New state coronavirus plans: Reopen sports venues and concerts, see if people start dropping dead

It is becoming increasingly clear that the answer to “How will sports and concerts and other things in the U.S. reopen?” is “However the hell individual governors feel like it, and damn the science.” Missouri Gov. Mike Parson declared last week that concert venues can now reopen if concertgoers socially distance (though Missouri concert venues have been decidedly uninterested in booking shows just yet); Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson followed that up on Saturday with the announcement that arenas and stadiums can reopen at one-third capacity, which it doesn’t take complex math to see isn’t going to work too well if you want to ensure six feet between each set of fans. (Taiwan, the only nation so far to resume sports in front of live fans, has been limiting baseball stadiums to between 5% and 10% of capacity.)

In the absence of any federal plan, however, nothing is stopping governors from making up their own rules, which means we’re likely going to see a patchwork of reopenings under different social-distancing guidelines in the weeks and months ahead. That could potentially be very, very bad for sports- and concertgoers in those states (and anyone who potentially comes in contact with them, which is to say pretty much everyone who lives in those states) if it turns out sitting three seats away from your nearest neighbor while masked isn’t enough to stop the spread of Covid-19. [UPDATE: Just spotted some new evidence that social distancing is essentially useless indoors, though masks may help some here.] Arkansas and Missouri both have had relatively low death tolls from the virus so far, but also their new case rates haven’t even started to come down from the peaks they reached a month ago, though at least Missouri can claim that this is a positive sign since it’s massively scaled up testing in that time period.

On the bright side, if you can call it a bright side, all these differing state-by-state rules should make a nice controlled experiment in the effects of lifting various restrictions: If you’re an elected official wondering whether to reopen bars, say, you can just look a couple of states over and count the dead bodies to see how that’s likely to go. It’s also going to make a shambles of any plans for sports leagues to restart with all teams in their home venues — check out this hilarious CBS Sports article about how MLB plans to start its season in July, with its 12th-paragraph aside that “all travelers to Canada are subject to a 14-day quarantine, which could create headaches for the [Toronto] Blue Jays and their opponents” — but as we’re seeing with the Bundesliga’s attempts to restart its season despite the entire Dynamo Dresden team being AWOL for two weeks while quarantining after two players tested positive, any resumption of sports is necessarily going to have to be tentative and subject to rapid change if people start getting sick and/or dropping dead.

And, really, any resumption of anything, now that it’s becoming ever more clear that a single weeks-long shutdown isn’t going to do anything more than buy some more time for hospitals to catch their breaths, and doctors to work on better treatments, and cities and states to ramp up testing and contact tracing capacity (after first engaging in the requisite petty political bickering over it) while we await a vaccine — something that’s not a 100% sure thing to arrive even in 2021, or ever. It would be very nice to wait for science to provide answers to key questions like “Are schools key transmission vectors?” and “Are surfaces relatively safe compared to contact with actual people or do we need armies of disinfectant-spraying drones?” before we start going back out in public, but it looks like most political leaders (in the U.S. especially, but elsewhere too) aren’t willing to wait for the slow grind of scientific research. So instead we’ll get a series of mass experiments, with human beings as guinea pigs. Get your tickets now!

Here’s a bunch of ways rich sports owners are looking to get pandemic bailouts

The owners of the Los Angeles Lakers have voluntarily returned $4.6 million in refundable government loans they received as part of the Payroll Protection Program—

Hold up, let’s try that again.

The owners of the Los Angeles Lakers, a sports franchise worth an estimated $4.4 billion that turns an annual $178 million profit, asked for and received $4.6 million in federal government loans as part of its Payroll Protection Program for small businesses. (The loans convert to grants if recipients keep their current employees on payroll through the end of June.) Like other prominent companies that took advantage of the PPP program — Shake Shack, Potbelly, Ruth’s Chris friggin’ Steakhouse — the Buss family that owns the Lakers chose to return the money “so that financial support would be directed to those most in need” once they realized they’d bum-rushed the subsidy line and edged out actual small businesses, and also probably realized that the PR hit from doing so would have been worth way more than a relatively piddling $4.6 million in government grants.

