NFL season opens, bringing partially masked fans and completely masked stadium impact claims

The NFL season has started, something I mostly noticed because of the appearance of Defector’s (née Deadspin’s) “Why Your Team Sucks” series, and pretty much every news outlet in the U.S. had an article about how there were no fans in the stands and it was weird, something I am not going to bother recapping for you all because I already just did. Except in Jacksonville, that is, where this happened:

News4Jax reports that “officials were strict on the inside and made sure everyone followed the rules” and “News4Jax saw fans wearing masks except for when eating or drinking, and keeping distance in the stands from other pods,” which:

That looks to me more like “except when eating or drinking or talking to the person you’re probably not in a household with who is way less than six feet distanced from you,” but it’s something, anyway.

What the impact on Covid in getting-better-but-still-bad Florida (its death rate per capita is now second in the country), or on still-surging Missouri (where the Kansas City Chiefs allowed in fans for Thursday’s opener, which went not so well) is really hard to predict. That CDC study on restaurants was pretty clear that taking off masks to eat and drink is a major risk, though it’s conceivable that being outdoors will help mitigate that enough that it won’t cause an outbreak. It doesn’t look like anyone has tried to determine the impact of MLS games allowing in fans yet, and that study claiming Sturgis as a superspreader event has been largely debunked, so we’re left with things like that Champions League game in February in Italy, where nobody was masked or distanced or anything, so that’s tough to draw comparisons from. So allowing fans at NFL games is still a giant human experiment, one whose impact in all likelihood won’t be clear for a couple of months yet, at which point it will be too late to do anything about it, because that’s how modern humanity rolls.

Meanwhile, in Inglewood, the Los Angeles Rams opened their new $5-to-6-billion-ish stadium with no fans in attendance, but according the the Los Angeles Daily News’ headline, “a resurgent Inglewood has hope.” Number of Inglewood residents interviewed for the story: one.

“I haven’t felt this way since the first time my father brought me to a Rams game when I was 7 years old in the 1960s,” Inglewood Mayor James Butts said on Friday. “Even though we won’t have the crowds there’s going to be that same feeling because this is history being made.”

You can just smell the resurgence!

After all the vaportecture, I would be remiss if I didn’t include at least a couple of photos of the new Rams and Chargers stadium, so here’s a nicely postapocalyptic one, courtesy of USA Today:

And here’s a nice view of what the game would look like from the upper levels, if you were allowed to watch it from there:

Five billion dollars doesn’t buy what it used to.

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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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Saturday roundup: Manfred endorses Tampontreal Ex-Rays, NYCFC readies Bronx stadium plan (maybe), everybody in Nashville sues everybody else

Man, I sure picked the wrong week to get so sick that I couldn’t post for a couple of days! But even if it’s now the weekend and I’m only at about 80%, the news is at 110%, so let’s get to it:

  • First up is Thursday’s declaration by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred that he and baseball owners are “100% convinced” that having the Tampa Bay Rays play half their games in Montreal “is best way to keep Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay.” That’s not entirely surprising — I mean, it’s surprising that we have a major sports executive saying that the best way to keep a team from moving is to let it move half its games, but no more surprising than when Rays owner Stuart Sternberg first said it last June — since it’s very rare for sports commissioners and fellow owners to stand in the way of their fellow owners’ stadium or relocation plans, especially if it doesn’t infringe on their territories. (Speaking of territories, Toronto Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro said, “We are supportive of them exploring it,” if you were wondering.) The plan itself remains, in the words of the great unemployed sports editor Barry Petchesky, “completely batshit,” not least because it would require getting not one but two cities to build not one but two new stadiums just to land half a team, but also for a billion other reasons. It still makes the most sense as a Madman Theory strategy by Sternberg to scare Tampa Bay or Montreal into competing to build him at least one stadium — can you imagine the headlines to come about “Montreal is moving ahead with its stadium while Tampa lags behind?” or vice versa? — but sports owners are just rich, not necessarily smart, so who the hell knows what Sternberg really intends to do? Whatever it is, though, he’ll have Manfred’s support, because Manfred knows who signs his checks.
  • NYC F.C.‘s plan for a new stadium just south of Yankee Stadium has been reportedly almost ready for more than a year and a half now, but now it’s supposedly really almost ready, according to a different New York Times reporter than the one who reported the initial rumor. The outline of the plan remains roughly the same: The Yankees owners, who are minority owners of the MLS club, would allow the city to demolish a parking garage that their lease otherwise requires remain in place, a private developer would take the garage and a parcel across the street and the street itself (plus a highway off-ramp) and build housing and a hotel and other stuff on part of it while leasing the rest to NYC F.C. to build a stadium on, which would — again, supposedly — allow the whole thing to move forward without public money being used for construction. Being used for other things is another story: The Times doesn’t mention whether the team or developers would pay the city anything for the section of East 153rd Street that would need to be demapped and buried beneath a soccer pitch, or how much the developers would pay to lease the garage site, or if either parcel would pay property taxes. (The Times reports that “Maddd and N.Y.C.F.C. [would] convey the [street] property to the city” then lease it back, which certainly sounds like an attempt to evade property taxes.) City officials said that “a deal has not been reached, and more conversations are needed,” so maybe none of these things have even been decided; tune back in soon, or maybe in another year and a half!
  • The lawsuit filed by Save Our Fairgrounds claiming that Nashville S.C. stadium project would take up too much public land needed for other uses is moving to trial, and Nashville S.C. has sued to intervene in their lawsuit, and everybody’s trying to figure out if NASCAR and soccer can coexist on adjacent parcels, and soccer fans are mad that that stadium isn’t getting built yet, and the community coalition that negotiated a community benefits agreement to go along with the stadium plan is mad that nobody’s consulting them about any of this. It’s only a matter of time before Jimmy Carter is called in to resolve this.
  • Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont has put $55 million into his state budget proposal over the next two years to renovate Hartford’s arena, with the rest of the cost — estimated at between $100 million and $250 million, depending on how extensive it is — to be paid off by private investors who would get … something. The state is studying it now! Get off their back!
  • A bunch of the Carolina Panthers fans who bought “permanent seat licenses” to help finance the team’s stadium back in 1993 have found that the “permanent” part isn’t actually so much true: About 900 seats in the front of one end zone are being ripped out to make way for luxury suites for soccer (or a standing-room “supporters’ section — the latter makes more sense, but the Charlotte Observer article on this is frustratingly unclear), so fans with PSLs there are being offered either to move to other nearby locations or to sell their licenses back to the team for 25% over what they initially paid for them. No wonder everyone else started calling them “personal” seat licenses!
  • Also, the Panthers are having their stadium property tax bill reduced by $3.5 million a year, because they asked nicely. Or just asked, and are a major sports franchise and therefore an 800-pound gorilla, with all the privileges that go with that. One of those two.
  • The Jacksonville Jaguars are going to play two home games in London next year, which the team’s website says is “strategically aligned” with development in their Jacksonville stadium’s parking lot, somehow, though is one extra week of construction time really going to help them all that much? Or maybe this is some weird kind of brinkmanship, as in “approve our Lot J development, stat, or we’ll keep moving games to London?” Anyway, cue people freaking out about the Jaguars moving to London again now, which team owner Shad Khan can’t be unhappy about because savvy negotiators and leverage and all that.
  • A poll by the Oakland Athletics on where the team should build a new stadium found that Oakland residents backed the team’s preferred Howard Terminal site by 63-29%, but a poll by a group that opposes the Howard Terminal plan found that residents prefer the current Oakland Coliseum site by a 62-29% margin. Reminder: Polls are garbage!
  • This video of an entire Russian hockey arena collapsing during reconstruction work, with a worker clearly visible on the roof as it gives way, doesn’t actually have much to with stadium subsidies, but it sure is impressive-looking, in a horrific way.
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Jaguars owner mumbles incoherently about Green Day and math, clearly he wants a new stadium

