?”  The answer would be yes because they are making plenty of cash on the arena, but do they want to put a team in the arena, or are they content just making it a concert and circus city.  What can we expect, or must we keep rehashing the same desultory article for the next five years saying how much AEG sucks until everyone gives up and moves on with their lives.  Mellinger does not gets this answer, nor does he answer it.
That mostly falls in line with evidence showing AEG either whiffed on predicting how many franchises would be available for relocation or overestimated its own power to influence those moves.
The result is that Kansas City is left with nothing better than Leiweke’s strong reputation and a possibility that he “owes” us a team. AEG no longer holds exclusive rights to negotiate a team for the Sprint Center, and it would be a heck of a thing if some third party did what the reputed kingmaker couldn’t.
FM:  SM brings up a good point, as now any owner can move a team into the arena.  It is uncertain how much this would cost them, but it makes sense to believe a new team would not get the sweetheart deal the Penguins were promised during their flirtation.  Free rent?  Not for you Mr. Wang.  How much money would AEG get in this situation?  All uncertain, but if AEG is trying to build this empire, an owner signing a lease and then reaping all the financial benefits from a team would surely anger AEG a bit.  Or maybe they just don’t care, as SM attempts to make us believe. 
(Aside:  Kingmaker?  There are two references to the LA Kings in this article that I have found)
AEG points to the fact that the Sprint Center remains profitable to the city even without an anchor tenant. That’s an important point but also one that misses the issue. Funding for the building was passed in large part because of the carrot of attracting a major pro team, and AEG’s failure to follow through is at least partly to blame for the Power & Light District’s becoming a public money-suck.
FM:  Yep, and as of one year ago, taxpayers are still paying for it.  What’s to say that would go down when the District sees 40+ more events from fans that come explicitly for sports purposes, and not the type of fans that come for a concert?  For example, Blues fans may come from St. Louis or Thunder fans may come from Oklahoma City to see their team play and spend money downtown, opposed to traveling to see Katy Perry if she is already playing in the Scottrade Center and the Ford Center (sorry, the Chesapeake Energy Arena), respectively.  It’s hard to say the economic impact on the taxpayers, but that’s the point, right?  To lower the taxpayer burden on an area that gets nothing but bad press. 
It’s frustrating to see that a similar blueprint is working beautifully in LA. Everything that AEG hasn’t done in Kansas City is being executed brilliantly in southern California.
Sports fans there have a world-class arena and theaters, a huge selection of restaurants and bars in which to hang out before and after events, relatively smooth traffic and parking … and the taxpayers aren’t billed a dime.
FM:  Yeah, apparently that’s still a major issue.
Los Angeles has roughly five times more people than Kansas City, so any comparisons should be taken in proper context. But even so, it’s painfully obvious that so much of what we were told would happen in Kansas City probably never will, while the same company is following through on a project that it plainly deems more important.
If you spend some time in LA’s new crown jewel, it’s hard not to wonder how important Kansas City ever was.
FM:  No, Kansas City really is not that important.  But, it is also a financial crapshoot.  People could support a team, but they may not.  They just need a chance.  But no one takes chances in today’s financial world.  Especially high-risk chances.  Why ruin a good thing the Sprint Center has going at the expense of possibly boosting revenues from nearby businesses and slightly reducing taxes (it’s impossible to say how much.  No one cares to lay out those figures just for kicks).

Again, it’s good that someone (namely Mellinger) finally went after AEG.  His prior articles elude blaming AEG and continue the “the arena is making money” rhetoric.  Like Pete Grathoff’s KC Star article last week (reminder: it’s that time of year to inundate the people of Kansas City with Sprint Center articles), SM attempts to steer to narrative towards why not having a third major sports team in the city.  This is the first legitimate news article that paints AEG as the ‘bad guy.’  And it’s finally not a huge opinion articles, so thank you for that, Mr. Mellinger (finally!).  Also, thank you for talking about this issue.  It’s job security for him (no sports= no job), but KC hockey and basketball fans appreciate someone asking questions.

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