Archive for January, 2013

No more Stupid Bowls, Stupidomes

January 27, 2013

Long before kickoff, we know two things about Super Bowl XLVII. A coach named Harbaugh will win, and taxpayers will lose.

The Super Bowl, like major golf and tennis tournaments, big races, and many other high profile sporting events, has become a corporate junket haven. Big business splashes out millions of tax-deductible dollars to entertain itself and its best customers. Even the famed Super Bowl commercials that some TV viewers anticipate more highly than the game that this year cost $4 million per 30 seconds, are paid for with advertising funds written off against profits. But that corporate welfare is just a sideshow when it comes to picking taxpayers’ pockets.

The New Orleans Superdome, this year’s Super Bowl venue, has been the beneficiary of hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds. Its original construction cost of $165 million in the 1970s translates to more than a half billion dollars at current prices. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, another $156 million in public money went to repair the stadium.

The Superdome is hardly the biggest or most questionable recipient of government funding among sports venues. The extraordinarily profitable New York Yankees received more than $1 billion in public financing, plus 22 acres of public parkland to build a monument to themselves, the new Yankee Stadium. Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the Yankees’ self-proclaimed number one fan, spearheaded the sweetheart deal for his favorite team.

The family that owns the Yankees, the Steinbrenners, also got a half-billion dollar windfall when my old pal Boss George Steinbrenner died during the estate tax holiday. There’s no evidence the Steinbrenner family or Giuliani were involved in the timing of Boss George’s death.

Aside from capital investment, stadiums deals generally include years of tax abatements and exemptions that add up to hundreds of millions of dollars, plus tens of millions in additional spending for related infrastructure, such as roads and other transportation connections. Stadiums are the gift from government that not only keeps on giving, but keeps on costing.

As a city planner, I often heard the case that stadiums are good investments of public money because they generate economic activity. But those benefits are virtually impossible to prove. Except for construction costs, additional economic activity generated by these projects largely represents shifting discretionary spending from one use to another, say from shoes and dinners out to game tickets and hot dogs. Even where there may be added economic activity, the so-called benefit goes to the ballclub and everyone else has to cross their fingers to hope something trickles down to them. Particularly in times of concern over government spending and debt, that’s hardly seems the best investment of public money.

But if politicians insist on indulging their edifice complex and building stadiums, then they should ensure that taxpayers get something real out of it. As a condition of accepting public funds, stadium developers should be required to offer a number of seats, say 100, for every event to taxpayers, chosen by lottery, for a nominal fee, say $5. Imagine if 100 lucky fans from the state of Louisiana could rock up to Super Bowl XLVII with the corporate bigwigs, or if average New Yorkers could get Yankee tickets at a substantial discount to their average price of $86.

A few dozen tickets at knockdown prices aren’t enough to justify using taxpayer money for stadiums; that question needs to be vigorous debated on a case-by-case basis. But where the decision is made to use public funds, taxpayers deserve a sure thing to show for it, a guarantee that the regular people footing the bill, not just moguls, come out winners, just like a Harbaugh will in Super Bowl XLVII.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

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Hangover awaits Macau after 2012 feast

January 13, 2013

Macau celebrated the new year in style. On the first working day of 2013, Macau announced casino revenue for December reached 28.2 billion Macau patacas (MOP; US$3.5 billion), a new record, topping the MOP27.7 billion reached in October last year. December registered 19.6 percent year-on-year revenue growth, the biggest increase since April.

For 2012 overall, gaming revenue topped MOP304.1 billion, or US$38 billion, growing 13.5 percent from 2011 to set another new record. All this in a year when the traditional growth engine of high roller VIP play sputtered, the long awaited opening of Sands Cotai Central in two star-studded phases in didn’t pack much sizzle, and tourist arrivals barely grew.

The situation is reminiscent of 2008 when mainland officials first tightened the reins on travel to the Macau, inducing panic and even talk of bankruptcy among casino operators, yet revenues grew 31 percent, topping MOP100 billion for the first time. When licensees gathered for a trade council meeting, one mogul reportedly declared, “Thank God for bad years.”

This year may not deliver such a happy ending. There won’t be any major resort openings during 2013 (nor, in all likelihood, 2014). Macau’s critical transition to mass market focus is still in its early stages. Vacationers who’ve come once must be convinced to lavish their limited leisure budgets and time again on return trips. That’s a growing challenge as Chinese travelers spread the wings further afield and more Asian destinations add casinos to their list of attractions. Moreover, Macau remains almost completely reliant on mainland and Hong Kong visitors and has failed to blossom in the broader international tourism market.

This year’s completion of Beijing’s leadership transition could mean tighter controls on money moving across the border into Macau as part of broader crackdown on corruption. However, VIP volume has staged a mild recovery since November as uncertainty over the potential impact of the Xi Jinping regime gives way to the reality of the new team moving into place. That trend could continue as the year progresses.

Opening of the high speed rail line from Beijing late last year, with an intercity link that drops passengers within yards of the Zhuhai side of the Macau border gate, could boost visitor arrivals. So could operation of a new 24 hour border crossing that’s awaiting approval from Beijing.

But even if more visitors can come, Macau has to do better at giving them reasons to visit. Many of the pieces are already there. Now it’s about assembling them properly, filling in the gaps, and perhaps the greatest challenge, providing the human software to support the billions of dollars in hardware.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Al Jareeza comes to America

January 6, 2013

Al Jazeera’s purchase of Current TV is good news for the America’s news business and news consumers. As a dedicated watcher of the channel’s current English language service, I hope that Al Jazeera America doesn’t change too much about what makes it stand out from its competition.

Although it’s owned by the government Gulf emirate Qatar, Al Jazeera is no Arab or Muslim propaganda network. (As if Arabs or Muslims could ever speak with one voice.) Based in Qatar’s capital Doha, with additional broadcast centers in Washington, London and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the network is a major league news operation that more than holds its own with the global heavyweights. Time Warner Cable does its subscribers a disservice by dropping the channel.

Last year, with US news networks obsessed with the presidential election and BBC flaunting its British knickers with unrelenting, surprisingly parochial coverage of the London Olympics and the royal family, Al Jazeera offered a more comprehensive global view, fronted by some of the world’s most attractive anchors.

Al Jazeera breaks with Western orthodoxy to present alternative perspectives, particularly on some key areas of interest to Americans. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, where American forces are still fighting and killing and being killed, Al Jazeera coverage by Kamal Hyder and others includes local sentiment that foreigners have been meddling for too long and are not helping to solve their nations’ problems. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is presented through the lens of Israel’s 45 year illegal occupation and continuing annexation of neighboring countries’ territory. Latin America coverage, led by my fellow CNN alumnus Lucia Newman, sets the standard among global English language channels. China coverage pushed the envelope far enough to get correspondent Melissa Chan kicked out of the country.

Al Jazeera’s plan to establish Al Jazeera America could be a good thing. The network’s US news coverage focuses on the usual headline stuff and quirky stories. Feature shows about the US often descend into simplistic leftwing clichés and conspiracy theories. Deepening its American involvement may help Al Jazeera bring to its US reporting the same thoughtful perspectives it delivers internationally. Or stronger US ties may steep Al Jazeera in the conventional lack of wisdom that makes American news networks so predictable and unenlightening. Let’s hope Al Jazeera America inherits its parent’s editorial pluck.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.


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