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.