Friday roundup: San Diego okays $1B arena complex, Manfred floats neutral-site World Series, and that time the Twins ran stadium ads featuring a kid who’d died from cancer

I am way too tired this morning from waiting for tranches of vote counts to drop to write an amusing intro, so let’s get straight to the news:

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More on Justin Turner’s maskless World Series celebration, which has nothing directly to do with stadiums but bear with me

It’s a bad day to be Justin Turner. The Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman, who received a positive coronavirus test result during Tuesday’s Game 6 of the World Series, was pulled from the game, then returned to the field to take part in postgame celebrations after the Dodgers won the championship, has been savaged across the sports world, getting called “selfish” by Yahoo! Sports, “galling” by USA Today, and I’m not even going to check Twitter. Even Dodgers president Andrew Friedman, who semi-defended Turner’s presence on the field by saying that he technically became a free agent as soon as the game ended and “I don’t think there was anyone that was going to stop him,” acknowledged that it was “not good optics” to have him sitting for a photo, maskless, next to Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, a cancer survivor.

And then on the other hand there was Defector’s Albert Burneko, who beneath the superficially contrarian headline “It’s Not Justing Turner’s Fault” made the point that focusing the blame on individual behavior during an institutional crisis is completely the wrong way to go about things:

The bleak lesson of 2020—really, the bleak lesson of so much of the history of this society, but one the year 2020 seems hell-bent on teaching—is about the futility of individual responses amid institutional failure. This is how the real bad actors, the ones with the power to actually make significant changes, want things: with responsibility for containing the pandemic, or arresting climate change, or addressing systemic inequality and social injustice, litigated in society as matters of scattered individual choice. If baseball failed to contain the pandemic, well then it was because no individual person made the individual choice to thwart Justin Turner’s deeply human desire to celebrate the happiest moment of his life with the teammates who’d shared the journey with him, and not because Major League Baseball had a duty to provide and adhere to clearer and firmer protocols from the beginning. If a campaign rally doubles as a superspreader event, well, heck, we passed out masks, but it’s not like the literal president of the United States can just insist people wear them at an affair he’s hosting. If your preferred party loses an election, it’s because individuals selfishly withheld their vote, not because the party had, and fell short of, any responsibility to reach those people and earn their support. If the natural world swelters to death, well then it’s because not enough people bought electric cars or metal straws, not because neoliberal governments deferred to the corporate world for meaningful changes it wouldn’t make until forced by market imperatives, if then, if ever.

As several people raised down in the Defector comments, Justin Turner’s maskless run onto the field was a lot like college students’ maskless partying in the wake of reopening campuses — yes, it’s incredibly dumb, but when under the influence of alcohol/hormones/having just won the World Series, you kind of have to expect some people to do incredibly dumb things. Which is why we have rules against doing dumb things, and league officials and college administrators and U.S. presidents who are supposed to enforce those rules. It’s not Andrew Friedman’s job, in other words, to be as confused as Nigel.

And even as MLB has been frantically issuing statements that, hey, they told Turner to stay off the field and he wouldn’t listen, there are frankly more concerning things about the league’s actions here than how many security guards they assigned to the Covid isolation room. (Presumably if a fan had tried to run onto the field they would have done more than just ask them nicely to stop, right? But I digress.) Even if Turner had sat placidly and watched the celebration on TV, he’d been in close proximity to the rest of his team, often indoors in the clubhouse, for weeks prior to this, which according to both CDC and MLB rules meant everyone else on the team should be immediately quarantined. USA Today initially reported that “the team will have multiple rounds of testing before leaving Texas.” Instead, this happened:

Yes, indeed, Some Guy Named G, you’re not likely to start testing positive until at least four days after you yourself are infected, but you can be infectious that whole time. So Mookie Betts testing negative yesterday is no guarantee that Mookie Betts isn’t silently transmitting coronavirus to everyone else on that team plane, or wherever else he goes back in Los Angeles once he gets off it. Justin Turner risking infecting his teammates for the sake of a photo op with the championship trophy was reckless and impulsive; the Dodgers and MLB risking infecting even more teammates by sticking a whole bunch of potentially infectious people on a plane together was an institutional failure of responsibility.

