Coronavirus could leave sports journalism even suckier than before

There is a long, long list of businesses that could be facing catastrophic financial futures in the wake of coronavirus-related shutdowns, from restaurants to bookstores to music festivals to you name it. Sports leagues should continue, since — with some exceptions — most leagues and teams have enough cash reserves to weather even a months- or year-long storm. But other parts of the sports ecosystem aren’t as deep-pocketed, and first among those is sports journalism, which as The Ringer reports, is already getting hammered by there being no sports to read about:

In March, FanGraphs’ traffic usually soars as readers put together their fantasy drafts. Without baseball games, Appelman said, traffic has fallen 60 to 70 percent from its usual levels. “Think weekends in the offseason,” he said, “or maybe even some time like Thanksgiving. But it’s every day.”…

The early signs are incredibly grim. The Athletic paused some freelance contracts. The soccer magazine First Touch, which is distributed in New York’s now-shuttered bars and restaurants, suspended print publication. Newspaper layoffs have claimed the jobs of everyone from the Penguins beat writer at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review to the sports editor at the Imperial Valley Press in El Centro, California. Freelance writers have lost thousands of dollars they were counting on because games they were supposed to cover this month were canceled.

There were already plenty of forces bearing down on legacy media. The coronavirus and the recession that might follow have become their accelerants. “It’s already over,” a poster wrote on the site SportsJournalists.com this month. “We’re all done. All of us.”

And if sports-only publications are suddenly on the ropes, the local newspapers and news sites that also cover sports are being pushed over a long-looming precipice, as CJR notes:

For the local-media business, last week was the bleakest since this crisis began. Last Monday, the Advocate, a high-profile Louisiana title that acquired the New Orleans Times-Picayune last year, said it was “temporarily furloughing” about 40 of its staff and implementing four-day work weeks for everyone else. The same day, Seven Days, an alt-weekly in Vermont, cut seven staffers, also “temporarily”; Trib Total Media, a Pittsburgh-area publisher that already made layoffs linked to the coronavirus, rolled two print editions into one to cut costs; and San Diego Magazine announced that it’s folding completely. (It hopes to reopen once this mess is over.) Last Tuesday, another city magazine—D Magazine, in Dallas—laid off 15 people and cut the salaries of staffers who were retained. On Wednesday, the publisher of Rhode Island’s Warwick Beacon—a twice-weekly newspaper that, thanks to the current crisis, is now a weekly newspaper—cut eight staffers, including himself; C&G Newspapers, a family-owned business in Michigan, suspended publication of 19 print titles; and the Snowmass Sun, a small newspaper in Colorado, was incorporated as a section of a different paper, the Aspen Times. On Thursday, the publisher of the Aspen Daily News suspended one of its other titles, the Roaring Fork Weekly Journal, to focus on its core product.

Locked-down people are actually reading more journalism during the pandemic, but readership is no longer how publications make money — they rely on ad sales, and nobody is buying ads anymore, notes CJR, “because many advertisers are hurting right now, and because some big companies who still have ad budgets don’t want their brands associated with wall-to-wall coronavirus content.”

And where restaurants should bounce back once we’re allowed to leave the house again — maybe not the same restaurants, but somebody is going to be willing to cook for all those people desperate to get out and eat something other than canned soup — news outlets may not be so lucky. Sports sites have been folding or contracting at a rapid pace in recent years, so even if sports readership bounces back, we could be looking at fewer sites that are more focused on just providing fantasy stats or being blog networks. And local newspapers are a vestige of an economy that no longer exists, where people pay to have stacks of paper delivered to their houses containing ads for local businesses, which seems as much like part of the distant historical past now as leaving the house does.

All of which could be devastating for coverage of the business and politics of sports, which is already pretty dismal, given that sportswriters don’t usually understand business and politics and news writers don’t understand sports, and neither has the time to learn when they have to file five stories a day. As much as I love to complain about terrible reporting on stadium and arena deals — and oh, do I love to complain — having even fewer local papers and sports sites willing to pay even wandering attention to stadium deals is going to be very bad for public oversight, and very good for those who want to get away with public-subsidy grifts; the New York Times may do okay in a post-coronavirus world, but the Times isn’t going to spend much time investigating public budgets in Columbus, Ohio.

