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: Silver Knights face arena suit, Prokhorov seeks to ditch Nassau lease, journalism spirals the drain

Happy Friday, everybody! MLS has resumed play with an MLS Is Back tournament in Orlando (at least for all the teams other than the two that dropped out because they had too many coronavirus-positive players), and MLB starts its season next Thursday, and restarting sports leagues are soaking up all of the United States’ available testing capacity and ballplayers are getting called “pansies” for wearing masks to the grocery store. Also, another of the few remaining news outlets just laid off a ton of quality people, including several I used to work with, because journalism is one of the many nice things we apparently can’t have anymore.

If all that doesn’t cheer you up, here’s a passel of stadium-and-arena-related news that probably won’t do the trick either:

  • The Henderson city council voted unanimously yesterday to reject a petition seeking to overturn the city’s decision to spend $60 million on a minor-league hockey arena plus some other stuff, which should probably come as no surprise given that it’s the same council that voted to approve the Silver Knights arena in the first place. (The petitions were initially rejected because of a technicality about whether enough information was included on every page of the petition, but the council was under no obligation to consider the legal requirements rather than just voting for what they wanted to happen.) Petitioners could now seek to sue the city, which is how these things always seem to turn out.
  • Former Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov is in negotiations to get out of his lease with Nassau County on the Nassau Coliseum, Nassau Executive Laura Curran revealed Tuesday. This could work out well for all concerned, or it could let Prokhorov get out of his lease obligations by having shut down the arena and held it hostage; the devil will be in the details of the talks, and Curran didn’t divulge anything about those.
  • The Palace of Auburn Hills, former home of the Detroit Pistons, got blowed up real good on Saturday, as one does when one is a 32-year-old sports arena in the early 21st century. And if you thought you already saw images several months ago of the Palace being torn down, that’s because you did, but history repeats itself, the second time with dynamite.
  • The Edmonton Oilers‘ four-year-old arena was partially flooded by a hailstorm, but don’t worry, the NHL says it will still be able to use it for its planned restart on August 1. Or maybe Edmonton will have to build another new arena in the next two weeks, it’s always hard to say with these things.
  • Fivethirtyeight tried to evaluate whether the Texas Rangers‘ new stadium is a better place to see a ballgame than their old one by overlaying one seating cross-section on the other and determining that the last row of seats is 33 feet closer to the field horizontally and only a few feet higher vertically, so that’s an improvement! Except that they failed to take into account that the new stadium has 8,000 fewer seats than the old one, so really you want to compare the worst seats in the new place to the 40,000th best seat in the old place, since the people in the last row of the old place will now be watching at home on TV. I remember when Nate Silver still made sure his writers did their math correctly, those were good times.
  • D.C. United is surveying fans to ask them if they’ll feel safe attending soccer matches in person later this summer, because who better to ask for advice about public health policy than random soccer fans?
  • Have you been missing sports columns about how your city needs to replace its arena despite not having a major-league team to play in it because the old one is a “graying ghost that is all but begging for a retirement cake” and besides even Tulsa has a newer one, oh the shame? The San Diego Union-Tribune is on it!
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Friday roundup: New Rangers stadium scam movie, Nevada arena petitions rejected over technicality, and many many dumb ideas for getting you (or cardboard cutouts of you) into stadiums this year

Welcome to the end of another crazy week, which seems redundant to say, since that’s all of them lately. I spent a bunch of it working on this article on what science (but not necessarily your local newspaper) can tell us about not just whether reopening after lockdowns is a good idea, but what kinds of reopening are safe enough to consider. And important enough to consider, since as one infectious disease expert told me, “It’s not ‘open’ or ‘shut’—there’s a whole spectrum in between. We need to be thinking about what are the high-priority things that we need to reopen from a functioning point of view, and not an enjoyment point of view.”

