Friday roundup: Throwing good money after bad edition

This will be remembered as the week that all 30 MLB teams played at once, after the Cincinnati Reds returned from being sidelined by a positive Covid test … for one whole day, until the New York Mets were sidelined by two positive Covid tests. Is this a sign that having 900 players plus coaches plus other staff flying around a country with some of the highest Covid rates in the world is likely to keep resulting in occasional infections? Probably! Is it a sign that the MLB season is doomed to fail? Probably not, given that the season is almost halfway over already, though it’s going to get interesting once the “Everybody Plays!” postseason kicks off and a positive test result means delaying the entire schedule, and/or maybe playing entire playoff series as seven-inning doubleheaders. There’s increasing talk of playing everything after the first round in a bubble in, uh, Texas and Southern California, which sounds like a terrible idea but the NBA has managed to keep its players uninfected in the eye of the Covid hurricane in Florida, so who knows, really. Maybe there are no good ideas right now, only more and less terrible ones.

Anyway, enough about the goofy baseball season that could end up with a sub-.500 team winning the World Series, let’s talk about what you’re really here for:

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Friday roundup: Stadium news reporting hits rock bottom, don’t believe anything you read (except on this site, duh)

Hey look, it’s Friday again! The St. Louis Cardinals are maybe (assuming no positive test results today) going to start playing games again tomorrow for the first time in 17 days; if they pull it off, and no other teams have outbreaks in the meantime, it will be the first time in nearly three weeks that all 30 baseball teams will be in action, and every team in the four major U.S. sports that are in action. That’s way better than I expected, frankly, and shows that isolating players from the general public (and each other) can work — there’s probably a decent chance that most leagues can limp to a conclusion without shutting down entirely, though football remains an enormous question mark with such huge rosters and no bubbles. Still, glass half full, that’s what I always say! (Okay, I never say it, but I’ll say it now.)

In other newses:

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Friday roundup: Rattling sabers for Panthers stadium, leagues large and small seek bailouts, and a very large yacht

So how’s everyone out there, you know, doing? As the pandemic slowly feels less like a momentary crisis to be weathered and more like a new way of living to be learned (I refuse to say “new normal,” as nothing about this will ever feel normal), it’s tempting to occasionally look up and think about what habits and activities from the before times still make sense; I hope that FoS continues to educate and entertain you in ways that feel useful (or at least usefully distracting) — from all accounts the entire world being turned upside down hasn’t been enough to interrupt sports team owners’ important work of stadium shakedowns, so it’s good if we can keep at least half an eye on it, amid our stress-eating and TV bingewatching.

So get your half an eye ready, because a whole bunch of stuff happened again this week:

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The only thing wrong with ESPN’s prediction of baseball resuming in 2020 is everything

Jeff Passan of ESPN has been at the forefront of “how Major League Baseball plans to return in 2020” reporting, even when that’s sometimes devolved into just repeating what wish-fulfillment fantasies MLB owners mumble to themselves so they can sleep at night. Yesterday, though, Passan went all-in on wish-fulfillment, reporting that baseball officials are “increasingly optimistic that there will be baseball this year,” something that ESPN’s web headline writers turned into “There will be MLB in 2020. It’s just a matter of when, where and how.”

Given that when last we checked in with MLB’s plans for restarting, they involved an “everyone involved in putting on games gets placed in a hermetically sealed bubble” plan that was both impractical and roundly panned by players who didn’t want to be kept away from their families for months at a time, what exactly has changed to produce this optimism? Take it away, Jeff:

It’s a contradictory existence in which the baseball world is doing everything it can to prepare for games without any firm plan in place for when or where those games will be played.

That is not actually contradictory! It’s the kind of deck-chair-reshuffling that everyone is doing right now, hoping for a world where reshuffled deck chairs can let things return to somewhat normal while also preparing for the worst if they can’t. “MLB doesn’t know what it’s going to do but is hard at work doing it” isn’t really a news story, but let’s see what else Passan has in his reportorial pocket.

Where will games be played? Well, the easy answer is Arizona, where Gov. Doug Ducey has welcomed the idea of hosting all 30 teams, but logistical issues abound. There is also a wide variety of so-called hub plans, in which baseball would station teams in a set number of cities. The Arizona-Dallas-Tampa possibility that CBS Sports reported is an option. So is a four-city plan. And five. And six.

