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.

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:

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.

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.

Friday roundup: Zombie apocalypse in full effect, go and get a late pass

So as you all undoubtedly know by now, everything is shut down. The NBA is shut down for at least 30 days, the NHL is shut down indefinitely, MLB has canceled the first two weeks of the season, MLS is on hold for a month, this summer’s Euro 2020 tournament may be moved to 2021 so maybe the Champions League and Europa League can finish up in June and July, the XFL is shut down maybe for good, and even the Little League is on hold until April 6. And all those dates are just minimum wild-ass guesses: New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a calming voice of reassurance as ever, said yesterday that this “could easily be a six-month crisis” — and even if you dismiss him as just a guy who gets his every stray thought printed in the newspaper because he’s an elected official, as I wrote yesterday for FAIR, it’s still very much true that nobody really knows how long this will last, or how to decide (or who will decide) that the curve has been effectively flattened and life can go back to normal(ish) now.

So instead of dwelling on that, let’s dwell instead on another aspect of plagueworld that overlaps somewhat with the mission of this site: the economic impacts of shutting stuff down. I’m sure somebody out there is thinking, “But Neil, you always say that economists say it doesn’t matter much to the economy whether one sporting event or another is played, because people will just spend their money on something else like going out to eat or to a bowling alley instead. So why won’t the substitution effect save us now?”

I am, as I have to take pains to remind journalist quoting me from time to time, not an economist, but I think I can explain this one well enough: There’s a huge difference between one sports team or league shutting down and everything shutting down. Once everyone has completed their panic-shopping therapy and stocked up on a lifetime supply of toilet paper, they’re mostly not going to be looking for other things to spend money on — they’re going to sit at home and watch the Netflix subscriptions that they already paid for. And meanwhile a bunch of them are going to be out of work, and still more will be out of work once restaurants and barber shops and the like have to close for lack of business, and that will mean even less business, and soon enough the entire economy has shut down in a cycle of fear.

I was lucky to get a first-hand example of this in high school, when my U.S. History teacher had each of her classes play a game where each student was one player in late-19th-century frontier society, either a farmer or a railroad company owner or a banker or I forget what else. This made for lots of fun experience with the consequences of unregulated capitalism — I remember one friend of mine contracted to make a loan to another friend, and set the interest rate but not the term of the loan, and our teacher refused to step in and rule on when it had to be paid back because a contract is a contract — but in another class some friends of mine were in, it got even more severe: There was only one banker, and he refused to loan anyone any money at less than usurious rates, and the entire class plunged into an economic depression.

Anyway, there are lots of reasons this is going to be really bad in many, many ways, even if all these closures aren’t too late to avoid the old people being left to die in ERs that has reportedly been taking place in Lombardy. (I do not make a very good voice of calm, either, sorry.) But eventually this crisis will be over, and it’s still worth thinking about what the world will look like when we come out the other side. After all, with no sports to watch we’ve got plenty of time on our hands.

Not that everything being shut down has brought sports subsidy demands to a halt, because some things are just too big to fail:

Plague world news: If it hasn’t been canceled yet, it will be by the time you finish reading this

If you blinked and missed it: The NBA season has been suspended indefinitely after a player tested positive for the new coronavirus right after jokingly touching all the microphones lined up to interview him; the NCAA tournament will be played behind closed doors; Washington, D.C., and the entire state of California became the latest places to call for banning large gatherings (defined as more than 1,000 people and more than 250 people, respectively) as social distancing measures; and concerts large and small and TV productions and pretty much anything else you can think of are being shut down left and right. Oh, and the White House has banned flights from Europe (but only if you’re a European) even though the U.S. may well already have nearly as many infected people as Europe, and Spain’s soccer league is suspended for at least the next two weeks, and both the Champions League and Europa League could be suspended at any moment now after matches were canceled when teams’ planes weren’t allowed to land in cities they were scheduled to play in, and movie theaters could be next. No word yet on MLB and the NHL and MLS but it’s hard to see them continuing play when all of California is shut down and anyway I’m still typing this sentence so check Google again to see if anything has changed in the interim.

Not much more to say about this, really, except that one big unknown is how long the suspension of all mass public life in the U.S. will last, or even how anyone will decide that it’s over. (If the spread of cases slows over the next week or two — assuming there’s even enough tests available to tell how many cases there are — is that a sign that the crisis is on the wane, or that social distancing is working and should be continued?) And the jury is also still out on whether this will get people even more used to staying home and consuming culture (including sports) remotely, or create a pent-up demand to get out of the house that will make everyone rush out to go see sports and concerts and whatnot as soon as they’re allowed again. Oh, and how many people will die, that’s another big question.

Writing this site will continue unchanged, since it doesn’t require leaving the house under any circumstances, except inasmuch as everything is changed right now so the scope of news being reported may be a little weird. Bear with me, and I promise you some sweet new vaportecture as soon as any is available — so far as I know, there hasn’t been a ban yet on mass gatherings of clip-art entourage.

It’s looking like a miracle if U.S. sports doesn’t shut down for a while, and maybe it really should

I feel a little weird that this is turning into the daily Field of Microbes report, but that’s probably where everything is headed anyway within the next couple of weeks (if not sooner), so may as well learn to live with it.

