With college football season on the brink, what can we learn from sports leagues that have restarted play?

College football’s Mountain West conference canceled its fall season yesterday, with the possibility of holding it next spring instead, and the “Power Five” conferences (Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12, the Big Ten, Pac-12, and Southeastern) are reportedly set to meet today to discuss doing the same. This has led to a flurry of reactions from across the sports and political world as to whether it’s a good idea to play contact sports during a raging pandemic (players: yes, if there are safety protocols; doctors: maybe no if you don’t want players to risk lasting heart problems; Donald Trump: blarrrrrrgh!), with lots more tweets surely to follow.

This makes it a good time to take a step back and see what we’ve learned so far from sports leagues that have restarted since Covid took hold this spring, and what it can tell us about how to proceed from here. Unfurl the data points:

That is, honestly, not a terrible track record overall — back in the spring, it wasn’t clear that any sports leagues would be able to finish out their seasons, so a range from successful restarts to “limping along but might make it to the finish line” is better than expected. And there are definitely some lessons that we can learn from the spread of results:

  • If you want to play sports without an outbreak of virus, start with less virus. I mean, duh: The best way not to get infected is not to be around people who are infected, and in places like Taiwan, players could pretty much be sharing forks without much worry about contracting Covid. Likewise, even if NHL players busted out of their Canadian bubbles and hit the casinos (which are open), the level of community spread there is low enough that they’d stand a good chance of rolling the (metaphorical, virus-related) dice and coming away lucky.
  • Bubbles work. There was tons of skepticism that the NBA could pull off its bubble in the middle of the world’s biggest Covid hot spot without tons of infections, but so far it’s working well. Of course, we’re not even two weeks into the resumption of the season, and the entire two-month playoffs are still to go, so it remains to be seen if the league can keep its protective wrapping intact through October, especially as players start going stir-crazy. (Though player families will be allowed to enter the bubble at the end of the first round on August 30, after they’ve quarantined for two weeks.)
  • Testing works, sort of. The Marlins and Cardinals outbreaks have gotten lots of attention as a sign that MLB didn’t really have a plan for its bubble-less season — and, indeed, there are lots of signs that it didn’t, especially when the decision on whether the Marlins would play after positive tests at one point came down to texting their shortstop to see what he thought. And the uncertainty on when it was safe for teams to resume play has exposed all kinds of issues with how to interpret test results, thanks to everything from false positives and false negatives to the problem that it can take a few days for someone to test positive even after contracting the virus. But on another level, it’s a success: MLB has been aggressively testing its players — to the point where there are concerns that athletes are soaking up testing capacity and causing delays in test results for civilians — and managed to keep any outbreaks from spreading beyond those two teams. That may be the best you can hope for in a non-bubble league.
  • Actually playing sports doesn’t seem to be a huge risk. Unless I’ve missed something, there remain zero cases of athletes catching the coronavirus from opponents during games, even in higher-contact sports like soccer. (Early speculation that the Marlins got infected from the Atlanta Braves‘ catchers appears to have been incorrect — the Braves players never tested positive, though they did have Covid-like symptoms — and it’s more likely someone picked it up by going out for coffee or drinking at the hotel bar.) That actually jibes well with research that shows that “Successful Infection = Exposure to Virus x Time“; it’s simply hard to get infected if you’re only in close proximity to another player for a couple of minutes at a time. What’s super-dangerous is being in a clubhouse (or hotel bar) with teammates for extended periods, as witness how both the Marlins and Cardinals outbreaks spread like wildfire through those teams, even taking out the Philadelphia Phillies‘ visiting clubhouse attendant who shared indoor breathing space with the infected Marlins.
  • Indoor sports, and those with more contact, are less charted territory: The only good examples we have so far for indoor sports transmission are the NBA and NHL, which have barely begun play, and which are taking place in virus-free bubbles, so we haven’t seen how an outbreak would play out there. Likewise, nobody’s played any American football since the pandemic began; Australian Rules Football teams have been forced to bubble in hotels and move games to less virus-y parts of Australia, but don’t seem to have suffered major outbreaks among players, at least.
  • Getting Covid can be really, really serious, even for young, healthy athletes. As noted above, one of the concerns pushing college football to consider postponements is that doctors are noting an increase in myocarditis — basically, inflamed heart muscle — among college athletes, something that could be a passing thing, or could be a chronic problem. Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez has already been ruled out for the entire 2020 season thanks to Covid-related heart problems, and while team execs say they’re “very optimistic” he’ll make a full recovery, with a disease that’s only existed in humans for less than a year, they’re really only just guessing.