Just look at the opportunities starting in early May: Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Colorado and Minnesota are among the states slated to have stay-at-home restrictions lifted. That means more than a quarter of MLB teams could theoretically host games without fans right now.

Okay, no, they really could not. Let’s take Minnesota for example: It indeed is allowing some manufacturing and other businesses to reopen on a trial basis, but it also explicitly excluded pro sports from this list, so just because the state won’t be on total lockdown doesn’t mean MLB can start scheduling games at the Twins‘ home stadium anytime in the future, let alone “in early May.” Plus, MLB would still have to figure out how to build a city of 10,000 people that can stay coronavirus-free for months at a time, which is easier said than done, and it’s not even that easy to say.

Passan doesn’t actually say that MLB will restart in early May, or anywhere close to it. His “timeline that a number of people in decision-making positions see as realistic” is:

Finalize a plan in May. Hash out an agreement with the players by the end of the month or early June. Give players a week to arrive at designated spring training locations. Prepare for three weeks. Start the season in July. Play around an 80- to 100-game season in July, August, September and October. Hold an expanded playoff at warm-weather, neutral sites in November.

If you’ve been following the pandemic news closely, you probably see the problem here: Even if some potential MLB stadium sites are ready to reopen by June, there’s a significant likelihood that they’ll have to re-close a couple of months later as the next wave of the coronavirus roller coaster hits. Everything that epidemiologists have learned about virus transmission predicts that any significant lifting of social distancing rules will likely result in fresh outbreaks a couple of months later, and while that’s not set in stone — there could be new treatments developed in the meantime, wearing masks could turn out to be way more effective than anyone at first thought, etc. — planning to hold six months of baseball, counting spring training and postseason, seems reckless in the extreme.

Passan’s sources have a plan for that, too, though:

If a second wave of the coronavirus arrives and threatens to shut down the country again, MLB could try to wait it out and just hold a giant playoff…

“Give us 60 days,” one official said, “and we could run an amazing tournament.”

This is actually something that occurred to me as well: If you want to have baseball and all you have is a window of a few weeks, the best way to approach it isn’t to figure out how to salvage a regular season, but what’s the best you can do in that time frame. And by far the most successful 60-day sports format is a World Cup of some kind. How you organize it is up for grabs — Passan floats 16 intradivisional games followed by the top two teams in each division entering a round-robin stage; I would go with a more traditional group stage with six division winners, six runners-up, and four wild cards followed by a Round of 16, etc. But either way, it’s something you could conceivably do in a two-month window, though you’d need to keep training camp down to a bare minimum. (One way to do this: Limit games to seven innings, so starting pitchers don’t have to be as stretched out before the season can start.)

Passan’s plan starts to go off the rails, though, when he envisions his playoff format:

Oct. 22-Oct. 31: The six American League teams that advance congregate at one hub. The six National League teams gather at another. They play each of the other five teams twice in a round-robin format with a collective day off in the middle. The four teams with the best records in each league advance. In the meantime, the nine non-advancing teams from each league meet at a hub and play one game against the rest of the teams there. The winner of that round-robin regains entry into the playoffs. In the case of a tie, hold a winner-advances one-game play-in-to-the-playoff.

That is a lot of hubs! And a lot of players, and team staffs, and TV camera operators, traveling to and from each one, and checking into new hotels, and so on. Which means either you’re going to have to quarantine everybody for 14 days before starting each new round, or you’re going to have to accept that you might get some new infections with each new round, and have a system in place for dealing with that that doesn’t involve shutting everything down again. (Taxi squads of entire substitute teams that are kept in plastic wrap somewhere?) Plus, you have to be damn sure that all of your proposed sites are going to remain virus-free (or at least at low infection levels) and not on lockdown for the whole 60 days, which is not at all a sure thing given that many states are currently reopening businesses despite Covid cases still being on the rise.

So why is Passan so dead sure that there will be baseball in 2020? Because, apparently, the alternative is too grim to imagine:

What gives Manfred and others so much confidence that there will be a season then?

Incentive. It’s not just that everyone wants a season. It’s the doom and gloom over what will happen if there isn’t one.