Getting back to Burneko’s point: There’s a common defense by people in power who want to deny responsibility for their actions that they’re just giving the people what they want, whether that thing that they want is carbon-spewing cars or cigarettes or guns or the freedom to decide whether to wear masks or, yes, billion-dollar sports stadiums to buy tickets to. (This is an especially common gambit by the people who stand to make money from the questionable items being sold.) But the whole point of being in power is that you have power, and by your actions, you set the stage for what behavior by other people is not just acceptable, but possible. So while it might be fun to blame Justin Turner for being a lunkhead, or people in Maine for holding that deadly wedding, a public health crisis like this one only highlights how vital it is to have some mechanism for authority — whether it’s an elected government, an unelected league management, or an anarcho-syndicalist executive officer of the week — who can and will establish and enforce rules about not being a lunkhead. All else, as we’ve so recently been reminded, ends in bears.

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World Series ends with Covid-positive Justin Turner celebrating on field without mask, sportswriters sum up Rangers’ $1B stadium as “unnecessary,” all is as it should be

The baseball postseason that would never end has finally ended, fittingly enough with a late-inning Covid controversy as Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner had to be removed from the final game of the World Series in the 7th inning after receiving a positive test result, went back on the field without a mask to celebrate with his teammates, then complained that he “couldn’t be out there to celebrate with my guys.” Truly, the only way this could be more cringey would be if MLB chose this moment to bring back the ad slogan “Baseball Fever: Catch It!

But even as we wonder how Turner contracted the coronavirus while supposedly in a bubble and why he then sat next to a cancer survivor with no mask on, let’s not allow this bizarro World Series to pass into history without enjoying the glimpse that it gave us of the Texas Rangers‘ new $1 billion stadium, about half a billion dollars of which came from Arlington residents so that the team would no longer have to suffer the indignity of playing in a stadium without air conditioning. We’ve already heard the few fans in attendance extremely inappropriately calling the place “breathtaking”; now ESPN has polled its reporters on the scene of what they think of the place, and the reviews (edited for length and maximum hilarity) are decidedly meh:

Alden Gonzalez: It’s a modern, bigger, more comfortable, yet less charming — and in my opinion, unnecessary — version of the old place.

Jeff Passan: It’s fine. … Aesthetically, there’s nothing particularly inspiring about it.

Jesse Rogers: It feels cozy, especially if you’re in the lower bowl, but the tradeoff was going straight up. If you have a fear of heights, this is not the park for you.

Gonzalez: My least favorite part is that it doesn’t feel intimate.

Passan: From above, the place looks like what would happen if a Costco and a barn had a baby.

Gonzalez: What’s better is that it has a roof.

Rogers: OK, it’s cool when it opens and closes, but this is Texas. Besides the occasional storm, what’s the need for a dome?

Okay, I left out a few nice things the ESPN trio had to say about Globe Life Field — apparently the fence height is “perfect,” according to Gonzalez, which is totally a reason to spend $1 billion to build an entirely new stadium — but the upshot is that they think this is a “middle-tier” stadium, not the best or the worst, with a “corporate” feel but some nice brick columns. That’s something that could be said of lots of modern stadiums, including the one it replaced, but I guess they had to come up with something to say beyond “it would have been more impressive if they’d kept the old stadium and set a billion dollars on fire in center field.”

