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: Austin MLS vote, Rays demand $650m in subsidies, Islanders renderings, more!

I’m busy trying to figure out whether Congress is really going to rewrite the tax code to give a couple of trillion dollars to rich people or will melt down at the last second like it did with healthcare repeal, so this’ll be in superbrief mode this morning:

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Cowboys stadium uses more energy than Liberia, but only when the lights are on

Here’s a lesson for you, assuming that you are the president of an impoverished West African nation: Don’t try to complain that American football is wasting electricity that could be going to power your nation, in an attempt to focus attention on your country’s war-ravaged deprivation. Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf tried it, in Foreign Policy magazine, and this is the Wall Street Journal article she got in response:

Bob Brackett, is an energy analyst at Bernstein Research. Mr. Brackett took issue with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s statement in Foreign Policy that the heart of Texas football (sorry, Houston Texans) does indeed use more power than the nation of 3.7 million people

Numbers were crunched, and after the pile-on was cleared they found that the answer was yes and no.

During moments of peak demand on game day, the 80,000-seat stadium may consume up to 10 megawatts of electricity, Bernstein said. Liberia has the capacity to pump less than a third as much power into its national grid.

But with only eight games played at the stadium during regular season, peak demand levels aren’t reflective of how much electricity the stadium uses over an entire month or year. In other words, Cowboys Stadium might use more electricity than Ms. Sirleaf’s country for a few hours eight days out of the year, but it stands empty for most of the rest of the remainder.

So Cowboys Stadium (now renamed after a phone company, but apparently the WSJ’s style guide has been slow to keep up) indeed draws more power than a nation of 3.7 million people founded by resettled American slaves, but only on the days when they turn everything on for football. Or, to put it another way, in order to power Liberia for less than it costs to run the Cowboys stadium, you’d need to turn the nation off for much of the year. Not that most Liberians would notice, given that more than 99% of them already have no electricity at all.

Sorry, did I drift into talking about Liberia? Let’s return to the WSJ, which writes, “After factoring in every other U.S. football team – even the low-drawing Oakland Raiders – it becomes clear that it takes a lot of power to charge American sports.” Now there’s a conclusion everyone can agree with. And it doesn’t require thinking too much about places like … where was it again?

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Area Americans disagree on what sports facilities do for (or to) cities that build them

Moyers and Company has a bunch of stadium-related stuff up on its website, including a repost of its 2008 segment on the funding of the New York Yankees‘ new stadium, plus a collection of essays by local community activists and stadium experts on what new sports facilities have done for their cities. (Disclosure: I helped suggest a couple of the essayists.) Among the highlights:

“I invite you to take a walk around the neighborhood and see for yourself if that has happened. Businesses have closed and the remaining ones are hurting as the Yankee organization has moved many of the services inside the stadium.” —Joyce Hogi, Bronx community activist

“Forbes Magazine consistently lists Stockton as the most miserable city in the nation. For those who love Stockton, the arena is a great addition to the city; ‘I never thought Stockton could have something this nice,’ is a common refrain.” —Lori Gilbert, Stockton Record features writer

“When someone sits down with a beer and hot dog, virtually everything they see is owned by the District of Columbia. Yet all of the money earned from the stadium — tickets, concessions, advertising — goes to the team owner, Ted Lerner.” —Ed Lazere, D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute

“The stadium’s opening has been one of the greatest economic drivers for our city, providing thousands of jobs and an expanding sales tax revenue. If you combine this new revenue stream with the $500,000 expected annually from the Cowboys’ new naming rights deal with AT&T then Arlington is on pace to pay off the stadium ten years earlier than anticipated.” —Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck

Add it all up and, well, I’m not sure there’s any consensus, other than that stadiums are expensive, and that people like sports. But it does do a decent job of describing the elephant.

