Friday roundup: Throwing good money after bad edition

This will be remembered as the week that all 30 MLB teams played at once, after the Cincinnati Reds returned from being sidelined by a positive Covid test … for one whole day, until the New York Mets were sidelined by two positive Covid tests. Is this a sign that having 900 players plus coaches plus other staff flying around a country with some of the highest Covid rates in the world is likely to keep resulting in occasional infections? Probably! Is it a sign that the MLB season is doomed to fail? Probably not, given that the season is almost halfway over already, though it’s going to get interesting once the “Everybody Plays!” postseason kicks off and a positive test result means delaying the entire schedule, and/or maybe playing entire playoff series as seven-inning doubleheaders. There’s increasing talk of playing everything after the first round in a bubble in, uh, Texas and Southern California, which sounds like a terrible idea but the NBA has managed to keep its players uninfected in the eye of the Covid hurricane in Florida, so who knows, really. Maybe there are no good ideas right now, only more and less terrible ones.

Anyway, enough about the goofy baseball season that could end up with a sub-.500 team winning the World Series, let’s talk about what you’re really here for:

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Friday roundup: Stadium news reporting hits rock bottom, don’t believe anything you read (except on this site, duh)

Hey look, it’s Friday again! The St. Louis Cardinals are maybe (assuming no positive test results today) going to start playing games again tomorrow for the first time in 17 days; if they pull it off, and no other teams have outbreaks in the meantime, it will be the first time in nearly three weeks that all 30 baseball teams will be in action, and every team in the four major U.S. sports that are in action. That’s way better than I expected, frankly, and shows that isolating players from the general public (and each other) can work — there’s probably a decent chance that most leagues can limp to a conclusion without shutting down entirely, though football remains an enormous question mark with such huge rosters and no bubbles. Still, glass half full, that’s what I always say! (Okay, I never say it, but I’ll say it now.)

In other newses:

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With college football season on the brink, what can we learn from sports leagues that have restarted play?

College football’s Mountain West conference canceled its fall season yesterday, with the possibility of holding it next spring instead, and the “Power Five” conferences (Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12, the Big Ten, Pac-12, and Southeastern) are reportedly set to meet today to discuss doing the same. This has led to a flurry of reactions from across the sports and political world as to whether it’s a good idea to play contact sports during a raging pandemic (players: yes, if there are safety protocols; doctors: maybe no if you don’t want players to risk lasting heart problems; Donald Trump: blarrrrrrgh!), with lots more tweets surely to follow.

This makes it a good time to take a step back and see what we’ve learned so far from sports leagues that have restarted since Covid took hold this spring, and what it can tell us about how to proceed from here. Unfurl the data points:

That is, honestly, not a terrible track record overall — back in the spring, it wasn’t clear that any sports leagues would be able to finish out their seasons, so a range from successful restarts to “limping along but might make it to the finish line” is better than expected. And there are definitely some lessons that we can learn from the spread of results:

