Does MLB’s postseason bubble format make any damn sense? An investigation

After much speculation, it’s official: MLB will be going to a “bubble” format for most of its postseason, isolating players and staff at a handful of locations to try to avoid any Covid outbreaks like the ones that disrupted many teams’ regular seasons. After the first round of best-of-three series takes place at teams’ regular home parks, the National League Division Series will be held at Arlington and Houston and American League Division Series will be in San Diego and Los Angeles, followed by League Championship Series in Arlington and San Diego, then a World Series in Arlington.

Going to a bubble makes sense: It’s worked well for the NBA and NHL, and does seem to be the best way to prevent outbreaks. And baseball has even thought through some of the problems of starting a bubble on the fly — players will have to start self-quarantining at their homes and hotels as early as next Tuesday, with their families joining them then in quarantine if they want to enter the bubble with them, though given that players are already not supposed to be out on the town, this pretty much comes down to “try extra-hard not to get sick right before the playoffs, guys.”

Playing in Southern California and Texas is more puzzling, though. Sure, they’re both warm-weather sites, though pretty much all of North America is relatively warm in October now thanks to climate change, except when it’s not. But they’re also both relatively high-virus states: Texas has begun to see a major second spike after its huge outbreak that began in June, and California isn’t far behind.

(That’s one-week new-case averages, but if you check 91-DIVOC you can see similar trends underway for positivity rates, so this isn’t just a matter of more people getting tested — there really is way more virus afoot in Texas and California than in states like New York and Massachusetts. And while a bubble in high-virus Florida worked okay for the NBA, it also didn’t have players traveling between cities.)

On top of that, warm weather hasn’t exactly been good for California lately, given that Los Angeles County just saw a record high temperature of 121 degrees and, oh yeah, the whole damn state is on fire. Maybe the wildfires will have died down by October, but wildfire season in Southern California usually lasts till the start of November, and thanks again to climate change is basically all year round now, so baseball could be risking a repeat of this week’s games in Seattle that had to be canceled after the Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners played a doubleheader in a cloud of choking smoke.

The first thing that comes to mind is MLB’s longstanding tradition of rewarding team owners who’ve built or renovated stadiums with getting to host special events like the All-Star Game. The Texas Rangers‘ stadium, of course, only just opened this year, after winning close to half a billion dollars in city subsidies so they could have air-conditioning, while Dodger Stadium just got a $100 million renovation (at team expense), and in fact was in line to host the All-Star Game this summer before that got canceled. And once you’ve picked those two, the Houston Astros and San Diego Padres stadiums are relatively close to reduce travel, and also relatively new, though, man, Houston’s is 20 years old already? I guess Enron was a long time ago.

Texas has another advantage, though. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred had this to say yesterday at a sports business panel:

“I’m hopeful that [for] the World Series and the LCS we will have limited fan capacity,” Manfred said during a question-and-answer session through Hofstra’s Frank G. Zarb School of Business. Manfred’s comments were first reported by the Athletic. “I think it’s important for us to start back down [that] road. Obviously, it’ll be limited numbers, socially distanced, [with] protection provided for the fans in terms of temperature checks and the likes…

“But I do think it’s important as we look forward to 2021 to get back to the idea that live sports are safe. They’re generally outdoors, at least our games, and it’s something we can get back to.”

Whether live outdoor sports are safe for fans to attend in the middle of a pandemic outbreak is, of course, a huge open question, one that the NFL is currently attempting to answer via a giant human test subject experiment. Also, the Houston and Texas stadiums aren’t entirely outdoors — they both have retractable roofs, and in fact the roof is the entire reason for the Texas stadium existing — and while they probably still have better air circulation than a totally indoor arena, if the principle here is “it’s safe to let in fans so long as its outdoors,” shouldn’t Manfred have picked entirely outdoor stadiums? Hell, New York City has two of ’em, plus oodles of now-vacant hotel rooms.

Ah, but New York City also has bans on fans attending live sporting events, and Texas notably does not. And even at 25% capacity, selling tickets for the World Series — the only tickets that would be available for any MLB games this year — would be massively hot commodities, something that Manfred said later in his talk was at the forefront of baseball’s thoughts:

“The owners have made a massive economic investment in getting the game back on the field [in 2020] for the good of the game,” he said. “We need to be back in a situation where we can have fans in ballparks in order to sustain our business. It’s really that simple.”

So, yeah, it really is that simple: If we can sell tickets, that’s the priority, we’ll figure out the risks later.