That’s still very much a work in progress, and lots more questions remain unanswered, including what on earth MLB should do if one of its teams suffers a Marlins- or Cardinals-style outbreak in the middle of the playoffs. Baseball officials are reportedly considering setting up bubbles for its postseason, though they’d still have to figure out how to have teams and their traveling parties quarantine first for two weeks; also, right now the only advantage teams finishing with better regular-season records would get in the expanded playoffs would be home-field advantage, which wouldn’t mean much if no teams were playing at home. As for college football, it’s hard to say what the risks are until someone starts playing and we see how many people turn up sick, though the indicators for a sport with tons of teams and huge rosters and no bubbles sure don’t seem too promising.

Still, there are some lessons here, and they’re reasonably hopeful ones: If you can manage to play in a nation with low virus levels, or keep your players and staff from ever interacting with the outside world, you can play sports, and maybe even allow fans in, relatively safely — though “relatively” is obviously less reassuring if you wind up being one of the few players getting sick. Really, the most important message here is the same one as for the rest of our pandemic world: If you want to reopen things that are important to you, keep wearing masks and stay away from house parties. The best way not to contract Covid remains having fewer infectious people to catch it from, so if it means shutting down restaurants and bars to keep schools open — or shutting down college football to allow other activities to proceed, or even shutting down everything until viral levels are down to near-zero — that’s the kind of calculus we need to be making right now. It worked for New Zealand!

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St. Louis Cardinals get $1m from big-business pandemic relief program you’ve never heard of

There are an awful lot of government programs to provide financial help to both individuals and businesses during the pandemic crash, and the nooks and crannies of the multiple relief bills passed by Congress contain even more. A bunch of these are “small business” programs, and as we’ve seen before, the feds define a whole lot of things as small businesses, including sports teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, whose owners applied for $4.6 million in refundable loans via the Payroll Protection Program before giving it back when they realized it looked bad. And now, hey look, the owners of the St. Louis Cardinals have found another program that they can get cash from!

It turns out that our beloved baseball team has also discovered a way to help itself to a share of the very same federal CARES COVID-19 relief dollars, but under a separate tax credit provision established for companies that don’t qualify for the PPP.

The tax credits portion of the CARES act has flown under the radar. Under it, a qualified company can receive taxpayer dollars indirectly through a reduction of its employer-match share of social security (FICA) payments. A company gets forgiven up to $5,000 per employee in taxes it would normally have owed, in exchange for maintaining a certain level of its workforce.

The Riverfront Times’ Ray Hartmann goes on to note that while the Cardinals wouldn’t divulge the total tax credit it was applying for, with 280 non-player employees listed on their website, they’d likely be looking at “substantially more than $1 million in CARES tax savings.” Further investigation reveals that while the Employee Retention Credit, as it’s known, is technically formulated as a “tax credit” on FICA payments (likely in order to make it non-taxable income), as a refundable tax credit it can be more than a company is actually paying in FICA — so in practice it’s just a $5,000 check for every employee earning at least $10,000 between March 12, 2020 and January 1, 2021, making “more than $1 million” a decent ballpark figure.

So, how evil is this, on scale of 1 to Sauron? From what I can tell, the ERC isn’t a set pool of money like the PPP; any employer is eligible, and it’s not first-come-first-served. So at least the Cardinals owners getting cash isn’t denying funds to some other more needy recipient. (Unless you count future Americans as a whole as needy, since we’ll be the ones ultimately paying off the trillions of dollars being borrowed to pay for all this.) And while Hartmann writes:

This is not just a case of a company taking all the normal tax breaks to which it is entitled. Everyone has a right to do that. No one needs to tip the government. This is about a professional sports franchise actively pursuing tax breaks expressly meant for folks who are suffering.

…that’s not exactly true, because this is actually a tax break expressly meant for businesses, the bigger the better. While you can make a case that this is encouraging companies to retain employees — hence the name of the provision — you could also argue that since employers are unlikely to keep on unneeded workers just to get a $5,000 tax break, it seems likely to result in a lot of businesses just getting subsidies to retain people they’d be keeping on anyway.

In fact, the bigger concern here is the construction of the Employee Retention Credit in the first place, which seems geared to benefit large corporations the most, given that it’s available to businesses of any size but not to self-employed individuals, even though the self-employed do pay the employer portion of business taxes. If a billionaire sports team owner takes advantage of a government program designed to take advantage of a global crisis to funnel money to billionaires, who is really to blame here? Crony capitalism? The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling? Society as a whole? This fighting evil business really would be a whole lot easier if you could just drop a magic ring into a lava vent to solve all your problems.