Okay, I get it. I really do. I don’t want to imagine an entire year without baseball, either, and so if there are straws to be grasped at, I’m eager to grasp at them as much as the next guy. But reporting this as “increasing optimism” about baseball in 2020 rather than “increasing wishful thinking” is just journalistic malpractice — after all, everyone was optimistic that there would be hockey in 2004-05, but in the end there wasn’t, and that was just over issues that were resolvable by human negotiators, without having to give not-really-alive organisms a seat at the bargaining table.

So let’s rewrite that headline for you, ESPN: “MLB wants to play in 2020. They just don’t know when, where, or how.” It’s not going to get as many clicks from baseball-hungry fans desperate for good news, and it’s not going to boost parent company Disney’s stock value in the face of cratering projected revenues, but it does have the benefit of being true.

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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.

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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.

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Friday roundup: D-Backs, Angels hedge on new stadium plans, NJ demands 76ers repay 0.5% of tax breaks, and other foolishness

Another busy Friday where I need to squeeze in the news roundup when and where I can! (Also, yeah, New Yorkers already knew this about Mike Bloomberg, who also was responsible for this.)

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NJ paying up to $20m a year to NBC to use Meadowlands Arena as a soundstage

New Jersey’s now-shuttered Meadowlands Arena, which died at age 33 in 2015 of arena glut, has found new life as the soundstage for NBC Universal TV shows “The Enemy Within” and “Lincoln Rhyme: Hunt for the Bone Collector.” (They’ve never heard of you, either.) That’s a good adaptive, reuse of a state asset that doesn’t cost state taxpayers anything … except that in order to lure the productions, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is paying them a whole lot of money in tax subsidies:

The relationship between NBC and the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which owns the arena, is the byproduct of a tax credit signed by Governor Phil Murphy that took affect last year and was meant to draw business to the state from film and digital media companies…

NBC reached out to the commission when it began scouting for warehouses to use as a sound stage. The commission suggested the abandoned arena and within weeks, NBC and the NJSEA struck a deal.

The NJ.com article on this doesn’t bother to calculate how much this is costing New Jersey taxpayers, so we’ll have to do the math for them. NBC spent $63 million filming the first season, and the Garden State Film and Digital Media Jobs Act reimburses 30% of a production company’s expenses — not 30% of its taxes, 30% of its expenses, even if that’s more than the company paid in local taxes (this is known as a “refundable” tax credit). So that means that if all of that $63 million was spent locally, New Jerseyans are paying more than $20 million for the privilege of being in close proximity to Russell Hornsby playing a tetraplegic “brilliant but hardheaded forensic criminologist.”

There are benefits to the local economy, certainly, since TV shoots hire local caterers, buy from local vendors, etc.; but numerous studies have shown that these aren’t enough to repay states’ expense on subsidies, which is why lots of states, including New Jersey, have canceled them in the past. (Though former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seems to have been motivated less by the program’s terrible economics than by his concern that “Jersey Shore” made the state look bad.) NBC Universal’s current lease is $185,000 per month, and the state sales and income taxes are in the single digits, so it seems inconceivable that New Jersey is getting anywhere near positive bang for its buck.

The NJ.com article, meanwhile, happily burbles along without wondering about any of this, but it does take the time to include this memorable quote from Jim Kirkos, president of the Meadowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce, about how tough it was when the arena closed:

“It was a blow not only to the union workers and stage hands, but we lost the economic impact of event day activity,” he said. “The family of four who take their two kids to Disney on Ice is likely to go out to dinner to a local restaurant. It’s the sports bars, if it’s a sporting event. All the restaurant and hospitality-type businesses lost the positive impact of event activity.”

For those of you who’ve never been fortunate enough to attend a sporting event at the Meadowlands, let me paint a picture for you: It’s in the middle of a parking lot, in the middle of a swamp. I have been to dozens of sporting events and concerts (this was a particular highlight) there, arriving variously by car, train, and bus, and never once have I even been aware of a place that I could have dinner in the vicinity. The already dismal bump to local spending from sports facilities has to be at its absolute weakest in a place like the Meadowlands, to the point where I’m impressed that Kirkos could make the above statement without bursting into laughter.

