Friday roundup: Coyotes late with arena rent, Winnipeg move non-threats, and good old gondolas, nothing beats gondolas!

If you missed me — and a whole lot of other people you’ve likely read about here, including economist Victor Matheson and former Anaheim mayor Tom Tait — breaking down the Los Angeles Angels stadium deal in an enormous Zoom panel last night, you can still check it out on the Voice of OC’s Facebook page. I didn’t bother to carefully curate the books on the shelves behind me, as one does, so have fun checking out which novels I read 20 years ago!

And on to the news, which remains unrelentingly newsy:

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NYC Mayor de Blasio: Sure, wealthy sports owners should pay their taxes, I guess

As I mentioned in my Gothamist article last week, a group of New York city councilmembers have called on Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to start making the city’s sports teams pay property taxes on their stadiums and arenas, which none of them currently do. (The Yankees and Mets and Brooklyn Nets all pay “payments in lieu of taxes” that are really their own construction debt payments, funneled through the city as a tax dodge; the Knicks and Rangers don’t pay taxes on Madison Square Garden because somebody accidentally gave them an eternal tax break in 1982 and no one can be bothered to repeal it.) And the campaign got a boost yesterday when de Blasio sorta kinda endorsed its call for team owners to pay their fair tax share:

De Blasio, a Democrat, was asked at his daily press briefing to respond to a letter last month from nine lawmakers on the New York City Council who called for the Garden, Yankee Stadium, the Barclays Center and Citi Field to pay property taxes. The mayor said he hasn’t seen the letter and was unfamiliar with the legal specifics, but supported the concept of requiring New York’s local teams to increase their contributions.

“Let’s be clear – sports franchises have gained incredible value over the years,” de Blasio said. “They clearly have the resources. I think the history in this city and pretty much all over the country was stadium deals were not good deals for the public, by and large. Some of the more recent ones have been better, but mostly they haven’t been that good. Everything should be reevaluated especially at a point when the city is going to need resources for our recovery.”

That phrasing puts the “blah” in de Blasio, but “everything should be reevaluated” is fightin’ words compared to the usual approach to sports tax breaks, which is for elected officials to shrug their shoulders and say whatchagonnado? And the mayor also responded to a call by 161st Street Business Improvement Director Cary Goodman that the Yankees be forced to pay property taxes just as other businesses in the neighborhood do:

“We all hope and pray that next year baseball will resume in person at some point in the year and the fans will come back and the businesses will thrive, but of course the Yankees should help them through and I assure you they have the money.”

Okay, so none of this is exactly laying down the law, and de Blasio has previously called for Madison Square Garden to pay taxes before shrugging his shoulders and saying whatchagonnado? But it’s still more than we’ve seen before, and is certain to encourage both the councilmembers and Goodman and his South Bronx business owners. The latter has a rally outside Yankee Stadium coming up this Thursday at noon, plus a Change.org petition, and with that and a long enough lever you never know what can happen.

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Friday roundup: Everything old is new again

What a week! In addition to the new site design and new magnets and new sports subsidy demands rising and falling almost before you could even register them, this week featured the long-awaited debut of Defector, the independent sports (but not only sports) site launched by the former staff of Deadspin. Read it for free, subscribe if you want to post comments and, you know, help support journalism for our uncertain future. I am a charter subscriber, needless to say, and am currently trying to decide which color t-shirt to buy.

