Friday roundup: Tokyo Olympics back on, NFL doesn’t understand vaccines, and other hygiene theater stories

It was yet another one of those weeks, where you finally look up from the news that’s obsessing everybody only to find that while you weren’t looking, monarch butterflies had moved to the verge of extinction. There doesn’t seem to be an end to this anytime soon — which is pretty much the motto of this website, so let’s get on with it:

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Friday roundup: OKC Thunder want their subsidies sooner, Indy Eleven want theirs later, let me repeat back your orders to make sure I have it right

I’ve already thanked everyone individually, but I’d like to give a collective shoutout to all the readers who signed up as FoS Supporters this membership cycle. The money you send translates directly into time I can spend covering stadium and arena news for you, and I remain extremely heartened by your support. If you sent me your mailing address, your magnets should be en route; if you didn’t, send me your mailing address already, these magnets aren’t going to ship themselves!

And speaking of covering stadium and arena news, let’s cover some stadium and arena news, why don’t we:

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WTF is up with that “vote” on a new Madison Square Garden: an investigation

Checking back in on a Friday afternoon because I have a bit more information about that new Madison Square Garden proposal that, according to a very bad website, “the City Council voted [on] this week in a Community Board Five meeting,” which is not a sentence that makes any sense.

Turns out the vote had nothing to do with the New York City council, but rather was of the Land Use, Housing & Zoning Committee of Manhattan’s Community Board 5, which is a just slightly less significant body. (Community board consideration is a required piece of the city’s land use process, but their votes are just advisory.) The meeting took place on Wednesday on Zoom, and can be watched in its entirety here.

The board’s unanimous vote was actually on several things, including endorsing including this project in the environmental impact study for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Penn Station expansion project, and also allowing for a shorter extension of MSG’s operating permit — you know what, let me just quote myself here by way of explaining what that is:

Madison Square Garden itself is privately owned, but an obscure section of city zoning law (Section 74-41, if you’re playing along at home) requires any arena of more than 2,500 seats to obtain a special permit from the city. MSG’s initial permit was issued in 1963, and for whatever reason was set to expire after 50 years; when that date rolled around in 2013, the city council, bowing to the wishes of Penn renewal advocates, granted only a ten-year extension, ostensibly to give the Garden’s owners time to make plans to decamp to a new site. (Technically, MSG could stay put, but only if it reduced its capacity to 2,500 seats—the arena can currently pack in over 20,000 spectators, depending on the event.)
Since 2023 is right around the corner, and it would almost certainly take years to get this mammoth project approved and built, CB5 has now formally endorsed the idea of a short-term extension to let the Knicks and Rangers hang out for a few more years at the current MSG in the meantime.

What happens next is not much, at least immediately. Committee member E.J. Kalafarski said during the meeting that a draft scope of the project, which is the very first step in the land use process, was “published on the internet this last week”; I haven’t been able to find it yet, but will keep digging. In any case, after that it needs to have a draft environmental impact statement done, and then it goes back to the community board for consideration, then to the borough president, then the city planning commission, and finally the city council. (If the state takes over the property, it would go through a different approval process — as the Brooklyn Nets arena did — but would still take a while.) So, nothing final for a year or two at least, but this is the beginning of the beginning.

As far as how much this would cost or who would pay for it, none of that is even remotely sketched out yet. And the design documents published by New York Yimby are just some sketches done by former Manhattan city planning director and current local resident and architect Vishaan Chakrabarti, which may or may not be adopted by whatever developer may or may not be interested in building this monster.

So, this is still very early days, but it does seem like there’s at least a little momentum for “clear out the current MSG space to make for better Penn Station access by building a new MSG a block away something something something.” This is very much worth keeping an eye on, but it’s also very likely that nothing much will be happening immediately, especially what with no one knowing whether big urban office buildings have a future anymore or not. More news as events warrant.

