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: 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.)

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.

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:

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.

 

Deadspin editor fired for thinking politics has anything to do with sports

So I was hoping that today I’d be posting about my latest Deadspin article that I filed last week, which is about a topic that FoS readers are particularly passionate about, but that’s probably not going to happen now that my editor was just fired:

If you want to read the whole background of the “stick-to-sports” edict, you can start with this article yesterday from the Daily Beast, though really you should go back to Megan Greenwell’s farewell post as editor-in-chief where she laid out how, as she put it, “the tragedy of digital media isn’t that it’s run by ruthless, profiteering guys in ill-fitting suits; it’s that the people posing as the experts know less about how to make money than their employees, to whom they won’t listen.” (Petchesky wasn’t even editor-in-chief of Deadspin when he was fired; he was just the interim fill-in after Greenwell’s departure.) But if you’ve ever read Deadspin, you’ll know that its entire raison d’etre is the notion that sports and culture and politics and everything else are one big glorious mess, and while sports is the site’s bread-and-butter, digressing occasionally to write about the propriety of hanging out at football games with war criminals or even bizarrely aspirational gift catalogues is all part of the attraction.

I don’t have the slightest idea what happens to Deadspin now — whoever’s next in line to be interim EIC undoubtedly would be at least as hostile as Barry to the “stick to sports” edict, which I guess could lead to a long series of Deadspinners stepping into the role only to be fired in turn, a la the Wobblies’ free speech protests. There’s a good chance there will be unfair labor practice charges, and almost certainly more fights over the private equity takeover of American media. There is almost zero chance that it will mean good things for the future of Deadspin, or of reporting that does political analysis of sports. If you’re a sports owner who depends on doing business beyond the reach of journalistic scrutiny, your job just got a little easier today.

Sacramento is finally granted MLS team, local paper unleashes stored-up flood of soccer metaphors

Sacramento Republic F.C. was officially designated as MLS’s 29th franchise yesterday, and if you were hoping this would unleash a torrent of bad sports plays-on-words in the local media, the Sacramento Bee has got you covered:

Goal! Sacramento is officially a Major League Soccer city

It took years to line up the kick. But Sacramento has scored. It’s now a Major League Soccer city.

…and so on.

Aside from this kind of stuff being the journalism equivalent of dad jokes, it’s also really dangerous for the way it conflates sports fandom (rooting uncritically for your team) with sports business reportage (informing readers about how industry decisions affect them and their pocketbooks). If landing an MLS team is like scoring a goal, then the appropriate response is to throw your hands in the air and cheer, and maybe taking off your pants and putting them on your head, not to ask questions about what the costs and benefits will be of the deal to land the team.

That deal, which involves $33 million in public subsidies plus some free billboards, finally shows up way down in the 28th and 29th paragraphs of the article. The 30th and 31st paragraphs are about how the Sacramento city council may end up fronting the money to the team and letting team owner Ron Burkle “repay” it with his own future property taxes on adjacent development, instead of having to wait and skim off the property taxes himself later — at least I think that’s what they’re about, as the way it’s written (the new “development would produce new property tax revenues that could be used to supplement Burkle’s loan repayments to the city”) doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but if you’ve scrolled down this far in the article you’ve probably lost track of anything other than “Wooo! Soccer!” anyway.

This still isn’t the most egregious misplaced sports metaphor headline — that record is still held by the Hartford Courant, for headlining a plan to build a publicly funded stadium to lure the New England Patriots to town with the single word “Touchdown!” — but it’s pretty bad, and also pretty commonplace. There are reasons why news outlets treat sports as the “toy department,” but that doesn’t make it any less aggravating to watch.

Baltimore Sun: Pimlico to receive $200m in upgrades, funded by elfen magic

The city of Baltimore and the owner of Pimlico race track have reached agreement on a deal to keep the Preakness in town, and the Baltimore Sun has all the details! You just have to, you know, search for them a bit:

The Stronach Group has pledged to donate the land to the city or an entity created by the city for development in and around the track. Pimlico’s antiquated grandstand and clubhouse would be demolished. A new clubhouse would be built and the track rotated 30 degrees to the northeast to create nine parcels of land that could be sold for private development.

