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.

Indiana senate offers to pay $112m toward MLS stadium, team owner won’t commit to putting in $30m

The Indiana state senate on Tuesday night passed its bill to provide Indy Eleven with $112 million worth of soccer stadium subsidies ($8 million a year for 25 years, if you’re counting at home — here’s a present value calculator to get you the rest of the way there), plus an unspecified amount of money for even more renovations to the Indiana Pacers‘ arena and Indianapolis Colts‘ stadium. So of course, the Indianapolis Star headlines are all about how the team owners will have to put in money, too! Won’t anyone think of the team owners?

Indy Eleven owner Ersal Ozdemir called it a “good bill” — you’d hope he would, since it gives him a series of $8 million checks — but he still found things to whine about, namely that he wouldn’t get the cash until he landed an MLS franchise (the Eleven are currently in the USL) and that he would have to put in any money himself:

Ozdemir sees a scenario in which his team has its first game in a new stadium in three years. But he thinks the stipulations in the current bill — a down payment on the stadium and a Major League Soccer franchise ahead of time — could delay any debut…

In Wednesday’s interview, Ozdemir declined to say whether the team was willing or could afford to pay 20 percent of the construction cost, which would be about $30 million.

The bill still needs to pass the state house, but last time soccer stadium subsidies were proposed back in 2015, it was the house that approved it and the senate that rejected it, if that means anything. Also, last time Ozdemir was only asking for $82 million in stadium funding, and $112 million is a lot more than $82 million, but either stadiums have gotten a lot more expensive in the last four years or Ozdemir is seeing an opening for state funding and getting greedy — you make the call.

Also also, remember that people in Indiana hate this whole sports subsidy idea, not that anyone is asking them.

Friday roundup: Leaky fountains, cheap stadium beer, and the magic of computers

The world may be on vacation this week, but the stadium news decidedly is not:

Indianapolis Colts don’t rule out demanding third new stadium since 1984

The Indianapolis Colts were one of the early adopters in the stadium extortion game, moving from Baltimore in the dead of night in 1984 in exchange for a sweetheart deal at the then-new Hoosier Dome, and then going back to the well just 24 years later to get Lucas Oil Stadium built with the most expensive public NFL stadium subsidies up to that time. So surely there’s no way they’d become the first sports franchise to get three new stadiums in less than a half-century, right?

The current contract between the Colts and the city and the Capital Improvement Board, which operates Lucas Oil Stadium, runs from 2008 through the 2037 season. But if the Colts are not among the top five NFL teams in gross operating revenues in 2030, the team can terminate the deal…

Asked whether the Colts would need a new stadium to remain in Indianapolis past the current contract, [Colts COO Pete] Ward said the team hopes not but “it’s impossible to speculate that far ahead in today’s rapidly changing world.”

Well, that’s reassuring!

The team owners couldn’t actually break the lease and move until 2034, but you know that that wouldn’t stop them from trying to get a new stadium built earlier — hell, there’s already been talk of the Tampa Bay Rays moving if they don’t get a new stadium, and their lease doesn’t let them leave until 2027. So I wouldn’t count out the chances of the Colts at least shooting for a three-peat before the 50th anniversary of Moving Van Night.

The whole Indianapolis Star article that the above quotes are from is worth reading, as there are some other interesting nuggets as well, including Indianapolis deputy mayor for development Jeff Bennett remarking of the lack of development springing up around the ten-year-old football stadium that’s open for ten whole days a year: “I look out my window at work every day and see the stadium and the neighborhood around it. It’s just a matter of time now. The interest is there. It’s not a question of ‘if’ anymore, it’s ‘when.'” Hopefully before 2034!

Study shows Super Bowl only sells 22% as many hotel rooms as NFL claims

If you want a good concrete example of how Super Bowl economic-benefit claims are bunk, just keep in mind this paragraph from a Sunday New York Times article on the subject:

In a forthcoming paper, [Berry College economist Frank] Stephenson examines the 2012 Indianapolis Super Bowl, which generated 224,000 hotel stays, according to its economic impact report. Indianapolis serves as an apt comparison to Minneapolis since it is a cold-weather city in the Midwest. Actually, in the week leading up to the Super Bowl and the three days afterward, Indianapolis hotels rented an additional 49,000 rooms compared with what would be expected, less than a quarter of the estimate.