  • If you want to play sports without an outbreak of virus, start with less virus. I mean, duh: The best way not to get infected is not to be around people who are infected, and in places like Taiwan, players could pretty much be sharing forks without much worry about contracting Covid. Likewise, even if NHL players busted out of their Canadian bubbles and hit the casinos (which are open), the level of community spread there is low enough that they’d stand a good chance of rolling the (metaphorical, virus-related) dice and coming away lucky.
  • Bubbles work. There was tons of skepticism that the NBA could pull off its bubble in the middle of the world’s biggest Covid hot spot without tons of infections, but so far it’s working well. Of course, we’re not even two weeks into the resumption of the season, and the entire two-month playoffs are still to go, so it remains to be seen if the league can keep its protective wrapping intact through October, especially as players start going stir-crazy. (Though player families will be allowed to enter the bubble at the end of the first round on August 30, after they’ve quarantined for two weeks.)
  • Testing works, sort of. The Marlins and Cardinals outbreaks have gotten lots of attention as a sign that MLB didn’t really have a plan for its bubble-less season — and, indeed, there are lots of signs that it didn’t, especially when the decision on whether the Marlins would play after positive tests at one point came down to texting their shortstop to see what he thought. And the uncertainty on when it was safe for teams to resume play has exposed all kinds of issues with how to interpret test results, thanks to everything from false positives and false negatives to the problem that it can take a few days for someone to test positive even after contracting the virus. But on another level, it’s a success: MLB has been aggressively testing its players — to the point where there are concerns that athletes are soaking up testing capacity and causing delays in test results for civilians — and managed to keep any outbreaks from spreading beyond those two teams. That may be the best you can hope for in a non-bubble league.
  • Actually playing sports doesn’t seem to be a huge risk. Unless I’ve missed something, there remain zero cases of athletes catching the coronavirus from opponents during games, even in higher-contact sports like soccer. (Early speculation that the Marlins got infected from the Atlanta Braves‘ catchers appears to have been incorrect — the Braves players never tested positive, though they did have Covid-like symptoms — and it’s more likely someone picked it up by going out for coffee or drinking at the hotel bar.) That actually jibes well with research that shows that “Successful Infection = Exposure to Virus x Time“; it’s simply hard to get infected if you’re only in close proximity to another player for a couple of minutes at a time. What’s super-dangerous is being in a clubhouse (or hotel bar) with teammates for extended periods, as witness how both the Marlins and Cardinals outbreaks spread like wildfire through those teams, even taking out the Philadelphia Phillies‘ visiting clubhouse attendant who shared indoor breathing space with the infected Marlins.
  • Indoor sports, and those with more contact, are less charted territory: The only good examples we have so far for indoor sports transmission are the NBA and NHL, which have barely begun play, and which are taking place in virus-free bubbles, so we haven’t seen how an outbreak would play out there. Likewise, nobody’s played any American football since the pandemic began; Australian Rules Football teams have been forced to bubble in hotels and move games to less virus-y parts of Australia, but don’t seem to have suffered major outbreaks among players, at least.
  • Getting Covid can be really, really serious, even for young, healthy athletes. As noted above, one of the concerns pushing college football to consider postponements is that doctors are noting an increase in myocarditis — basically, inflamed heart muscle — among college athletes, something that could be a passing thing, or could be a chronic problem. Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez has already been ruled out for the entire 2020 season thanks to Covid-related heart problems, and while team execs say they’re “very optimistic” he’ll make a full recovery, with a disease that’s only existed in humans for less than a year, they’re really only just guessing.

That’s still very much a work in progress, and lots more questions remain unanswered, including what on earth MLB should do if one of its teams suffers a Marlins- or Cardinals-style outbreak in the middle of the playoffs. Baseball officials are reportedly considering setting up bubbles for its postseason, though they’d still have to figure out how to have teams and their traveling parties quarantine first for two weeks; also, right now the only advantage teams finishing with better regular-season records would get in the expanded playoffs would be home-field advantage, which wouldn’t mean much if no teams were playing at home. As for college football, it’s hard to say what the risks are until someone starts playing and we see how many people turn up sick, though the indicators for a sport with tons of teams and huge rosters and no bubbles sure don’t seem too promising.

Still, there are some lessons here, and they’re reasonably hopeful ones: If you can manage to play in a nation with low virus levels, or keep your players and staff from ever interacting with the outside world, you can play sports, and maybe even allow fans in, relatively safely — though “relatively” is obviously less reassuring if you wind up being one of the few players getting sick. Really, the most important message here is the same one as for the rest of our pandemic world: If you want to reopen things that are important to you, keep wearing masks and stay away from house parties. The best way not to contract Covid remains having fewer infectious people to catch it from, so if it means shutting down restaurants and bars to keep schools open — or shutting down college football to allow other activities to proceed, or even shutting down everything until viral levels are down to near-zero — that’s the kind of calculus we need to be making right now. It worked for New Zealand!

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Friday roundup: What if a stadium tax break fell in the forest and there were no journalists around to hear?

Sorry if the posts were a bit light this week, but, one, it’s August (checks — yep, August, holy crap) and local governments are mostly out of session so it’s usually a slow month for stadium news even during what we used to call normal times, and two, I’ve been spending some time working on an FoS-related project that hopefully you will all enjoy the benefits of down the road a bit. (I also took a brief break to write about how Melbourne, Australia has declared a “state of disaster” and imposed strict new lockdown measures for virus rates that in the U.S. wouldn’t even get states to ban house parties.) If you were really missing me chiming in on the latest in baseball not shutting down just yet and instead adding a billion doubleheaders, maybe I’ll get around to a longer post on it next week.

For now, a quick tour through some of the news items that didn’t make the full-item cut this week:

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Friday roundup: Deadspin est mort, vive Deadspin (also baseball may be dead again, film at 11)

This was another shitty week in what feels like an endless series of shitty weeks, but with one undeniable bright spot: On Tuesday, the former staffers of Deadspin announced the launch of Defector, a new site that will be everything the old Deadspin was — sports and news reporting and commentary “without access, without favor, without discretion” — but this time funded by subscriptions and staff-owned, so safe from the threat of new private-equity owners decreeing that they stop doing everything that made the site both popular and worthwhile. I’ve already explained why I thought Deadspin desperately mattered for anyone who cares about sports’ role in our greater lives, or just likes great writing that makes you both laugh and think; you can read here my own contributions to the old site before its implosion (not sure why the article search function is listing every article as written by Barry Petchesky, who knows what the private-equity people are up to). Needless to say, launching a DIY journalism site in the middle of the collapse of the entire journalism business model is an inherently risky prospect, so if you want to give the Defector team a bit more of a financial foundation to work from, you can subscribe now. I already have.