That a billionaire sports family got approved for small-business loans should be alarming, but not surprising: The federal government has already approved more than $2 trillion in spending to help Americans hit by the coronavirus-spawned economic crash, and it’s all but inevitable that some less-needy Americans would put in applications as well — the feds define “small businesses” based in part on how many employees they have, and sports teams don’t employ a ton of people on payroll. And it’s also inevitable that they’d also be among the first to be approved, since programs like PPP are first-come first-served and rich folks are more likely to have lawyers on staff who know how to file paperwork fast, as well as established bank connections that made them more likely to get approved.

In fact, sports team owners are working many angles to get a cut of the Covid stimulus bailout cash, just as less-deep-pocketed individuals are as they try to figure out whether to consider themselves unemployed gig workers or entrepreneurs in need of cash to keep themselves on payroll. Among the ways:

  • The Sacramento Kings owners are renting out their old empty arena in Natomas for $500,000 a month to the state of California for use as a field hospital, which is the same rent the state is paying for other temporary facilities, but maybe a tad disingenuous given that Gov. Gavin Newsom previously praised Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé as “an example of people all stepping in to meet this moment head-on” without mentioning that he’d be getting paid for his selflessness.
  • The owners of the D.C. United MLS team are part of DC2021, an advocacy group of Washington, D.C. business leaders lobbying the district for “a massive new tax relief program” to help the local restaurant, hotel, and — apparently — soccer industries survive the economic shutdown.
  • The stimulus measures approved by Congress weren’t all expanded unemployment benefits and checks with Donald Trump’s name on them; they also reestablished a tax loophole involving what are known as “pass-through entities” that will allow mostly wealthy people to save $82 billion on their tax bills this year. The biggest beneficiaries will be hedge-fund investors and owners of real estate businesses, a list that obviously includes lots of sports moguls: Just owners of hedge funds who also control sports teams include Milwaukee Bucks co-owners Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens, Los Angeles Dodgers owner Mark Walter, Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeffrey Vinik, and a pile of others.

Now, not all of this should be considered a fiasco: In the case of the PPP in particular, Pat Garofalo notes in his Boondoggle newsletter that the money is intended to keep low- and moderate-income workers from being laid off — the reimbursements top out at $100,000 per employee — and people who work for sports teams or chain restaurants are just as deserving of keeping their jobs as those who work at genuine small businesses. The main problem with PPP is that Congress massively underfunded it, then made it first-come first-served, then left it up to banks to decide who to approve — okay, there’s actually a lot here to consider a fiasco, but sports team owners deciding to fill their wallets at the same firehose of cash as everyone else is far from the worst part of it.

As for some of the other bailout proposals, though, sports owners come off looking a lot less innocent. That DC2021 plan pushed by D.C. United owner Jason Levien, for example, includes such things as tax holidays for corporate income taxes and property taxes, which Garofalo notes won’t help most small businesses that don’t turn large profits or own land.  (Levien, you will not be surprised to learn, is not just a sports mogul but also a real estate investor.) And the pass-through tax break is almost entirely a sop to millionaires and the Congresspeople who love them, which though it doesn’t single out sports team owners, certainly helps many of them given that they’re far more likely to invest in pass-through companies than you or I.

I’ve said this before, but it really is worth harping on: The recovery from the pandemic is already involving a ton of government spending, and will unavoidably involve a ton more, since the feds are pretty much the only institution that has the power to keep food in people’s mouths during this crisis. (At least until the U.S. Mint is deemed a non-essential business.) This will invariably create winners and losers, both in terms of who gets what money and in terms of who ends up paying off the government debts that are being racked up now. There’s no way to avoid this involving subsidies — pretty much the whole idea of government spending to prevent an economic crash is about creative use of subsidies — so what you want to shoot for is fairness, where you have the most money going to companies and individuals who were most hurt by coronavirus shutdowns, and the least to companies and individuals that just were able to lawyer up the fastest.