Or maybe I’m wrong, and journalistic flowers will bloom in the burned-out media landscape, as readers clamor for good information, especially after seeing first-hand the costs of bad information. I don’t especially see how it’s going to happen, though, at least not without a massive bailout plan for journalism along the lines of what Congress has set aside for, say, airplane manufacturers. It would certainly be ironic if the only way to get good reporting on public subsidies would be to publicly subsidize reporters, but then, we live in ironic times.

Seattle arena developers find loopholes to evade coronavirus construction ban

The increasingly worldwide suspension of nearly everything has finally started to hit stadium and arena construction: New York’s order on Friday banning “non-essential” construction put a halt to work on the Islanders‘ Belmont Park arena, and Austin’s “stay at home” order has shut down activity on Austin F.C.‘s new stadium. It’s reasonable to expect that more construction bans will follow in coming days and weeks, especially since the U.S. curve is decidedly not flattening yet.

Each of these rulings comes with exceptions, though — for example, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s order exempts “roads, bridges, transit facilities, utilities, hospitals or health care facilities, affordable housing, and homeless shelters,” something that has drawn criticism given that tons of housing construction in New York City is now required to include a percentage of affordable units (or “affordable” units, since the formulas used mean that some apartments require tenants to earn $120,000 a year to qualify). And the renovations of the Seattle Center Arena (formerly KeyArena, and still widely known by that name despite Key Bank’s naming rights deal having expired years ago) for the city’s new NHL team have apparently found such a loophole:

The only exceptions are construction related to essential activities like health care, transportation, energy, defense and critical manufacturing; construction “to further a public purpose related to a public entity,” including publicly financed low-income housing; and emergency repairs.

KeyArena construction is exempt under the last two carve-outs, Leiweke said. The arena is a public facility, and time is short to reattach the arena’s 44-million-pound roof to its permanent support posts. The roof has been held up by temporary posts since late last year.

I am not an engineer by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s hard to see how leaving the roof sitting atop temporary posts for a few extra weeks qualifies as an emergency. (If the temporary posts are really so rickety that they’re on the verge of collapse any day now, that seems maybe not entirely safe regardless?) A spokesperson for NHL Seattle called it a “delicate and precise undertaking” involving an “intricate compression system,” but neither of those phrases actually says that delaying the work would make it any more “delicate” or “intricate” or what have you.

And as for the arena being a “public facility,” yes, it’s owned by the city of Seattle, but it’s being renovated and will be operated by the private developers Oak View Group, who are even making payments in lieu of property taxes on it because it’s so clearly a private project using public property. It’s a “public property,” in other words, but not really a “public purpose,” but then we’ve already seen how far governments are willing to bend the definition of public purpose when it suits them.

What all this means is that Seattle’s NHL team will likely be able to launch in its new home in 2021, while the Islanders’ new arena is now even less likely to be ready by then. This is not a huge deal in the long run — teams can easily enough move a few games to alternate sites while construction is completed, especially in a world where moving teams temporarily to whole different cities is being seriously considered — but it’s worth noting if you’re an Islanders or Seattle NHL or Austin F.C. fan, if any of those exist in large numbers. (Just kidding about the Islanders. Mostly.)

Friday roundup: If you’re watching TV sports in empty stadiums by summer, count yourself lucky

Michael Sorkin, who died yesterday of COVID-19, was a prolific architecture critic (and architect) and observer of the politics of public space, and so not a little influential in the development of my own writing. I’m sure I read some of Sorkin’s architecture criticism in the Village Voice, but he first came on my radar with his 1992 anthology “Variations on a Theme Park,” a terrific collection of essays discussing the ways that architects, urban planners, and major corporations were redesigning the world we live in to become a simulacrum of what people think they want from their environment, but packaged in a way to better make them safely saleable commodities. (I wish I’d gotten a chance to ask him what he thought of the Atlanta Braves‘ new stadium, with its prefab walkable urban neighborhood with no real city attached to it.) In his “Variations on a Theme Park” essay on Disneyland and Disney World, he laid out the history of imagineered cities starting with the earliest World’s Fairs, up to the present day with Disney’s pioneering of “copyrighted urban environments” where photos cannot even be taken and published without prior approval of the Mouse — a restriction he got around by running as an illustration a photo of some clouds, and labeling it, “The sky above Disney World.”