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MLB’s plan for fans at World Series should work fine if viruses agree to take a break while you’re eating

Once the MLB playoffs get past this current war of all against all stage, they will retreat to two sets of “bubbles,” with the National League headed to the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros home parks, while the American League will be hosted at the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres stadiums. And since Texas is a state that allows fans to attend outdoor sporting events at 50% capacity, MLB announced yesterday that it will be selling tickets to the N.L. Championship Series and World Series at Globe Life Field in Arlington. About 11,500 tickets will be made available per game, which is about 28% of the stadium’s 40,518-seat capacity.

The reason for doing this is obvious: LCS seats are slated to go for between $40 and $250 and World Series tickets between $75 and $450, so if both series go seven games MLB can expect to rake in from $20 million to $40 million just from ticket sales, not even counting concessions and souvenirs and all the other crap well-heeled baseball fans will plunk down money on after a summer of having nothing baseball-related to buy other than cardboard cutouts of themselves. But MLB is concerned about your safety too, so they will be imposing Covid protocols for those who wish to attend games:

  • Tickets will be sold in “pods” of four, with each pod separated from its neighbors by at least six feet. No seats will be sold within 20 feet of the field.
  • Masks will be mandatory “except when actively eating or drinking at their ticketed seats.”
  • Food sales will be pre-packaged and “contactless,” with no filthy money changing hands.
  • No bags will be permitted except for diaper bags or those required for medical reasons.

On the surface, this nods to all the science of preventing coronavirus spread — distancing, masks — but there are some worrisome loopholes. First off, while the pods will be sacrosanct, with no breaking them up to sell them to other fans, there’s no way to ensure that people seated in the same pod are members of the same household. That means — unless ticket buyers have to provide names of everyone in their party at purchase and IDs will be checked on entry, like for airplane flights, which seems like it would involve a lot of contact and non-distancey lines — there’s nothing stopping someone from buying four tickets and then inviting along three “friends” who they know from their long acquaintance at the other end of a Paypal transaction.

Way more concerning, though, is the bit about masks being required “except when actively eating or drinking.” Aside from being hard to enforce — we’ve already seen lots of fans taking masks on and off at NFL games — it’s not like the virus is going to see if you’re eating or drinking at the moment and go, “Oh, that’s cool, I won’t spread right now.” Having more people masked for more of the time is useful harm reduction, but adding a loophole for eating or drinking is a major potential disease vector.

(The bag thing has nothing to do with viral spread — what, are they afraid people are going to sneak in virus in a backpack? — and everything to do with making sure people eat only food they buy from the league.)

And then there’s the biggest elephant in the room, which is that Globe Life Field is a roofed stadium; in fact, that’s its entire reason for existence. If there’s one thing that’s become clear about the virus that causes Covid, it’s that it spreads far more effectively indoors than outdoors, thanks to stagnant and recirculating air. I’m not aware of any studies that investigate whether roofed sports stadiums should count as “indoor” or “outdoor” for viral spread purposes, but suffice to say there won’t be any passing breezes refreshing the air at the Rangers ballpark if the roof is closed.

But don’t just take it from me. Listen to an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Public Health on that school’s plans to all fans into (outdoor) football games:

Audrey Pettifor, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Gillings School, said reopening the stadium is not a good idea, calling it “crazy.”

She said she had doubts about just how safe thousands of people gathering in a stadium could really be, especially considering the amount of infrastructure required for safe entrance and exit from the stadium, as well as the difficulty of enforcing sanitation and mask protocols on individuals.

“If everyone wore masks, then we would say the risk of transmission is probably really low, no matter the size of the crowd,” Pettifor said. “But if there’s a hole in that chain, depending on the number of positive people in that crowd, the number of people who are unmasked and the number of people who are closer than six feet apart, then our risk starts going up.”

MLB’s plan to sell tickets to postseason games is full of holes. (In its chain. Which normally has a hole in each link, but okay, it’s not a perfect metaphor, just go with it.) So far there don’t appear to have been any major outbreaks at NFL or MLS games that have allowed in fans, so maybe MLB will be able to roll the dice here and everything will be fine. Or maybe the league is inching up to the line where it will recreate Game Zero in Milan, and then loose tons of newly infected fans to bring the virus back to their home towns once the games are over. We still have a limited number of risk bullets, and we — or at least MLB officials and the governor of Texas — are choosing to spend them on rich people getting to watch baseball games in person.