Individuals who were most hurt except, of course, for Miami Heat and Carnival Cruises owner Micky Arison, who may have lost more than a billion dollars thanks to the collapse of the cruise industry, but who also lobbied the Trump White House to let them keep sailing even after it was clear that cruise ships were perfect Covid incubators. The cruise industry was notably left out of the stimulus bills, and while that’s more about the fact that they all registered as foreign businesses in order to duck U.S. taxes than their owners being money-grubbing jerks who prioritized profits over public health, I think we can all agree: Screw those guys.

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.

Friday roundup: Cincy official wants soccer subsidies back, Hartford mayor wants arena spending now, and why billionaires are jealous of other billionaires

Just how far have we fallen in the last few weeks? Far enough that I wrote an article on how New York City is managing to feed at least a few of its millions of suddenly hungry people, and I considered this a positive article. I promise we’ll get back to more analysis of how rich sports people are attempting to steal a few billions in taxpayer money in short order, but right now it’s a little hard to focus on run-of-the-mill horrors when there are so many new ones every day.

But there was some news this week, not all of it pandemic-related! Enjoy, if enjoying is still a thing we do:

  • Cincinnati city councilmember Chris Seelbach says that in light of crashing city budgets in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, he plans to introduce a bill asking F.C. Cincinnati to return 25% of its $33 million public stadium subsidy, the same percentage that city social service agencies are being asked to cut. The bad news: City officials say it would be up to the team to voluntarily accept the funding reduction, so maybe don’t hold your breath on that.
  • Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin says it’s a great time for a $100 million renovation of his city’s XL Center since the arena is just sitting there right now doing nothing but losing money, so it’s a great time for construction! Connecticut is currently facing a projected $1.9 billion loss of tax revenues from the pandemic, in case you were wondering.
  • The New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, and Los Angeles Dodgers would each lose more than $300 million in revenues if no fans were allowed to attend games in 2020, according to Forbes’ Mike Ozanian, while other teams like the Miami Marlins would lose only $47 million, since nobody goes to Marlins games anyway. But Ozanian notes tha teams would also cut back on their revenue sharing expenses, and while he doesn’t do the math on this, we can: With revenue sharing running at about 48% of local revenues (actually slightly less since even the Yankees get back a small share of the overall cut), this means those teams’ bottom-line losses will only be about half what Forbes is reporting. In other words, coronavirus will likely be only slightly more of a disaster for the Yankees than signing Jacoby Ellsbury.
  • Delaying the Tokyo Olympics for a year is expected to cost organizers $2.8 billion for things like additional rental costs on private venues and the athletes’ village — which already has private buyers who were expecting to move in in September — and the International Olympic Committee isn’t exactly saying whether it will cover these costs or the Tokyo organizing committee will be stuck with them, though you can certainly guess, based on past IOC behavior. And that’s assuming that the 2020 Olympics can take place in 2021, which is still not a sure thing.
  • And speaking of coronavirus shutdowns possibly lasting into 2021, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has told city agencies that “large gatherings such as concerts and sporting events may not be approved in the city for at least 1 year.” That doesn’t rule out TV-only sports with no fans, and also it’s important to remember that memos like these are just contingency plans, and no one knows what things will look like this fall (or, for that matter, in fall of 2021). Maybe hold off on buying your 2020 NFL season tickets, though, just to be on the safe side.
  • Amazon is reportedly considering bidding for naming rights to Tottenham Hotspur‘s new stadium, which given that naming rights are mostly good for boosting brand recognition and Amazon is already the world’s biggest brand is kind of weird. Though given that the company is now making $11,000 in sales per second what with everyone trapped in their homes, maybe they can afford to blow some money on something stupid.
  • And speaking of Amazon, Bloomberg reports that Jeff Bezos only asked for billions of dollars in subsidies for a new second headquarters because he was jealous of Elon Musk getting billions of dollars from Nevada for a new Tesla plant. Which we pretty much knew was Bezos’s inspiration, but it’s still a worthwhile reminder that corporate barons are just as much driven by envy of the next corporate baron down the block as they are by any rational economic motivations.
  • Here are some photos of the early years of the original Yankee Stadium, which are being reported as a sign of the team’s impact on its surrounding Bronx neighborhood, which is probably wrong since it’s more likely the impact of the new elevated subway line that opened in 1918 (and helped inspired the Yankees to move to the Bronx). Though they do give a sense of how teams used to build stadiums in phases — expand by a few thousand seats, then once those sell out use the proceeds to add a few thousands more — to make them more affordable with private cash, something you usually only see now in European soccer stadiums, which is surely just coincidental to the fact that European soccer stadiums mostly don’t get huge public subsidies.
  • And speaking of European soccer stadiums, here are some photos from what is described as an “insane new video” of Real Madrid‘s proposed $625 million stadium renovation, which leads me to believe that SportsBible, whatever that is, has never seen a truly insane video.  I do like the news, though, that “the capacity of the iconic venue will be reduced by one to 80,242,” which leads me to believe that at least the stadium architects have a sense of humor.
  • Since we haven’t featured any dumb sports news articles yet this week, how about this one from the New York Post that claims the New York Islanders moving to Brooklyn worked out well because it kept the team from moving to Quebec? Asked and answered, people!
  • Superstar Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout has declared MLB’s Arizona biodome proposal to be “pretty crazy” since it would keep players away from their families for months, but the Arizona Republic’s editorial page editor says there are “scientific reasons” for doing it like “MLB players are already guinea pigs” and “there is always risk in life” and anyway baseballllllllllllll! More science to drop soon on this, I sorely hope.