I really hope this isn’t the beginning of a weekly feature on great people we’ve lost to this pandemic, though it seems pretty inevitable at this point. For now, on with the other stadium and arena news, though if you’re looking for a break from incessant coronavirus coverage, you won’t find it here:

Ballmer buys Forum for 1600% markup to get MSG to stop opposing Clippers arena

Just three weeks after it was first reported that Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer was considering buying the Forum from Madison Square Garden to clear away MSG’s legal objections to a new Clippers arena, Ballmer has pulled the trigger, paying $400 million in cash to buy the 53-year-old arena:

The deal is expected to close during the 2020 second quarter. The new ownership group has no plans to tear down the Forum, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014, and will keep it operating as a concert venue.

If $400 million sounds like an awful lot to pay for a half-century-old (albeit recently renovated) arena with no sports tenants, that’s because it is: MSG bought the Forum in 2012 for just $23.5 million, though they later spent another $100 million on renovations to convert it into a concert-only space. There are no public figures that I can find on how much money the Forum makes — it’s by far the busiest concert venue in the L.A. area, but as we’ve seen before, busy doesn’t always mean profitable — but it seems inconceivable that it’s really worth $400 million, especially in a world where it will soon face competition from a new arena two miles away. (Not to mention a world where no one knows when people will be allowed to go to concerts again.)

File this one, then, under “multibillionaire spends whatever he wants to get his new toy, because he can.” This is nothing new — Ballmer way overpaid to get the Clippers in the first place — and not necessarily a bad thing, unless you really care how the insanely rich decide how to shuffle their money around between them. But it is a reminder that when development deals are decided less by public oversight than by whether there’s some other billionaire willing to foot the legal bills to block them, it’s always possible for sports team owners to simply buy off the opposition.

 

NBA considers reenacting old video games to reclaim TV audience

Buried in a long ESPN interview with NBA commissioner Adam Silver last Wednesday was a suggestion that when basketball first returns from its coronavirus hiatus, it could look kinda different:

He emphasized that Americans and their leaders should take seriously “the impact on the national psyche of no sports programming on television.” He then suggested the possibility that a group of players could compete in a tournament to raise money. Or they could simply compete “for the collective good of the people.” Such a tournament might not necessarily involve five-on-five (the BIG 3 has made three-on-three work with retired NBA stars; and the NBA Jam video game was popular with two-on-two). Silver clarified that this third model is only a concept at this stage. However, it would likely involve using a subset of players who are isolated and compete against each other in tightly controlled conditions.

On the one hand, this makes a kind of sense: If a regular slate of NBA games isn’t possible, even in front of empty seats, then sure, maybe let’s do a real life version of NBA Jam (with the sound effects, one hopes) as a stopgap. The bit about “isolated” players being safe to play against each other sounds somewhat like Silver doesn’t understand how virus transmission works — would they test everyone entering the basketball court/TV studio, then wait around for the results to come back? — but it’s not crazy.

On the other hand, it’s hard not to see this as Silver angling to be the first to grab a desperately sports-hungry TV audience that is currently surviving entirely on repeats of old games now that Australian rules football has become the final sport to shut down. “One high-ranking team executive” told the Washington Post that losses if the entire season and postseason were canceled could reach $1.2 billion, though the league would recoup a bunch of that by automatic reductions in the salary cap (and hence player salaries) next year, as well as possibly cutting players’ pay for this season via the “force majeure” clause in the league’s collective bargaining agreement. The NBA still gets TV rights payments even if the season is canceled, but that doesn’t mean the league wouldn’t want to work out some way of getting back on the air in some form, either to keep its media partners happy or to negotiate a cut of what would surely be huge audiences for NBA Jam: Real People Edition.