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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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D.C. and Houston both predict World Series windfall from visitors from opposing city, what could possibly be wrong with this logic?

With the World Series underway, Washington, D.C.’s tourist bureau has estimated that the city will see a $6.5 million windfall from hosting games, partly from added Nationals fan spending and partly from spending by visiting Houston Astros fans:

“We are going to be welcoming business that we would not have without the World Series here,” McClain said. “You can really feel the excitement throughout the city, whether you are watching with folks at local restaurants and bars or just walking down the street seeing all the Washington Nationals gear that people are wearing.”…

“New York is closer, and so people can make that decision to come to D.C. closer to the times of the games. … If it’s Houston, it’s really just a distance thing, in terms of people having to take flights here, and so that just becomes a little bit more limiting in terms of the visitation estimate,” McClain said.

Houston, meanwhile, is excited for the $9 million windfall that the Greater Houston Partnership estimates the city will receive thanks to visiting Nationals fans:

“It’s wonderful hosting the World Series because it gives us an opportunity to show businesses and people outside of Houston what a great place this is,” Jankowski said. “It gives an image of a winning team, a winning season and enthusiastic sports fans. Houston needs images like that — not the images we saw with [Tropical Depression Imelda].”

Okay, so here’s the thing about baseball games — in fact, about all sporting events: Only one of the two teams can be the home team. Depending on how long the World Series goes, Houston will host from two to four home games, and Washington from two to three; and each time fans from one city travel to the other, they leave their home city. So while there may be an influx of big-spending Washington fans in Houston for tonight’s Game 2, there will be that many fewer people spending money in Washington tonight (and, perhaps more the point, that many more Washingtonians returning to town tomorrow with drained bank accounts); and vice versa for Friday’s Game 3 in Washington. “Let’s boost our local economies by first us sending you a bunch of our fans and then you send us a bunch of your fans!” sounds more like a design for a perpetual motion machine than a legitimate economic argument.

There is some positive impact from a World Series game, obviously: A few locals probably do increase their spending somewhat instead of just reducing their other entertainment spending by the same amount, and there are visiting media crews and whatnot who rent hotel rooms and eat dinner the same as baseball fans do. But the numbers are fairly marginal: A 2005 study by economists Victor Matheson and Robert Baade determined that “any increase in economic growth as a result of the post-season is not statistically significantly different than zero,” though they also guesstimated the economic impact at $6.8 million per home game, which is actually quite a bit more than the D.C. and Houston studies are promising.

I just got off the phone with Matheson, who says that the issue is the $6.8 million figure wasn’t statistically significant, so “the answer could be zero,” or could be more. He added that any actual positive impact could come in the form of fans traveling into the city from the suburbs to see games — “you want to be in a Houston sports bar rather than a Galveston sports bar to watch the game” — or from, say, expatriate Astros or Nats fans driving down from Philadelphia to D.C. for games and bringing their spending with them. So the ultimate economic activity numbers being put forward by the D.C. and Houston groups may not be too far off, even if their explanation of them is kind of nutty.

In any event, though, that’s all “economic activity,” which Matheson once memorably defined to me as: “Imagine an airplane landing at an airport and everyone gets out and gives each other a million bucks, then gets back on the plane. That’s $200 million in economic activity, but it’s not any benefit to the local economy.” So really the lesson here for journalists and sports page readers alike is twofold: Take the claims of tourism booster agencies with an enormous grain of salt, and always ask what the tax revenue impact will be, not just the economic activity impact. Or just use your basic brain skills and understand that you can’t make two glasses of water more full by pouring them back and forth into each other, and you can save time on reading news coverage at all.

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