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Friday roundup: Jacksonville doubles down on $200m+ Jaguars subsidy, MSG replacement vaportectured, Norfolk arena sabers rattled

So, yeah, some stuff happened this week, and is continuing to happen now. But let’s not let rampaging Viking cosplayers distract us from the fact that the new year has also brought a resurgence in sports subsidy activity, with a whole lot of news that normally I might write individual posts about if I hadn’t been up too late refreshing Google News, so instead you’ll have to bear with me through some long bullet points:

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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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Everything sports leagues are getting wrong about letting fans into games, ranked

Another week, another pile of news about sports leagues grappling frantically with what to do about a world where, on the one hand, billions of dollars of revenue are at stake, and on the other, if you let people gather too close to each other for too long, lots of people could die. Let’s start with the NBA, which just completed its successful playoff bubble for the 2019-20 season and is currently trying to figure out how to play next season starting in maybe January:

  •  “Roughly 40 percent of the NBA’s annual $8 billion revenue is tied to arena-related spending on tickets, concessions, parking and merchandise,” notes the Washington Post. Since the NBA salary cap is tied to revenue, this means the league and players will either need to reach an agreement on adjusting that formula for the upcoming season, or seeing draconian cuts in how much each team is allowed to spend.
  • The just-completed playoff bubble worked well, but asking players to spend months more away from their families is likely a non-starter — especially, says the Post, “because the NFL and MLB are operating without bubbles.”
  • NBA commissioner Adam Silver has pointed to “rapid testing” as a necessary advancement before fans can be allowed back in arenas. “If it becomes possible to administer coronavirus tests and get instant results, such a process could be added to the check-in procedure at NBA arenas and facilitate fan attendance,” writes the Post. “‘There are a lot of pharmaceutical companies focused on that,’ Silver said. ‘There’s a huge marketplace for that.'”

Okay, a couple of things here. First off (no, I’m not really going to be ranking these, headline poetic license, sorry), it’s more than slightly worrisome that the MLB and NFL non-bubbles are being used as precedent for the NBA’s plans, since those two have each led to significant outbreaks on several teams. At least these have mostly so far been nipped in the bud by fast quarantines; so if the NBA doesn’t mind scheduling a bunch of makeup doubleheaders, it might work, depending on your definition of “work.”

As for rapid testing: Yes, it is a big problem that testing takes so long right now, as most people are really only able to find out whether they were sick several days ago, which isn’t nearly as helpful from a prevention-of-disease-spread standpoint as finding out if you’re sick right now. But if Adam Silver genuinely thinks you can just scan everybody at the turnstiles and turn away anyone who’s positive and thus create a safe bubble, he needs to read up on how this virus works — for starters, you can be infectious for 48 hours or more before you start testing positive, so while rapid testing could screen out some disease spreaders, it’s hardly a panacea.

The NBA still looks like a bastion of public health concern, though, compared to college football, where the approach is neatly summed up by Lauren Theisen’s Defector article “A Willingness To Risk A Superspreader Event Is Now A Competitive Advantage“:

  • Texas A&M not only admitted 24,709 fans for Saturday’s game against Florida — just under 25% of the 102,733 capacity at Kyle Field; the state of Texas actually allows 50% capacity, though no one’s tried it yet — but it packed fans pretty close together in sections near the field, for maximum intimidation factor, but also minimum social distancing.
  • In response, Florida head coach Dan Mullen now wants his stadium at full 90,000 capacity, “to give us that home-field advantage that Texas A&M had.” The state of Florida has no official limits on fan attendance currently, and Theisen warns that this “could become a dangerous arms race over the next several weeks of the season.”
  • In the largely unregulated world of the NCAA, this is likely to be decided unilaterally by individual schools, just as they’re now deciding whether to cancel games based less on whether they’ve had positive coronavirus tests than on whether they’ve been forced to admit they’ve had them.

And then there’s baseball, which let 10,000 fans (more or less — on TV it looked like less, anyway) into Arlington’s new stadium for last night’s first game of the NLCS between the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers, raking in their first ticket sales of the year. (Though not for outrageous prices by postseason standards, if StubHub is any guide, with some seats available for under $50.) The roof was open and usable seats were distanced, though they appeared not to be staggered by row — it was tough to tell given how the Fox broadcast avoided any crowd shots. And one 9th-inning homer was followed by an image of two bros hugging each other while unmasked, which may help explain why Fox mostly eschewed crowd shots.

