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deMause on Sharks Leaving San Jose: “It’s hard for me to take it really seriously.”

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Credit: naotoj (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Every Sunday at Peng to the Point, we talk about the world away from the San Jose Sharks.

“Steeped in 20 years of cynicism.”

That’s the vantage point from where Neil deMause, co-author of 2008’s Field of Schemes, views the San Jose Sharks’ November claim that the city of San Jose and Google’s re-development plans “could force the Sharks out of San Jose.”

Field of Schemes, by deMause and Joanna Cagan, “is a play-by-play account of how the drive for new sports stadiums and arenas drains $2 billion a year from public treasuries for the sake of private profit.”

San Jose Hockey Now reached out to deMause to get his thoughts about the recent Sharks/San Jose/Google drama. We also take a bigger picture look at how teams leverage their cities and fans.

In case you missed it, SJHN has covered this situation from every angle — the San Jose Sharks president Jonathan Becher’s initial salvo, Google and the city of San Jose’s immediate response, Becher taking the team’s case to city council and what’s increased his optimism recently, an interview with a city of San Jose official — and now, an outsider’s perspective.

Sheng Peng: What is your opinion of the San Jose Sharks’ angle in all this?

Neil deMause: Clearly, the Sharks owners are not happy about all the traffic and parking disruptions that will come from a lot of new development, as most owners of a destination business would be if there’s a big development happening on their doorstep.

I’ve seen it happen in many ways, large and small, different cities. The thing that stands out here is the sort of veiled or not so veiled threat to move the team if they don’t get their way in terms of having some concessions around traffic and parking. It’s a level of escalation that you usually don’t see when a business owner is trying to negotiate with the city around some sort of traffic concerns.

But it is a level of escalation that you often do see from sports franchises. I guess when you have a big red button permanently placed on your wall, break glass to threaten move, it’s the kind of thing that you’re likely to do more often. (laughs)

If the Mayor and other city negotiators have that hanging over their head, the anticipation of questions about what’s going to happen to the Sharks, that’s a lot more incentive to put that at the top of their agenda rather than we’ll get to you when we get to you.

SP: In your story from November 13th, you expressed surprise that a team wouldn’t want development in the first place — even though the Sharks have said they want development, just not that way — is this something you’ve seen from other teams?

NM: That’s a good question. It’s definitely the reverse of what you would normally see, where teams are wanting more development. They’re usually either selling the idea that their team or arena can be a catalyst for more development — or they actually want to be one of the people developing around the site.

But it’s not surprising again because you’re not going to want a lot of construction on your doorstep too.

When the Jets wanted to build a new stadium in Manhattan, the Knicks went after them, tooth and nail and lawyer. Managed to lobby them out of town. That wasn’t specifically just because of traffic issues, but it was kind of a “get off our lawn” sort of thing.

It’s a common sports team owner reaction, you see yourself as above the fray. You see somebody else is proposing something that’s going to mess with your business model, you’re quick to start throwing around threats.

Jerry Reinsdorf’s famous quote, when he flew down to Tampa Bay to see their stadium when he was trying to negotiate a new stadium for the White Sox, he was later asked, are you really gonna move to Tampa Bay? His response was, “A savvy negotiator creates leverage.”

That’s what all this is about, right? It’s about leverage. It’s about wanting to rattle that saber, remind people we don’t have to be here in San Jose.

It’s a way of throwing your weight around.

SP: The San Jose Sharks’ concerns are valid, I think, but they also seem like concerns that are eminently addressable. Street network reduction, hold off on reducing lanes. Parking, build another structure somewhere. These seem, in the big picture, like very doable things.

NM: I’m sure, if all this went through and they didn’t do anything to mitigate this, I’m sure it would cost the Sharks something. I cannot possibly imagine that the cost would be enough to make up for whatever they will lose if they actually moved out of San Jose. It’s not like there are a million cities out there that are better options.

