No, sports stadiums shouldn’t rip out 80% of their seats because of coronavirus

There is an art, or rather a knack, to writing headlines for news stories that don’t quite rise to the level of news. It involves employing what might be called misdirective attribution: A headline that would otherwise be false, or at least unsupported, can magically become accurate if you add “Sources Say” or “Report:” or “According To Officials.” The burden of proof for reporters then becomes not whether what they’re reporting is true, but whether somebody says it’s true, and repeating what others are saying is what journalism is all about, right?

All of which brings us to today’s contestant in Who Wants To Be A News Article?, courtesy of CNBC:

Sports arenas could require ‘necessary renovations’ for social distancing, architect firm says

This headline actually contains a double hedge: Not only are the words put in the mouth of an “architect firm,” but it’s framed by the verb “could,” so we’re already reading about something that one person just thinks is at least a distant possibility, which would be enough to justify the news covering nothing but future civilization-ending asteroid strikes, which admittedly might be preferable to what it’s instead covering incessantly.

But I digress. What would these “necessary renovations” look like?

[The DLR Group] found that “luxe box” seating, with four seats separated by six feet in all directions from other people in the seating bowl sections, would honor distancing rules…

“In the short term, you can manage that by selling tickets to a certain number of people, identify their seats, and have fans distance,” said [DLR’s Don] Barnum, who designed the $161 million Pinnacle Bank Arena in Nebraska.

“If this becomes the new norm over two-to-five years, then I think [teams] would start removing those other seats and making that environment a fixed permanent one that creates that separation and distancing,” he said.

Here’s a picture, with available seats in blue:

So, a few things. First off, that’s an awfully big reduction in available seating: The CNBC article cites DLR as saying stadiums would be reduced to 17-20% of their normal capacity, but really it’s 13.3% in the above image. (It’s 14.8% in another image from DLR that only had 18 seats per row instead of 20, because a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small-minded architects and also math is hard!) This, according to CNBC, “causes revenues issues,” which hell yeah it does, only more grammatically. Would it be worth opening the gates if you could only fit 5,300 people in a 40,000-seat stadium? Would ticket prices soar thanks to scarcity? The article is mum on such questions.

Second, “if this becomes the new norm over two-to-five years” is even more pessimistic than the most pessimistic scientific forecasts of when a vaccine will likely arrive. (Okay, not the most pessimistic forecasts, because anything is possible, but now we’re back in asteroid-strike territory.) But tearing out seats (or even painting them a different color) would be silly if you’re only doing it for one or two seasons, so presumably in order to sell its vision of future sports, DLR needed to paint a doomsday scenario where we’re social distancing well into the 2020s, though not social distancing so much that we can’t go to sporting events at all.

Also, do all sports fans go to games with exactly three other people, all of whom they live with? Or is four some kind of magic number of how many people you don’t have to socially distance from if you want R0 to stay below 1.0? And how will concessions work: Will everyone on the hot dog line have to wait six feet apart, leading to lines that wrap around the entire ballpark? Will food only be available from roaming vendors who will throw items to you from a safe distance? Is it safe to drink beer through a straw while wearing a face mask? Did CNBC talk to a single public health expert for this article? (You can probably guess the answer to that last one.)

So what we have here, in the end, is “architecture firm with a small handful of sports projects under its belt puts its otherwise-idle rendering staff to work on something that might score it some media attention, finds willing sucker in CNBC.” It isn’t news, and it isn’t even really a report, but it has sports in it and pretends to make hard predictions in a world where being approximately right most of the time is considered better than being precisely right occasionally, and it has renderings with ghostly blue people in it, so hell yeah, bring it on. And don’t worry too much about the consequences of living in a world where whether something gets reported is determined by how impressive the letterhead — or PR staff — is of the organization making the claim.


7 comments on “No, sports stadiums shouldn’t rip out 80% of their seats because of coronavirus

  1. Some European soccer updates:
    -Dutch soccer is officially cancelled but unlike Belgium crowned no champion.
    -French player Junior Sambia is recovering right now after nearly dying–this seems to make a French return less likely.
    -Germany is still looking to restart but there is increasing skepticism about the safety (a Leipzip virologist was widely quoted reminding people about false negatives–including an underreported scientific note that COVID 19 testing will return false negatives for around 2 days after infection). At the same time some team officials have begun thinking about getting fans into stadiums. Still no official permission or denial but it does seem like politicians are in “wait and see mode”. Official decision due on Thursday.
    -I admit I have been following the 3.BL situation in Germany quite a lot because it has been quite passionate. One team is in a town (Halle) that political leaders are adamant about them not playing. Another team has had a player’s father die and they are adamant about not playing. Several teams have sold ghost tickets to the potential ghost games (which are essentially donations to the team) while at the same time some fan groups have started lawsuits to get their money back for missed games. The 3.BL all team meeting I thought was last Friday is going on right now.

    • The 3.BL voted 10-8 to resume their season if they are allowed (like the Bundesliga and 2.BL).

      Also England is looking at a June restart for some leagues
      France is looking at a mid June restart.
      Italy is looking at June restart with no games played in the north (all games in Rome?).

      • I’m really hesitant to take seriously anything in the “looking at” phase. Possibly because I grew up hearing all too much about various free agents that the Mets were “looking at” signing.

        • Fair point. I do think the leagues and teams are all very serious but I do not know enough about the likely political and public health decision makers to forecast what is going to happen. My German or knowledge of Germany is not sufficient to really understand some of the nuances and unsaid things in articles I read.

          • The other thing that seems to be in play is that some German lower level teams would probably be better off financially canceling the season than playing in front of empty stadiums in this health environment.

            A couple well known but faded teams with construction cost shares are considering insolvency while their host cities consider paying more stadium costs. And at least one first league team seems to have blown the season saving TV money already and may still go broke. Good times!

          • For the record the DFL shares money out of TV as well as Champions League money (Solidarity Fund) to the 3.BL. I believe 750 thousand Euros went to the 3.BL for restarting the season–so the economics of starting/not starting are a little muddled. Teams with poor attendance actually fare relatively better.

            Also, one of the reasons for the contentious split in the 3.BL is not just public health differences. Some local authorities are still preventing a few 3.BL teams from practicing. So part of the anger is about fairness in playing the games. All local authorities gave 1.BL and 2.BL teams permission to practice. This is just one of the many issues.

        • I got the money details wrong. I am not sure what the conditional TV money is for 3.BL going forward. They did get 7.5 million (not 750 thousand) from the Champions League Solidarity Fund–this worked out to 300 thousand Euros for teams that got money. The money was not conditional on restarting.

          Also, the political decision on allowing the Bundesliga (and 2.BL and 3.BL) to restart has been postponed by Merkel again as there is apparent disagreement.

          French soccer was cancelled so 3 leagues in Europe are officially done.