That is a large discrepancy! We’ll have to wait for Berry’s full paper to get into the nitty-gritty of where all those Super Bowl visitors are staying, but it certainly helps explain why other economists like Holy Cross’s Victor Matheson have found the economic impact of the game to be less than a quarter what the NFL and host cities claim.

Stephenson goes on to note that there’s likely a ton of leakage of that money from the local economy, since fans “don’t give it to the housekeeper or bellboy or front-desk person; a lot of it just flows to whoever owns the hotel” — or as Matheson once put it, “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.”

Meanwhile, the city of Minneapolis is spending $50 million on hosting the game (on top of the billion dollars or so it put into the Vikings‘ new stadium that’s hosting it), though it says it’s raised it from corporate donors. I think I’ll wait to see what the actual numbers look like after the fact, though — it’s becoming increasingly clear that when it comes to the Super Bowl, you want to check the final bill, not the initial estimates.

Indianapolis Colts’ roof gets stuck, clearly they need a new one

It’s no secret that I am not a football fan — I never was much of one, and League of Denial put the nail in that coffin — and so I’d forgotten until now that the Indianapolis Colts‘ Lucas Oil Stadium has a retractable roof. Or at least had one until yesterday, when half of it decided to get stuck:

They finally got it closed a few minutes ago (11:40 am, according to the Indianapolis Star), but you just know this is going to lead to the Colts demanding a new stadium, since it’s been nine whole years since the team built this one with $715 million in public money. I’m joking, I think, but given that this is Indianapolis, maybe not.

New stadiums are falling apart too, nobody’s calling for them to be replaced (yet)

So a bolt fell off the retractable roof of the Indianapolis Colts‘ Lucas Oil Stadium last night and hit a woman in the head. This came just two years after a railing collapsed at the same stadium, and just a little over a week after a piece of concrete fell in a concourse at the Detroit Tigers‘ Comerica Park.

Now, it’s important to understand that this stuff happens, though obviously it’s not ideal. When it happens at older stadiums, though, it’s taken as a sign that they’re dangerously outmoded and in need of replacement — recall both the falling expansion joint incident that helped launch Rudy Giuliani’s campaign for a new Yankees stadium and the falling Wrigley Field concrete that began talk about replacing or renovating the Cubs‘ home field. When it’s a newer stadium, though — Lucas Oil Stadium stadium opened in 2008, and Comerica in 2000 — it’s just an unfortunate mishap.

Of course, given recent trends in stadium lifespans, it’s probably not all that early for the Tigers to start talking about needing another new stadium to replace Comerica. Anybody spotted Mike Ilitch returning a blowtorch and hacksaw?

Indiana to give Goldman Sachs $71m in Colts bond refinancing, that sure sounds bad, don’t it?

You know, if can’t count on the business press to give us full information about obscure financial instruments, who can we count on? BloombergBusiness reports that:

The Indiana Finance Authority, which borrowed for the home stadium of the Indianapolis Colts National Football League team, is paying about $71 million to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to end an interest-rate swap as part of a bond sale to refinance debt.

That sounds bad — and it is bad, because it means Indiana made a lousy bet when it agreed to an interest-rate swap in financing the Colts stadium in the first place. But is this really an extra $71 million coming out of the pockets of Indiana taxpayers? The new fixed-rate bonds are at an awfully low rate, so you’d need to weigh that $71 million lump-sum cost against the savings from not having to pay higher interest rates in the future, and then compare it to the projected bond costs when the deal was first agreed to, and … no matter how far I scroll down in this Bloomberg article, it’s not going to tell me any of this, is it? Sigh. Suffice to say that this could be a good thing, or a bad thing, or making the best of a bad thing that was done years back — the only sure thing is that Goldman Sachs is getting paid, which is always the only sure thing.

Sports teams can’t save a city, but if you squint hard enough you can pretend they can

You probably didn’t even know that Gary, Indiana spent $50 million in 2002 to build a sports stadium for an independent-league baseball team, theGary South Shore RailCats— I didn’t know, so I’d be stunned if you did. But now that you do, I bet you’re wondering, “Wait, are people really flocking to downtown Gary, Indiana just because there’s a minor-league baseball team in town?