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Friday roundup: Team owners rework tax bills and leases, Twins CEO claims team is winning (?) thanks to new stadium, and other privileges of the very rich

Tons more stadium and arena news to get to this week, so let’s dive right in without preamble:

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Friday roundup: Graceland seeks arena money, Marlins and Cards seek spring-training stadium money, guy in Raleigh seeks MLS stadium money

In no particular order, or as we call it in New York, Mets style:

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How cities haven’t actually fallen out of love with funding sports stadiums

The May issue of Governing magazine has an article with the provocative headline, “How Cities Fell Out of Love With Sports Stadiums,” though it’s really mostly about why St. Louis balked at throwing money at an MLS stadium and fought back against paying for arena upgrades for the Blues after getting burned when the Rams got the most sweetheart lease deal in history and then used a lease loophole to move back to Los Angeles just 21 years later.

All that is good and fine, as is the article’s discussion of how “the economic impact reports singing the praises of sports development have largely been discredited.” But in the service of trying to make the story into “regular folks used to fall all over themselves to hand money to sports teams, but now they’ve smartened up,” writer Liz Farmer oversimplifies or just plain gets wrong a number of things about the stadium subsidy game and how it’s played, which is going to be a problem if any people in the business of actual governing take it as gospel. Let us count the ways:

“When [Rams owner Stan] Kroenke came along and had the gall to start making demands for a football team that hadn’t had a winning record since 2003, the city was — quite literally — spent. St. Louis was suffering under the same socioeconomic and fiscal pressures as Cleveland, Detroit and most other Rust Belt cities. Its population was declining rapidly, and it was stuck paying off debt for the existing stadium until 2022. Residents were increasingly skeptical when it came to investing in gaudy entertainment amenities the lower-income population couldn’t afford to use.”

St. Louis’s population has been declining since 1950 — if anything, it’s leveled off some in recent years — though its county population has soared as more people moved to the suburbs. And residents were pretty darned skeptical before, too: Way back in 2002, St. Louis citizens approved a referendum requiring that all public subsidies for sports facilities would need to go to a public vote. Unfortunately for voters, courts ruled that the target of that referendum — the Cardinals stadium deal that had just been approved prior to that — was grandfathered in, but it’s not like public resistance in St. Louis is anything new.

“The era of taxpayer-financed stadiums came about almost by accident. Seeking to limit the use of government bonds in stadium financing, the federal Tax Reform Act of 1986 included a provision that capped at 10 percent the direct stadium revenue — mostly from ticket sales and concessions — that could be used to pay for the cost of the facility. That meant that governments would have to raise broad-based taxes, such as on sales or business, to cover the rest of the cost.”

Not quite. What the 1986 tax reform law was attempting to do was to rein in cities’ use of federally tax exempt bonds for private projects — not just stadiums, but all kinds of development — by saying, “Look, only really public amenities, okay? Don’t just offer discounted bonds to anybody who asks and then stick federal taxpayers with the bill.”

Unfortunately, the way that Congress chose to address this was by defining public amenities as things that were paid for by the public — if more than 10% of the cost was paid off by private funds (or special taxes that were just private funds masquerading as public dollars to get eligibility), low-cost federal bonds were off the table. Unfortunately, what that did was to increase the leverage of sports team owners, who could now say, “Yeah, sorry, we would love to put in more money of our own, but then it would increase the financing costs, and we can’t have that, can we?”

This is by no means what started the era of taxpayer-financed stadiums, though: Team owners were already demanding new stadiums and arenas left and right, using the usual playbook of methods to do so (move threats, claims of economic benefits, etc.). The tax reform law further titled the scale toward bigger demands, but it didn’t create the demands in the first place — and while getting rid of tax-exempt bond subsidies would be a nice step, it wouldn’t put an end to stadium subsidies in the slightest.

“But Congress didn’t account for the fan loyalty and pride that — at the time — made raising local taxes more acceptable.”

Fan loyalty and pride are still on full display, but sports fans are taxpayers, too, and have been resisting handing their tax dollars over to sports team owners as much as anyone since the beginning. Just ask Frank Rashid.

“The boom was driven in part by demand from teams and fans for a more sophisticated sports experience than the drab concrete coliseums they were used to.”