And with that cheery thought, on to other cheery thoughts:

  • If you’re a fan of either sports stadium shenanigans or calamitous public-policy train wrecks in general — and I know you are, or why would you be reading this site — you should absolutely check out “Throw A Billion Dollars From The Helicopter,” a new documentary about the Texas Rangers‘ successful campaign to extract half a billion dollars from the city of Arlington so they could play in air-conditioning. It’s a story that has everything: a mayor who was elected as a stadium-subsidy critic then turned around to approve the biggest stadium subsidy in local history, George W. Bush grubbing for public money and failing to do basic math, grassroots anti-red-light camera activists getting dragged into stadium politics, a trip back to the Washington Senators’ final home game before moving to Texas which they had to forfeit because fans ran on the field and walked off with the bases, footage of that 1994 Canadian TV news story I always cite about how video-rental stores comedy clubs in Toronto were so happy with extra business during the baseball strike that they wished hockey would go on strike too, plus interviews with stadium experts like Roger Noll, Rod Fort, Victor Matheson, Allen Sanderson (the man whose line about more effective ways than building a stadium for boosting your city’s economy gave the documentary its title), and me. Rent it here on Vimeo if you want some substitute fireworks this weekend.
  • Opponents of the publicly funded minor-league hockey arena for the Henderson Silver Knights got enough signatures to put a recall on the November ballot, but have had their petitions invalidated for not including a detailed enough description of their objections on every page. This will almost certainly result in lawsuits, which is how pretty much every battle for public oversight of sports subsidy deals ends — that, and “in tears.”
  • The San Diego city council approved the $86.2 million sale of the site of the Chargers‘ former stadium to San Diego State University, which plans to build a new $310 million football stadium there. Whether this is a good deal for the public is especially tricky, because not only do you have to figure the land value of a 135-acre site in the middle of an economic meltdown, but also San Diego State is a public university, so really this is one public agency selling land to another. It’s all more than I can manage this morning, so instead let’s look at this rendering of a proposed park for the site that features bicyclists riding diagonally across a bike path to avoid a woman who stands in their way with arms akimbo, while birds with bizarre forked tails wheel overhead.
  • You know what would be a terrible idea in the middle of a pandemic that has closed stadiums to fans because gathering in one place is a great way to spread virus? An article telling fans what public spaces they can gather in to catch a glimpse of game action in closed stadiums, and Axios has you covered there! And so does the Associated Press!
  • Sure, hundreds of thousands of people have died and there could be hundreds of thousands more to go, but won’t anyone think of the impact on TV network profits if there’s no football to show in the fall?
  • And speaking of keeping an eye strictly on the bottom line, the NFL is considering requiring fans (if there are any) who attend NFL games this fall (if there are any) to sign a waiver promising not to sue if they contract Covid as a result. But can I still sue if someone goes to a football game, contracts Covid, and then infects me? I’m not actually sure how easily one could sue in either case — since you can never be sure where you were infected with the virus, it would be like suing over getting cancer from secondhand smoke — but I always like the idea of suing the NFL, so thanks for the idea, guys!
  • New York Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner says he wants to see fans at Yankee Stadium “in the 20-30 percent range,” a number and prediction he failed to indicate he pulled from anywhere other than his own butt. Meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs are reportedly planning to open rooftops around Wrigley Field at 25% capacity for watching games this year, something that might actually be legal since while would mean about 800 fans in attendance, they wouldn’t all be in attendance in the same place, so it could get around rules about large public gatherings.
  • If you want to spend $49 and up so a cardboard cutout of yourself can watch Oakland A’s games, you can now do that on the team’s website. If that sounds like a terrible deal, know that with each purchase you also get two free tickets to an exhibition game at the Coliseum in 2021 (if there are any), and if you pay $129 then you also get a foul ball mailed to you if it hits your cutout, all of which still sounds like a terrible deal but significantly more hilarious.
  • If you were hoping to make one last trip to Pawtucket’s 74-year-old McCoy Stadium to see Pawtucket Red Sox baseball before the team relocates to Worcester after this season — it was on my now-deleted summer calendar — you’ll have to settle for eating dinner on the field, because the PawSox season, along with the rest of the minor-league baseball season, has been officially called off. Also, the Boston Herald reports that the Lowell Spinners single-A team won’t be offering refunds to those who bought tickets for non-canceled games, only credits toward 2021 tickets — shouldn’t ticketholders be able to sue for not receiving the product they paid for? I want somebody to sue somebody, already! When will America’s true pastime be allowed to reopen?
  • Here’s a New York Times article on how new MLS stadiums are bucking past stadium trends by being “privately financed, with modest public support for modernizing infrastructure,” which is only true if you consider $98 million (Columbus) and $81 million and up (Cincinnati) to be “modest” figures.
  • I apologize for failing to report last week on the Anaheim Ducks‘ proposed development around their hockey arena, less because it’s super interesting or there is amusing vaportecture than because it’s supposed to be called “ocV!BE,” which is the best name ever, so long as you want to live in a freshly built condo in what sounds like either a randomly generated password or an Aughts rock band.
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Friday roundup: Grizzlies lease has secret out clause, judge orders do-over in Nashville stadium vote, reviewers agree Rangers stadium is super-butt-ugly

