With college football season on the brink, what can we learn from sports leagues that have restarted play?

College football’s Mountain West conference canceled its fall season yesterday, with the possibility of holding it next spring instead, and the “Power Five” conferences (Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12, the Big Ten, Pac-12, and Southeastern) are reportedly set to meet today to discuss doing the same. This has led to a flurry of reactions from across the sports and political world as to whether it’s a good idea to play contact sports during a raging pandemic (players: yes, if there are safety protocols; doctors: maybe no if you don’t want players to risk lasting heart problems; Donald Trump: blarrrrrrgh!), with lots more tweets surely to follow.

This makes it a good time to take a step back and see what we’ve learned so far from sports leagues that have restarted since Covid took hold this spring, and what it can tell us about how to proceed from here. Unfurl the data points:

That is, honestly, not a terrible track record overall — back in the spring, it wasn’t clear that any sports leagues would be able to finish out their seasons, so a range from successful restarts to “limping along but might make it to the finish line” is better than expected. And there are definitely some lessons that we can learn from the spread of results:

  • If you want to play sports without an outbreak of virus, start with less virus. I mean, duh: The best way not to get infected is not to be around people who are infected, and in places like Taiwan, players could pretty much be sharing forks without much worry about contracting Covid. Likewise, even if NHL players busted out of their Canadian bubbles and hit the casinos (which are open), the level of community spread there is low enough that they’d stand a good chance of rolling the (metaphorical, virus-related) dice and coming away lucky.
  • Bubbles work. There was tons of skepticism that the NBA could pull off its bubble in the middle of the world’s biggest Covid hot spot without tons of infections, but so far it’s working well. Of course, we’re not even two weeks into the resumption of the season, and the entire two-month playoffs are still to go, so it remains to be seen if the league can keep its protective wrapping intact through October, especially as players start going stir-crazy. (Though player families will be allowed to enter the bubble at the end of the first round on August 30, after they’ve quarantined for two weeks.)
  • Testing works, sort of. The Marlins and Cardinals outbreaks have gotten lots of attention as a sign that MLB didn’t really have a plan for its bubble-less season — and, indeed, there are lots of signs that it didn’t, especially when the decision on whether the Marlins would play after positive tests at one point came down to texting their shortstop to see what he thought. And the uncertainty on when it was safe for teams to resume play has exposed all kinds of issues with how to interpret test results, thanks to everything from false positives and false negatives to the problem that it can take a few days for someone to test positive even after contracting the virus. But on another level, it’s a success: MLB has been aggressively testing its players — to the point where there are concerns that athletes are soaking up testing capacity and causing delays in test results for civilians — and managed to keep any outbreaks from spreading beyond those two teams. That may be the best you can hope for in a non-bubble league.
  • Actually playing sports doesn’t seem to be a huge risk. Unless I’ve missed something, there remain zero cases of athletes catching the coronavirus from opponents during games, even in higher-contact sports like soccer. (Early speculation that the Marlins got infected from the Atlanta Braves‘ catchers appears to have been incorrect — the Braves players never tested positive, though they did have Covid-like symptoms — and it’s more likely someone picked it up by going out for coffee or drinking at the hotel bar.) That actually jibes well with research that shows that “Successful Infection = Exposure to Virus x Time“; it’s simply hard to get infected if you’re only in close proximity to another player for a couple of minutes at a time. What’s super-dangerous is being in a clubhouse (or hotel bar) with teammates for extended periods, as witness how both the Marlins and Cardinals outbreaks spread like wildfire through those teams, even taking out the Philadelphia Phillies‘ visiting clubhouse attendant who shared indoor breathing space with the infected Marlins.
  • Indoor sports, and those with more contact, are less charted territory: The only good examples we have so far for indoor sports transmission are the NBA and NHL, which have barely begun play, and which are taking place in virus-free bubbles, so we haven’t seen how an outbreak would play out there. Likewise, nobody’s played any American football since the pandemic began; Australian Rules Football teams have been forced to bubble in hotels and move games to less virus-y parts of Australia, but don’t seem to have suffered major outbreaks among players, at least.
  • Getting Covid can be really, really serious, even for young, healthy athletes. As noted above, one of the concerns pushing college football to consider postponements is that doctors are noting an increase in myocarditis — basically, inflamed heart muscle — among college athletes, something that could be a passing thing, or could be a chronic problem. Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez has already been ruled out for the entire 2020 season thanks to Covid-related heart problems, and while team execs say they’re “very optimistic” he’ll make a full recovery, with a disease that’s only existed in humans for less than a year, they’re really only just guessing.

That’s still very much a work in progress, and lots more questions remain unanswered, including what on earth MLB should do if one of its teams suffers a Marlins- or Cardinals-style outbreak in the middle of the playoffs. Baseball officials are reportedly considering setting up bubbles for its postseason, though they’d still have to figure out how to have teams and their traveling parties quarantine first for two weeks; also, right now the only advantage teams finishing with better regular-season records would get in the expanded playoffs would be home-field advantage, which wouldn’t mean much if no teams were playing at home. As for college football, it’s hard to say what the risks are until someone starts playing and we see how many people turn up sick, though the indicators for a sport with tons of teams and huge rosters and no bubbles sure don’t seem too promising.