If sports has a near future, it’s probably not “biodomes”

I wasn’t going to do another “When will sports be back?” post again this soon, really I wasn’t — look, here’s an image of the Brooklyn Dodgers‘ proposed 1950s domed stadium that somebody posted on Twitter, that’s way more fun to think and/or complain about — but then Patrick Hruby, late of Vice Sports, wrote a newsletter yesterday interviewing Emory University epidemiologist Zach Binney about the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on sports, and I wanted to point out one important thing.

Binney runs through a lot of the established science around sporting events and infectious disease — the soccer match that was a “biological bomb” for Italy, the fact that big events are exponentially bigger disease vectors than small ones, indoor ones than outdoor ones, and ones with people in close proximity (including beer lines) than ones where they’re farther apart — as well as the pitfalls of building an isolated “biodome” to hold games with players but no fans: You’d need thousands of players and coaches and support staff, and anyone who had to leave the security perimeter for any reason (sprained something and needs an MRI? wife having a baby?) would need to be re-quarantined for two weeks. But then Hruby asks him about the “more relaxed version of the biodome” that Taiwan is pursuing: empty or near-empty gyms and stadiums, but no quarantining of players beyond regular temperature checks and wearing masks (and no masks for players during games).

From everything you’ve said, it doesn’t sound like it would be safe or responsible to do this in the US right now, given our current situation with the virus. What would the situation in this country have to be in order to make a Taiwanese approach possible?

The thing that people should understand about Taiwan is they had experience with a situation like COVID-19 back in 2003 with SARS. So this is one of the most prepared places on the planet. They were aggressive, they moved early, and they largely kept their epidemic under control.

When you say “under control,” what do you mean?

They kept the number of cases low. They did not get far into exponential growth—one person spreads it to three people, and then those three spread it to three others, so it becomes nine, then 27, and so on. They stopped the virus early in that process. Which means they could then identify and track and isolate new cases.

[Editor’s note: as of April 12, Taiwan had reported 388 coronavirus cases and six deaths in a population of around 24 million].