Normally the end of June is when news around here starts slowing down for the summer, but as no one needs reminding, nothing is normal anymore. There isn’t even time to get into sports leagues trying to reopen in the midst of what could be an “apocalyptic” surge in virus cases across the South and West, because busy times call for paralipsis:

  • The Daily Memphian has uncovered what it calls a “trap door” in the Memphis Grizzlies‘ lease that could let the team get out of the agreement early if it has even a single season where it doesn’t sell 1) 14,900 tickets per game, 2) all of its 64 largest suites, or 3) fewer than 2,500 season club seats. (There is at least a “force majeure” clause that should exclude any seasons played during a pandemic.) That could force the city to buy up tickets in order to keep the lease in force, the paper notes, and though talks between the team and city are underway to renegotiate the deal, you just know that Grizzlies owner Robert Pera will want something in exchange for giving up his opt-out clause. Pera has so far said all the right things about not wanting to move the team, but then, he doesn’t have to when he has sports journalists to spread relocation rumors for him; if savvy negotiators create leverage, city officials really need to learn to stop handing leverage to team owners when they write up leases, because that really never works out well.
  • In a major victory for local governments at least following their own damn rules, opponents of Nashville’s $50 million-plus-free-land deal for a new MLS stadium won a court victory this week when a judge ruled that the city violated Tennessee’s Open Meetings Act by approving the stadium’s construction contract at a meeting held with only 48 hours notice, when the law requires five days. The city’s Metro Sports Authority can now just hold another meeting with normal notice and reapprove the contract, but still it’s good to see someone’s hand slapped for a change for hiding from public scrutiny.
  • The reviews of the Texas Rangers‘ new stadium that received $450 million in subsidies so the team could have air-conditioning are in, and critics agree, it looks like a giant metal warehouse, or maybe a barbecue grill, or maybe the Chernobyl sarcophagus. Okay, they just agree that is is one ugly-ass stadium from the outside; firsthand reports on whether the upper-deck seats are as bad as they look in the renderings will have to await fans actually being allowed inside, which could come as soon as later this summer, unless by then Texans are too busy cowering in their homes to avoid having to go to the state’s overwhelmed hospital system
  • Amazon has bought naming rights to Seattle’s former Key Arena (Key Bank’s naming rights expired eons ago), and because Amazon needs more name recognition like it needs more stories about its terrible working conditions, it has decided to rename the building Climate Pledge Arena, after an Amazon-launched campaign to get companies to promise to produce zero net carbon emissions by 2040, something the company itself is off to a terrible start on. The reporting doesn’t say, but presumably if greenwashing goes out of style, Amazon will retain the right in a couple of years to rename the building Prime Video (Starts At $8.99/Month) Arena.
  • The NFL is still planning to have fans in attendance at games this fall, but it’s also going to be tarping off the first six to eight rows of seats and selling ads on the tarps as a hedge against ticket-sales losses. Even when and if things return to normal, I’m thinking this could be a great way for the league to create that artificial ticket scarcity that it’s been wanting for years, n’est-ce pas?
  • Amid concern that the New York Islanders will be left temporarily homeless or forced to move back to Brooklyn in the wake of the Nassau Coliseum being shuttered, Nassau County’s top elected official has promised that “the next time that the Islanders play in New York it will be in Nassau County.” If my reading-between-the-lines radar is working properly, that probably means we can expect to see the Islanders’ upcoming season played someplace like Bridgeport, Connecticut.
  • New Arizona Coyotes president Xavier Gutierrez is definitely hitting the ground with all his rhetoric cylinders running, telling ESPN: “When I took the job, [owner] Alex Meruelo told me finding a solution for where we should be located was priority one through five. I thought it was one through five, and he quickly corrected me and said, ‘No, it’s priority one through 10 for you.'” Shouldn’t that really be one to 11?
  • Here’s an actual San Diego Union-Tribune sports columnist saying voters did the city a favor by turning down a $1.15 billion-dollar Chargers stadium plan, because the city would be having a tough time paying it off now what with the economy in shambles. Of course, $1.15 billion still would have been $1.15 billion even if San Diego had the money, but budget crunches do seem to have a way of focusing people’s attention on opportunity costs.
  • Speaking of which, here’s an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about how it’s hard for Cobb County to pay off the construction debt on its Atlanta Braves stadium what with tourism tax revenue having fallen through the floor, though at least the AJC did call up economist J.C. Bradbury to let him say that it doesn’t really matter which tax money was used because “there’s no found money in government.”
  • Both of those are still way better articles, though, than devoting resources to a story about how holding baseball games without fans is going to lead to a glut of bags of peanuts, for which Good Morning America has us covered. Won’t anyone think of the peanuts?!?
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No, the World Health Organization did not say it’s safe to open stadiums to people without Covid symptoms