But enough good news, let’s get on with the parade of sadness and horror:

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Rams stadium’s new artificial lake deemed “gentrification,” but that’s only half the story

Writing a post based on a news story based on tweets is not exactly my favorite way of doing journalism, but in this case, I think it’s warranted. Newsweek, which still exists after passing through a series of ownership changes that included a bizarre money-laundering scheme, reports that residents of Inglewood are increasingly griping on social media about how the Los Angeles Rams‘ new stadium is getting all kinds of fancy gewgaws while the city’s schools remain underfunded; one declared of the team’s new artificial lake: “This is gentrification.”

https://twitter.com/ch1chi_xoxo/status/1288718599532589056

As someone who’s written books on both stadiums and gentrification, I think I’m uniquely qualified to nitpick this, or at least to delve a little deeper into the implications of stadium-led redevelopment.

One of the arguments often made by community members opposed to sports projects — or any kind of big development projects — is that they will price existing residents out of the neighborhood. The evidence that sports venues actually make a neighborhood a more enticing place to live is fairly weak: Stadiums bring excitement and crowds, but also public drunkenness and traffic problems. And while you can definitely find plenty of examples of stadiums that saw luxury housing rise up around them, luxury housing has been going up in cities all over America as part of the Great Inversion; as I noted a couple of years ago, the New York Jets having their stadium on Manhattan’s then-low-rent West Side rejected didn’t stop developers from coming in with a new plan that put up tons of new luxury housing, with the help of a few billion dollars in taxpayer funds. Sometimes the causality even runs the other way: Stadium builders target a neighborhood because they think it’s primed for gentrification and they can reap the benefits by speculating on land around their new venue.

If anything, what stadiums do to smooth the way for gentrification is what might be termed the bulldozer effect. As I discovered in researching The Brooklyn Wars, one of the biggest reasons why big development projects or rezonings can lead to hikes in housing costs and displacement of existing residents — even when you might think that building lots of new housing should lead to lower rents in simple supply-and-demand terms — is that they provide an easy excuse for the demolition of neighborhoods, or at least large stadium-sized parts of neighborhoods, that are standing in the way of rapid gentrification. With cities increasingly attractive places to live for people with money, for all the same reasons they grew so big in the first place (easy access to jobs and culture, mostly), the only real thing keeping them from gentrifying even faster is the distaste of many suburbanites for living next to the black and brown people with low incomes who settled there when their parents and grandparents decamped for the suburbs in the first place — at least if there aren’t a few local artists or white dads with baby strollers around to make the place feel like it has “potential.”

Which, finally, is where the artificial lake comes in. It isn’t receiving any public money that I can tell, but by carving out a chunk of Inglewood and repurposing it as a playground for the moneyed classes (or at least for people who can afford football tickets, who tend to be pretty well-off), it creates a bubble of perceived safety that allows other developers to market Inglewood to newcomers who might otherwise turn up their nose at living next to Inglewood residents. In fact, this is exactly what Inglewood Mayor James Butts said he was hoping for when he compared the stadium to the Genesis device in Star Trek: Wrath of Khan that turned a lifeless planet into a utopia, which really is an odd way to refer to the city of more than 100,000 human beings that you are supposedly representing.

New stadiums and artificial lakes, then, are less about directly luring people to cities, and more about rebranding them. Which surely must seem tempting to mayors who Google their own cities and are met with this:

All of which would be fine and great if Inglewood could be made less dangerous in a way that allowed current residents to benefit from the improvements, rather than risk being priced out as a result. (In fact, the crime rate in Inglewood has already been dropping pretty dramatically.) But in an America defined by massive and still-widening inequalities in wealth and income, that’s hard to pull off, at least not without freezing rents and banning evictions.

In the anthology New York Calling, labor historian and musician Philip Dray memorably recalled a time when he first moved to Manhattan’s Lower East Side (artist on the block! quick, tell your friends looking for cheap city apartments!) and went to a block association meeting about the city’s offer to install new street trees on the sidewalk:

All the white people want the trees, but the Hispanics are against it, saying that prettifying the block will just drive the rents up. The whites are kind of numb — how can anyone not like trees?

