South Kansas City is on the verge of wiping away a nasty bit of blight, and 9-year-olds in shinguards are going to help. The owners of the Kansas City Wizards have come forward with a plan to redevelop the Bannister Mall area. Replacing the carcasses left when J.C. Penney, Wal-Mart and other retailers packed up their cash registers and left: a soccer stadium, youth fields, stores, offices and hotels.
The developers laid out the details of their $1 billion plan before the city's Tax Increment Financing Commission on September 19. It was hard not to be impressed.
Lawyer Aaron March said the development represented the "salvation" of Bannister Mall. Sensitive to recent criticism of TIF projects, March pointed out that the developers were asking for "only" $267 million in tax incentives. The developers, he also noted, weren't asking the city to back the project's debt.
There's a lot to like about the plan. It aims a wrecking ball at a mall that's demoralizing in its emptiness. It also sprinkles TIF's pixie dust over a part of town that could use some help — not the Plaza or the Northland, where cunning developers have steered incentives too many times in the past.
That said, Major League Soccer's business model is pretty shameless. As I've written, the league essentially exploits children to get what it wants. In a number of MLS cities, the league has nudged taxpayers to pony up for new soccer stadiums by bundling them with youth fields (Here, Kiddie, Kiddie,). MLS is kind of like teachers' unions in the way it attaches its needs to people's impulses to do what's best for the children.
Johnson County voters saw through the ploy and, last fall, turned down a proposal to build a soccer stadium and youth soccer fields in Overland Park. So the Wizards turned their attention to Bannister Road and Interstate 435.
At the TIF Commission meeting, March said the soccer-and-shopping funporium was the "only way" to redevelop Bannister Mall. I don't know if this is true, but I don't fault 6th District Councilman John Sharp and others who seem to be clutching the Wizards proposal like a life raft.
But just when I was ready to join the plan's other fans by pulling on one of those Dr. Seuss hats that soccer fans seem to favor, the Wizards' owners did something stupid. They screwed up the David Beckham game.
The English superstar signed with Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy earlier this year, and the league is banking on his popularity. The Wizards promoted the Galaxy's September 27 visit as the Midwest Sporting Event of the Year. And promptly doubled ticket prices.
I took enough econ to understand supply-and-demand curves. Still, it's sad to think that the city will be going into business with a league so eager to gouge fans.
In every MLS city, the Beckham curious have been forced to pay higher ticket prices or buy multigame packages. The decision is defensible, I suppose, in places where soccer stadiums can accommodate only 20,000 or so fans. Teams in those cities would have left a lot on the table by charging regular rates for the season's sole appearance by Beckham.
The Wizards, who play at Arrowhead Stadium, face no such space crunch. With Beckham coming, the Wizards' owners might have said, Gosh, for one game, at least, I'm sure glad we play in a big cavern! Or, Wow, what an opportunity to show off this great sport and great league to a multitude of fans!
Instead, they said, Let's grab every last nickel we can!
Alas, Galaxy-game ticket buyers can only hope to get a glimpse of Beckham looking handsome on the sidelines. After hurting an ankle, then a knee, Becks has appeared in only six of MLS games. Press reports say he won't play again until October.
Beckham's injury reveals the Wizards' pricing strategy for the insult that it is. Speaking to The Kansas City Star's Hearne Christopher, Wizards spokesman Rob Thomson equated Beckham's situation to baseball slugger Barry Bonds taking a day off. Bad comparison, Rob. Major league clubs didn't enact a "Bonds tax" during his chase of the home-run record. The Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres charged the same prices for seats when Bonds was on the verge of catching Hank Aaron as they did when the Washington Nationals were in town.
Besides, baseball has built up a lot more goodwill than soccer has. At the TIF Commission meeting, Wizards co-owner Cliff Illig said soccer "is the fastest-growing sport on the globe." But they've been saying that since I played the game wearing a pair of plaid Toughskins. We sports fans, it's been shown, have only so much room in our lizard brains. Complaining about Mike Sweeney's captaincy, setting our fantasy-football roster and filling out our NCAA basketball-tournament brackets doesn't leave a lot of time for soccer.
The Beckham ticket shenanigans betray a lack in confidence in the product: Better get the money now, because the fans aren't coming back. And taxpayers are supposed to invest $75 million in a new stadium for these guys?
Beckham sprained his knee on August 29, and it was reported that he would be out six weeks. Yet last week, the Wizards were still touting the Galaxy game as the Midwest Sporting Event of the Year. A picture of Beckham appears on the Web page where fans can buy tickets to the game. The asterisk alerting prospective fans to the reality that Beckham is "not guaranteed to appear or play" seems unintentionally hilarious.
Editor's Note: Late Tuesday, the team announced that parking for tonight's game would be free.