With the number of new cases down to a trickle, their public health authorities are actually allowing gatherings of up to 500 people. So they are reaping the rewards of acting early and acting aggressively. The longer you wait—the more cases there are and the more transmission there is—the longer it takes to kind of get over that peak and get back down onto the other side.

This is key question for not just restarting sports, but reopening schools and other parts of society: When can each country get its level of new infections down to trace levels? Once you get there, you can escape the “mitigation” phase of an epidemic — where your only goal is to keep the fire from spreading too fast — and get back to the “containment” phase, where you’re actually tracking every glowing ember and dumping water on it before it can start a new flareup. In this case, the water bucket would be testing and contact tracing: Basically, test everyone every few days, then immediately quarantine anyone who tests positive and anyone they’ve been in contact with for 14 days or until they’re no longer contagious.

Needless to say, this would require some major expansion of rosters to account for any players who’d have to be cycling in and out of quarantine, plus some flexible scheduling for if an entire team had to be quarantined after spending a game with one infectious teammate. (It doesn’t look like Taiwanese or South Korean leagues, which also are set to reopen soon, have said yet what their plan is for if a player or staffer tests positive.) But it least would allow for only locking down part of society at any given time, instead of everyone all the time, which would surely be an improvement.

To do that, though, first infection levels have to return to where they were a couple of months ago, and pretty much nowhere outside of China, Taiwan, and South Korea is anywhere close to that yet. (Denmark, which started reopening schools today, is still seeing a couple hundred new cases per day, not that far off its peak, and may honestly be jumping the gun here.) So really, the answer to “When can sports return?” is likely to be the answer to “When can the rest of the world bring infection rates way, way down and then get widespread testing and contact tracing in place?”, which is going to depend as much on government policy as on the nature of the disease. If you want to watch sports aside from Taiwanese and Korean baseball anytime soon, in other words, stay the hell inside, and tell your elected officials that they need to get a testing-and-contact-tracing regime ready ASAP.

Here’s when and how sports leagues are pretending they will start up again

What to do, what to do if you’re a sports team owner in the midst of a pandemic that is preventing there from being any sports? Sure, you could cut all your employees’ salaries and then when that isn’t popular get Bloomberg News to write an article about how great you are for donating leftover hand soap to hospitals, but to really kill a lot of time, you’re going to want to get together on Zoom with your fellow owners and do what every eight-year-old does during any sports offseason: Draw up imaginary plans of what sports might look like when it returns. And right now, team owners have imagination to burn:

If there’s a commonality here, it’s that all of the above — okay, save the XFL thing — is about plans, not decisions. Which is fine: Right now not even infectious disease experts know whether we could have a somewhat normal summer if social distancing is successful or if large gatherings for sports and concerts won’t return until fall 2021 at the earliest, and we won’t until we see the results of nations starting to ease restrictions, which could take three months or so to know for sure. But none of this is actual news about when sports will return; it’s just spitballing, albeit spitballing by a bunch of rich people with PR staffs and an entire industry of journalists following them around to report on every rumor that passes their lips.

If you want real news, and real sports, you’ll have to turn to South Korea, where the Korean Baseball Organization is tentatively set to start its season in early May. And ESPN wants to broadcast it, because ESPN sure has nothing else to show you right now. One hopes it will include a ticker across the bottom of the screen showing daily new coronavirus infections and hospitalizations in South Korea, because unless you’re really invested in Dan Straily’s comeback attempt, those are going to be the most important sports stats you’re likely to see for a while.

Where will the Raiders start the 2020 season, if there is one?

For most of the teams facing possible stadium or arena construction delays thanks to the coronavirus crisis, there’s an easy fallback plan, which is to just keep playing in their current venue for a bit longer. Even the Worcester Red Sox could just stick around in Pawtucket for one more season, which I would actually appreciate since I’ve never been to 78-year-old McCoy Stadium and was planning on going this summer, back when there was going to be a this summer.