Fortunately for you, the Times of Northwest Indiana has the answer, and it’s no, not so much:

Walking down Fifth Avenue, where the U.S. Steel Yard is located, it’s not hard to see how much remains to be done. The Steel City Buffet owned by the Gary Empowerment Zone across from the stadium is again in search of an operator. The barbecue joint in the same building is empty. A Bennigan’s restaurant was kicked out of the Steel Yard itself after shootings outside, rowdy nights inside and failure to pay rent…

And it’s hard not to notice the largest projects counted by the mayor as successes have all been heavily, and in some cases completely, subsidized by government. Stand-alone private investment is almost nil.


“There is a lot of traffic out there,” said Christopher Maxfield, 42, owner of a small building with apartments and shop space just across from the stadium. “I just wish it would slow down a little and that some of them would stop here.”…

“The impact the stadium has had for me?” Key muses as business winds down for the day at Fresh Coast Coffee Co. “I’d say it’s more a psychological benefit.”

“It serves to mitigate a lot of the negative publicity the city of Gary has received,” Key goes on to say. “Now thousands of people have come into Gary on a summer evening and had good family fun.”

That’s all pretty typical of what one tends to hear from businesses around sports facilities — it’s nice to give people something to say about your downtown other than that it doesn’t have any doctors or dentists or Walgreens-style general stores, as is the case in Gary, but it’s really hard to catch the firehose of people swarming into games and back out three hours later to build, say, a restaurant clientele. But it’s nice to see a local newspaper interviewing actual business owners to see the impact or lack thereof of a sports facility, unlike … oh, say, Indianapolis Star columnist David Masciotra, who chimed in today with this Atlantic Cities piece about how stadium subsidies are working out at the other end of the state, in Indianapolis:

In the 1960s, visitors and all but the most loyal residents gave it the nickname “Nap Town.” The joke being that the only thing to do in Indianapolis is take a nap… Now, Indianapolis is still the host of the Indy 500, but it is also home to an NBA team, an NFL franchise, a minor baseball team, 200 restaurants, 300 retail shops, 28 museums and galleries, and 12 performing arts theaters. All of these entertainment venues and service businesses attract a growing market of Indiana visitors and out-of-state tourists…

The New York Times praised Indianapolis’ “thriving culture scene,” while the Los Angeles Times called the success of its revitalization project, “breathtaking.”

The unemployment rates in Indiana and Indianapolis are lower than the national average, and both the state and city have sizable budget surpluses.

The essay, which features zero quotes from anyone actually in Indianapolis, is already getting shredded by Atlantic Cities commenters, who have noted errors both small — the Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984, not “the 1970s,” and the city hosted the Super Bowl in 2012, not 2006 — and large — that “sizable” city budget surplus is actually a $55 million deficit, and comes on the heels of years of painful budget cuts to close past budget gaps. Which weren’t entirely created by the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on new buildings for the Colts and Pacers, or by the tens of millions more that the city gave to the Pacers to keep playing in their brand-new arena, but it sure didn’t help.

To be fair, by the end of the article Masciotra does credit Indianapolis’s alleged renaissance — which, as one flabbergasted Indiana correspondent wrote to me, is sourced partly to an L.A. Times article from “19-friggen-86” — to not putting all its eggs in the basket of sports, but rather to “cross-sector partnership” that helped spur new shops and “the second largest collection of urban monuments in the country.” (And also to lowering property and business taxes and privatizing services, which also haven’t actually worked out all that swimmingly.) But that just raises the question: If you still have to build public fountains and give tax breaks to downtown businesses in order to create development, can you really claim that it was sports that provided your magic beans?

Indianapolis tops off $715m Colts stadium subsidy by building new suites for 5-year-old stadium

What do you get for a team owner for whom you’ve already gotten everything? If it’s Indianapolis and Colts owner Jim Irsay, apparently the answer is $2 million worth of new luxury suites:

For leaders of the Capital Improvement Board, which runs the city’s sports venues and convention center, the city’s $2 million investment is worthwhile because it keeps the $720 million stadium, which opened in 2008, at a “top-notch level.”

Which is totally to the benefit of the city and not just the Colts, because, um. But the Colts are paying $700,000 for some new ad boards for themselves at the same time, so it’s a public-private partnership, right?

In the grand scheme of things, $2 million on top of the $715 million that the CIB already spent to build Lucas Oil Stadium isn’t really all that much. Still, coming on top of the $33 million in operating subsidies the CIB threw at the Pacers three years ago, Indianapolis just solidified its lead as national champion at throwing good sports dollars after bad.