How likely is any of this to happen? Not very! But it is worth keeping in mind that even as sports leagues work to do their part to flatten the curve and bring this crisis to an end sooner than later — and, you know, prevent 15% of everybody’s grandmothers from dying — they’re also hard at work angling not just to stanch their financial bleeding, but to figure out how to build a new revenue model for a coronavirus world. As that will almost certainly involve all of us as cable subscribers, ticket buyers, and taxpayers, it’s worth keeping a close eye on.

Stadium construction gets exempted from stay-home orders, because the economy

Good news, everybody! More and more of the U.S. may be under orders to stay indoors to stop COVID-19 from spreading out of control and forcing hospitals to decide who lives and who dies, but at least the people who are building new sports stadiums can stay on the job. Inglewood Mayor James Butts has directed that construction of the new Los Angeles Rams and Chargers stadium will continue as a “critical government service”; no official word yet on the Las Vegas Raiders stadium despite the state of Nevada ordering all “non-essential” business to close, but I for one will be closely watching the construction cam to see how many construction workers are still showing up on the job.

If this seems weird, it is in fact super-weird that in a world where supermarkets have strict attendance limits and people queuing up outside have to remain six feet apart, stadium construction work is continuing as normal. And pretty much all construction work, really — while Boston has ordered construction activity to cease (at least, except for work on government-owned property), most local governments have granted exemptions to construction projects even during mass shutdowns. Check out this excited article from yesterday about construction progress at Manhattan’s Hudson Yards, right across the street from the Jacob Javits Convention Center that may soon be pressed into service as a coronavirus field hospital!

Inglewood Mayor Butts said he was ordering construction workers to stay home if they’re sick and wash their hands regularly, but this report from Somerville, Massachusetts (next door to Boston but without a construction-halt order) is not encouraging on that front:

Construction workers at the new high school being built in Somerville are also at risk of spreading the infection, according to a tradesman on the project. It starts early in the morning when workers meet under the I-93 overpass and pile into vans and buses to get to the job site, he said. Some of them work side by side, and crowd around the canteen truck that arrives every day at 9 a.m. with pizza and Italian sausages. Many of the porta-potties don’t even have soap, he said. There’s also talk that workers who arrived from a closed job site — construction has been halted in Boston and Cambridge — had previously worked with someone under quarantine.

But aside from foremen telling workers to wash their hands and keep their distance from each other, it’s “business as usual,” he said, and there’s been no official guidance from Suffolk Construction Co., the general contractor.

“They’re not going to do anything until they’re told to do something,” he said, “and if they’re not told to do something, it’s just going to get worse.”

There hasn’t been much reporting on any reasons given for keeping construction sites open while nearly everything else is shuttered, though the Los Angeles Times did describe Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office as saying that construction work was “essential to the economy.” Which, you know, I’m pretty sure teachers and waiters and jigsaw puzzle fulfillment workers would say the same thing, but they’re increasingly staying home because they realize that unlike doctors or food providers, their work can be put on hold for a few weeks without leading to mass deaths. Construction work, though, is apparently officially considered too big to fail; it’s yet another reminder that some people’s economic activity is considered more equal than others.

UPDATE: Just saw that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio replied to a press question yesterday on continuing construction by saying that “the guidance was to continue that work because it is outdoors, because clearly any part of the economy can still allow people to have a livelihood that’s so important as we see so many other people losing their livelihood, and because a lot of what is constructed obviously is crucial to our future.” So there!

FURTHER UPDATE:

 

Friday roundup: Pandemic could delay Rams and Chargers stadium, drain hotel tax base for Raiders stadium (and kill millions of people, oh yeah)

And so we come to the close of Week 2 of Coronavirusworld, with still little way of knowing what Week 3 will bring, let alone Week 8 and beyond. (I just now started to write about this far less grim response to Tuesday’s London study, until I noticed none of the authors are infectious disease specialists and the claim that contact tracing can keep infections under control was cited to a single Chinese news story that said nothing of the sort, so maybe stay grim for the moment?) With pretty much all of the sports world now shut down, though — except for Australian Rules Football for some reason — sports journalists have begun looking down the road at longer-term effects of the pandemic, resulting in some useful and some not-so-useful reporting:

State board gathers in small, enclosed space to approve St. Louis MLS subsidies

Hey, it’s actual stadium subsidy news! The world may be padlocking its doors as we speak, but the Missouri Development Finance Board did find time to approve $5.7 million worth of tax credits for the expansion St. Louis MLS team‘s new stadium.