How dangerous is all this? We simply don’t know yet. We do know that outdoors is safer than indoors, but also masked is safer than unmasked and distanced is safer than not distanced; whether piling 90,000 college football haphazardly masked college football fans on top of each other outdoors would spread more virus than distributing a few thousand masked-and-rapid-tested NBA fans around an indoor arena is something that we can only know for sure after someone tries it and sees whether it leads to bodies piling up in hospital corridors. There is some promise in reports that universal masking can result in infections that are less deadly, thanks to reduced viral load — basically, less virus at one time may give the immune system a fighting chance. But even then those less-sick people could still go home and spread virus all over a relative who then gets really sick, so it’s still more silver lining than actual solution.

In a sane or at least less profit-driven world, we’d all be waiting for the results of studies like the one in Germany where they simulated virus spread at an actual indoor concert with masked and distanced fans. But that’ll take a while to get the results from, and college football has to be played now, dammit. Instead, we’re likely to get a patchwork of policies, which could be a disaster or could be totally fine, and we won’t know which until after the fact. Just keep in mind that even if it does turn out totally fine, that doesn’t mean it was a good gamble — just because the surgery worked doesn’t mean it was worth the risk. That’s probably an especially hard lesson for sports fans to learn, since sports analysis is so prone to “pinch-hitting with your worst hitter was a genius move, because he ended up hitting a home run!” reactions, but it’s an important one if you want to successfully win games or ward off a virus, more than once in a blue moon.

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Friday roundup: Jaguars’ billionaire owner wants $232m in tax money, plus guess-the-Angels-rationalization contest!

We made it another week further into the future! Sure, it’s a future that looks too much like the recent past — bad pandemic planning and stadium deals with increasingly more well-disguised subsidies — and we’re all still here discussing the same scams that I really thought were going to be a momentary fad 25 years ago. But the zombie apocalypse hasn’t arrived yet, so that’s something! Also the Star Trek: Lower Decks season finale was really excellent. Gotta stop and smell the flowers before refocusing on the underlying horror of society!

And with that, back to laughing to keep from crying:

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Friday roundup: Utah may build stadium for rugby (and the children!), Suns build big-ass kitchen, plus more robots than you can shake a stick at

Happy October! We seem to have now reached the uncanny valley of the epidemic, where some things are returning to almost normal — or even hyper-normal, as in the case of the baseball postseason having expanded to include so many teams I keep expecting the Sugar Land Skeeters to show up — while other things remain sadly unchanged. I guess if there’s a silver lining it’s that the resumption of some normal things hasn’t caused the pandemic to worsen perceptibly (yet), but that’s what people were saying about the Netherlands back in June and that didn’t work out well at all. Just wear your masks, people, and don’t take them off to eat or talk on the phone or talk to the president, and let’s hope for the best.

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Very bad article predicts where Sixers arena will go without discussing who would pay for it, this is just how journalism works now

Want to read a really bad article about Philadelphia 76ers owner Josh Harris’s quest for a new arena? Sure, who wouldn’t! But, you may be asking yourself, how do I know that I am identifying every possible bit of badness, for maximum schadenfreude action? Fret no longer, for here is a step-by-step guide:

  • Start by looking at the URL to see if it’s from a legitimate news source, or whatever passes for one these days. “Play Pennsylvania” appears to be a site about gambling in Pennsylvania, but all of its domain registration contacts are in Malta. This, it turns out, is because it’s owned by a Maltese lead generation company, “lead generation” being corporate jargon for “getting people interested in things.” The author of the article is at least an award-winning freelance journalist and former standup comic, but we’re not off to a great start.
  • On to the article itself: “The Sixers have made it clear they do not intend to rent the Wells Fargo Center (owned by Comcast Spectacor) beyond the expiration of their lease in 2031.” Sure, and I don’t intend to still be driving a 2013 car in 2031, but you know what? Unless I find one that saves me so much on operating costs that it’s a better deal, or someone buys me one, I probably will be.
  • “When you own a venue, you own the development rights and collect rent from every concert promoter, trade show and college team to whom you lease the space.” You also own the debt from building the place, and the additional revenues from renting it out are seldom enough to pay that off, especially in a city that would then have two similar-sized arena competing for concerts and trade shows. (Remember concerts and trade shows? Those were good times.)
  • “They have options. Of course, matters like ‘who pays for it/tax incentives’ and infrastructure will ultimately drive the decision.” Yes, matters like that! Now let’s never speak of who’ll pay for it again, because this is not that kind of article!
  • “Building another arena next to the existing one doesn’t make economic sense. … A new arena will need to be somewhat removed geographically from the existing Sports Complex and have the opportunity to develop other uses with it.” This is a worthwhile nod to the above point about arena glut, but also completely misses the point about how arenas compete: Being across town from another arena isn’t sufficient to avoid conflicts. That’s why New Jersey’s Izod Center shut down in 2015 after competition from Newark’s Prudential Center ten miles away (and also Brooklyn’s Barclays Center across two rivers) when it was paid to shut down by, hey look, it’s Josh Harris!
  • “Here are three locations the Sixers should consider for their new home.” This is the real point of the article, and look, I get it, the Sixers are in the news, and you write for a somewhat sports-adjacent sort-of publication, and “Where else could the Sixers go?” is the kind of thing that might get you a few clicks, and you’re probably being paid based on your traffic numbers. But “Where will the local team owner build his inevitable arena?” is a tired bad-journalism cliche at this point, especially if you’re not looking at how it would be paid for or if he would even want one if somebody else weren’t helping to foot the bill. Especially if you’re just speculating wildly without any apparent sources for where Harris might actually be looking. (Top three wild speculations, if you’re wondering: Camden, on the Schuylkill River near 30th Street Station, and “I dunno, maybe the suburbs somewhere?”)

To be fair, this post actually isn’t much worse than the kind of thing one frequently reads in the actual daily news media — but that’s more an indictment of the actual news media than an endorsement of this. Coverage of sports stadium demands has been pretty bad for decades, and now that reporting is being left to overworked, underpaid writers working for shadowy offshore gambling-promotion companies, it’s only going in the wrong direction. Media literacy is the only real solution at this point, so as long as there’s still money for quality schooling instead of it being siphoned off to pay for private development projects … oh. I see what you’re doing, sports barons — well played!

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Sixers owner waits six whole days after arena plan collapse to start plotting new arena plan

Me, six days ago, after Philadelphia 76ers owner Josh Harris’s plan for $700 million in public subsidies for a waterfront arena crashed and burned:

This is almost certainly not the end of Harris’s lobbying for a new arena, though: He still wants out of the building he rents from the Flyers once his lease expires in 2031, so there will almost certainly be a Plan B and C and all the way up to Floob. … The Penn’s Landing mini-saga is over for now, though, and 2031 is still a bit away, so expect a lull while Harris regroups and seeks his next opportunity.

So I might have been just slightly optimistic about that lull:

“They just want to control their arena. They don’t want to be a tenant at this point,” said Michael Barmash, a broker with commercial real estate firm Colliers International in Philadelphia, who is not helping in the search for a new site. “There are options out there.”…

What the Sixers may want most of all is to escape the Wells Fargo Center’s remote, parking-lot encircled corner of South Philadelphia in favor of a bustling enclave of restaurants, hotels and other amenities for fans to enjoy, said Thomas Hazinski, who advises teams and cities on stadium projects as a managing director with Chicago-based consultancy HVS.

Okay, so this isn’t Harris himself trying to jump-start new arena talks in the media, though he did issue a team statement that “we intend to explore all options in Philadelphia for when our lease expires in 2031,” which is well-established code for “let the bidding war commence!” And engaging in media campaigns by proxy is also a well-established tradition, so it’s reasonable to at least be suspicious that Harris has been talking to real estate firms and stadium advisors about how it’d be a shame if anything happened to the Sixers playing in Philly.

As for that “bustling enclave,” it’s tough to say if that’s what Harris really wants — all evidence is that arena-district spending by fans is pretty minimal, so maybe what Hazinski really means is that Harris wants to get to own a lot of stuff in addition to an arena, which would make more sense. Still, Harris has to know that the most lucrative part of sports venue development is the subsidies, and the best way to get those is to rattle sabers as early as possible about the possibility of your team moving across state lines, and oh look, there’s a mention of Camden in the Philadelphia Inquirer piece, right on schedule. Maybe we shoudn’t expect to wait too close to 2031 before the Sixers arena plans rear their head — after all, one person’s lull is another person’s campaign planning period.

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