The debate over Texas’s plans to reopen outdoor stadiums at 50% capacity, and MLB’s apparent plans to go along with that, took an unexpected turn yesterday when a gajillion news outlets reported that World Health Organization coronavirus chief Maria Van Kerkhove had declared spread of the coronavirus that causes Covid by asymptomatic carriers to be “very rare”:

“From the data we have, it still seems to be rare that an asymptomatic person actually transmits onward to a secondary individual,” Van Kerkhove said on Monday.

“We have a number of reports from countries who are doing very detailed contact tracing. They’re following asymptomatic cases, they’re following contacts and they’re not finding secondary transmission onward. It is very rare — and much of that is not published in the literature,” she said. “We are constantly looking at this data and we’re trying to get more information from countries to truly answer this question. It still appears to be rare that an asymptomatic individual actually transmits onward.”

As a gajillion commenters both here and on Facebook immediately pointed out, if true, this would be huge news for reopening sports stadiums (and restaurants and schools and offices and everything else): Just test people for symptoms at the door, and don’t let in anyone with a fever or cough or what have you, and everyone else is good to go! If people without symptoms can’t spread Covid, we can reopen everything, all that universal social distancing was a waste!

Unfortunately, a closer read of Van Kerkhove’s comments reveals that when she says “asymptomatic,” she doesn’t actually mean “all people currently without symptoms,” even though that’s how you’d normally expect English to work. Epidemiologists divide people not currently showing symptoms into “asymptomatic” and “presymptomatic,” with the former being those who never develop symptoms, and the latter being those who will go on to develop symptoms later. And Van Kerkhove was only referring to the former, not the latter, as Harvard Global Health Institute director Ashish Jha quickly took to Twitter to clarify:

And if anyone was unclear, Van Kerkhove took to Twitter later in the day to clarify herself that she just meant it’s rare for Covid to be spread by people who never develop symptoms, not those who haven’t gotten them yet (though “clarify” is maybe an overstatement given her contorted science jargon):

https://twitter.com/mvankerkhove/status/1270081492908216320

So where does this leave us? If you catch the coronavirus but never develop symptoms, you’re probably pretty safe to be around even if you go about without a mask and speak with lots of P’s, K’s, and T’s — presumably because your body fought off the infection so well that you don’t have much virus in you. If you’re just still working your way up to getting sick, though — a period that typically lasts 2-14 days — then you are potentially contagious, and a hazard to others if you don’t mask up and socially distance and stay out of enclosed spaces with poor ventilation.