For the soon-to-be Las Vegas Raiders, though, things aren’t so simple, because the team declined its 2020 lease option at the Oakland Coliseum early in March, even though it had until April 1 to decide whether to do so. Even if it would have been hard to return to a city whose fans said farewell to their team by throwing nachos at them, this was maybe not the best decision to rush into rather than waiting a few weeks to see if the entire world was going to come to a screaming halt and leave your football team with nowhere to play, assuming anyone can play. Possible options include:

  • UNLV’s old Sam Boyd Stadium, San Antonio’s Alamodome, or El Paso’s Sun Bowl, according to Forbes, citing no sources at all other than that this is what is “said to be” in the works.
  • Salt Lake City, Phoenix, or San Diego, all of which are just the speculation of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which notes that “it is realistic to think that all of those options could be resurrected” since they were all options being considered for 2019 before the team re-upped with Oakland for one last season.
  • Play the preseason and possibly the opening of the regular season on the road, suggests the Review-Journal, while the Las Vegas stadium is finished.

All of this, of course, assumes that there will be a 2020 NFL season, which while the league swears is what it’s planning is not at all certain, given the difficulties of staging games safely even in front of empty stadiums when it would require so many people to play and broadcast games and feed and house all those people and if any one of them tests positive, suddenly you could have to shut down. (There’s also the question of whether it’s worth starting a season that could have to get interrupted again for renewed shutdowns if the virus flares back up again.) Though if the season is played in front of empty seats, then suddenly it doesn’t matter where the Raiders play: Forbes quoted “one NFL insider” as saying “the Raiders would hold games on a Las Vegas playground before going back to Oakland this year,” and they could totally do that if they don’t need anywhere for fans to sit.

One longer-term question for the Raiders and owner Mark Davis, meanwhile, is whether their business model of selling tickets mostly to out-of-town fans who’ll use Raiders games as an excuse for a trip to Vegas can survive the coronavirus, and the coronavirus recession. Will long-distance travel still be as common in a post-virus world? Will enough people have the money to do so anytime in the near future? These are small questions, maybe, in comparison to the bigger one of how any of us are going to watch sports (or live our lives) in the coming weeks and months and years, but if we can’t rubberneck at the bad fortune of Mark Davis (and David Beckham, always David Beckham), then it’s going to be a long 2020.

Friday roundup: Won’t anyone think of the sports franchise owners?!?

Coming up on the end of week four here, I think, and how is everyone doing? I remembered that today was Friday and I needed to do a news roundup, which was the first day in several that I remembered what day it was, so I feel like things are looking up! Except for the fact that large numbers of people gathering in close confines is looking like the main way this virus spreads, and that describes perfectly spectator sports and music and theater and many other things that make life worth living, so that’s not so great. And, of course, nearly 17,000 people have died and tens of thousands more deaths are expected, and that’s not counting all the people who are dying uncounted at home. Small victories may be victories, but they’re also small.

Eventually this will all be over, though, whatever “over” means, and it’s not too soon to start wondering about what the sports world will look like on the other side. Especially for sports journalists who are twiddling their thumbs right now and hoping that their employers still exist once the worst of this has passed:

Be well, stay safe, and see you Monday!

Coronavirus shutdowns will cost pro teams mumblety-something, say sports finance experts

Forbes is starting to focus on the all-important question of whether the coronavirus, in addition to killing tens of thousands of people, will harm the bank balances of some of your favorite multibillion-dollar sports franchises. Let’s give them a read and see if they make any damn sense and/or are affronts against humanity!

First up, because it beat the other one by a few hours, is “senior contributor” Patrick Murray’s essay on the Golden State Warriors, who had the misfortune to open their new San Francisco arena the same year as sports came to a grinding halt (and before that, the same year as its vaunted starting lineup suffered a sudden and gratuitous total existence failure). Take it away, Patrick:

The Athletic’s Anthony Slater has reported that cancelling the remaining seven home games would cost the Warriors in the region of $25m. That’s on top of the money they might have expected back in the fall from a potential playoff run, before Stephen Curry got injured. They might not have been hotly tipped to make a deep run with Klay Thompson out, but most people were expecting a team led by Curry to at least make the postseason. And that would have meant more revenue flowing in. Tim Kawakami previously reported that at Oracle Arena in recent years the Warriors received $4-5m gross per home game in the early playoff rounds. At Chase Center that figure would have been even higher.