Prioritizing money over safety also explains perhaps the biggest hole in the MLB bubble structure: The first-round games, which will be held in eight different cities, with no bubbles, right before the embubbled postseason begins. This Round of 16 was announced abruptly at the beginning of the season, and doesn’t make any more baseball sense than public health sense — three-game series in baseball have essentially random outcomes, especially now that home-field advantage maybe means nothing without fans (though maybe it still does?), so you’re subjecting regular-season division winners to virtually the same odds of making it to the next round as sub-.500 teams lucky enough to play in weak divisions. But it does mean a whole lot more TV money, enough that MLB was willing to cough up $393 million in postseason bonus money to the players’ union to make it happen.

And as Marc Normandin points out in today’s edition of his newsletter (this one un-paywalled, but please send him some money if you like it!), even before seeing whether this results in a bunch of third-place teams on hot streaks battling it out in the playoffs, Manfred is already eager to make this the new normal:

“Manfred also said the expanded, 16-team postseason is likely to remain beyond 2020, adding that “an overwhelming majority” of owners had already endorsed the concept before the pandemic.

“I think there’s a lot to commend it,” he said, “and it is one of those changes I hope will become a permanent part of our landscape.”

Normandin also points out that letting a thousand playoff teams bloom has an important side benefit for team owners who are sick of shelling out big bucks to buy the best team possible:

If the league was already full of teams aiming to win 83 games because it’s cheaper than trying to win 90 and they might get lucky and win 90, anyway, what is going to happen when the threshold for making the postseason drops? A bunch of teams looking to win 75 games and occasionally being rewarded for it because a prospect hits their stride sooner than expected, or an inexpensive, low-end free agent has a surprise epiphany and subsequent breakout? We’re going to end up in a scenario where owners know they’ll be getting increased shared revenue from an expanded postseason, and more revenue than that if their teams manage to make it there themselves. And little incentive to spend any of that increased revenue, because why try when not trying might get you to the postseason, anyway?

In other words, if you loved the marginal revenue gap that has allowed owners to pocket even more money without having to collude about it, it’s about to get that much bigger.

MLB’s bubble postseason, in short, is one part profiteering and one part just enough concern for the public to seem reasonable without getting in the way of the profiteering. Which is how baseball — and pretty much all pro sports in the U.S. — has always been run, so it should come as no surprise. But it’ll be something to keep in mind while watching the Toronto Blue Jays and San Francisco Giants battle it out for the World Series in Texas in front of 12,500 very well-heeled and well-air-conditioned fans.

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Friday roundup: Everything old is new again

What a week! In addition to the new site design and new magnets and new sports subsidy demands rising and falling almost before you could even register them, this week featured the long-awaited debut of Defector, the independent sports (but not only sports) site launched by the former staff of Deadspin. Read it for free, subscribe if you want to post comments and, you know, help support journalism for our uncertain future. I am a charter subscriber, needless to say, and am currently trying to decide which color t-shirt to buy.

On the down side, the entire West Coast has been set aflame by the deadly mix of climate change and gender-reveal parties and looks like a post-apocalyptic movie. The year 2020 comes at you fast. Let’s get to some more news:

  • The owners of the New York Islanders are angling to downsize the Nassau Coliseum so that it doesn’t compete with their new Belmont Park arena for sports and the largest concerts, which is problematic in that they don’t actually hold the lease on the Coliseum, and already ironic in that the Coliseum was already just downsized once so as not to compete with the Islanders’ previous new arena in Brooklyn. Maybe this whole arena glut problem is something New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo might have considered before giving the Belmont project a whole bunch of land price breaks and a new train station? Meh, probably not necessary, we’re all friends here.
  • Hey look, we’re already calling the Los Angeles Angels stadium purchase a $320 million deal even though it’s really only $150 million plus a whole lot of “thanks for some building affordable housing and parks,” that was fast, Spectrum News 1.
  • Some rare actual good news from the pandemic: Somebody in Arlington was smart enough to include a clause in the Texas Rangers‘ lease on their new stadium that requires the team owners to triple their rent payments if parking and ticket tax revenue fell short of projections, which obviously they’re doing what with nobody buying tickets or parking this year. Sure, it’s still only another $4 million, which won’t go far toward paying off the city’s roughly half a billion dollars in stadium costs, but it’s better than a kick in the head. (Also, what on earth is going on in that photo of the Rangers’ stadium that D Magazine used as its illustration?)
  • The Inglewood city council approved the sale of 22 acres of public land to Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer for $66 million, which I don’t even know how to determine whether it’s a fair deal or not anymore, but given the city mayor’s idea of appropriate oversight, I’m not super-optimistic.
  • University of Texas-Austin will have about 18,000 fans in attendance for its season-opening college football game tomorrow, but rest assured that it will be keeping everyone safe by … requiring student season ticket holders to test negative for Covid before being allowed into the game, but not requiring the same of anyone else? (Also fun: They’re supposed to all go get tested today, and get their results back tomorrow, which is not how Covid testing works right now at all.) Clearly the desire to look where the light is better is strong.
  • The Las Vegas Sun has a loooooong article about the process by which the Raiders got their new stadium in Las Vegas that pretty much comes down to “Mark Davis was the sincerest pumpkin patch of all,” but by all means go ahead and read it if you like sentences like “The first major obstacle was how to get both projects done in what most in the resort corridor would feel was a reasonable [tax increase]. That took time to overcome.”
  • Marc Normandin took a great look back at that time the owner of the San Diego Padres tried to gift the team to the city of San Diego for free and MLB said no. It’s subscriber-only, so I’ll quote my favorite section: “There is a reason Mark Cuban will never own an MLB franchise, and that reason is that he’s the kind of owner who might shake things up in a way that forces other owners to have to spend money they don’t want to. On clubhouse comforts, on minor-league players Cuban might try to increase the pay and better the living conditions of in order to produce happier, healthier future MLB players: there is no guarantee Cuban would do those things, necessarily, but his actions and spending helped shape the way the current NBA locker rooms look, so the possibility exists, and that possibility is too big of a risk for MLB’s current 30 owners to take. So, instead, they aim for safe options, like a minority owner in Cleveland becoming the majority owner in Kansas City, as he’s already proven he understands the game and how to play it.”
  • First Dave Dombrowski and Dave Stewart, now Justin Timberlake — if building 1990s star power is the way to get an MLB franchise, Nashville is a shoo-in. Though as Normandin notes, they’d probably be better off finding a minority owner from Cleveland.