As Jha notes above, this is very helpful for contact tracing, since it means the government can focus all its resources on people with symptoms: Even if they were spreading virus around before they got sick, you can still find all those people after the fact. It is not helpful for screening sports fan attendance, say, because there’s no way for stadium security to tell people who will never get sick from people who haven’t gotten sick yet unless they start employing fortune tellers.

The usual caveats apply, of course, in terms of this being a developing situation and there being new scientific findings every day, etc. But as of now, there’s no reason to believe that there’s a safe way to allow mass gatherings while preventing the spread of the virus simply by temperature checks and the like. Believe me, if that changes, I will be the first to celebrate it — well, maybe after Ashish Jha.

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MLB will reportedly allow fans at games once mayors (not health officials) say it’s okay

Last Thursday I reported on Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement that outdoor sports stadiums could be open to fans at 50% capacity this summer despite Covid cases continuing to be on the rise in his state. (And they really are — for anyone who thinks it’s just a matter of more testing being done, go here and select Texas and “Daily Test Positivity” and see graph tick alarmingly upwards in recent days.) I also reported that sports leagues were showing no interest in taking Abbott up on his offer, but that was before MLB reportedly decided that what’s good enough for any random elected official is good enough for them:

According to two major league sources Thursday, MLB is inclined to allow local and municipal governance to take precedence when it comes to allowing fan attendance at games.

Okay, based on unnamed sources, so the usual grains of salt apply. At the very least, though, this does appear to be a trial balloon to see if taking advantage of local reopenings to let in fans — and all their delicious spending money that MLB would otherwise have to do without — is something MLB can get away with without massive uproar. (Though it’ll be kind of hard to tell right now with so much uproar focused elsewhere.) And it’s potentially of huge concern, because you know that if the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros are allowed to start selling tickets, MLB team owners in other locales will begin angling to do so as well, and it will be hard for local elected officials to resist cries of “All the other kids are doing it, you’re putting us at a disadvantage!”, or at least easy for elected officials to use that an excuse to lift restrictions they wish those old fuddy-duddy health officials hadn’t made them put in place to begin with.

But speaking of health officials, maybe “local and municipal governance” doesn’t mean just asking the local mayor, but rather consulting with local officials in charge of pandemic response to see what’s safe to do when? That would make sense — even if health officials aren’t always immune to rose-colored thinking either — but it’s a bad sign that MLB apparently didn’t consult local health officials on its reopening safety plan even after it said it would:

When the Daily News asked the NYC Department of Health — which serves a constituency that has Yankee Stadium, Citi Field, and one out of every six of the United States’ confirmed COVID-19 deaths — about its collaboration with MLB, an emailed response said it all:

“Has there been any formal proposal presented?”…

On June 2, MLB told the News that “each of our Clubs already has contacted their local or county officials where appropriate or will do so shortly after a second draft of the protocols is completed,” further clarifying that their safety protocols were delivered to individuals designated by the governor in every state with a baseball team.

Yet, of the 28 city and county health departments that the News contacted prior to June 2, only five confirmed any interaction with MLB or the local team in their jurisdiction regarding health and safety measures, and only four reported they received MLB’s health and safety protocol from the league or club.

(H/t to Marc Normandin’s invaluable newsletter for this nugget.)

Now, it’s still entirely possible that there won’t be an MLB season because owners and players can’t agree on money or safety protocols, or that a second wave of infections will overtake the U.S., or large enough parts of it, before a season can get underway. (I keep seeing reporting that MLB wants its postseason over by November to avoid any second wave of lockdowns, but there’s no actual reason to think it won’t hit sooner, especially since in many states it seems like the first wave never actually ended.) But if baseball does return, and it’s left up to local politics to determine what the rules are, that’s going to create huge economic incentives for team owners and elected officials alike to turn a blind eye to the risks involved — like taking off your mask to make a phone call, the benefits all go to you while the risks are spread around, so it’s tempting to say hell with it, and what’s that you say about the tragedy of the commons?