Oh noes, the Warriors are missing out on all the playoff money they would have earned … if they’d been in the playoffs, which they weren’t going to be? So maybe it’s just that $25 million for seven home games that is at risk — Forbes has the Warriors’ gate receipts at $178 million per year, so the per-game figure pencils out.

And, of course, the Chase Center isn’t just about basketball, it’s about concerts and other arena events, so how will that work out?

It’s unknown just how much that will cost the Warriors, but in Forbes’ latest franchise valuations just under a quarter of their $4.3bn valuation was attributed to their arena.

Thanks for the math, Mr. Senior Contributor! You’re totally worth every penny of that $250 a month you’re being paid!

The second article is by Mike Ozanian, who is an actual Forbes staffer and the magazine’s longtime sports valuation guru, even if he’s had his own occasional problems with basic math. Ozanian takes on the finances of the Atlanta Braves, and discovers (according to “John Tinker of G.research LLC,” which is apparently a thing that a financial analysis firm has actually decided to call and punctuate itself) that playing only half a season of baseball will, amazingly, cause fewer people to go to baseball games:

Tinker reckons the Braves’ revenue would drop to $174 million, from $438 million in 2019, with attendance dropping to 630,000, from last year’s 2.65 million. The drop in attendance would cut revenue from the gate and concessions to about $55 million in 2020, from $202 million the prior year, and halve the broadcast and sponsor revenue to $118 million, from $236 million.

Player expenses, meanwhile, were lowered by only 50%, to $86 million, and operating expenses and SG&A costs by 40%, to $146 million. Bottom line: Tinker estimates the team will post an operating loss of $59 million, versus an operating profit of $24 million in 2019.

There’s some weirdness here: Why would attendance drop by three-quarters if the number of games is cut in half? (Not that playing games in front of fans is even that likely, but if it does happen wouldn’t you expect there to be some pent-up demand? Especially since games would be played in the summer, when ticket sales are normally the highest? Unless the G.research study assumes that by summer fans will be too afraid to leave the house, which is certainly possible.) And how would broadcast and sponsor revenue fall by $118 million when the Braves’ TV deals with Fox Sports South and Fox Sports Southeast only gets them $83 million a year in the first place? And does Ozanian know for sure that the Braves’ TV and sponsorship contracts would be canceled (or scaled down) if a full schedule isn’t played? Who can say!

If there’s a takeaway here, it’s that while the sports stoppage will almost certainly cost sports team owners big time, the actual bottom-line numbers are going to depend on myriad picayune contractual details that probably can’t be figured out just by looking at profit and loss summaries. And also, in case anyone might think otherwise, that whether a team is paying for their own building (the Warriors are, the Braves mostly aren’t) shouldn’t play at all into financial impact assessments, because stadium and arena expenses are sunk costs that don’t change the calculus of how much added red ink teams will see.

(This is true for local governments that are paying for sports venues, too, incidentally: If your state was counting on hotel-tax revenues to pay off a stadium and hotel-tax revenues are in the toilet because no one is leaving their houses anytime soon, that’s bad, but no worse than if hotel-tax revenues were being counted on to pay for other public expenses. Maybe if you were counting on hotel-tax revenues to soar as the result of people coming to see your new team, but that probably wasn’t a safe bet anyway.)