Okay, I have to go pick up my computer from its trip to the computer mechanic so I can go back to typing these updates on a keyboard I can actually see the letters on. (Yet another thing that happened this week.) Try to have a good weekend, and see you all on Monday.

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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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Miami stadium sites are “future Atlantis” thanks to climate change, teams to deal with this by ditching plastic cups

As you may have noticed, I’m slightly interested in the massive human-created changes to Earth’s climate that are going to make many major cities uninhabitable soon via increased heat or sea level rise or both, so this CNBC article on sports venues at risk from climate change promised to check all of my boxes:

  • Florida International University climate professor Henry Briceno predicts that the Miami Heat arena will flood with only two feet of sea level rise (expected as soon as 2060), while the Dolphins‘ stadium will flood at a three-foot rise. As for the site of David Beckham’s new Inter Miami stadium, Briceno remarked, “I don’t know if those guys know that they are building in the future Atlantis.”
  • The San Diego Padres‘ stadium flooded in 2017, and the Quad Cities River Bandits stadium was made inaccessible thanks to flooding last year, and while both of those were because of torrential rains and not sea-level rise, more and more severe storms are expected to be a consequence of a warmed planet as well.
  • Disappointingly, the article doesn’t talk much about what will happen to sports teams once the cities they play in are largely uninhabitable as a result of climate change — Phoenix isn’t going to be underwater ever, but it could be too hot to live in as soon as 2050.

And the article then pivots to what sports teams are doing to help combat climate change — including a long set of quotes from Allen Hershkowitz, the staff environmentalist the New York Yankees hired after he helped MLB come up with programs to claim “green” status and then called commissioner Bud Selig “the most influential environmental advocate in the history of sports” — though only one specific initiative is mentioned: The Dolphins are replacing disposable plastic cups with (presumably reusable) aluminum ones. That sounds great, but while plastics are indeed a pollution nightmare, in terms of carbon footprint they’re not all that much better for the planet than alternatives (reusability is more important than what cups are made of). And there’s no mention of what the carbon footprint was of these teams’ repeated building and upgrading of new stadiums, which is kind of a big omission when nearly a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions are related to construction.

The best way to keep sports from drowning themselves, really, would be for teams to play in whatever stadiums they already have and for fans to stay out of their cars and instead stay home and watch on the internet listen on the radio. Or maybe just play fewer games. Somebody ask Hershkowitz about that, maybe?

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San Diego put down sharp rocks to keep homeless from sleeping near All-Star Game

When San Diego city officials installed jagged rocks under a highway overpass near the Padres‘ Petco Park in April to prevent homeless people from sleeping there, many locals assumed it was an attempt to clear out homeless in advance of July’s MLB All-Star Game. City officials countered that the rocks were there at the request of local residents. The news site Voice of San Diego filed a public-records request to find out the truth, and duh, it was all about the All-Star Game:

Sherman Heights is never mentioned in dozens of emails exchanged between city staffers discussing the rock installation. Rather, the rocks were part of a larger effort to clean up the area prior to the July 12 All-Star Game and improve the flow of traffic to and from Petco Park. Early plans, emails show, called for rocks not only along Imperial Avenue, but also along two blocks of a wall lining Petco Park’s Tailgate Park as well as outside the New Central Library, all in an effort to deter camping and loitering near the ballpark during All-Star Game festivities…

John Casey, the city’s liaison with the Padres until March, took the lead on getting price quotes for the rocks. In multiple emails, he urged city staff to move the project along. “Any breakthroughs?” he wrote in a November email. “The Padres and SDPD are asking me when we can see the curbs painted red as well as the rocks at the underpass and Tailgate Park wall.”