The vote was unanimous, with board chair Marie Carmichael saying afterwards, “I feel a lot better about this project. It is certainly more doable.” (The team’s initial request, for $30 million in tax credits, was rejected last December after it was determined that the state was plumb out of tax credits after its next $5.7 million.) Though at least one board member noted the, uh, problematic timing of all this:

Although he voted in favor of the project, board treasurer John Mehner raised concerns about approving the project at a time when the world is focused on battling the coronavirus.

“I’m worried about the optics … and whether this is the exact right time to take action,” said Mehner, who suggested waiting for up to two months to take up action on the tax credits.

There’s also the question of whether the sports world will ever be the same as it was just a couple of weeks ago: Leagues are already looking at returning to play games in empty venues, possibly much smaller ones that could effectively be used as TV studios; this could be the new normal for a long while if predictions are accurate that we’re likely to be on a “roller coaster” of reopenings and reclosings as the virus waxes and wanes over the next year or two.

And then there’s the question of how sports leagues survive the economic hit of canceling most of all of their seasons — while some leagues are sitting on deep reserves of cash, that’s not true for smaller leagues like MLS (and certainly not for minor-league sports). Will the league’s strategy of continued growth underwritten by continued expansion still be viable in a world battered by a months- or years-long economic crash? We’ve seen leagues before that have gone on hiatus because of what seemed like a momentary crisis and then never returned; I’m not especially expecting that for MLS, but there could still be major repercussions for its business model.

In the meantime, I guess take comfort in the fact that at least some business as usual is still going on, even if you can’t go to work or school or the weed store. Sure, it’s the business as usual of tax money being handed over to private enterprise to underwrite their profits, but we’ve gotta cling to whatever normalcy we have now, right?

Some sobering projections on when sports (and life) can return to normal, in three charts

There is an extremely sobering report in today’s New York Times that cites an even more sobering report by London infectious disease experts, predicting that while shutting schools and businesses and other extreme “social distancing” measures can be very effective at reducing the number of coronavirus cases in a matter of weeks (that’s good!), a more-or-less-total lockdown would need to be in place until a vaccine is developed or else cases would immediately flare up again to catastrophic levels (that’s eeeagh!).

The Times article and the London report are both worth reading, but here’s the key chart from the latter: 

The green and orange lines are what we want to look at here: They represent the consequences of imposing five months of school closings and “social distancing” measures like we’re now heading toward (the San Francisco Bay Area is now on full Italy-style lockdown as of this morning, and I expect — I hope — that other regions will soon follow suit). As you can see, even without closing schools the curve flattens dramatically, though a closeup view shows that closing schools (green line) can make a huge difference in keeping hospitals from being overwhelmed:

The problem comes when we get to the right side of the graph, after the theoretical five-month “suppression” measures (the blue shaded area) are lifted. As you can see, about six weeks later, infections surge again, and we’re soon right back where we are now, with hospitals overwhelmed and millions of deaths. At which point the only possible solution is to go back on lockdown, resulting in a one-month-outside-two-months-inside cycle that would have to continue until a vaccine or other prophylactic treatments are developed:

Aside from being a terrifying vision of our potential near future — early vaccine trials have already begun, but even then a best-case scenario is no vaccine will be ready until well into 2021 — clearly this would mean the sports world isn’t going to return to normal anytime soon, unless all sports seasons can be reduced to four-week tournaments.

(Interestingly, the London report says that “Stopping mass gatherings is predicted to have relatively little impact because the contact-time at such events is relatively small compared to the time spent at home, in schools or workplaces and in other community locations such as bars and restaurants.” That would imply that what’s mostly important is keeping people from prolonged contact in enclosed spaces like schools and offices, not going to outdoor concerts or sporting events — something that other anecdotal evidence is already hinting at. Still, it’s hard to envision a world where nobody goes to work or school but everybody still goes to baseball games.)

