The NFL’s plan is to keep poking at the virus until people start getting sick

So this happened:

Before anyone gets too excited and/or horrified, the Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Jacksonville Jaguars have all said they’re going to continue to operate at 20-25% capacity for the time being. This was just Gov. Ron DeSantis making clear that he lifted all restrictions on outdoor sporting events two weeks ago, when he also prohibited local governments from enforcing tougher restrictions or even fining people for not wearing masks. (If you’re wondering how that’s working out, virus rates in Florida haven’t surged so far, staying fairly level — though still high — but then, it generally takes more than two weeks for a surge to take hold, and also when you’re dealing mostly with stochastic spread via superspreader events, there is a lot of randomness involved as to whether and when a surge kicks in.)

So, props to the NFL for not immediately opening the fan floodgates in Florida, sure. But that’s hardly an indicator of a league that is concerned with safety above else. As we’ve seen this week — and as Barry Petchesky adeptly recounted yesterday at Defector — the league is currently dealing with a cascade of outbreaks on teams that has now caused a couple of games to be postponed, and could end up with even more. And, writes Petchesky, it was all totally predictable:

We don’t know a lot about COVID-19, but we know a few things about sports. We know bubbles, deployed by the NBA and NHL, and by MLB for its postseason, can work. We know that not-bubbling, like MLB tried for its abbreviated regular season, doesn’t work, at least not if your goal is to avoid having to cancel or postpone games. We know the NFL, due to the sheer size of its rosters and the massive logistical undertaking that staging a football game requires, probably can’t enter a bubble. We also know that it can’t afford to postpone many more games before a backlog pushes the Super Bowl into June.

That caveat re: MLB’s non-bubble is important: If the goal of “let’s let baseball teams all play in the home stadiums while still seeing their families and going to the grocery store and whatnot” was to keep anyone from getting infected, yeah, it was a disaster. But if the goal was to find a way to limp through a season with lots of postponements and makeup doubleheaders because players weren’t willing to be separated from their families for three months — the NBA and NHL were already up to playoff season, so their bubbles didn’t have to last as long — then it worked exactly as planned.

The NFL, of course, can’t stage doubleheaders, and can’t easily reschedule too many games without adding additional weeks to the season. And with 64-player rosters (48 active, 16 on a practice squad), plus a sport that involved a lot more contact than baseball (though we’re still not clear whether that’s the main risk or it’s just gathering indoors in clubhouses that mostly spreads the coronavirus), that’s a lot more dice being rolled every week than for other sports, so it’s absolutely no surprise that we’re seeing outbreaks.

Unlike MLB, though, which after some initial stumbles realized that you need to quarantine entire teams for a week or more after each new case turns up, the NFL seems to be charging ahead on a policy of Well, hopefully nobody else caught it. After New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton tested positive on Friday, Sunday’s scheduled game between the Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs was delayed — all the way to Monday night. But it can take four or more days for an infected person to test positive, while they become infectious in as little as 48 hours. So even if Patriots players all tested negative before their Monday night game, someone on the team could easily have still been incubating the virus, and spreading it to their teammates. Which may in fact have happened.

The NFL has already been heavily invested in hygiene theater, touting its disinfecting drones and temperature checks for fans, even though neither does much at all to protect anyone from Covid. (All evidence is that the virus doesn’t spread much via surfaces, and while most people with Covid symptoms run a fever, nearly half of infected people don’t have any symptoms.) Hygiene theater is based on the idea that the easier something is to do, the more one should focus on it; the decision to hold the Pats-Chiefs game on Monday after just a 24-hour delay seems to have been the inverse: If it’s too hard to do, let’s decide it doesn’t matter.

Unfortunately, in a sport where doing much of anything to combat the spread of the coronavirus among players is really hard, that’s a recipe for, if not necessarily disaster, a whole lot of extremely risky behavior. And the NFL has another decision coming up that is going to be equally hard, if only for economic reasons: The Super Bowl is scheduled to be held on February 7 in Tampa, and DeSantis has now said that it’s okay by him if they sell out the place, and that would be worth tens of millions of dollars to the league. Even if the image of a packed Super Bowl that turns into another biological bomb may give league planners second thoughts, you know that somewhere in the league offices they’re wondering: Could we get away with 30% capacity? 40%? What if we have disinfecting drones hovering over every fan? How close can we get to the precipice of a superspreader event without going over?