Still, there are some lessons here, and they’re reasonably hopeful ones: If you can manage to play in a nation with low virus levels, or keep your players and staff from ever interacting with the outside world, you can play sports, and maybe even allow fans in, relatively safely — though “relatively” is obviously less reassuring if you wind up being one of the few players getting sick. Really, the most important message here is the same one as for the rest of our pandemic world: If you want to reopen things that are important to you, keep wearing masks and stay away from house parties. The best way not to contract Covid remains having fewer infectious people to catch it from, so if it means shutting down restaurants and bars to keep schools open — or shutting down college football to allow other activities to proceed, or even shutting down everything until viral levels are down to near-zero — that’s the kind of calculus we need to be making right now. It worked for New Zealand!

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Friday roundup: What if a stadium tax break fell in the forest and there were no journalists around to hear?

Sorry if the posts were a bit light this week, but, one, it’s August (checks — yep, August, holy crap) and local governments are mostly out of session so it’s usually a slow month for stadium news even during what we used to call normal times, and two, I’ve been spending some time working on an FoS-related project that hopefully you will all enjoy the benefits of down the road a bit. (I also took a brief break to write about how Melbourne, Australia has declared a “state of disaster” and imposed strict new lockdown measures for virus rates that in the U.S. wouldn’t even get states to ban house parties.) If you were really missing me chiming in on the latest in baseball not shutting down just yet and instead adding a billion doubleheaders, maybe I’ll get around to a longer post on it next week.

For now, a quick tour through some of the news items that didn’t make the full-item cut this week:

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Friday roundup: Fact-checking Suns arena impact claims, the hidden cost of hosting the NCAA Final Four, and everybody gets a soccer team!

Thanks to everyone who became a Field of Schemes supporter this week in order to get a pair of my goofy refrigerator magnets! If you want to hop on the magnet train, you can still do so now, or you can first stop and read the rest of the news of a wacky week in stadium and arena developments:

  • The Arizona Republic has been full of both articles and op-eds this week asserting that giving $168 million to the Phoenix Suns for arena renovations is a good thing (sample reasoning: “The arena is old and needs updated. The Suns are young and need direction.”), but then it also ran an excellent fact-check that concluded that claims of the arena having a significant impact on the city’s economy are “mostly false,” citing the umpteen economic studies showing exactly that (sample conclusion, from Temple economist Michael Leeds: “A baseball team has about the same impact on a community as a midsize department store”). On balance, good enough work that I hope the Republic can avoid being bought by an evil hedge fund that is trying to buy up newspapers and strip-mine them for any assets; what would really be nice would be if they can be bought by someone who can afford copy editors (“is old and needs updated”?), but I know it’s 2019 and we can’t have everything.
  • Where the Oakland Raiders are rumored to be playing the 2019 season this week: San Francisco, Santa Clara, and Oakland. These are all disappointingly old ideas — am I going to have to be the one to suggest Rio de Janeiro?
  • And speaking of me, I wrote a long essay for Deadspin this week on how changes in baseball economic structure are incentivizing owners to cut player salaries without illegally colluding to do so. This is at best tangential to the stadium business, except inasmuch as it’s about “how sports team owners make their money and what affects their profits,” so it’s good to know even if you don’t especially care about who signs Manny Machado or Bryce Harper.
  • The president of the USL wants to expand the soccer league’s two tiers to 80 teams total, which is getting awfully close to the ABA’s “bring a check and you can have a team” model.
  • The new Austin F.C. MLS team was approved to start play in 2021, and celebrated by proposing a chant to memorialize the city council vote that approved its stadium funding: “7-Fooour, 7-Fooour/It’s not the score, it was the vote/That got us all our brand new home.” I am not making this up. (If I were making this up, I would at least try to get it to rhyme.)
  • Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno signed a one-year lease extension on the team’s stadium through 2020, which is disappointing in that I really thought the city should have used this leverage to demand a longer-term lease extension (what’s Moreno going to do otherwise, go play in Rio de Janeiro?). But Craig Calcaterra’s summary of the situation (sample description: this will give time to resolve “a long-term solution for what, at least from the Angels’ perspective, is a stadium problem”) is so on point and such a good model for how to report stadium controversies fairly and accurately that I’m not in the mood to complain.
  • Hosting the NCAA Final Four will cost Minnesota $10 million, because there are lots of curtains to be hung and temporary seating to be put in place, and the NCAA sure as hell isn’t going to pay for it. But Minnesota will surely earn it back in new tax revenues, because economic studies show … oh wait.
  • Some billionaire in St. Louis thinks the city should have an NBA team, and some writer for something called the St. Louis American thinks the city should try to steal the New Orleans Pelicans. Now let us never speak of this again.
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