If by “more sophisticated sports experience” you mean “more pulled-pork sandwiches and nicer cupholders,” sure. But plenty of sports venues have been torn down in recent years to make way for new facilities that are arguably even drabber than the ones they replaced.

“The Washington, D.C., soccer team, D.C. United, spent years negotiating with the nation’s capital over a new soccer-specific stadium. Those talks effectively shut down once the economic downturn hit in 2008, and the team spent another seven years shopping around in the surrounding counties — even going as far as Baltimore — trying to find a local government that would pay for the facility. None would bite. Ultimately, the team stayed in D.C. and is paying to build a stadium on land the city spent $150 million acquiring. The deal includes a non-relocation agreement.”

In addition to that free land, D.C. United is also getting $43 million in property tax breaks, making it the most expensive MLS soccer stadium subsidy in history. The tide is turning!

“Kiel Center Partners, the firm that owns the NHL Blues, had asked the St. Louis City Board of Aldermen for $64 million to finance upgrades to the Scottrade Center. Had the city’s voters not been distracted by the soccer stadium proposal and by a heated mayoral election, the financing might have met more resistance. Some aldermen did question whether the city’s 1994 lease with the team required it to pay for upgrades, but still the proposal narrowly passed. If it had been submitted to a popular vote, it most likely would have failed.”

Again, “if voters had been asked, they would have voted it down” is likely true of all of St. Louis’s past sports subsidy deals. (Possibly not the original Rams deal, though if they’d known that it would allow the team to move away by claiming their two-decade-old stadium was no longer “state of the art,” they might have balked at that, too.) And voters didn’t get to vote because the city council just up and decreed that they wouldn’t be allowed to, despite that 2002 referendum, so it’s tough to see how this is a sign of increased political resistance.

“So the hockey team got its way. Things like that still happen. But they don’t happen easily, and they don’t happen with broad public support. Several years ago, for instance, when the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings wanted a publicly funded stadium, the state legislature rejected the proposal. Eventually the team got its money, but with a state law capping public contributions to the $1 billion project at $498 million.”

OMG, the Vikings owners actually had to ask for stadium subsidies multiple times! And then they had to settle for a mere half-billion dollars in cash, except counting tax breaks and other hidden goodies it’s actually costing taxpayers more like $1.1 billion, so, uh.

In the end, the Governing article isn’t a terrible one, and it does touch on a lot of details of the stadium scam that Governing likely wouldn’t have been caught dead discussing 20 years ago. (Now there’s some progress.) But if the takeaway is that the general public loved sports stadium plans, but now have realized they were duped, that’s not the story at all: Actually it’s been a battle from the beginning between team owners trying to extract as much public money as possible, and taxpayers and some of their local representatives trying to push back. And while maybe a few more elected officials are pushing back harder, there’s pushback against the pushback, too. So this whole mess isn’t ending anytime soon, much as I wish it were so I could retire this blog and go back to treating sports as the purely apolitical, fun pastime that it never really was.

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St. Louis Cardinals owners to build more “ballpark village,” demand tax kickbacks to pay for it

The owners of the St. Louis Cardinals announced a second phase to their “Ballpark Village” development across the street from their stadium yesterday, and blah blah, $220 million, 550,000 square feet of new construction, “mixed-use neighborhood where people live, work and play,” okay, here we go:

St. Louis Alderman Jack Cotar will introduce legislation to amend an existing development agreement that enabled the first phase of Ballpark Village on Tuesday…

According to the announcement, the “development team is proposing to use a portion of the new tax revenue generated solely within the Ballpark Village project area, including an additional self-imposed 1 percent TDD sales tax, to underwrite the bonds issued to support project infrastructure costs. Only taxes generated by the Ballpark Village project itself, as well as private equity and debt investments by the development team, will be used to finance Ballpark Village.”

This should come as no surprise, as the first phase of the Ballpark Village — a bizarro grandstand-slice-themed shopping mall with an equally bizarro racially coded dress code — got $116 million in subsidies back in 2006, mostly from tax-increment funding: i.e., kicking back property and sales taxes to the developers, who can then use them to pay off their own construction costs. It’s unclear exactly how much Cotar’s bill will propose handing over to the Cardinals owners — that “TDD” is a sales tax surcharge in the ballpark area, which if it’s narrowly drawn could just come out of the team’s pockets, but property taxes or existing sales taxes would just be a straight kickback. The original Cardinals stadium deal wasn’t too bad for the public as these things go — about two-thirds of the cost was shouldered by the team owners — but they’re making up for lost subsidy time with all the additional development across the street. Excellent job on the bait-and-switch, Bill DeWitt and friends!