Ever since Shad Khan bought the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2011 and moved one home game a year to London, there’s been talk about the billionaire car parts baron and Fulham F.C. owner either wanting to move the team there permanently, or use the threat of moving there to get upgrades to his now-24-year-old home stadium in Jacksonville, or something. This past weekend, Khan gave a long interview to his own website, as one does, and said a bunch of stuff about the matter that, well:

Khan … discussed the continuing trend of holding megaevents at TIAA Bank Field. The Rolling Stones played there in July, and Green Day is expected to play there as part of The Hella Mega Tour in 2020.

“What’s driven this for us is we want to give the community a different experience,” Khan said. “Obviously football … there is a limited demand for it. That’s why we’re playing the games here in London — that the community can’t support selling out eight games, so maybe there’s something else we can do there for the hot-dog vendors, the hotel rooms, all the stakeholders who make a living off the game.”

Won’t anyone think of the hot dog vendors? (No hyphen, incidentally: With a hyphen, it would be vendors who were hotdogging.) Khan isn’t trying to make more money by maintaining a foothold in London or anything so crass as that; he’s just trying to … leave more open dates for Rolling Stones and Green Day shows, I guess, because 355 days a year just isn’t enough?

And then:

“If we are playing a game away, we want to have one mega-experience. That kind of makes up for that from our viewpoint. If we’re playing more than one, we would want to have a couple or more.”

This last sentence may be my favorite quote about anything of all time. Does Shad Khan live in a mathematical world where there are cardinal numbers in between 1 and 2? What would football even look like in such a mathematical universe?

But anyway: News4Jax — look, you can’t expect me to stop and make fun of everything, there’s actual news to get to here — took these odd statements and summed them up with the headline “Jaguars owner Shad Khan hints at need for new stadium.” Did he, though? The closest the Khan interview actually came to mentioning a new stadium for Jacksonville was a mention that Jaguars president Mark Lamping “noted that three teams currently also in the bottom quartile in those rankings – the Los Angeles Rams, Los Angeles Chargers and Oakland Raiders – are scheduled to move into new stadiums in 2020,” which seems a bit of an oblique way of demanding a new stadium yourself, but I guess it could qualify as “hints,” if you overlook the fact that Khan wasn’t the one saying it. Maybe he’s a car parts billionaire/sports team owner/groundbreaking mathematician/ventriloquist? I’m going with that.

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Friday roundup: Jacksonville mayor says “whatever Jaguars want” on stadium renovations, that’s it, I’m done, I can’t even finish this headline

Running late on the roundup this week — I just published two new articles on the wastefulness of film tax credits and New York’s probably fruitless attempts to fight off sea level rise, plus I have another major writing deadline today — so let’s get to it:

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Florida man proposes eliminating world’s most confusing sports subsidy slush fund

The history of Florida’s state-level sports subsidy program is a weird one: Back in 2014, the state legislature, tired of dealing with constant competing asks from all of the state’s sports owners, set up a ranking system for teams to request a cut of $12 million a year in sales tax money. The next year, the panel doing the ranking approved all of the applicants, which totally defeated the purpose because there wasn’t enough money in the sales tax pool to fund all of them; the year after that, the state was asked to fund three projects that were already underway regardless of whether they got the money. It’s such a mess that no money has ever actually been approved, which while kind of a silver lining if you believe the numbers showing that the state massively loses money on these subsidies.

Anyway, that all brings us to today, with some Florida legislators trying to just eliminate the sports subsidy program once and for all, and presumably reclaim the money for other uses:

The Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee, with little comment Monday, backed the latest proposal (SB 414) by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, to repeal a controversial 2014 program that — despite never being used — lays out steps for the stadium money to become available.