So are we really doomed to a year or two of, at best, sports becoming a sporadic series of empty-stadium events to keep us entertained once we’ve exhausted everything available on Netflix? Maybe … but then there is the contradictory series of articles coming out of China, which, we are told, is rapidly returning to normalcy after seeing new infections peak, then fall:

For a city whose soul is “hotpot flavoured”, as some playfully describe it, the reopening of Chengdu’s hotpot restaurants gives residents an almost unparalleled reassurance that the worst of the outbreak has indeed passed.

“We are only allowed to accept 50 percent of our restaurant’s maximum capacity for dine-in guests, and that’s the rule for all restaurants in Sichuan (the surrounding province),” Xiao Ma, a waiter at Shudaxia, a famous hotpot restaurant in Chengdu, said. “But in the last few days, we have been hitting that line almost non-stop.”

If true, that could be a sign that it’s easier than the London experts are assuming to get infection rates down to a point where they can be kept low by universal testing and contact tracing, plus immediate quarantining of anyone found to be infected and their contacts. In other words, get back to the containment phase, where more severe mitigation and suppression measures are no longer necessary.

Or it could just be that China is in the flat part of the curve in the middle of that top chart, and is mere weeks away from a flareup of infection rates, and reimposition of a lockdown. Everybody should have all eyes on what happens there, then, because it could determine whether the worst of this could be over soon — as YouTube Italians want to tell their past selves — or if this is just the very beginning of an unimaginably long slog.

Coronavirus sports shutdown will hurt least-paid first, because that’s how everything works these days

As pretty much everything in the world shuts down for the foreseeable future — you can still go out to restaurants in California, but at the rate things are moving, that could no longer be the case by the time I’m finished typing this sentence — attention is beginning to shift to the monumental economic fallout of pulling the brakes on sports and other industries. While most players are expecting to get paid during however long this sports stoppage last (more on that in a bit), all the part-time hot dogs salespeople, custodial staff, and other workers who make games possible are pretty much screwed, leading some to note the irony of cities having given teams stadium funds specifically on the premise that it would help these people earn a living:

The Calgary Flames, to their credit (or out of shame), eventually promised to pay arena workers, at least for shifts that had already been scheduled. But the response from the rest of the sports world has been mixed at best:

Minor-league baseball players, meanwhile, are equally if not more screwed: Already forced to play spring training games for no pay, they were immediately locked out of practice facilities, and some turned to working as food delivery drivers to try to make some cash. And they can’t even collect unemployment, because they’re technically still employed by their MLB clubs, just not getting paid anything.

The sports stoppage is going to wreak havoc across the entire sports industry, obviously, though a whole lot of the details still need to be figured out. Can TV networks employ “force majeure” clauses to stop making payments to leagues for games that have been canceled? Can teams stop paying major-league players during this time? (The NHL’s union contract says players still get paid regardless, the NBA’s doesn’t, and MLB’s says the commissioner can “suspend” contracts during a national emergency.) What happens to minor-league franchises, and franchises in less deep-pocketed leagues like women’s soccer, and any other teams that don’t have the massive cash reserves that most of the Big Four sports teams do?

All this and I haven’t even gotten to the impact on stadium construction, which so far continues apace but could grind to a halt soon if governments require an end to non-essential work, which building stadiums for the Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Rams and Chargers would certainly qualify as. This could in turn delay those stadiums’ planned openings, though who knows if sports will even be able to return before live crowds in the fall at this point — the NBA is already reportedly considering playing out the rest of the season and the playoffs in smaller venues like practice facilities that could be used essentially as soundstages for televised sports. (I hereby nominate John Oliver’s formless void.)

This is all almost certainly going to require massive government action to sort out, as will all the other non-sports businesses that are going to have to go without income for the foreseeable future. This will inevitably mean picking winners and losers — do the makers of Purell get taxed to keep restaurants (and servers and kitchen staff) from going bankrupt en masse? — which, as this site has been documenting for 22 years now, is not something that governments have done an especially good job of in recent decades. I’ll do my best to keep an eye on how this all plays out and bring the news to you here; it’s not like any of us have much else to do, after all, at least until our jigsaw puzzle orders arrive in the mail.