And that appears to be the NFL’s policy, really: Keep inching up to the limits of what’s considered safe, see who gets sick, then inch up a little further if it’s not too embarrassing a number. As I’ve noted before, this makes for a very useful experiment about how many fans can be in one place outdoors before disaster strikes — if the NFL really wanted to do it right, it should dictate that some teams allow more fans and others allow fewer, to see what the threshold is for sparking outbreaks — but it’s an experiment with human lives, which when conducted without the humans involved knowing the risks and consenting to them is generally considered a crime against humanity. But then, playing with human lives is pretty much the NFL’s jam, so why quit now while you’re massively ahead?

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Buccaneers’ $10m stadium subsidy is part of billions in CARES Act money no one is tracking

One of the problems with keeping track of sports and other subsidies during a pandemic is that a national crisis isn’t really a great time for accountability. At a time when the priority is — rightly — on getting money into people’s hands as fast as possible, laws tend to be passed willy-nilly with little oversight; that’s doubly true with an administration in Washington that seems determined to merge the two opposite meanings of “oversight.” And even if it’s a small percentage of people who take advantage, when you’re talking about a couple trillion dollars in spending, a billion here, a billion there, it starts to add up.

When it was announced in July that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers owners were getting $10.4 million in federal CARES Act cash to pay for everything from touchless ticket scanners to new traffic cones so they could host fans at games this fall, I started digging into where exactly the money was coming from. As the CARES Act itself is crazy long and contains dozens upon dozens of spending provisions, I started by setting out to find out which pool of money, exactly, the Bucs’ cash was coming from. My circuitous research route led me to:

  • The Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration, which oversees grants to help communities respond to Covid. Got the answer back quickly: Nope, wasn’t them.
  • Hillsborough County, whose press office spent a bunch of time digging into it before confirming that the money came straight from the U.S. Treasury, with no intervening federal agency.
  • This Treasury Department document, which helpfully notes a total of $256,847,065.00 allocated to Hillsborough County (out of a nationwide allocation of more than $130 billion), but no breakdown of individual grants.
  • Back to the county, which informed me that on May 6 the board of commissioners approved CARES Act spending in the amount of: workforce training $30 million; accelerated business recovery $100 million; life/safety programs $145 million; and $10 million in a “contigency” slush fund. The stadium money was included as part of the life/safety spending.

So we’re left with the federal government having sent a quarter of a billion dollars to the county government for pretty much whatever it pleases, and the county saying, Sure, $10 million for a football stadium, that counts as “life/safety.” It’s the sort of thing that normally you’d hope would trigger a bunch of big flashing warning lights, but as Phil Mattera of Good Jobs First, which is tracking Covid spending, notes, “The Trump Administration is paying little attention to how CARES Act funds are being spent or the track record of the companies receiving the aid.”

It’s also the sort of thing that’s only likely to encourage more sports team owners and stadium operators to line up for aid, and oh hey lookit this from yesterday:

The Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners approved over $4 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding to add Covid-19 safety procedures at Amalie Arena and George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa.

Life during wartime is rough, but it can also a great time to grab fistfuls of money and run.

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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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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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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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Friday roundup: Clippers broke public meetings law, Vegas seeks MLS team, Buccaneers used bookkeeping tricks to try to get oil-spill money

Any week with a new/old Superchunk album is a good one! Please listen while reading this week’s roundup of leftover stadium and arena news:

  • The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office has determined that Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer violated open meetings laws by hiding information about the team’s proposed new Inglewood arena’s location and scope when formally proposing it in 2017, even replacing the name “Clippers” with “Murphy’s Bowl LLC, a Delaware Limited Liability Company (Developer).” Unfortunately, the DA’s office noted, it’s too late to do anything about this because the violation wasn’t reported in time, but don’t do it again, I guess? In related news, NBA commissioner Adam Silver says he supports the team’s arena plan, even though Ballmer is being sued by New York Knicks owner James Dolan, who also owns the nearby Forum and doesn’t want the competition, and who was apparently the main reason for all that secrecy on the part of Ballmer. It’s all enough to make you feel sympathetic to Dolan, until you remember that he is an awful person.
  • Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman has announced she’s looking at building an MLS stadium in her city, because “We have not become the pariah anymore, and there is no end to this. It’s so exciting,” which would almost make sense if MLS had previously steered clear of Vegas because of gambling or something and also if MLS were currently about to put a franchise in Vegas, neither of which is the case. The stadium, if it’s ever built, would go on the site of Cashman Field, where the USL Championship Las Vegas Lights FC currently play, and would be paid for by some method that the developers “would have to present” to the city council, according to the mayor’s office. It’s so exciting!
  • The owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers tried to get $19.5 million in settlement money from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster on the grounds that the team lost revenue that summer compared to the following summer when it was banking extra NFL checks that the league was stockpiling in advance of a player lockout. Amazingly, that’s not what got the claim rejected — it was only nixed when it turned out the Bucs hadn’t even stockpiled that revenue at the time, but rather did so retroactively on its books when it realized it could use it as a way to try to get oil spill settlement cash. It’s such a fine line between mail fraud and clever.
  • Inter Miami owners David Beckham and Jorge Mas have agreed to pay a youth golf program $3 million to clear out of the way of their proposed Melreese soccer stadium and move, you know, somewhere else, so long as it’s not on their lawn. This is not a ton of money in the grand scheme of things, but it is worth noting that Beckham and Mas are sinking a whole lot of money into this stadium and a temporary stadium until this one is ready and the old new stadium site that they say they’re not building a stadium on anymore; this can either be seen as a laudable commitment to private funding or a dubious business investment or, hell, why not both?
  • The Portland Diamond Project group has gotten a six-month extension on its deadline to decide whether to build a baseball stadium at the Terminal 2 site, and is paying only $225,000, instead of the $500,000 it was originally supposed to be charged. That seems like bad negotiating by the Port of Portland when they had the wannabe team owners over a barrel, but I guess $225,000 just for a six-month option on a site that probably won’t work anyway for a team that probably won’t exist anytime soon is nothing to turn up your nose at.
  • When the headline reads “New A’s stadium could generate up to $7.3 billion, team-funded study predicts,” do I even need to explain that it’s nonsense? If you want a general primer on why “economic impact” numbers don’t mean much of anything, though, I think I addressed that pretty well in this article.
  • The Los Angeles Rams‘ new stadium is reportedly set to get $20 million in naming rights payments for 20 years from a company that lost hundreds of millions of dollars last year, which is surely not going to result in a repeat of the Enron Field fiasco.
  • A reporter at the Boston Bruins‘ 24-year-old home arena was startled by a rat on live TV. Clearly it’s time to tear it down and build a new one.
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Friday roundup: Buffalo saber-rattling, Edmonton parking fee shortfall, Chicago music venues go to war against soccer plans

And in other news of the week:

  • This was actually last week, but I missed it then: Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait has led the city council in voting to conduct a new appraisal of the Angel Stadium property as Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno prepares to opt out of his team’s lease next year. Councilmember Kris Murray, one of the two no votes, argued that this was tantamount to telling the Angels to leave; Tait replied that knowing how much the land was worth would be crucial to any stadium negotiations the incoming mayor will have with Moreno. The Gang of Four is going to miss Tom Tait.
  • The owners of the Buffalo Bills and Sabres have hired consultants CAA ICON and architecture firm Populous to “give us options” for renovating or replacing the teams’ existing venues. This is not necessarily the first step toward demanding new buildings, but it’s more of a step than the Pegulas have taken thus far, so certainly bears watching.
  • The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been giving away unused tickets for free to their season ticket holders, to try to fill up the seats at their underattended games. Finally something that Los Angeles Chargers fans can point and laugh at! Both of them!
  • The $8.7 million a year that Edmonton was projecting to bring in from parking fees outside the Oilers‘ new arena turns out to be somewhat less: just $2.5 million a year, leaving the city with a roughly $57 million hole in its arena budget. City councillor Jon Dziadyk immediately leaped into action, blaming the reduced parking fees on people not wanting to drive downtown because there are too many bike lanes.
  • Hey, remember that minor-league soccer stadium a major Chicago developer wanted to build as part of a major Chicago development, originally pegged to luring Amazon to town but now with a life of its own? Turns out the whole thing would be funded by tax increment financing kickbacks, and would include three to five new concert venues to be run by the entertainment giant Live Nation that local concert venue operators say would drive their non-subsidized clubs out of business. The Chicago Tribune reports that the fledgling Chicago Independent Venue League “already had its new logo, a peregrine falcon wrapped with a snake, printed on black tee-shirts,” which honestly is going to be tough for any soccer team to top.
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Buccaneers’ state subsidy request rejected for failing to fill out forms, will try again next year

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have had their request for $1 million a year in state subsidies for their stadium renovations on top of $29 million in city subsidies rejected by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. How come? They failed to fill out all the forms:

“Due to the overall timing of our stadium renovation project,” said Bucs COO Brian Ford, “certain required documents were not deliverable within the timeframe set forth by the Statute. We anticipate submitting a complete application during the next filing period.”