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Texas to prove everything’s bigger there by building $115m practice stadium for Cowboys

Late last week, word broke that the Dallas Cowboys were going to be moving their practice facilities to the Dallas suburb of Frisco, pending a vote of the Frisco city council. With everything else that was going on (hasn’t anyone told the nation’s city councils that they’re supposed to be on vacation now?), it barely registered on my radar — I figured the most notable thing was how the Cowboys’ old facility collapsed in a storm four years ago and paralyzed an assistant coach.

But I forgot: This is Texas. The financial numbers for the Frisco facility were released yesterday, and holy crap:

The city of Frisco, Frisco ISD, the Frisco Economic Development Corporation and the Frisco Community Development Corporation will pay a combined $115 million for the facilities to be built at Warren Parkway and the Dallas North Tollway in Frisco.

The agreement, which has been in the works for months, outlines the development of the indoor stadium, its use and maintenance, and the development of the team’s corporate headquarters. Those will be built on 25 of the 91 acres owned by the Frisco Community Development Corporation. The remaining 66 acres will be sold to the Blue Star companies for private development. The terms of that mixed use development are also included in the deal.

The agreement also details the formation of a tax increment reinvestment zone that will be formed on that 66 acres to generate money to finance for a separate parking structure for that private development.

That’s right, $115 million … for a practice facility. Plus free land. The TIF money, at least, looks like it’s part of the $115 million, not on top of it, but still, yeesh.

The Dallas Morning News, ever credulous, states that the practice facility is “expected” to be “a boon to the local economy as it anchors a new mixed-use development called Frisco Station.” I’ve often said that pro football stadiums are the worst possible development anchors, because they’re only active ten days a year, but a pro football practice facility might actually be even worse.

At least Frisco high-school football teams will get a nice place to play for their parents’ tax money — local high schools will get “priority” on Thursday and Friday evenings, according to the agreement. But still … holy crap.

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Cowboys get naming-rights deal, Arlington gets nickels on the dollar

Cowboys Stadium is getting renamed AT&T Stadium, in a long-awaited naming rights deal for the Dallas Cowboys stadium opened in 2009. AT&T will pay … well, no one really knows exactly how much, though the Fort Worth Star-Telegram notes that AT&T was already paying $6-12 million as an “anchor sponsor” (read: have ads all over the place) at the stadium, and so is likely tacking on about another $6 million to actually put its name on the building.

Forbes says this adds about $100 million to the value of the Cowboys franchise, which is about right for the present value of an extra $6 million worth of annual revenue. (Unlike ticket sales, naming-rights money doesn’t have to be shared with the NFL.) That should let Cowboys owner Jerry Jones inch up the billionaires’ list. The city of Arlington, meanwhile, which actually owns the stadium, is expected to get a $500,000 annual cut, based on the Cowboys’ lease that gives the city 5% or half a million a year, whichever is less. Which is more than many cities get from naming rights — for some reason, sports team owners have been able to establish that it’s standard practice for tenants to own the names of the buildings they rent — but still not likely to do much to help pay off Arlington’s $25 million a year in stadium construction debt. Not to worry, though — there are plenty of local folks paying sales tax who can keep on making up the difference.

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Businesses on Super Bowl week: Nobody goes there, it’s too crowded

The other day i mentioned a St. Louis restaurateur located near the Rams stadium who says he closes on Sundays rather than have his customers fight their way through game-day traffic. Today’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram gives a more detailed look at the mixed feelings local businesses have over the flood of humanity that accompanies football games, then disappears the rest of the year. Key paragraphs:

Just south of Cowboys Stadium, Bill Testa, managing partner of the 54-year-old Candlelite Inn restaurant along Division Street, has pre-sold his lot to a parking vendor. It is already sold out, according to Parkwhiz.com.

Testa has catered some Cowboys games and believes that his restaurant could actually see an uptick in customers because of the lane closures. Yet there’s a small “For Sale by Owner” sign outside the restaurant entrance, an indication that Testa would like to move the Arlington institution to a new location.