In any event, things have changed so much in the last 48 hours that Monday’s prediction that we could see lots of sports played behind closed doors is starting to sound impossibly quaint. Among the latest developments:

Now, all this could be taken as a sign more of the spread of coronavirus fear than of the actual virus, and there’s some truth to that. However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that if anything, fear is just catching up to the reality: The number of actual infections is almost certainly many, many times the number of confirmed cases, especially in nations like the U.S. where testing has been sporadic at best and impossible to access at worst. And with social distancing measures that slow the spread of the disease the best proven bulwark against an overwhelmed medical system that would cause deaths to skyrocket — closing schools, theaters, and other public places saved St. Louis during the 1918 flu epidemic! — we’re moving very quickly from “maybe some games should be played behind closed doors” to “maybe we need to rethink all major public events until we’ve flattened the curve.”

For those struggling to keep up with the morass of media coverage on this issue — which has been great in places but also terrible in others because the media is currently understaffed, underexperienced, and more prone than ever to making reporting decisions based on clicks and whatever the rich guy who owns the one remaining local news outlet wants — I wrote an article yesterday for Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting on how to read the coronavirus news without scaring yourself too much (or too little). In the 24 hours since, some of it has already begun to seem out of date, but hopefully the rest will still be useful for the next couple of days, which is starting to feel like as far as we can look into the future with any certainty. Stay safe out there, and stay away from crowds as much as possible.

And here come the coronavirus sports cancellations

Santa Clara County has followed France’s lead (how often do you get to write that sentence?) and banned all public gatherings of over 1,000 people through April 1, which means that the San Jose Sharks must choose between playing their next three home games elsewhere or playing them before empty seats. The Indian Wells tennis tournament set to start tomorrow has been canceled. And while the major U.S. sports leagues seem dead set on continuing business as much as usual as possible during the mitigation phase of the new coronavirus outbreak — mostly banning media from locker rooms on the theory this will protect athletes from picking up germs from recording devices or something, though I’m pretty sure cellphones can’t cough — it seems likely that more locales are going to start banning large public events to reduce contact with infectious individuals and flatten the curve.

That’s going to leave sports leagues with some tough decisions to make. Unlike concerts, which can easily be rescheduled for a later date, with sports there’s a limited window in which to play games, meaning either: postponing a short slate of games and hoping the outbreak ends quickly enough that you make them up later, as Italy’s Serie A soccer league has done; playing games before empty stands, as Spain’s La Liga and the European Champions League are doing; or eliminating games from the schedule outright. That last option isn’t available if you’re talking about playoff games, clearly, and the NBA and NHL will be headed toward the postseason soon enough; the middle option costs tons of money in reimbursed ticket costs; and the first one requires either extending the season later (which could be possible for the NBA and NHL, though if summer concerts aren’t canceled they’re going to start running into venues that are already booked up) or compressing the season into fewer days, which will run into union contract issues.

It’s a bad situation, and I can see why U.S. sports leagues are hoping to kick the can down the road and hope things gets clearer in a hurry. The concern, of course, is that packing a whole lot of people, many of them sick but not yet symptomatic, into tight confines of a public space will make the contagion a whole lot worse in the interim. In any case, it seems more likely than ever that we’re heading toward a massive experiment with the “just make money off people watching at home” model I predicted back on — man, was it only yesterday? Life comes at you fast during a pandemic.

Okay fine, let’s talk about coronavirus and stadiums

Since all anyone wants to read about right now is the spread of coronavirus — technically “the new coronavirus” or “COVID-19” since lots of things are already coronaviruses, including many common colds, but the peorple have spoken and far be it from me to argue — let’s talk about this new impending pandemic, the global reaction, and what it could mean for sports and sports venues, in both the short and long runs.

In short, it’s a giant mess, with no clear directives from either government officials or disease experts, in part because nobody knows yet which measures for preventing spread will be most effective, and in part because people are panicky and prone to making decisions more on the basis of what they think will get them in the least trouble rather than what’s good science. It should all shake out more clearly in the next few weeks, but until then it’s likely to remain fairly chaotic and contradictory, in both the sports world and elsewhere.

The more long-term question, meanwhile, is whether virus fears will create lasting changes in how people think about watching sports. Already we’ve seen indications that many fans would rather sit at home and watch on their hi-def TVs than deal with increased ticket prices — which has encouraged teams to target their marketing even more on selling fewer tickets at higher prices to fans for whom money is no object. Will this new virus scare only further encourage people to just watch sporting events (and concerts) on livestreams, since watching things in person will suddenly be seen as a health risk? If, say, NBA or NHL playoff games have to be played in front of empty seats, will sports leagues begin rethinking how they make their money, with an eye toward a business model based even more on charging viewers at home? And if so, will we see even more sports teams demanding smaller stadiums or arenas with fewer, more lavish seats (and six feet in between them) to fit the new normal?

There are still many, many different ways this can go, both epidemiologically and in terms of fan and league behavior, so I’m not going to pretend to have an answer to any of these questions. (Except that sports team owners will surely choose whatever route they think will make them the most money, because that’s their one job.) It’ll all worth keeping an eye on, though, and not just if you, like me, have baseball tickets for later this month and are wondering if you’re going to get to use them. Hopefully by then more rational heads will have prevailed and there will be a clear path to keep everyone healthy while minimizing disruption — though nobody ever went broke wagering on “people will do the dumbest thing possible in order to cover their own personal butts,” so maybe best not to hope too hard.