That’s a whole lot of passive voice — who, exactly, would be building all this new stuff, and who would be selling land for private development? Let’s keep going and see:

In all, Pimlico would receive $199.5 million as part of the project.

From … somebody! No help there.

Crucial to the plan is convincing lawmakers to extend the life of a subsidy for the tracks called the Racetrack Facilities Renewal Account. The state’s casinos each pay a certain percentage of their slot machine profits into the fund, which is used for upgrades at the tracks.

Backers of this new Pimlico and Laurel proposal want to use that money to help pay off $348 million worth of bonds, to be issued by the stadium authority, that would finance most of the $375.5 million redevelopment.

Now we’re getting somewhere, down in paragraph #11. The state casino tax, it turns out, has been going to that Racetrack Facilities Renewal fund, which provides matching funds for upgrades at Maryland racetracks; so far, Pimlico’s owners have mostly been spending the cash on Laurel Park, another track they own. And the tax runs out in 2032, so the state would have to extend it for another 17 years to use it to pay off 30-year bonds to upgrade Pimlico.

Maryland’s casinos also pay taxes to fund education in the state, though the take is less than what was projected and too often lawmakers just use it as an excuse to grab other education funds and redirect them elsewhere, something that Maryland legislators have tried to remedy by setting up a lockbox for education funds. Would extending the racetrack tax cut into education funding, or would it be an additional tax on top of that? The 2,000-word Sun article that took two people to write doesn’t address this.

(There would also be a 30-year lease by Stronach on the racetrack, with the track owners paying a reported $8 million to $10 million a year toward new luxury suites, and if you’re hoping to learn from the Sun whether that’s part of the $199.5 million in reconstruction money or on top of it, don’t hold your breath.)

In short, this looks like it’s probably very bad economic policy — even the racetrack’s owners say it wouldn’t make sense to pour a ton of money into something that hosts just 12 racing days a year, and horse racing overall is plummeting in popularity — but it’s undoubtedly truly terrible journalism, intended to parrot the line being put across by local politicians rather than explain what it would actually mean for the Sun’s readers. Fortunately, Baltimore has another newspaper option, and … what’s that you say, the Sun bought it and then shut it down? Never mind, then.

Friday roundup: Lots more fans showing up disguised as empty seats

Is public financing of sports venues worth it? If you’ve been noticing a bit of a dip in the frequency of posts on this site over the past few months, it’s not your imagination: I had a contract job as a fill-in news editor that was taking up a lot of my otherwise FoS-focused mornings. That job has run its course now, which should make it a bit easier to keep up with stadium and arena news on a daily basis going forward, instead of leaving much of it to week-ending wrapups.

That said, you all do seem to love your week-ending wrapups, so here’s one now:

Charlotte Business Journal proposes ways to raise $2B for Panthers stadium before owner has even asked for it

The Charlotte Business Journal has an article (paywalled, but you can find your way around it if you’re clever) speculating on ways that the city could help pay for a new Carolina Panthers stadium, and it comes down to:

  • Sales and property tax revenues are probably off the table, because the city needs those to fund basic services.
  • Hotel and rental car taxes are a possibility, but problematic because they’re already 8% and 16% respectively, and if you raise them much more, people might start booking their vacations (or conventions) elsewhere.
  • Doubling the restaurant tax from 1% to 2% could raise about $40 million per year, and would only hurt people who eat food, and totally wouldn’t reduce sales tax receipts because people would have less remaining spending money as a result or anything like that.
  • Tax-increment financing, because people still think tax revenues from a new project is not real tax money for some reason.

The entire article, of course, is right in line with the traditional local-newspaper tradition of treating team owner subsidy demands as a problem to be solved by looking under the sofa cushions to see where to find a few hundred million dollars, not as a proposal to be analyzed to see if it makes any damn sense. (There is exactly bupkis on what kind of economic impact if any Charlotte would see from gifting the Panthers a new stadium, though the writer did talk to the head of the local restaurateurs’ trade group, who predictably said they would fight against any restaurant tax hike.) You might think reporters should at least wait for the local team owner to actually make a specific ask beyond just saying “hey, the public really should buy me a stadium with a roof, my old one doesn’t have a roof, roofs are cool” before proposing ways to pay for it, but that’s been a problem for a long, long time.