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Cardinals’ Ballpark Village has a curious list of things you can’t wear at its bars

The St. Louis Cardinals‘ new Ballpark Village is not only a seriously weird looking slice of entertainment-retail hell, it turns out, but the bars and restaurants there have some seriously weird dress codes. Here’s a sampling, via Deadspin:

The following is not permitted under our dress code after 9pm: sleeveless shirts on men, profanity on clothing, exposed undergarments on men, sweat pants, full sweat suits, excessively long shirts (when standing upright with arms at your side, the bottom of your shirt can not extend below the tip of your fingers), jerseys (sleeved jerseys are permitted in conjunction with a cardinals game or any other major St. Louis sporting event), athletic shorts and excessively sagging pants or shorts bandanas.

If all that sounds like code for “no black dudes,” Deadspin thinks so too, noting that Cordish Companies, the developer of Ballpark Village, also built Kansas City’s Power & Light district, and: “Two lawsuits have recently been filed alleging that Power & Light specifically discriminated against black patrons. One of the suits alleges that Power & Light employed white men who were instructed to start fights with black patrons in order to get them kicked out.”

Whether the dress code is covert racism or overt fashion policing, enjoy your tax-break-subsidized bars, St. Louis! Just not with excessively long sleeves, because That Would Be Wrong.

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Cardinals opening world’s first fake-stadium-slice-shaped-mall, I guess?

The St. Louis Cardinals have finally announced the opening of the first phase of their long-delayed “ballpark village” (so long-delayed that I was calling it “long-delayed” six years ago) and it’s, okay, I don’t know what this actually is:

Potemkin village? Vegas baseball-themed shopping mall? Whatever it is, the Cardinals are getting $116 million in tax kickbacks to help build it. Also, Third Eye Blind will be at the grand opening, which just rockets it to the top of my list of grand openings to avoid at all costs.

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Six-year-old St. Louis stadium to shed rusty metal panels

In a reminder that not only old stadiums show wear and tear, a four-foot piece of metal trim fell off the outside of the St. Louis Cardinals’ Busch Stadium yesterday, closing nearby sidewalks and leading to an inspection of the rest of the stadium. After rusted bolts were found holding the decorative panels in place, the other panels are now being removed, with plans to have the work completed well before the Cards return from a road trip next Tuesday.

All of which is unusual, but hardly extraordinary. And it’s notable that no one is declaring it to be a sign that the six-year-old Busch Stadium is falling down and needs to be replaced — unlike the case when bits have fallen off of certain other stadiums I could name.

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Cardinals accused of stiffing St. Louis on profit-sharing

Out of St. Louis, a cautionary tale about the ever-popular gambit of requiring that taxpayers get a share of the sale of a sports team in exchange for granting stadium subsidies. (This was most recently proposed, and rejected, for the Florida Marlins deal.) The Cardinals agreed to a profit-sharing arrangement as part of their stadium deal back in 2003, but the reality isn’t quite working out that way, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

The Cardinals also agreed to give the city a cut of profits made if any portion of the team was sold.

Then, last year, owners sold a sizeable chunk of the Cardinals — more than 13 percent. Now, a group of anti-public-stadium advocates is alleging that the team owes the city hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And, despite another multimillion-dollar budget gap anticipated for the coming year, the city isn’t checking into it. City officials acknowledge that they have never really kept tabs on the agreement.

In fact, the Cardinals owners have sold about 17% of their shares since the new stadium opened, but in each case reported to the city that “there were no Ballpark-Related profits … arising from such transfer.” And city officials apparently took them at their word, with the Post-Dispatch reporting: “Several city officials, including Barb Geisman, the former deputy mayor for development, said there was no reason to double-check. They trust the Cardinals.”

Longtime Coalition Against Public Funding for Stadiums activist Fred Lindecke, who first raised questions about the profit-sharing clause (until he complained, the city wasn’t even releasing the sale affidavits it received from the Cards), wonders reasonably enough on what planet this could be true: “They were so desperate for money, they were willing to sell their ownership percentage for nothing more than the team was worth in 2002? That contradicts all logic. Even someone who’s having their home foreclosed tries to get as much as he can.”

Forbes, for what it’s worth, has the Cardinals as worth $488 million in 2010, up 80% from its $271 million value in 2002. Even at that rate, the total amount owed to the city would be only about $2 million, if I’m doing the math right. Still, it’s not exactly money that the city can afford to be turning down these days.

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