On the down side, the entire West Coast has been set aflame by the deadly mix of climate change and gender-reveal parties and looks like a post-apocalyptic movie. The year 2020 comes at you fast. Let’s get to some more news:

  • The owners of the New York Islanders are angling to downsize the Nassau Coliseum so that it doesn’t compete with their new Belmont Park arena for sports and the largest concerts, which is problematic in that they don’t actually hold the lease on the Coliseum, and already ironic in that the Coliseum was already just downsized once so as not to compete with the Islanders’ previous new arena in Brooklyn. Maybe this whole arena glut problem is something New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo might have considered before giving the Belmont project a whole bunch of land price breaks and a new train station? Meh, probably not necessary, we’re all friends here.
  • Hey look, we’re already calling the Los Angeles Angels stadium purchase a $320 million deal even though it’s really only $150 million plus a whole lot of “thanks for some building affordable housing and parks,” that was fast, Spectrum News 1.
  • Some rare actual good news from the pandemic: Somebody in Arlington was smart enough to include a clause in the Texas Rangers‘ lease on their new stadium that requires the team owners to triple their rent payments if parking and ticket tax revenue fell short of projections, which obviously they’re doing what with nobody buying tickets or parking this year. Sure, it’s still only another $4 million, which won’t go far toward paying off the city’s roughly half a billion dollars in stadium costs, but it’s better than a kick in the head. (Also, what on earth is going on in that photo of the Rangers’ stadium that D Magazine used as its illustration?)
  • The Inglewood city council approved the sale of 22 acres of public land to Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer for $66 million, which I don’t even know how to determine whether it’s a fair deal or not anymore, but given the city mayor’s idea of appropriate oversight, I’m not super-optimistic.
  • University of Texas-Austin will have about 18,000 fans in attendance for its season-opening college football game tomorrow, but rest assured that it will be keeping everyone safe by … requiring student season ticket holders to test negative for Covid before being allowed into the game, but not requiring the same of anyone else? (Also fun: They’re supposed to all go get tested today, and get their results back tomorrow, which is not how Covid testing works right now at all.) Clearly the desire to look where the light is better is strong.
  • The Las Vegas Sun has a loooooong article about the process by which the Raiders got their new stadium in Las Vegas that pretty much comes down to “Mark Davis was the sincerest pumpkin patch of all,” but by all means go ahead and read it if you like sentences like “The first major obstacle was how to get both projects done in what most in the resort corridor would feel was a reasonable [tax increase]. That took time to overcome.”
  • Marc Normandin took a great look back at that time the owner of the San Diego Padres tried to gift the team to the city of San Diego for free and MLB said no. It’s subscriber-only, so I’ll quote my favorite section: “There is a reason Mark Cuban will never own an MLB franchise, and that reason is that he’s the kind of owner who might shake things up in a way that forces other owners to have to spend money they don’t want to. On clubhouse comforts, on minor-league players Cuban might try to increase the pay and better the living conditions of in order to produce happier, healthier future MLB players: there is no guarantee Cuban would do those things, necessarily, but his actions and spending helped shape the way the current NBA locker rooms look, so the possibility exists, and that possibility is too big of a risk for MLB’s current 30 owners to take. So, instead, they aim for safe options, like a minority owner in Cleveland becoming the majority owner in Kansas City, as he’s already proven he understands the game and how to play it.”
  • First Dave Dombrowski and Dave Stewart, now Justin Timberlake — if building 1990s star power is the way to get an MLB franchise, Nashville is a shoo-in. Though as Normandin notes, they’d probably be better off finding a minority owner from Cleveland.

Okay, I have to go pick up my computer from its trip to the computer mechanic so I can go back to typing these updates on a keyboard I can actually see the letters on. (Yet another thing that happened this week.) Try to have a good weekend, and see you all on Monday.

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NY Rangers played a “home” game in Toronto without losing their MSG tax break, because reasons

Last week I was talking to a source for a story (mostly) unrelated to sports stadiums when they asked me a question: How come the New York Rangers‘ August “home” playoff game in Toronto as part of the NHL’s bubble didn’t count as a violation of the team’s tax exemption for Madison Square Garden, the one that reads:

If one or both of said teams [the New York Knicks or Rangers] shall cease to play their home games in said property at any time, the tax exemption provided herein shall cease immediately and such property shall immediately be restored to the tax rolls and thereupon become subject to taxation and shall be taxed pro rata for the unexpired portion of the taxable year.