It’s all just another lesson in a couple of things: One, that sports venues are the tax gift that keeps on costing, as elected officials tend to see them as “too big to fail” in ways that often end up throwing good money after bad; and two, that elected officials will sign ginormous checks for just about anything, so long as it can be declared a “tax credit” and for promoting “development.” The main difference between the rich and the poor, it turns out, is that the former’s grifting is less likely to be punished by bloodshed.

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Friday roundup: Panthers owner donated to Charlotte officials during stadium lobbying, St. Louis MLS didn’t need $30m in state money after all, and what time the Super Bowl economic impact rationalizations start

Happy Friday, and try not to think about how much you’re contributing to climate change by reading this on whatever electronic device you’re using. Though at least reading this in text doesn’t require a giant server farm like watching a video about stadiums would — “Streaming one hour of Netflix a week requires more electricity, annually, than the yearly output of two new refrigerators” is one of the more alarming sentences I’ve read ever — so maybe it counts as harm reduction? I almost linked to an amusing video clip to deliver my punchline, wouldn’t that have been ironic!

And now, the news:

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Raiders leave Oakland under rain of nachos, wonder who’ll come see them in Vegas

The Oakland Raiders played their last game in Oakland yesterday, for real this time, and fans celebrated by booing their quarterback, throwing nachos, and running onto the field. This still is far from the worst last-home-game scene of all time — the second departure of the Washington Senators that had to be forfeited when fans ran onto the field and stole first remains unbeaten (you can listen to the radio broadcast here) — but it’s still pretty impressive, and a good sign that Oakland fans aren’t about to welcome the Las Vegas Raiders with open arms.

And what about Las Vegas fans? The New York Times sent the estimable Ken Belson to Vegas to report on how the team is doing at building a fan base, and found:

  • a couple who opened a sports bar and hope that “we’ll definitely draw more people when the Raiders come to town because they can only fit 65,000 people in the stadium and a lot of locals can’t afford tickets”
  • a police officer from southern California who bought season tickets and is happy that Las Vegas is only a three-and-a-half-hour drive when Oakland was six hours
  • a former season ticket holder in Oakland who is angry about the team leaving
  • Jim Nagourney, who said team claims that a ton of fans would arrive each week from out of town was “ginned up to create an illusion of a public benefit”
  • an analyst for the Las Vegas Stadium Authority who says fans will too come from out of town, but provides no source for his projections
  • a helicopter-tour operator who is excited to sell helicopter tours to visiting fans
  • a couple more California ex-pats currently living in Vegas who plan to attend Raiders games, one of whom took out a loan to help afford seat license fees

And it all up, and that … really tells us nothing about what Belson’s central question seems to be, which is whether the arrival of the Raiders will really draw tons of out-of-town fans who’ll fill up the city’s hotels and take helicopter rides and otherwise spend money that will come close to justifying the state’s $750 million expense on a Raiders stadium. Admittedly, it’s hard to figure this out from hanging around in Vegas, because out-of-towners by definition aren’t in Vegas (except for that guy three and a half hours away, who happened to be in town for a concert), but still it’s a disappointingly Belsonesque performance by the Times.

If I’d been assigning an article on the Raiders’ future in Las Vegas, I actually would have sent a reporter to a Los Angeles Rams or Chargers game, which as the most recent example of teams trying to build a new fan base in a new city are probably the best analogue for the Raiders’ move. All evidence there seems to be that they’re doing a better job of drawing fans of out-of-town teams — yesterday’s Chargers game was full of Minnesota Vikings fans, as has become standard at Chargers games in L.A. — than drawing actual out-of-town fans, as there are plenty of fans of other teams living in L.A. both because L.A. draws a lot of new arrivals and because L.A. didn’t have a home team to root for the last 20 years.

Vegas isn’t the size of L.A., but it does meet the other criteria, so will the Raiders just end up playing before a bunch of locals with allegiances to other teams? Roger Noll has said yes, but it would be nice to get some at least anecdotal data by checking in to see where those Vikings fans at yesterday’s Chargers game actually traveled from. Or, you can just send your staff writer to Las Vegas to talk to helicopter company owners about their optimism. They’re both journalism, except for the one that really isn’t.

 

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