This is America: A land where people are afraid to have nice things because they’re afraid it will just make someone with more money want to take them away from them. That’s not the only reason why stadiums continue to get built while teachers have to make GoFundMe campaigns to buy books for their students, but that’s pretty much impossible to understand without it.

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Friday roundup: The baseball gods are very, very angry

Happy baseball season, everybody! Last night the New York Yankees were leading the Washington Nationals 4-1 when MLB commissioner Rob Manfred came out to explain the new playoff system in which 16 teams will make the postseason and the only advantage you’ll get from winning your division is home-field advantage in empty stadiums, at which point the baseball gods tried to kill Manfred by hurling lightning bolts at him and the game had to be called. This really could not be a more auspicious beginning.

Anyway, stadium and arena news, that’s what you’re here for:

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Buccaneers could get $10m in federal money to let people go to NFL games in middle of pandemic

The Hillsborough County Commission is set to vote tomorrow on spending $10 million in federal CARES Act money to equip the Tampa Bay Buccaneers‘ stadium with stuff to make attending games there … the word The Athletic uses is “safer,” but we’ll be the judge of that. Among the stuff that would be paid for with the public funds:

  • Touchless ticket scanners: $502,475
  • A new public-address system in parking lots so that fans can hear when it’s their turn to enter the stadium: $250,000
  • Stanchions and barriers to “set up queuing inside the stadium for escalators, ATMs and other areas”: $225,000
  • 6,600 traffic cones to mark off (socially distanced?) parking spaces: $50,000 (checks out: apparently traffic cones are crazy expensive)
  • Conversion to touch-free toilets, sinks, and soap and paper-towel dispensers: $788,000
  • PPE for stadium staff ($300,000), “employee protection guards” ($550,000), and reconfiguring the press box and other areas to make it easier for people working there to socially distance ($550,000)

So on the one hand, all these seem reasonable things to do if you’re looking to reopen a sports stadium anytime soon, and arguably even good investments for the longer-term future, assuming we’ve all recognized now that everyone communally touching the same items is a vector for all kinds of microbes. And the CARES Act money is earmarked for projects to improve “public safety,” at least according to The Athletic, though I can’t actually find the language in the bill itself. (It’s really long.)

On the other hand, the CARES Act money is finite, and Hillsborough County is looking at choosing to spend what cash it has on a publicly owned facility that mostly benefits a private sports business. (The University of South Florida also uses it for college football games, if there are any college football games this year.) Bucs owners the Glazer family stand to make a ton of extra revenue if they’re able to sell tickets this season, but it doesn’t sound like they’ll be on the hook for any spending to allow that to happen.

There’s also some curious information in The Athletic about the timing of the upgrades:

The agenda proposal calls for the first and largest phase of the project to be completed by Oct. 31 (about midway through the NFL season as currently scheduled) and the balance finished by the end of the year.

So at least half the season would be played without all the new fancy sinks and such, and the entire project would be completed just in time for the football season to end. But it would still come in handy for the 2021 season, if an effective vaccine still eludes us by then, and if it turns out to be safe for people to gather together so long as they don’t all touch the same things, which already doesn’t seem to be what science says.

In short: Spending $10 million in public on stadium upgrades to keep football fans (possibly) safer is arguably better than spending it on new clubhouse toasters, but maybe not absolutely the highest priority. And at worst, it can be seen as endorsing social-distancing theater: Should a county government really be spending any money on abetting the reopening of public gathering places in a state that has had more new cases in the last ten days than the entire country of China has since the pandemic began? Tune in tomorrow to see if that question gets raised by the county commission, or if it’s all just Hey, the federal government gave us this money, so it doesn’t really cost us anything, right?

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Washington to finally ditch “Redskins” name thanks to naming-rights sponsor, of all things

Well, after years of not happening at all, that happened fast: Washington NFL owner Dan Snyder is set to announce today that he’ll be ditching “Redskins” as the team name, effective … well, we’ll get to that in a second.

The interesting part here is what it took to change Dan Snyder’s mind: not years of complaints that it was offensive to Native Americans to use a racial slur as a nickname, but rather when the team’s corporate partners, including naming-rights owner FedEx, announced they would pull out of their sponsorship deals if the name weren’t changed. Which, sure, was the end result of the broader campaign to change the name — and the broader campaign for breaking down systemic racism in general — but it’s an important lesson that when you want your message heard, you need to pick a messenger who rich dudes will listen to.