The Buccaneers’ 2016 application lacked documentation on how its new construction project will increase jobs and taxable sales.

We knew all that was missing when the Bucs’ owners submitted the application back in November, but they said they’d add it later. Now “later” apparently means for the 2017 round of state subsidy approvals, which given that the only difference would be getting their $1-million-a-year pipeline started a year later probably isn’t worth worrying about when you’re worth $4.7 billion.

Still in the running for state subsidies: The Jacksonville Jaguars (already getting $45 million from city), Miami Dolphins (around $75 million from city), and Daytona International Speedway (no local subsidies yet that I’m aware of). The benefit to the state of handing out this money is absolutely zero — not just because of the substitution effect or what have you, but because the Dolphins and racetrack renovations are already underway, so it’s not like they’re only going to happen if the state kicks in money. (And realistically, the Jaguars aren’t turning down their $45 million from Jacksonville, either.) This is absolutely loony, but it’s the same loony premise that the state has been pursuing for a couple of years now, so we shouldn’t be surprised or anything. Florida, man.

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Tampa sports authority okays giving Bucs $29m as part of terrible lease deal

The Tampa Sports Authority has signed off on the Buccaneers‘ request for $29 million toward stadium renovations (it was $26 million when the Bucs owners first requested it two months ago, but, um, inflation?), paving the way for $100 million in new scoreboards and luxury suites and all the other stuff that football team owners are convinced will get people off their sofas and into football stadiums. Under the agreement, the sports authority would also get a slightly larger cut of non-football revenues, and the Bucs would get to play an additional preseason home game outside of Tampa if they want.

The $29 million is up from the $26 million that Tampa was going to be on the hook for when this was first proposed, but given that the team’s lease requires the city to split costs on upgrades with the team, the Bucs owners argued that spending $29 million on $100 million in upgrades is better than spending $26 million on $52 million in upgrades. (It’s not, really, since the upgrades all benefit the Bucs, but that’s their argument.) In any event, whether you consider this a new subsidy or a continuation of the old one is a matter of perspective, but this is $29 million in extra cash flowing from city coffers.

Now all that’s left is for the plan to be approved by the Hillsborough County Commission (which votes today) and the Tampa city council (which votes Thursday) — and, perhaps, for the state to decide on whether to give the Bucs owners another $1 million a year in state subsidies — and then renovations can begin. You can bet that folks in the Cincinnati Bengals front office are watching this one closely.

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Tampa Bay Bucs’ renovation subsidy request form is a total clown show

Not only are the members of the Glazer family, billionaire owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, asking for state money to help pay for stadium upgrades they’ve already said they’re doing anyway, but they’re doing it in the most hilarious way possible. How, you ask? Well, for starters, they applied for state funds that, under the law, they’re not actually eligible to apply for:

Local leaders are saying the Bucs had no authority to apply for a $1 million annual state subsidy for a proposed $75 million upgrade of Raymond James Stadium. The application, submitted to the state Monday, was made without consulting either Hillsborough County, which owns the stadium, or the Tampa Sports Authority, which manages the complex…

Under the new law, applications can only be submitted by local government or an entity that either owns or manages the stadium. As the tenant, the Bucs would seem ineligible without a letter of support from TSA or Hillsborough County.

Okay, so technically they should have at least told the owner of the stadium they play in that they were asking for $2 million a year in state tax money. Who can keep up with all that red tape, anyway? But I’m sure the application itself, at least, was professionally presented to make a strong case for why the Bucs need a state subsidy:

Officials from the team, valued by Forbes at $1.5 billion, wrote in pen outside the lines on the state’s eight-page application form that the team is seeking “$1 million per year for the duration of the stadium agreement.”

The application lacks any of the required supporting documentation, such as cost estimates, an economic impact analysis or evidence that local workers would be hired for construction work.

Tampa Sports Authority president Eric Hart told the Tampa Tribune that the submission was likely a last-minute placeholder to beat Monday’s application deadline, and that the team owners would submit more information later. Next time, maybe they should really save time by just submitting this.

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