So as you all undoubtedly know by now, everything is shut down. The NBA is shut down for at least 30 days, the NHL is shut down indefinitely, MLB has canceled the first two weeks of the season, MLS is on hold for a month, this summer’s Euro 2020 tournament may be moved to 2021 so maybe the Champions League and Europa League can finish up in June and July, the XFL is shut down maybe for good, and even the Little League is on hold until April 6. And all those dates are just minimum wild-ass guesses: New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a calming voice of reassurance as ever, said yesterday that this “could easily be a six-month crisis” — and even if you dismiss him as just a guy who gets his every stray thought printed in the newspaper because he’s an elected official, as I wrote yesterday for FAIR, it’s still very much true that nobody really knows how long this will last, or how to decide (or who will decide) that the curve has been effectively flattened and life can go back to normal(ish) now.
So instead of dwelling on that, let’s dwell instead on another aspect of plagueworld that overlaps somewhat with the mission of this site: the economic impacts of shutting stuff down. I’m sure somebody out there is thinking, “But Neil, you always say that economists say it doesn’t matter much to the economy whether one sporting event or another is played, because people will just spend their money on something else like going out to eat or to a bowling alley instead. So why won’t the substitution effect save us now?”
I am, as I have to take pains to remind journalist quoting me from time to time, not an economist, but I think I can explain this one well enough: There’s a huge difference between one sports team or league shutting down and everything shutting down. Once everyone has completed their panic-shopping therapy and stocked up on a lifetime supply of toilet paper, they’re mostly not going to be looking for other things to spend money on — they’re going to sit at home and watch the Netflix subscriptions that they already paid for. And meanwhile a bunch of them are going to be out of work, and still more will be out of work once restaurants and barber shops and the like have to close for lack of business, and that will mean even less business, and soon enough the entire economy has shut down in a cycle of fear.
I was lucky to get a first-hand example of this in high school, when my U.S. History teacher had each of her classes play a game where each student was one player in late-19th-century frontier society, either a farmer or a railroad company owner or a banker or I forget what else. This made for lots of fun experience with the consequences of unregulated capitalism — I remember one friend of mine contracted to make a loan to another friend, and set the interest rate but not the term of the loan, and our teacher refused to step in and rule on when it had to be paid back because a contract is a contract — but in another class some friends of mine were in, it got even more severe: There was only one banker, and he refused to loan anyone any money at less than usurious rates, and the entire class plunged into an economic depression.
Anyway, there are lots of reasons this is going to be really bad in many, many ways, even if all these closures aren’t too late to avoid the old people being left to die in ERs that has reportedly been taking place in Lombardy. (I do not make a very good voice of calm, either, sorry.) But eventually this crisis will be over, and it’s still worth thinking about what the world will look like when we come out the other side. After all, with no sports to watch we’ve got plenty of time on our hands.
Not that everything being shut down has brought sports subsidy demands to a halt, because some things are just too big to fail:
- The Florida state senate is moving ahead with a package of tax breaks for local corporations, including Formula 1 auto racing, despite the current crisis, which even the Tampa Bay Times could see was maybe not the best timing.
- The 2026 World Cup hasn’t been canceled yet, so naturally the Tennessee Titans owners are demanding $1 million a year in state sales-tax kickbacks so they can upgrade their stadium to be a host for some of that year’s games.
- South Carolina is still giving the Carolina Panthers $115 million just to move their team headquarters (but not stadium) to the state, in case you thought maybe you dreamed that.
- Nobody knows when or if the 2020-21 NBA season will start what with the current season (maybe?) having to be finished first, but whenever it does, Phoenix Suns fans will be paying higher ticket prices to help fund the team’s portion of arena renovations, even while already paying higher taxes to help fund the public portion of arena renovations.
- Marc Normandin points out at Baseball Prospectus that minor-league baseball players don’t have a union, and so they don’t know if they’re going to be paid for the time they now have to hang around Florida and Arizona not playing games. (Minor-leaguers already aren’t paid for spring training and have to resort to stealing food from the ballpark to feed themselves.) Marc also points out that most sports teams haven’t yet committed to paying their other staff during a shutdown, though that’s in his subscription newsletter so you’ll need to kick in $5 a month if you want to read it — go ahead, it’s not like you’re going to have any sports tickets to spend it on! Prove me wrong about my substitution effect pessimism!