So far the naming-rights revolution has been pretty one-sided: Team owners sign contracts with corporations to slap their names on buildings that in most cases taxpayers paid for and own, and everyone goes home happy. (Except the taxpayers. And sometimes the naming-rights sponsor.) This current Washington situation does, though, make clear one downside to making everyone say a corporate name when referring to your stadium and relying on that as a revenue stream: People have to associate your stadium with good things for that to be worth something, and genocide is experiencing a dip in popularity at the moment, so if you want to keep earning money, you may have to listen to what the people paying you money are demanding. It’s the same principle, really, as every boycott ever, going back to the one that helped end slavery.

The next task, then, is for Snyder to pick a new name, which he’s apparently already done — except that in the time he was refusing to consider a new name, he was so adamant about his position that he neglected to secure a backup plan:

Two people with knowledge of the team’s plans said Sunday that the preferred replacement name is tied up in a trademark battle, which is why the team couldn’t announce the new name Monday.

The presumed new name is either Redtails (after World War II’s Tuskegee Airmen) or Warriors (after the broader group of people who drop bombs on things), though that hasn’t stopped lots of Twitter jokes about how Snyder must want to call his team Lady A too. This would not be the first time that a team name was determined in part by not wanting to pay off a trademark squatter: The Tampa Bay Devil Rays reportedly got their name after owner Vince Naimoli balked at paying $35,000 for his preferred name of Tampa Bay Stingrays, which led to a name that everyone hated so much that they eventually became the Rays, which the team’s logo eventually retconned to be about the sun instead of a fish.

For the time being, then, the team will continue to be called the “Redskins,” and presumably FedEx will keep making naming-rights payments in good faith that eventually either Snyder will cough up the money for Washington Warriors or will pick a name that he can get for free. Look, here’s a whole list of ’em! I think I’m gonna go now and trademark the Washington Dooming Bearcats, just in case.

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Friday roundup: I, for one, support our new dancing robot overlords

Happy Friday, everybody! Let’s see what’s going on:

While I’m sorely tempted to stop right there, we do have some other news this week to cover, so let’s continue:

  • Oak View Group, the operator of the New York Islanders‘ new Belmont Park arena currently under construction for a planned opening next year, is reportedly interested in taking over operations of the Nassau Coliseum as well, according to Newsday “sources.” I mean, so would I if the price were right, and given that current operator Mikhail Prokhorov is $2 million behind in rent and threatened with eviction, OVG probably thinks it can get a good deal here, but still it’s hard to see this as anything other than throwing a few pennies at shutting down a rival so as not to risk any competitors making a go of it.
  • Kennesaw State University economist J.C. Bradbury has looked at the impact of the new Atlanta Braves stadium that “was intended to serve as an anchor for further economic development in the suburban business district of Cumberland that would ripple throughout the county,” and found that local commercial property values actually went down relative to similar properties elsewhere in the Atlanta metro area. Bradbury theorizes that businesses may not want to locate near all the traffic congestion of a sports stadium, or be scared off by the tax surcharges put in place to help fund the $300 million public cost. “This finding is consistent with the vast literature on the economic impact of sports venues and events,” concludes Bradbury, which is economistese for “We told you so, over and over and over again, but you wouldn’t listen.”
  • Restaurant owners in Edmonton are so desperate for business that one declared himself “super-excited” at the prospect that visiting NHL teams might place some takeout orders, and the Edmonton Journal sports section is so desperate for hockey news that it ran a whole article about it. Wait, that was in the business section? These are not glorious times for journalism.
  • The National Women’s Soccer League used a forgivable loan from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program to help pay players when its season shut down, which sounds like (and is) a subsidy but is also exactly how the PPP is supposed to work: covering salaries to keep people from being laid off during a pandemic, thus keeping the economy from collapsing even more than it is otherwise. Sure, it would have been nice if the program hadn’t run out of money before most businesses could access it, but given that the maximum player salary in the NWSL is $50,000 a year, it’s hard to complain too much about them being less deserving than anyone else.
  • The way the PPP was not supposed to work was for companies to hold onto employees and then lay them off as soon as they’d certified for the forgivable loans, but that’s what New Era did in Buffalo, and now Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz is so mad that he’s refusing to call the Buffalo Bills stadium by its New Era-branded name, which will totally show them.
  • Lots of NFL teams are planning for reduced capacities at games this fall, while the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is preparing for his players to “all get sick, that’s for sure.” And that’s the state of the NFL in a nutshell right now.
  • Hawaii can’t spend $350 million on replacing Aloha Stadium with a new stadium and redeveloping the area around it because somebody made a typo in the legislation and wrote 99-year leases instead of 65-year leases, everybody laugh and point!
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