NFL and MLS about to start letting fans in, is this a terrible idea or what?

So far, the restart of sports in the U.S. has gone reasonably well: Sure, there were a few embarrassing pratfalls like the Miami Marlins having to stop playing games for a week after they had a dozen players test positive for Covid when they played a game right after initial positive tests because their shortstop said it was okay, but overall, things are working out much better than one might have feared. No league has actually had to stop play entirely (yet) as the result of outbreaks, and leagues playing in “bubbles” like the NBA and NHL have avoided even interruptions for individual teams.

The one thing that major North American leagues haven’t tried yet, though, is allowing actual fans to attend games. That’s about to change big-time, though, as two MLS teamsReal Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City — are about to join FC Dallas this week in holding games before limited-capacity crowds. (FC Dallas played its first home game before a reported 2,912 fans two weeks ago, though it didn’t look like no 2,912.) And then the floodgates are set to open September 10, when the NFL season kicks off with the Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, and Jacksonville Jaguars all set to play before about one-quarter-capacity crowds, with a dozen other teams either considering letting fans in or not yet having announced plans. In each case, there will be rules in place to protect fans — staggered entry times, mask requirements (except when eating or drinking), buffer zones between groups of seats, etc. — or at least to make fans feel more reassured that they’re being protected.

The question everyone wants to know the answer to: Is it safe? The answer, unfortunately, isn’t easy to determine: Sure, lots of overseas sports leagues have readmitted fans without ill effects, but those were all in nations with very low Covid rates — if you collect 13,000 people in one place and none of them are infectious, that’s not much of a test of how fast the virus can spread at a sporting event. The new-case rate in the U.S. has fallen by about a third over the last three weeks, but it’s still higher per capita than anywhere other than Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, or Spain. And certain states remain far worse than that: Texas would have the third-worst numbers of any place on the planet if it were its own nation, yet the Cowboys are preparing to reopen to fans for their first game, and the Houston Texans possibly for their second home game starting in October.

The science behind viral transmission at sporting events remains the same as it’s been since the spring: The more time you spend near someone, the closer you get, the more indoors with poor ventilation, and the less effective mask wearing, the more likely you are to get sick. So in theory, all the measures being taken by sports teams should help reduce risk, though item #1 suggests that if the NFL is really serious about fan safety, it should reduce the length of games to one quarter.

Trying to determine the exact risk level from attending one of these games is impossible, and in any case kind of beside the point. Will you get sick from Covid by going to an NFL game, even if fans don’t strictly obey all the new rules? (Sporting K.C. is talking about a “three strikes you’re out” rule, which isn’t exactly reassuring given that security will have to be policing more than ten thousand people while also keeping track of their card count.) Probably not — even during the Atalanta-Valencia disaster plenty of people didn’t get sick.

But in epidemiology, what’s important isn’t whether you get sick but rather whether somebody gets sick, and sticking 13,000 people in one place, even one socially distanced place with masks on, is a whole lot of dice to roll at once. And the risk then isn’t even just if you go to the game — check out the Maine woman who died after a Covid outbreak at a packed indoor wedding that she didn’t even attend, after she caught the virus from one of the 30 people who caught it there.

Really the question, then, is less “Is it safe to go to an NFL game in the middle of a pandemic?” than “Is it safe for a nation in the middle of a pandemic to allow people to go to NFL games?” The only way to know for sure is to do a huge experiment, with human subjects — and for better or for worse, that’s what we’re about to get.

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Friday roundup: Battles over Blues arena, Vegas bond subsidy, Belmont land for Islanders

Let’s get right to this week’s remainders:

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Real Salt Lake got secret $1m-a-year tax break, nobody noticed for five years

I’ve written almost nothing about the Real Salt Lake MLS team over the years, except for a brief mention of a minor-league soccer stadium the club at one point promised to build if given public land, a proposal team owner Dell Loy Hansen later backed out of, with the state later spending $10 million to build it as a rodeo arena instead. Anyway, this was mostly because Hansen wasn’t demanding the kind of public subsidies that get this site’s attention — or at least, wasn’t demanding any he was letting the public know about:

By asserting it was losing money, the Real Salt Lake soccer team quietly persuaded Salt Lake County officials to cut its property tax on Rio Tinto Stadium by nearly half starting back in 2012.

That off-the-field victory has saved the team more than an estimated $5 million in taxes since then…

Why are you only telling us this now, Salt Lake Tribune?

The tax cut happened so quietly that it never drew public attention until now. Even Salt Lake County Council members who approved it say they don’t remember the vote nor discussing it, noting it was buried among more than 700 revaluations proposed by the county assessor’s office in the same meeting.

Apparently a local commercial real estate agent, Joe Scovel, stumbled across the five-year-old tax break, and the Tribune then followed up. Hansen, it turned out, not only argued that his team was losing money, but that other local teams’ low stadium assessments meant that he should get a break too — including that one city-owned stadium wasn’t taxed at all, which, right, that’s how municipal ownership works.

Instead of taking this as a sign that maybe other stadiums were getting off scot-free, then-Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan agreed to devalue RSL’s Rio Tinto Stadium by 42% to save the team about $1 million a year in property taxes. Why he did this, I’m sure no one will ever know—

Dolan — who would receive a hefty $10,000 in campaign donations from RSL or Hansen in subsequent years — backed Hansen’s request and sought the City Council’s agreement.

The upshot of all this was that Salt Lake City, which was counting on the team’s property tax payments to pay off the $11 million in bonds it sold to help pay for the stadium, is now dipping into its general fund to make the payments instead. Nice work, everybody! Especially the county tax assessors who wrote the bill so that nobody noticed until Dolan was safely out of office. At least now Dell Loy Hansen gets something substantial in his category entry on this site — I bet that was really embarrassing before now when the sports team owners gathered to smoke cigars and sip brandy and whatever else they do.

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Real Salt Lake pitches privately funded minor-league stadium on public fairgrounds land

The owners of Real Salt Lake are looking to build an 8,000-seat minor-league soccer stadium at the Utah State Fairpark, and say they will foot the entire $13 million bill themselves. Or, put another way, the owners of Real Salt Lake want a chunk of state land on which to build a minor-league soccer stadium, and for the state to foot the rest of the $80 million bill for renovating the Fairpark. Without more details about the proposed stadium lease and the rest of the Fairpark redo plans, we can’t really know for sure.

Either way, it’s interesting that RSL is looking to locate a minor-league USL affiliate in its home town, which unless I’m mistaken would be the first time an MLS team has attempted this. (There are several examples in baseball, including the successful Brooklyn Cyclones and the somewhat less successful Staten Island Yankees.) It seems tough to imagine that a USL team could be profitable enough to make a $13 million stadium pay off, but maybe when you add in the benefits of having your own developmental team within commuting distance? Either way, it’s a proposal that bears watching.

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