“Should the Legislature decide at some point it did want to fund a particular facility for a particular purpose, the Legislature could always go back and do it the way they’ve always done it, and that is through a direct appropriation,” Lee said. “But to use this process as cover for an appropriation from this Legislature for a facility that can’t prove economic benefit, to me is just kind of a ruse.”

Lee noted that the first four applicants way back in 2015 — the Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Orlando S.C, and the Daytona International Speedway — all continued with their stadium projects even after the state rejected approving funding, which has “done the best job of anybody to make the point that these aren’t really economic development incentives,” since any economic development happened exactly the same even without the subsidies.

Of course, as Lee also noted, Florida can always approve stadium funds on a case-by-case basis, as it has done in the past. It’s hard to know what to think of this: Eliminating a stadium slush fund normally sounds positive, but if the sheer stupidity of the state funding process has dissuaded team owners from even asking for money … it’s a tough call. If I were a Florida state legislator, I’d probably call Stu Sternberg and ask what he thinks of the bill, and then vote the opposite.

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Friday roundup: Long Island residents yell at cloud over Isles arena, Calgary forgets to include arena in arena district plan, plus a reader puzzle!

It’s Friday (again, already) and you know what that means:

  • New York State’s Empire State Development agency held a series of three public hearings on the plan to build an Islanders arena on public land near Belmont Park racetrack (which the team would be getting at as much as a $300 million discount), and the response was decidedly unenthused: Speakers at the first hearing Tuesday “opposed to the project outnumbered those in favor of the plan by about 40 to one,” reports Long Island Business News, with State Sen. Todd Kaminsky joining residents in worrying that the arena will bring waves of new auto traffic to the town of Elmont, that there’s no real plan for train service to the arena, and that there’s no provision for community benefits to neighbors. Also a member of the Floral Park Police Department worried that the need for police staffing and more crowded roads would strain emergency services. Empire State Development, which is not a public agency but a quasi-public corporation run by the state, is expected to take all of this feedback and use it to draft an environmental impact statement for the project, which if history is any guide will just include some clauses saying “yeah, it’ll be bad for traffic” without suggesting any ways to fix it. I still want to see this plan from the Long Island Rail Road for how to extend full-time train service there, since it should involve exciting new ideas about the nature of physical reality.
  • Meanwhile in Phoenix, the final of five public hearings was held on that city’s $168 million Suns renovation plan, and “out of nine public comments, three involved questions, five voiced support and one was against the deal,” according to KJZZ, so clearly public ferment isn’t quite at such a high boil there. One thing I’d missed previously: The city claims that if it doesn’t do the renovations now with some contribution ($70 million) from Suns owner Robert Sarver, an arbitrator could interpret an “obsolescence clause” in the Suns’ lease to force the city to make the renovations on its own dime. I can’t find the Suns’ actual lease, but I think this just means that Sarver can get out of his lease early if an arbitrator determines the arena is obsolete [UPDATE: a helpful reader directed me to the appropriate lease document, and that is indeed exactly what it means], and he can already opt out of his lease in 2022, it’s pretty meaningless, albeit probably more of the “information” that helps convince people this is a good deal when they hear it. (Also important breaking news: A renovated Suns arena will save puppies! Quick, somebody take a new poll.)
  • Speaking of leases, the Los Angeles Angels are expected to sign a one-year extension on theirs with Anaheim, through 2020, while they negotiate a longer-term deal. It’s sort of tempting to wish that new Anaheim mayor Harry Sidhu would have played hardball here — sign a long-term deal now or you can go play in the street when your lease runs out, like the Oakland Raiders — but I’m willing to give the guy the benefit of the doubt in his negotiating plans. Though if this gives Angels owner Arte Moreno time to drum up some alternate city plans (or even vague threats a la Tustin) just in time to threaten Anaheim with them before the lease extension runs out, I reserve the right to say “I told you so.”