It does seem like making a big deal out of something very small.

But again, what has to be negotiated is who’s going to pay for those mitigations. I’m sure, if the Sharks owners wanted to, they could set up shuttle buses or something like that, to make it easier to get to the arena. But they would much rather have the city or Google set up shuttle buses. (laughs)

It’s hard for me to take it really seriously. Especially when the current arena is fairly new, it’s in a great location — long term, it’s in a great location for transit, both car and public transit. There are some easy concessions that can be made by the city to make this a little easier on the Sharks.

Seems crazy to think that’s not gonna happen. That’s what makes it amusing, they had to pull out the thermonuclear weapon of we’re gonna move.

SP: This is a bluff you’ve seen many a time, I imagine.

NM: If I could just have one thing to say to every city council and every mayor’s office in the country, it’s if you’re going to cut a new deal, make sure you don’t give the team an opt-out in like 10 years. You’d think they’d watch enough sports by now to know that’s just a lose-lose. You’re giving them the security of a long-term lease if they want to stay. But yet, they have also the leverage of getting to opt out if they decide they wanna leave. Or more importantly, if they decide they want to threaten to leave and try and get a better deal.

I really didn’t come to appreciate this until the Rams broke their lease in St. Louis. Because they have that insane state-of-the-art clause where if the city didn’t keep the stadium ahead of like two-thirds of other NFL stadium in upgrades, the team could break its lease and move. That made me realize how bad a job a lot of the people negotiating on behalf of cities are.

I ended up talking to one of the guys who negotiated for the Rams when they moved to St. Louis. He was like, yeah, we were amazed. We were just like, throwing stuff out there, figuring, well, you know, they’re gonna shoot this down. But might as well ask for it. And they said yes to everything!

Teams stay around and elected officials come and go. In Anaheim, like the Angels, if you’ve got a local mayor who was holding a hard line, then you can just wait until they’re out of office. That’s what you see city after city.

If you look at the number of teams that threaten to move in sports versus the number of teams that actually move, at least nine out of 10 move threats are nothing but hot air.

SP: Shifting gears a little, in 2015, San Jose Sharks owner Hasso Plattner said, “I think this is an American thing, that buildings from a certain age are kaput.” Is that, from your knowledge, a European way of looking at things and one reason why the Sharks haven’t really pushed for the building of a new arena yet?

NM: In Europe, it’s absolutely not the trend to just go and tear it down and build a new one every 20-30 years. There is a tradition of upgrades, especially for outdoor soccer stadiums.

In part because European sports have a lot of promotion and relegation, you don’t the same kind of move threats there. If you threaten to move a team out of Leipzig, somebody else can just put a team in Leipzig and move his way to the top ranks. It doesn’t have that same level of threat.

So yeah, it’s definitely a North American thing to threaten to move to try to get a new building.

That said, when you’re sitting in a room with the other NHL owners, you certainly learn from them. He’s not dumb — he certainly realizes this is an option he has.

But it certainly might make him less susceptible to the thing you see with US sports teams owners, sort of my stadium is 25 years old, I feel like a loser next to this guy. (laughs) I can’t even show my face at the owner’s meeting with that crappy old stadium that doesn’t have the latest in 5G.

SP: Thanks for your time, Neil. Any other thoughts you want to add?

NM: The thing that gets to me, and we talk a lot about it in the book, it’s the way that teams use the fans. When you’re trying to get them to buy tickets, it’s come out and see your San Jose Sharks, right? We’re part of your community!

Whereas the instant that they want something, it’s you have to understand we’re just a business.

That’s a little disingenuous, you know? And again, it’s something that goes on throughout all sports. I’m not going to single out the Sharks.

It’s made me realize, okay, if I’m wearing a shirt or cap of my favorite team, it isn’t really just me joining a community. This is me buying into a corporate marketing endeavor. I have to remember that it’s a transaction. It’s not just I love them.

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