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Friday roundup: Gotta get down to it, soldiers are cutting us down (plus: stadiums still gonna stadium)

A bunch of news items this week, but none of it is as important a read as this series of incredible tweets by my reporter friend Jake Offenhartz about New York City police luring peaceful protestors in the Bronx into an ambush and then trapping them so they could beat them with batons, just one of many horrific reports about the police riots that are currently spreading across the U.S.

There’s a growing move among elected officials in New York and elsewhere to defund the police — $1 billion in cuts is the number being thrown around in New York City, which would still leave the NYPD with $5 billion — and use the savings for other programs  like education and housing that are facing massive cuts amid the pandemic economic crash; I could probably try to draw some parallel between the sports-industrial complex and the police-industrial complex and their parallel drives to make public policy all about meeting their monetary demands, but honestly I’m kind of exhausted by the entirety of everything right now, so hopefully “Americans are being taxed to buy tens of billions of dollars of military equipment for police department to use against them” is sufficient to get the point across.

Anyway, for those of you not in jail or under sedation for your injuries, here’s some news about sports stadium ripoffs:

  • Here’s an article by the desiccated husk of Sports Illustrated about the Oakland A’s potentially stalled Howard Terminal stadium plans that sheds a little more light on owner John Fisher’s problems: He’s having a hard time getting any banks to loan him money in the middle of an economic collapse and with no clear sign of when and if normal sports attendance will resume, and also lots of his family’s Gap stores had to close temporarily, and now he might have to trade his team’s young stars because he only has his net worth of $2 billion to fall back on.
  • The pandemic has Worcester worrying that it won’t be able to cash in on a tax windfall from building a new stadium to lure the Pawtucket Red Sox to town. The good news: There was never going to be a cash windfall in the first place! The bad news: That isn’t very good, as news goes.
  • Here’s an article by a Forbes “contributor” speculating that Tottenham Hotspur‘s new stadium will be the last of the big-money sports venues now that selling lots of tickets to sporting events is at least temporarily a thing of the past, which, I really wouldn’t hold your breath on that.
  • Speaking of which, the Los Angeles city planning commission recently approved a plan for a new 7,500-seat stadium or arena (developers aren’t sure which yet) because, in the words of one developer, “We’re tired of transporting over the hill to see events.”
  • New trailer for Michael Bertin’s documentary “Throw A Billion Dollars From The Helicopter” on the Texas Rangers‘ extraction of public funds for their new stadium to replace their old one because it wasn’t air-conditioned, coming soon to a streaming video site near you!
  • A stadium-sized asteroid is headed toward Earth (well, our general vicinity), and Twitter has already made the obvious joke, good job, Twitter.
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Friday roundup: Sports remains mostly dead, but train subsidies and bizarre vaportecture live on

It’s been a long, long week for many reasons, so let’s get straight to the news if that’s okay:

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Friday roundup: Won’t anyone think of the sports franchise owners?!?

Coming up on the end of week four here, I think, and how is everyone doing? I remembered that today was Friday and I needed to do a news roundup, which was the first day in several that I remembered what day it was, so I feel like things are looking up! Except for the fact that large numbers of people gathering in close confines is looking like the main way this virus spreads, and that describes perfectly spectator sports and music and theater and many other things that make life worth living, so that’s not so great. And, of course, nearly 17,000 people have died and tens of thousands more deaths are expected, and that’s not counting all the people who are dying uncounted at home. Small victories may be victories, but they’re also small.

Eventually this will all be over, though, whatever “over” means, and it’s not too soon to start wondering about what the sports world will look like on the other side. Especially for sports journalists who are twiddling their thumbs right now and hoping that their employers still exist once the worst of this has passed:

Be well, stay safe, and see you Monday!

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