  • The Calgary Planning Commission issued a comprehensive plan for a new entertainment district around the site of the Flames‘ Saddledome, but forgot to include either the Saddledome or a new arena in it. No, really, they forgot, according to city councillor Evan Woolley: “It should’ve been identified in this document. It absolutely should have. Hopefully those amendments and edits will be made as they bring this forward to council.” The 244-page document (it’s not as impressive as it sounds, most of them are just full-page photos of people riding bicycles and the like) also neglects to include any financial details, beyond saying the district would be “substantially” funded by siphoning off new property taxes, “substantially” being one of those favored weasel words that can mean anything from “everything” to “some.” Hopefully that’ll be clarified as this is brought forward to council, too, but I’m not exactly holding my breath.
  • Here is a Raleigh News & Observer article reporting that the Carolina Hurricanes arena has had a $4 billion “economic impact” on the region over 20 years, citing entirely the arena authority that is seeking $200 million to $300 million in public money for upgrades to the place. No attempt to contact any other economists on whether “economic impact” is a bullshit term (it is) or even what they thought of the author of the report, UNC-Charlotte economics professor John Connaughton, who once said he “questions the sincerity” of any economist who doesn’t find a positive impact from sports venues. Actually, even that quote would have been good to include in the N&O article, so readers could have a sense of the bona fides of the guy who came up with this $4 billion figure. But why take time for journalism when you can get just as many clicks for stenography?
  • The San Francisco Giants‘ stadium has another new name, which just happens to be the same as the old new name of the basketball arena the Warriors are leaving across the bay, and I’m officially giving up on trying to keep track of any of this. Hey, Paul Lukas, when are you issuing “I’m Still Calling It Pac Bell” t-shirts?
  • Indy Eleven, the USL team that really really wants somebody to build it a new stadium so it can (maybe) join MLS, still really really wants somebody to build it a new stadium, and hotels, office and retail space, an underground parking structure, and apartments, all paid for via “[Capital Improvement Board president Melina] Kennedy wasn’t available to discuss the proposed financial structure of the project.” It would definitely involve kicking back future property taxes from the development (i.e., tax increment financing), though, so maybe Indy Eleven owner Ersal Ozdemir is hoping that by generating more property taxes that his development team then wouldn’t pay but instead use to pay off his own stadium costs, that would look better, somehow? I mean, he did promise to keep asking, so at least he’s a man of his word.
  • “At some point in time, there’s going to have to be a stadium solution,” declared the president of a pro sports team that plays in a stadium that just turned 23 years old. “If we don’t start thinking about it, we’ll wake up one day and have a stadium that’s not meeting the needs of the fans or the community.” Want to try to guess which team? “All of them” is not an acceptable answer! (Click here for this week’s puzzle solution.)
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Jaguars owner to take Wembley purchase bid and go home because England doesn’t love him enough

Whoops, turns out Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan isn’t buying Wembley Stadium after all, withdrawing his bid because, uh, it was probably going to get rejected anyway:

A senior FA source told BBC Sport that the board believed the odds were slightly against the purchase being backed, given the strong objections of some councillors to the home of English football being sold off.

FA chief executive [Martin] Glenn said Khan had believed his offer “would be well received by all football stakeholders”.

However, Glenn added: “At a recent meeting with Mr Khan he expressed to us that, without stronger support from within the game, his offer is being seen as more divisive than it was anticipated to be and he has decided to withdraw his proposal.”

This will likely put an end to talk of the Jaguars relocating to London, though 1) that was probably a dumb idea to begin with and 2) there’s nothing stopping Khan from still moving to London if he really wants, and just paying rent on a stadium instead of buying one.

Anyway, apparently not everything is for sale at the right price, at least in the UK. You can still buy Utah if you want, though.

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Friday roundup: Bad MLB attendance, bad CFL loans, bad temporary Raiders relocation ideas

And in other news:

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Friday roundup: Nevada gov candidate threatens Raiders’ roads, Phoenix sued over Suns arena plans, Rays stadium could seek Trump tax break

And the rest of the week’s news:

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