Sure, it was just a single game, before the Rangers were unceremoniously bounced from the playoffs by the Carolina Hurricanes. But still, that clause had been enough of a concern that Rangers owner James Dolan made sure that for outdoor games at Yankee Stadium and Citi Field in 2014 and 2018, the Rangers were designated as the road team. So should that one-game sojourn in Toronto have triggered the automatic return of the Garden to the tax rolls, after $555 million in skipped tax payments?

The answer at first appeared to be “no one knows,” but further research revealed that it was actually “everybody says they know, but nobody can agree on an explanation,” which is far more entertaining. As I reported for Gothamist on Sunday:

The explanation from New York state is that “cease to play their home games in said property at any time” doesn’t mean what you think it means. State tax department spokesperson James Gazzale tells Gothamist, “The law is clear that the exemption continues until either team ceases to play home games at MSG—meaning a permanent stoppage, not a temporary relocation due to a global pandemic.” Asked why the Rangers then chose to play Winter Classic games as the road team, Gazzale declined to comment further.

Madison Square Garden officials, meanwhile, had a different explanation for why the Toronto trip was okay: Ed Koch said it would be. Garden officials confirmed a brief note in this New York Post article from July that an “original agreement” between the city and MSG excluded relocations due to Acts of God from triggering the tax renewal clause, but did not provide further details.

The actual agency that would be in the position of deciding to return MSG to the tax rolls, meanwhile, is the city Finance Department, which didn’t get back to me on any of my questions.

As I wrote for Gothamist, this would be a pretty picayune basis on which to make a decision worth hundreds of millions of dollars — but then, that’s exactly how the Garden ended up with its tax break in the first place, when someone neglected to include an end date even though it was intended to expire after a decade. Thirty-eight years later, the tax break is still going strong, and many New York officials are calling for it to be repealed. Just not on a technicality — that wouldn’t be cricket.

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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: NFL teams debate which fans will be the first to enjoy socially distanced peeing

Pressed for time today, so while I’d love to comment on everything in the world that happened this crazy week, I’m just going to give you a link to my article on news coverage of the California fires and the state’s reliance on incarcerated people to fight them, then get straight to a quickie news recap:

  • The Cleveland Browns will reportedly “consider personal seat licenses” in determining who gets to attend reduced-capacity games this season, which isn’t very specific: Would season ticket holders with PSLs (which is almost all of them) get priority? Would those who spent more get let in first? One can only imagine the Browns front office debating which is the fairest solution, and/or which would help maximize team revenues, because you know that the latter is never very far from sports owners’ conception of the former.
  • If you’ve been jonesing for a picture of what socially distanced urinals will look like, Sports Illustrated has you covered.
  • Pittsburgh’s Sports & Exhibition Authority is, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “requesting $7.4 million to COVID-19-proof Heinz Field, PNC Park, PPG Paints Arena and the David L. Lawrence Convention Center,” whatever “COVID-19-proof” means. (Lots of urinal covers?)
  • There are new reports estimating the costs to the local economy of spring training in Arizona ending early and the Oklahoma City Thunder season ending early and do you think either of them looked at what, say, sales-tax receipts actually did starting in March, or did they just project out how much money is normally spent at these events and assume that it all vanished into thin air once they were canceled? (If you guessed door #2, congratulations, you can skip journalism school and go directly to a newspaper job, if newspapers or jobs still existed.)
  • No huge new revelations in this week’s Epoch Times report on the Los Angeles Angels stadium deal, but it’s a decent roundup and there sure is a ton of me in it, so check it out if you like. (EDIT: Or actually maybe don’t, if you don’t want to support QAnon and anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories. If you want to know what I said, I’ll post it in comments.)
  • This German study of how people’s breath spreads at an indoor concert is kind of genius, and everyone should be watching to see the results if we ever want to be able to attend indoor events again, whether masked or distanced or ventilated with HEPA filters or what. Results are due in four to six weeks, so stay tuned in early October for further updates.
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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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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: 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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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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