In early January, Casey emailed City Traffic Engineer Linda Marabian and laid out a checklist of remaining work to be done before the All-Star Game.

“Back to the vision of Imperial as a Gateway to East Village,” he wrote. “The wrought iron fence has been installed on the wall at Tailgate Park and works well at discouraging loiterers. Remaining work in anticipation of the All Star game is: Rip Rap rocks under the I-5 overpass at Imperial on both sides of the street. Rip Rap rocks at the base of the Tailgate Park wall from 12th to 14th.”

The VoSD didn’t report on where the homeless went who have been displaced from their camp under the overpass. Wherever it is, one hopes that they appreciate it as one of the ancillary benefits of their city getting to host an All-Star Game.

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Mental patient now holds deed to Padres’ stadium, nobody can figure how to get it back

This:

https://twitter.com/A_W_Gordon/status/680443324080230400

The highlights, for those who can’t be bothered to click all the way through to the original San Diego Union-Tribune story:

Derris Devon McQuaig took legal title to the downtown ballpark away from the city and the Padres two years ago by walking into the San Diego County Recorder’s Office and submitting a properly filled-out deed transfer.

Seriously.

This is apparently known as a “wild deed,” and county officials are required to file them even when they are, for example, submitted by someone who clearly just wandered into the recorder’s office and painstakingly researched how to claim title to a major city property. The recorder’s office did notify the district attorney’s office, but the DA’s legal action against McQuaig was tossed out after he was ruled mentally incompetent and involuntarily committed to Patton State Hospital.

The actual impact of the deed transfer is expected to be pretty much nothing — one title lawyer worried that “if the report shows that this goofball over here put his name on your property, the bank is not going to lend you money,” but it didn’t cause problems when San Diego recently refinanced the Petco Park bonds — and eventually the city attorney is expected to be able to nullify McQuaig’s deed. So there’s not much here other than the hilarity that the Padres‘ stadium is now officially owned by a mental patient. That’s good enough hilarity for a Monday, though.

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San Diego celebrates 50th anniversary of hands-down nuttiest stadium idea ever

Just because this was proposed back in 1964 doesn’t mean that there was every really a serious chance of San Diego building a floating convertible baseball/football stadium for the Chargers and Padres, especially since the Padres were still a Pacific Coast League team at the time. Still, let’s just take a moment to appreciate the holy crapness of it all:

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Forbes: MLB franchise values soar 23%, thanks to TV riches

The Forbes baseball team value estimates are out, and they’re a doozy:

The average baseball team is now worth $744 million, 23% more than a year ago and the largest increase since we began tracking MLB finances in 1998. During the 2012 season, revenue (net of stadium debt service) rose 7%, to an average of $227 million per team. Operating income (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) per team fell 9%, to $13.1 million, mainly due to higher player costs and stadium expenses.

Yeah, you read that right: Baseball teams are less profitable, but worth more. How’s that work? Forbes doesn’t exactly explain, but does note that both TV rights fees and revenue for MLB Advanced Media (baseball’s online arm) have been soaring, so presumably prospective team buyers are expecting that those revenue streams will keep growing in coming years, enough to outpace increased payroll costs. Though the way things are going there, player costs might just eat up any new revenues faster than owners are anticipating.

More likely is that last year’s sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers for $2 billion and the San Diego Padres for $800 million forced Forbes to recalibrate its entire scale upwards. Which is fine enough — new data points should be incorporated into the calculation — but it still doesn’t exactly explain why team values are soaring this much when profits are essentially flat.

The one thing that the Forbes numbers make even more clear is that TV and internet broadcast money is king right now: MLB is starting to become more like football, where a larger share of money is generated by people watching at home, rather than the more stadium-revenues-based model it’s traditionally been. How this will affect the business of the sport is complicated: Does it dilute the advantage of teams like the Yankees because everyone now has TV riches at their disposal, or give them more of an advantage because they can expect their cable contracts to outpace their competitors by an even greater margin? Does a team like the Oakland A’s (third to last in team value, but 5th in the league in profits at an estimated $27.5 million) or the Tampa Bay Rays (dead last in value, 19th in profits at $10 million) reconsider its stadium plans if access to eyeballs outweighs ability to put fannies in the seats? If nothing else, one thing should be clear: No teams are moving to San Antonio or Las Vegas anytime soon.

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