“It’s hard for my longtime customers to get here when a game is going on,” Testa said. “And many of my customers that used to live around here have moved away. They live in Southlake or south Arlington or Mansfield.

“If I could sell the place tomorrow, I would. But I would move somewhere else in Arlington. I’ve had tire-kickers, but nobody can get financing in this economy.”

Which is pretty much what Phil Porter found, only at the macro level.

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Dallas Morning News on lockout impact: Whatever you say, NFLPA

This week’s award for the worst stenography journalism goes to the Dallas Morning News, for its report on how an NFL lockout would affect the local economy:

The NFL Players Association contends that its members and team owners shouldn’t be the only ones worried about a possible lockout next year if they can’t settle on a labor contract.

The NFLPA sent letters to Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert reminding them that cancellation of the 2011 football season could cost $160 million in “lost jobs and revenue” for the region.

In addition, a group called Don’t Mess With Success — described as a “diverse coalition of football fans, small businesses, community leaders and other associations” — sent a letter to Arlington City Manager Jim Holgersson warning about a $140 million economic hit to the region from canceling the season.

Number of economists consulted for comment for the story: zero. Accordingly, the article never discusses the possibility that in the case of an NFL lockout, sports fans in Dallas might, you know, find something else in Dallas to spend their money on. This is the well-known “substitution effect” — possibly best exemplified by the fact that when baseball went on strike in 1994, movie rentals and comedy clubs saw their business skyrocket. But finding that out would require a five-minute Google search, which is a lot to ask of newspaper writers.

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Who’s to blame (or credit) for Cowboys’ Arlington move?

The Dallas Morning News has a long editorial (or maybe a column? hard to say, as online it’s unsigned) today asking why the Cowboys built their stadium in Arlington instead of Dallas. (This prompted by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones recounting how he spurned Dallas after Mayor Laura Miller patted him on the knee.) Among the questions posed:

Was the loss of Cowboys Stadium a failure of leadership or was a Fair Park location a fantasy that had no chance of becoming reality, particularly with Jones shopping for the best deal available? …

Where was the council? Where were the opposition leaders who gleefully blocked Miller on other issues?

Of course, who really knows if a stadium could have been built in Dallas? Fair Park was too small for what towers over Arlington.

All fine questions, but missing is one big one: Would Dallas have been better off if it had built a stadium instead of Arlington? After all, Arlington had to kick in $325 million and displace local businesses to make way for the Cowboys’ new digs; Dallas residents, meanwhile, still get to go to the games, but are spared the expense. Arlington presumably gets some added tax revenues as a result of the stadium, but it’s still a worthwhile question: Did Dallas win by losing? If so, maybe that knee-pat, if it really happened, wasn’t so inexplicable after all.

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Can Santa Clara stadium opponents avoid Arlington activists’ fate?

The San Jose Mercury News has a nice profile today of the opposition to the San Francisco 49ers stadium plan in Santa Clara (including a photo of frequent FoS reader and commenter Chris Koltermann). The article compares the Santa Clara battle to the similarly funding-deprived opposition to the Dallas Cowboys stadium in Arlington, but notes that opposition to public subsidies is much stronger in California, adding:

Arlington’s [stadium activist Wayne] Norred says the “No” side has an advantage in Santa Clara that wasn’t a factor in the Cowboys’ campaign: Two City Council members, William Kennedy and Jamie McLeod, oppose the project. Arlington’s City Council was 9-0 in favor of the Cowboys deal.

“That shows a crack in the city’s political structure on the thing,” he said. “If they are moonbats, you have a problem. But if they are reasonable people, that helps.”

Speaking of the Cowboys stadium, its price tag has now officially hit $1.2 billion. This isn’t a problem for Arlington, since the team covers cost overruns, and shouldn’t be in Santa Clara, since the 49ers have promised the same (though there’s still the nagging question about revenue shortfalls). But it is an indication of how stadiums on paper never quite match up to actually existing ones.

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