And, of course, that owning a major pro sports team is so fabulously lucrative that even skipping most or all of a season isn’t likely to bring anyone to their knees. The Warriors turned an estimate $109 million profit in 2019, according to Forbes figures, while the Braves’ Liberty Media ownership group made $54 million. So while losing a season could wipe out an entire year’s worth of profits — that’s not good! — the other way of looking at this is that teams could regain their losses in just the first season of resumed play, whenever that might be. Starting to get why sports leagues are so willing to shut down over labor contract disputes? If you’re a team owner doing this right, you’re playing the long game, or at least the medium-term game, and if COVID-19 is still affecting things like sports attendance in the medium term, we’re going to have way bigger things to worry about than the Braves’ bottom line.

It’s really not looking promising for sports anytime in 2020

If you’re sick of reading “When and how will sports return?” posts, well, you and me both: There is something soothing about the idea of not looking any farther ahead than how to get through today, and leaving the uncertainties of the distant future (i.e., anything past this week) unconsidered. But there are some interesting disjunctions afoot, so once more into the breach:

The last few days has been full of speculation about ways to restart the sports seasons, and oh what speculative ways they are. An NBA tournament entirely in Las Vegas! Stanley Cup games in North Dakota! MLB games at spring training facilities! Only the NFL seems to be talking about playing a regular schedule in front of fans, though California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared Saturday, “I’m not anticipating that happening in this state.”

Meanwhile, the Washington Post skipped asking league officials or political leaders what they’re wishcasting for a sports restart, and instead went to infectious disease experts to see what their best predictions were. And the results weren’t pretty:

  • “From my point of view based on data — and I’m huge sports fan, so this is really hard — I can’t really predict or truly speculate,” said Jared Evans, a senior researcher at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory. “We need as a population to be prepared for anything. And also be prepared for that disappointment.”
  • The best-case scenario, [Stanford infectious-disease doctor Dean] Winslow said, is that social distancing and other restrictive measures combined with higher temperatures lead to a dramatic decrease in cases by late May. “That would potentially give public-health people the incentive to at least consider starting to relax these restrictions,” Winslow said. “That would mean allowing potentially sporting events and concerts and that sort of thing to happen by the early fall.”

The problem with resuming sports even in quarantined spaces without fans, as several experts have pointed out, is that a quarantine only works if you can be sure that nobody within the cordon sanitaire is infected. “There are going to have to be considerations in place as far as making sure the participants are tested,” Evans told the Post. “You have to have an understanding where they were, who they were in contact with.” And if even a single player, or player’s family member, or league official, or camera operator tests positive, then you face the possibility of having to halt play entirely and quarantine everyone for another two weeks before starting up again.

The Post further notes that neither China nor Japan has been able to set a solid date for resuming sports leagues, which would be the best test of what a return to normalcy (or even semi-normalcy) might look like for the rest of the world. Meanwhile, in a worst- or even moderate-case scenario (this remains the best overview of the range of futures we could be facing), we could easily see organized sports entirely suspended until a vaccine can be developed, hopefully in 2021 — though I suppose in the interim you could see smaller groups of negative-testing (or better yet, already recovered from coronavirus) players competing in H-O-R-S-E tournaments or ad hoc War Cup–style competitions.

This, needless to say, would not only make 2020 suck even worse for sports fans, it would wreak havoc on every corner of the baseball economy, as leagues would be left battling with media partners over TV contracts, and teams with fans over ticket sales money, and TV carriers with fans over cable bills. It could also be devastating to leagues without much financial cushion; while global soccer teams might be helped out by FIFA’s huge cash reserves — who knew that one day we’d actually be glad for FIFA’s propensity for stockpiling gold and jewels? — that’s not going to help leagues like the WNBA or minor-league baseball that run on shoestring budgets and have either no parent leagues or ones that actively want them dead, though hopefully they’re at least getting to suspend rent payments during the pandemic, which should cut down on their costs. (Whether public stadium owners absolving teams from rent or at least letting them defer payments counts as subsidies is a question that normally I’d be all over, but under the circumstances we probably have bigger fish to fry.)

In other words, we probably have a lot of Marbula One in our futures. I wonder if the O’raceway was built with public funds…